By now, I believe that those who bother to read Limeblast are convinced that my respect for authority is low and that my favourite pastime is the bashing of everything that is in authority, Red Tape as well as the Old Boys clubs that exist in our industry. Most of the negative criticism that finds its way into Limeblast comes from those corners.

Certain people may feel wrongly accused, believing that they are doing or have done so much for our industry. Ego polishing at its best! These industry stumbling blocks cannot imagine how many positive comments such critical Limeblasts provoke.

As in politics, unfortunately, those sitting on Mount Olympus refuse to see through the smoke screens they have created and observe what happens at the foot of the mountain. None so blind!

The guys, sitting in their fictional mountain resort on top of the proverbial Mount Olympus, make sure that they stay there undisturbed by making it impossible for weekend climbers like you and me to reach the top and enjoy the same view. Solid fences in the form of rules, regulations and manuals have been set up. And that is this month’s topic.

Leather International reported in the March issue about the FAO conference in Rome and the paragraph ‘Projects may well be refused on their first or even second submission if the narrowly defined procedure for submission is not met. It is not necessarily the project itself which may be at fault, but its presentation, and you ignore the CFC requirements at your peril’ triggered my basic instincts of protest!

By now, quite a number of people in the industry know that I am trying to get the SFF introduced in developing countries because I am convinced that there are benefits for all, from the owner of the cow to the tannery that processes the hide, to the manufacturer of leathergoods. I have knocked on a huge number of doors and believe me that if I could be easily discouraged, I’d have committed suicide by now.

Extremely few doors have been opened spontaneously, some just enough to put my foot in before it could be closed but, in the great majority of cases, people made sure that they were not at home. No names this time, because those in question who read this will know themselves who I am talking about.

It took me six months to get through all the red tape and fences in order to get the SFF presented at the FAO conference last December.

The biggest and most impenetrable fence is that of silence. You write to the right guy, but you don’t get an answer.

You write again and you are (maybe) told that they’ll look into the matter, after which silence is golden again. Unless you pester institutions, none excluded, with constant reminders and try to get higher up on the command ladder, you are ignored!

It seemed to me that FAO was the organisation of excellence to look into possibilities of spreading the SFF and I expected at least curiosity and interest. In fact, if you read their publications and reports which are freely available on their website, one of their priorities is the improvement of the quality of hides and skins.

It is recognised that bad flaying is one of the crucial factors that cause bad quality in hides and skins. Anyway the hurdle was taken and the SFF was presented. I am told that those present liked what they heard and the SFF was proposed by a unanimous vote to be considered as a possible project to be submitted to CFC, the Common Fund for Commodities, for funding.

I’d like to thank the Unido, Cotance, ITC and Aflai representatives for their support. I was really delighted. So what next? Nobody told me and only after I fired off some heavy artillery did an understanding soul come forward to tell me that a project proposal must be submitted.

Nobody was queuing of course, because nobody has time and, worse, nobody gives a damn and (almost) nobody is prepared to help! That’s when I found out that you need to follow the precise guidelines of the CFC manual which was mentioned in the Leather International report on the FAO conference.

I downloaded all 88 pages from the CFC website and understood, after reading this manual, that it is virtually impossible to submit a project without help or understanding. So it is crystal clear that if you are an outsider, independent from the worth of your idea(s), you have no chance whatsoever to get a project approved because it is humanly impossible for an outsider to get it all right!

There are 88 pages of fences and on each of the 88 pages there is variety of hurdles. It is a mathematical certainty that you trip over at least one hurdle and get stuck at one fence.

That is when all goes well. So at the end of the day, you depend on the arbitrary good will of a series of panels and commissions who don’t understand anything of the subject on the table.

When I went back to the FAO website and downloaded the project proposals which are lined up for the hide and skin sector, it all became clear. The proposed projects are all coming from the same sources that have made similar project proposals for years and years.

These guys just copy and paste. They take an old project and cut country names and paste in new names, and after some further cosmetics here and there, voilà, a new project proposal is ready.

There are project proposals coming from the same copy and paste guys, which can make people who are working with hides and skins, not shifting papers and holding meetings, only frown and shake their heads in dismay.

There is a $2.215 million project proposal on ‘Grading and Pricing of Wet-blue Hides in Selected Western, Eastern and Southern African Countries’ as well as a $1 million proposal for the ‘Regional Hides and Skins Grading and Pricing in Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda’.

What do you think about throwing away another $585&bsquo;000 for a project proposal on ‘Warehousing Receipt of Hides and Skins in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda’?

The sad thing is that these projects will most probably get through and approved because they conform to the ‘narrowly defined requirements’ of the CFC manual and are proposed by the clan of insiders who obviously make a living at this.

These projects are custom made to keep a number of people in plush offices occupied and fed and to consume the large amounts of public money that are apparently available.

More than a million dollars of public money has already been spent to introduce a selection and grading system in East Africa but, today, traders still buy the hides and skins in East Africa in bulk and in total disregard of quality and selection as proposed in the related project that is heralded by its designers and backers as a success.

On the contrary, nothing, hides and skin traders as well as the local tanners will assure you, has changed from the situation before and after the project, nothing, except for the million plus bucks that went down the drain.

The quality certificate the same project set up is a laughing stock! Oh yeah, there are evaluation reports which sing the glory of the project, but that’s paper, that’s not reality!

And because paper rather than reality counts, two similar projects for almost three and a half million dollars are on the table and will, without doubt, be accepted for funding. These are only examples and I fear there are scores of similar situations.

What is so bad about this is that we can’t do anything to prevent this from happening. We are totally helpless. The Olympians defend their turf to the last dollar, and outsiders are kept out. I hope that I will be proven wrong!

As for the SFF project proposal, I nurse a shimmer of hope unless, of course, I have bitten the hand I have asked to feed the guys in Africa. We’ll all live to know!

Sam Setter