FSA Quito 2004
FSA Report: Leda
A logistics point of view
(Date: 27 October 2004)
Note: edited version. All pictures by Leda.
"Marvellous disaster": that was the definition the interpreter Mateo Rutherford came up with when asked about his overall impression on Babels participation in the ASF on the eve of the very last day of the venue. Wonderful, he explained, because of the camaraderie, the solidarity, the ambiance of friendship that is not common in professional environments, and that made all problems seem irrelevant. But it was a failure, he went on, because most interpreters could not do what they had set out to do: interpret. In other words, Babels had not accomplished its mission of facilitating the dialogue between social movements around the world.
I believe Mateo has put in a nutshell Babels’ performance at the ASF. The marvelous part is pretty obvious to all. The disaster is not that clear; in my opinion it stems from structural and organizational problems the network reluctantly deals with, fearing a betrayal of its most cherished values. I hope this report will contribute to understanding, and to finding solutions for some of these problems.
Once tasks were defined, back in April, I chose to work with what I deem the basic, fundamental infrastructure for all the rest to work smoothly: budget and logistics. I started working on it by then..
After Monica, Bettina, and Isabel visited Quito in mid-June, we believed the FSA wouldn’t give us a budget to manage. But there was still a lot of work left to Babels. Nothing was really clear, ever, and most of the lack of clarity came, I believe, from the (dis)organization of the Forum itself — and from our chronic problem of poor internal communication. Besides, although I had originally planned to be in Quito shortly after July 15th, for personal reasons I could not do so… Worse, I had to leave on July 29th (the Forum ended on July 31st, and we wanted to have a Babels meeting on August 1st). The fact that I wasn’t there before the Forum certainly contributed to some of the problems I describe below. But even these would have been minor if we could have better managed our internal communications.
From a certain moment on, probably late June, it was clear that the work of the budget/logistic team (Robert and myself) would be just that of a messenger between two large heterogeneous and internally non-cohesive groups: the ASF babels Team, and the interpreters. In other words, we were the ones personally assuring interpreters they would fly, be lodged, be fed, and be reimbursed, but we did NOT have control of the money that would pay for all this. We were powerless intermediaries, and both groups would naturally blame us for problems. But before we came to that situation, my goal was to establish a minimal professional structure for Babels to efficiently deal with a budget, and with logistics. According to the first exchanges with Phumi (the "Babels person" at the Forum), the overall budget for the interpretation was supposed to be around US$ 130,000. It should cover both the needs of the interpreters and the equipment (it ended up being something around US$ 60,000 for the interpreters and coordinators, I believe). I researched and proposed solutions in two large fields: basic infrastructure and practical tasks.
[Here follow details edited out on Basic Infrastructure and Practical Tasks (viz. Tickets, Hotels, Reimbursements).]
Leda’s general recommendations and suggestions to the WSF2005 Babels team
- At least one veteran team leader is essential. I spent an incredible amount of time doing email, exchanging points of view with the other coordinators, and contributing (many times negatively, I regret!) to building a trusting and productive relationship with the other coordinators. This was, by far, the most difficult part of the whole process: building trusting relationships with people you’ve never seen before (or had barely met), and have no idea where they come from politically, professionally, emotionally etc. After four intense months of digital alliances and small electronic battles, it finally dawned on me that people involved in this have very similar goals to my own. Tutti buona gente, insomma. But tutti also intelligent, creative, with big egos and a few insecurities, all characteristics that end up complicating things much more than needed – especially in the “non-structure” Babels apparently wants to be. I think it’s very important to have a flexible, easy-going veteran in the team, as Stéph was for us, someone able to listen to all individually but who also collectively perceives trends and non-expressed desires or needs, and competently manages them.
- A clear division of labor is fundamental - stick to it! In this environment, I reckon now that I consistently tried to carve a clear workspace for myself, mainly due to my previous experience at the FSE 2003. In Paris, I was parachuted in the middle of an ongoing process where most of the information and tasks were concentrated in very few heads, and delegation of chores was almost impossible. That experience made me suspicious of any vagueness, any attempt of diluting responsibilities in a headless network. I was most of all afraid of being (again) swallowed by a hurricane that would have me wasting hours and hours to do a) something other people were already doing, or b) something nobody really needed. Thus I struggled to have precise tasks defined for each of us, and I insisted on having at least my tasks very well defined. So I really appreciated when Silvia, Stéph, and I reached a tentative agreement on work teams divided by area such as political relations, selection+planning, budget, and logistics. The initial assignment of tasks changed over time, as personal, and political situations changed. But we were not able to strictly respect each other’s work, with maybe the exception of the three babelitas who were in charge of political relations, whose responsibilities were never challenged. As for the other tasks, that was a no-man’s land: every single coordinator felt s/he had a duty to do something s/he had not been assigned to, including me in some instances. In most cases, though, when I felt an urge to interfere in other people’s areas of work, I tried to bring contributions from one team to another. For instance, I sent to Silvia+Giulia, who were initially in charge of the interpreters’ selection, a sort of geographical sliding scale I prepared for them, based on the prices of tickets – the idea was to bring as many interpreters from around Ecuador as possible. That exchange between two different teams is one of the best examples I can come up with of real cooperation inside the group.
