Thursday, February 27, 2014

Gender Responsive Budgeting Conference in Penang

I jumped at the chance to go to a gender responsive budgeting (GRB) conference in Penang. I have had conversations about GRB and whether to include it in training potential women candidates. A few Google searches failed to turn up a clear discussion of GRB; I never read more than a few paragraphs. I am not going to try to do what others (in my opinion) have failed to do and explain GRB. Rather I will describe an approach to introducing an "emerging" topic, in other words a way to organize a terrific conference.

The conference's local, regional, and international participants represented different sectors and disciplines. I learned something from everyone I met. The first person I met was a professor from a Department of Public Administration in China. She does research on GRB and serves as an advisor to the government. In Malaysia neither departments of public administration nor government-PA faculty interactions are common. Nevertheless, the conference was like being back in my home (USA) PA department. I often heard "outcome based budgeting," "logic models," "monitoring and evaluation" and other terms that I hadn't heard since I retired. I was back in my disciplinary home!

The conference followed the Malaysian conference "drill." An opening ceremony and conference  launch at 9, a tea break (so celebrity welcomers and launchers can gracefully exit), one or two sessions, lunch (1:00 is a favored time), another session, a tea break, another session. After each session the presenters and facilitators receive "tokens of appreciation." In this case small items from recycled materials made by a self-help local project.  Dinner may be included; it is usually around 8 (to allow for evening prayers). A typical tea break has a vegetarian noodle or rice dish, fruit pieces, a curry puff or similar snack, and of course, tea and coffee. The tea break allows for networking and building the foundation for future relationships. At this conference a former colleague at USM helped me lay such foundations.
Presenting tokens of appreciation
The conference had a strong framework beginning with its title, "Gender Responsive Budgeting Narratives: Transforming Institutions, Empowering Communities." Penang's GRB project is two years old, so the conference was more to learn than to teach. What better way to learn than to hear stories? Here is how I heard the stories:
  • Session 1: The origins of GRB, how it is implemented, what it has accomplished as told by a UN Women regional specialist, a member of the Kerala's Institute of Local Administration faculty, and an economist and GRB consultant from Austria
  • Session 2: Designing participation to empower marginalized groups and identify needs as told by a German political scientist and a Portuguese architect and researcher. Giovanni Allegretti's paper deserves a close read; he wrote about going beyond doing more than gathering a group, even a randomly selected one, together to have meaningful participatory budgeting.
  • Session 3: Case studies from Penang, Kerala, and Korea.
  • Session 4: Tools to incorporate a gender perspective into the budget process presented by the Austrian economist, a local planner from the Philippines, and a project team head in Malaysia's Ministry of Finance.  
  • Session 5: How GRB is institutionalized in state and local governments as experienced in Penang, Indonesia, and Nepal. 
I found sessions 2 and 4 particularly valuable. At conferences and seminars I usually focus on the most interesting insights and ignored the detailed information, which I later regret.  No problem, the conference organizers provided the best SWAG ever, that is, a USP device containing the abstracts, papers, and power points. A genius idea that also showed the seriousness of the presenters in submitting their materials on time. (The abstracts are also posted on the conference's home page.)

 I was reminded of program evaluation (the skill that dominated my career) - a methodology that broke into a thousand pieces or more accurately, a several different, but widely accepted, methods. GRB builds on over half a century of government budget practices designed to spend the public money wisely and reach specified objectives. The critical component of GRB is the explicit attention to women - do women have different needs? do implemented government programs discriminate against women? do government policies and programs impact men and women differently? GRB does not directly indicate how much a government should allocate money to "guns versus butter." Rather it uses a gender perspective to identify needs and impacts. Men are not ignored (although transgendered and LBG persons may be). GRB should pick up negative impacts on men especially young men and a gender lens should identify such gender-specific concerns.  Specifically mentioned were issues of under performance of young men academically and in the workplace and methods to get new fathers to take advantage of parental leave opportunities.  GRB tries to sensitize participants to look beyond women to consider the perspectives of the disabled, the elderly and other marginalized groups. And returning to my introductory comment about public administration, during the Q & A a presenter answered the GRB was within a government's purview, because allocating public money is a government's responsibility - a reminder of the value of a MPA.

The conference did not attempt to say "Here is how you implement GRB." Rather participants learned what they should think about in implementing GRB and assuring that it lasts beyond the next election.  It was mentioned that civil society groups have a role to play during the time when governments change parties, when some initiatives get lost.  Bravo to the women of Penang's Women Development Corporation, a part of Penang's State Government, who took the lead in implementing GRB and organizing the conference.

On the technical side, we saw a presentation from the Philippines where a local government is using a GIS to track budgetary outcomes with data from families in the city.  I was amazed to see the information collected, including family planning methods utilized in households, due dates for pregnancy's. The presenter did admit that it was expensive to collect the data items (316) and in the future they will reduce the data collection effort.  From an American perspective it is useful to note that people around the world have good and useful ideas....and actually implement them rather than talk them to death.  For instance European towns and cities are partnering with South American counterparts to learn about implementation of participatory example of ideas from the southern hemisphere influencing the north.

