On the plane flying in to Maputo, I was reading an evaluation of Britain's frantic but generally successful role in helping Mozambique recover from the disastrous 2000 floods. One sentence caught my eye: "Mozambique is a developing country with a complex set of rules that is administered by an under-resourced and sometimes poorly educated bureaucracy."
The lines came back to me a few minutes later, as I stood behind a queue of 12 people waiting for a visa. Somehow it managed to take five immigration officers a full 70 minutes to process our small group.
A telling moment? Perhaps. But first impressions are often unfair, and Mozambique has certainly made big strides since the civil war ended here 18 years ago. Levels of poverty have fallen significantly and economic growth has been impressive. The country seems to have bounced back well from the crippling floods of 2000.
Still, there are signs that those strides are getting smaller. Western observers have begun warning about the "observable display of ostentatious wealth amongst the ruling elite", and grumbling about the "declining standards of democratic and political governance". Is Mozambique drifting down a familiar path?
I drove a few hours north of Maputo, towards the grey-green Limpopo river, with a local representative of Save The Children, Samuel Maibasse, who fought on the frontlines against the 2000 floods, and is still helping the country prepare for the next ones.
We met Mozambique's flood celebrity, Rosita, who was born in a tree. We saw school children learning about her story as part of the national curriculum's course on emergency preparedness. We watched and spoke to villagers practising their flood rescue, evacuation and first aid drills. And we listened to a local government official complaining about the difficulty of persuading communities to build their houses on higher ground.
Everyone was very aware of what Pakistan is currently going through (on a far bigger scale), and keen to draw parallels and to offer advice. Here are some of the main points I heard:
- Planning is everything. Most lives are lost long before outside help could possibly arrive, so pre-positioning supplies is vital
- In 2000 communities were slow to trust and respond to government warnings. But educational campaigns can and have helped to change that
- Foreign aid is vital, but as the UK's Disasters Emergency Committee report above acknowledged, "all of the agencies underestimated the resilience of the Mozambican population and their coping mechanisms". In other words, foreign NGOs need to get in early, and get out early too
- An early, and often overlooked, priority (and this was also something I heard a great deal in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami) is simply helping survivors to get back to work. People want and need to be involved in their own recovery
- You can't just move poor communities away from exposed areas like riverbanks, if that is where they make their living. Give them land on high ground and they'll sell it to be closer to their fields and cattle. It's a complicated, negotiated process.
Mozambique now has a widely praised national emergency organisation that is co-ordinating the fight against both floods and drought - providing the administrative capacity that simply didn't exist in 2000.
Leaving through Maputo's airport was a very different experience to arriving. Quick and efficient.
Outside, the inevitable team of Chinese workmen was busy finishing a bright new terminal building. I chatted to some South African businessmen who shrugged off concerns about the ruling Frelimo party's grip on power. "I think everyone just accepts that's the way it is going to be here," said one, who went on to mention the oil deposits recently found off the coast.
I also had an interesting conversation with someone from this organisation - which is trying to take foreign development money - in the agricultural sector - down a more philanthro-capitalist road. More on that soon I hope.
In the meantime, I'm taking a couple of weeks' holiday. Back in September.