- Money does matter. One important thing to have in mind in future Forums is that money does matter. Throughout the ASF’s preparation process, but specially in the beginning, there was a tacit disdain for everything regarding money – choosing interpreters was important, doing the planning was important, political relations was tops, but any questions about money (Who’s paying for this? Who’s asking for at least US$ 10,000 for preparation expenses? How much do things cost? What’s the budget? and so on) were met with a visible disinterest. Money, financial planning, efficient budget management, all these things cannot be seen as a matter that goes against the grain and the spirit of Babels; we too have bills to pay, like everybody else, and we have to get organized in order to do it properly. Moreover, it is not “our” money; it is the money of social movements we are supposed to support. Thus let us not risk wasting it.
- Share with your team all relevant information you have, and pay attention to the information others share with you. Detailed reports that I prepared and sent to the group were not read by the people that should have read them before making decisions that proved to be wrong in the long term. I’m sure other coordinators will have similar complaints. It’s obvious that the information overflow is a problem for Babels, much more for teams that are working on projects with specific deadlines such as a Forum. That’s why it is absolutely necessary that we keep always in mind what could really be useful for others, and convey it in a short format, clearly, and as promptly as we can. Besides we all must learn to use all the available communication tools – email, wiki pages, forum, chat, mailing lists, database, Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, not to mention the possibility of teleconferences, which we have not yet explored. In the Babels FSA coordination team, the communication problem was compounded by the fact that some coordinators did not master these tools, and some simply rejected them. Additionally, not all coordinators could speak a language common to all; while interacting by email, we tried to be bilingual (EN, FR, PT and ES in pairs); but in Quito French somehow became the de-facto language among babelit@s, thus excluding Robert (EN,PT, ES) from meetings (EN and ES could be managed by most, if not all of us).
-#Create a small team to campaign directly with the Forum participants, starting now. I was, with Stéph, part of Babels’ ears at the online meeting of the Hemispheric Council and we sent all the participating organizations a strong appeal for cooperation with Babels, inviting them to tell us at least the languages in which their speakers would express themselves. Our efforts were in vain: not ONE organization replied to our appeal. I believe that the FSM2005 Babels workgroup could find most useful to establish a team just to campaign with participants on everything we need from them: that they tell us who the speakers are, and which language they speak; that they send us as much written material in advance as possible (so we can have it translated and prepared for the interpreters); and – very important for a WSF in Brazil – that Brazilians organizers, participants, and speakers understand how bad it is for their own messages if they decide to speak the infamous “Portuñol.” These are just a few things that such a team could deal with, preparing participants’ hearts and minds for what’s to come, and enhancing the awareness of the strategic importance of interpretation and translation. We definitely need to raise the level of awareness of what is Babels, and why interpretation is important. Above all, we need to somehow convince them of the importance of telling us in advance which languages their speakers will use, and to send us well in advance the speeches or presentations. So far we have limited ourselves to poetic interventions and political statements at the Forums’ conferences, just before interpretation begins. We must do better.
- Start researching your organizational options. You might find it extremely useful to create a Babels-Brasil formal association, which will be able to open a bank account and have a credit card. The card might show itself to be a great solution when it comes to buying cheaper airplane tickets, or reserving hotels.
- Consider hiring someone to professionnaly take care of budget and logistics. These tasks are full time tasks. About three months before the Forum, I would highly recommend hiring a professional (or more than one) to deal with that (check out the ESF 2004 solution). You might be able to find pro bono lawyers and/or accountants in Brazil to help you professionally. Most important, in any case you should have one or two babelit@s in charge of the matter, and they should be the interlocutors to all parties (travel agencies, hotels etc); also Babels has to put these coordinators in direct contact with Forum people who are dealing with logistics.
- Coordinators work very hard and deserve to be pampered. They must have proper accommodations, as private as possible. Their accommodations may or may not be with the interpreters (personally I believe it’s a good thing to be close to and amidst the interpreters), but it needs to be comfortable, practical, and well equipped. The apartment solution the ASF found for us in Quito proved to be very productive. A meeting/dining room is desirable in coordinators accommodations for early morning and late evening meetings. Coordinators also need good, functioning cell phones, and extra money for transportation (where interpreters can walk, coordinators are often rushing, and need a cab) and food (they often eat at awkward times, or are starving when they get to the hotel in the night, because they did not have time to eat). A hotel with good room service is desirable.
-#Bring interpreters in ahead of time, and aim to reimburse them before the Forum starts, or in mid-Forum, not at the end, and much less after the Forum. Get the money where it is, especially if you don’t have control of the budget. But even if you do, try to reimburse people on-site, and prepare beforehand a form that interpreters have to fill in and staple receipts to – remember the hellish six months of the Brigade Financière after the FSE 2003…
Aug. 22, 2004