To not mention dinner would be a terrible oversight. The evening started with drummers and dancers. Then a group of young people from who had participated in Penang's GRB pilot project in a low cost council flats did a short skit - a talk show where they talked about their projects. The dinner was amazing: a platter with appetizers and small salads, chicken soup, sotong (squid) and prawn dishes, a vegetable platter, a fried fish and nasi goreng, and a dessert.
One of the dance groups
Young housing residents talking about their projects

We were in awe of this
young dancer's flexibility
One of the courses - meaty and tasty
Near the end of the evening the dancers took the stage and began grabbing partners from the audience - I was caught and did not credit to my year of Bollywood classes. It was great fun and energizing. The following picture does not capture the energy, but it documents an instance of Malaysia's diversity without boundaries.

I am in the center.
Update: From Penang's WDC To assist you in your journey towards GRB, we have compiled all the full conference papers and the various power points presented at the conference on to the conference website. This includes the presentations at the break out groups and the group reports. You may access this at under the section of Conference Papers & Presentations. Please do share the materials with your networks and contacts (28/3/14) 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Visit at the National Mosque

In December, members of the Museum Negara (National Museum) volunteer tour leader in training group had a tour of the National Mosque (Masjid Negara) in Kuala Lumpur.  The tour was in the morning as not to interfer with prayer times at the Mosque.  We were all requested to be appropriately dressed (long pants for men with long sleeved shirts, and women with long skirts and long sleeved blouses with high necklines and a scarf for head covering).  We noted that tourists who were inappropriately dressed were provided with robes and head covering during their stay at the mosque.

Since our group had a planned tour, we were provided with an hour long briefing regarding Islam by volunteers from the education staff at the Mosque.  We were also greeted warmly by a staff member of JAKIM (Department of Islamic Development - Malaysia).  Following an hour long briefing, we were divided into groups of six for our tour.  Local volunteer guides took us on the tour.

The mosque was built in 1965 and reflects a Malaysian architectural style.  The roof reflects an open umbrella with 16 ribs, while the minaret reflect the a closed umbrella.  The umbrella has long stood as one of the regalia representative of the Malay Sultans.  The mosque was build on land previously used as a church during colonial times but was repurposed for this use.

The main worship hall is open air and is capable of handling a crowd of over 3,000 people, while the entire mosque can handle 15,000 people.  Women can worship in the mosque but in a separate balcony hidden from the main floor by decorative screens.

Water plays an important feature at the mosque.  Several large pools flank the main worship hall, and at ground level ceremonial ablution (washing) areas are present.  Prayers are held 5 times a day, but the mosque is most busy for Friday noon prayers.  (Woe be to the casual tourist walking on the adjacent sidewalks when the masses come to prayers on Friday noon, the traffic is incredible).

Adjacent to the mosque on the same grounds is the Makam Pahlawam or Hero's Mauseoleum.  Technically outside of the mosque this is the burial grounds for some important Malaysian politicians.  We were told that mosques typically do not contain interments.

Other building nearby are the headquarters of JAKIM (Department of Religious Development), the Islamic Museum, and the Royal Police Museum.  Across the street is the old KL Station with its elaborate Mongul styled ornamentation.

Access for the visitor to the mosque is quite easy.  Take a taxi, take the KTM Commuter Train to KL Station exit through the station, take the underground passage across the street.  From the LRT go to Pasar Seni, walk on the elevated walkway to KL Station and follow the above directions.  A map and pictures is available from the Tourism Malaysia website.

Visiting the mosque

This National Mosque is tourist friendly, but please follow the following rules (Just like you would do when visiting the Vatican, a Buddhist Temple or other major religious center).

It is important to dress appropriately when visiting the mosque.  Men and women must wear conservative attire ( it is best to wear long sleeved shirts and blouses with high necklines, and ankle length pants or dresses, and women should carry a scarf to cover their hair, and men remove their hat).  If you come inappropriately dressed the mosque will provide you with long robes and head covering (but they look hot).  Time your visit so as not to interfere with prayer times (this is a house of worship, not a museum).

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A local eating place in PJ

As we travel through Kuala Lumpur we eye outdoor eating places wondering how good they are. Fortunately our friends have generously shared their favorites. On Saturday we had a double treat - a new place to eat and a chance to experience yee sang, a Chinese New Year staple in Malaysia and Singapore.

Kam Kim Seafood is off Jalan Gasing (PJ). In front of the restaurant is a large parking area, site of the Wednesday pasar malam (night market). We arrived around 6:30 - plenty of parking. By the time we left it was a major challenge to work our way out of the lot. (Since we hope to return there, we checked on Myteksi and found many taxis serving the area.)

