Tuesday, March 6, 2012

the lawyer tries on an economist's hat

"Who wants to go to a meeting reviewing the national budget?" my boss asked.

"I do!" said everyone in the office. We immediately began to fistfight each other to the death.

No. Of course not. I was the only one who volunteered, because I am the only one who thinks "I have no idea what that's about. That means it'll be interesting!" Some call me a go-getter. Others call me a sucker. I myself am undecided.

I was being sent to a meeting with Members of Parliament, the business community, national media, and various civil society organisations at the Hotel Furstenhof for a briefing of the National Budget which had been tabled in Parliament last Tuesday. This was going to be interesting in its own way. I have a theory that lawyers are people that you pay to read all the stuff you find too boring to read yourself. Economists and financial analysts, however, are a different breed of the same type, and a lot of times theirs is a language I do not speak.

"Is there anything in particular I should be looking for?" I asked.

"Not sure. We haven't sent anyone to these things before," was the reply.

Like I said, I took this as a sign that it was going to be interesting.

I arrived at the conference room a half hour earlier than the scheduled start, which meant I was an hour earlier than everyone else, who was running on Namibian time. Luckily there was free coffee. I was also given a notepad from the hotel in which I discovered someone had written in the last few pages various pieces of bizarre advice on how to entertain yourself while bored ("Try not to think about polar bears." "See how long you can hold your breath." "Hurt yourself.") I also saw that a hotel buffet lunch was going to be served at the end of the meeting, which made me decide that I was not going to leave the briefing early.

Eventually the meeting started and the National Budget was analyzed by the Ministry of Finance. The theme of the this year's National Budget is “Fiscal Sustainability and Job Creation: Going More with Less”, a theme clearly written by a finance major and not marketing folks. Unfortunately, NBC's cameraman decided to stand directly in front of me, blocking my view of the speaker as well as the powerpoint slide. Some of the MPs complained. They solved this problem by handing out photocopies of the slides, but the copies ran out before they reached me. I felt like it might have just been easier to ask the cameraman to move. You are a Parliamentarian, after all.

One interesting thing I've noticed about Namibians is their love of their mobile phones. In North America, the polite thing is to turn off your phone during movies and meetings. In Namibia, the polite thing is to answer the phone during the meeting but try to whisper your phone conversation as quietly as possible. But it doesn't actually involve putting it on vibrate.

My task at this briefing was to try to understand the budget and report on the implications it would have on gender issues. The difficulty, however, was twofold. First of all, none of the figures in the budget were being presented along gender dimensions. Second of all, unlike the stereotypical image that people have of Asians, I am actually not that good with numbers, having never taken finance courses or an economics degree. Not only was I unfamiliar with acronyms like TIPEEG and MTEF, but entire paragraphs of the budget speech seemed like gibberish to me at times. Also, by the second hour in, I'd had three cups of coffee and was watching my eyeballs twitch, creating an interesting light show inside my eyelids.

In the end, instead of relying on the briefings summarizing the key points of the budget at the meeting, I ended up going home and looking at the original budget documents myself to make sense of them and to assemble the stuff I thought my organisation might be interested in. But at least I got to have a buffet lunch at the hotel.