Swee Lan ordered a new year's meal of yee sang (raw fish salad), venison with ginger and spring onions, lettuce braised in garlic, and sweet and sour fish.The real treat was yee sang, which we had read about and seen on the news. Now we had a chance to enjoy the new year's ritual and "toss yee sang." The salad came surrounded by small bowls containing jelly fish and condiments. We started to record (above link 54 sec) when Swee Lan had nearly finished assembling the ingredients, but we captured the tossing while Swee Lan said aloud new year's wishes. (Families and large groups may be less restrained than our performance as first timers.) The salad was delicious. We learned that restaurants only offer yee sang during Chinese New Year. (In Malaysia once a holiday is over holiday foods, such as moon cakes, disappear. Not entirely true when it comes to western holidays - we can still buy discounted Halloween candy)

We didn't know that venison was eaten locally (it hasn't popped our Bahasa Malay food vocabulary). It is sourced from Universiti Putra Malaysia, a public university. UPM's website subtlety links its deer farm to people's meals: "Unlike zoos, UPM deer farm serves as a research, education, production and for sale." A Google search confirmed that US state universities have similar programs, for example "A university steak to go with that sweatshirt?" NYT article about Washington State University's beef sales.

The four dishes accompanied by small bowls of rice were satisfying (neither too much nor too little food). The food was tasty and Swee Lan told us that the prices were reasonable.
Sweet and sour fish
Braised lettuce
After dinner we caught up with Peter Young, a former boss and friend of Swee Lan, and joined him on his evening walk. Peter came to Malaysia from the UK 60 years ago as a missionary; he stayed on and is a Malaysian citizen. He was the first Executive Director of Malaysian Care, a Christian social work organization, Later he founded United Voice where I met Swee Lan. Before we left he gave us a copy of Peter's Ongoing Pointers, his reflections that are posted on Micah Mandate. We were honored by the gift (one can read its short entries at random), and to have met Peter, a man who has contributed so much to a more just Malaysia.

Swee Lan, far younger than Peter or I, is a great friend and an inspiration. I wrote about her and United Voice in a blog entry on 30 October 2010  Currently, Swee Lan works with Malaysia's Department of Social Welfare to promote supportive employment for persons with disabilities. (When I first met her supportive employment did not exist in Malaysia.) Her team trains job coaches in Malaysia, and recently she offered training in China. Throughout her career Swee Lan's has empowered persons with learning disabilities (same as intellectual disabilities) and facilitated their participation in Malaysia's civic life.

On our outing we also stopped at Swee Lan's home. She has several paintings done by United Voice artists. If you are in the neighborhood of United Voice drop in and visit the art gallery.  It will remind you that intellectual disabilities are not indicative of other abilities.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

An unplanned trip to Paris

Our trip was planned, what we would do wasn't. On our flight from Chicago to Kuala Lumpur we stopped in Paris, made a hotel reservation, and planned to see the Eiffel Tower. Otherwise our days (and nights) were open. (Somehow Doug had missed the Eiffel Tower on a earlier trip.)

We booked at a hotel near Pigelle Station, Hotel Opera Frochet (about Euro currency symbol117/night). We expected a typical budget hotel, i.e., small room, poor WiFi reception, few amenities, and a bit worn. Instead we had a bright, spacious room with an array of amenities, a mini-bar, coffee-maker, and speedy Internet. (We needed 5 UserIDs to access the Internet - two people 2 kindles, a nook, and 2 computers.) The Pigelle is a notorious red light district, but Boulevard de Clichy was the only seamy area we encountered.

There were bistros south of the hotel, but the first night we chose a small Vietnamese shop across from the hotel - unforgettably awful. Our other meals tended to be mediocre and pricey - the price we paid for not doing our homework.

We went to the Musee d'Orsay twice.  The first time it was closed because of an emergency. We saw no strikers or the police,  so the problem must have been more mundane than a strike or bomb threat. The next day it was open. The museum is housed in the former Orsay train station. It is a lovely space to wander and small enough not be overwhelming. The museum website is worth a visit as well

We saw a flier for the exhibition "Impressions A Montmarte," so we headed  to Montmarte to find the  Musee Montmarte. The perfect museum - easily reached, a walkable neighborhood, and a small enough collection to fully engage.  The art, which included Le Chat Noir posters, was as joyful as the one below. We watched a film clip from Can Can - immediately uplifting. The museum, surrounded by a garden, is in a house where at one time Renior and other artists lived.
Andre Gill poster - pure joy

The gardens in late October
Before we left Montmarte we walked up to the Basicilica Sacre Coeur and snapped a picture of people on its steps. On steps or chairs my image of Paris is people gazing out on the scene in front of them. Still true, but now lots of looking down to check smart phones.

Walking through Paris we viewed favorite sites and discovered new ones. Our walk along the Seine from the Musee d'Orsay ended at Notre Dame Cathedral. For the first time we noticed the similarity between the cathedral and temples in India - the large central hall, a central alter, side chapels, and statutes both inside and outside.

We had no interest in the Pompidou's current exhibit. Still it is a pleasure to look at the architecture, enjoy the mall, and people watch.

This mime provided an exceptional people watching opportunity. Passerbys seemed to be asking themselves "How does he do it?" A feat worthy of every euro he collected.
A later walk took us to the Arc deTriomphe. Along the way we continued enjoying the parks and broad sidewalks.

Interactive Art?
Two full days in Paris. Lots of walking, two good museums, a few tourist sites, and not-so-great food. What would we do differently? Only, better meal planning. Three years in Malaysia has taught us to not surrender to mediocre food.