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“What do you know of Moldovan citizens, or of Mauritanian culture?” Shamefully, very little. This is how Mateo introduced the topic of Uruguayan foreign policy; Moldova, Mauritania and Uruguay all have similar populations and statuses in global politics. They're fairly small, they're surrounded by bigger and more powerful neighbours, and they all have approximately 3 million inhabitants.

But there's one aspect of Uruguayan politics that sets it apart from many, if not all, other countries. Their president, José Mujica. Labelled by many as the world's poorest president, he lives on a little farm, and works on the farm alongside his presidential duties. His evident lack of interest in material goods is a shining (and reassuring) sign to citizens that their head of state is clearly not stealing from the state! His background is also fairly impressive, (and provides a stark contrast between heads of state in other countries – can you imagine Cameron or Merkel standing up next to him?) ; he used to be a guerrilla fighter, who spent 14 years in prison and was shot a total of 6 times, and underwent torture, isolation, and other horrifically inhumane treatment. Now, aged 77, he grows chrysanthemums on a farm owned by his wife, while being President of Uruguay.

His example, and that of other politicians not seeing themselves as anything 'above' normal citizens, means that it is perfectly normal to bump into them in regular spots in Montevideo. Unfortunately, we didn't see any! But this normality, meaning that paparazzi have an incredibly easy job of getting photos and even sitting down with the president himself, has resulted in a distinct, and wonderful, lack of celebrity-fawning.

Though the President is very left-leaning, Uruguay's foreign policy, as I learned, is distinctly middle of the road. I don't mean to make it sound like they have been sitting on the fence, or simply remaining undecided; rather, taking the 'middle ground' is a distinct policy choice. It's important to remember their geographical situation, as they are very much surrounded by 'big brothers' Argentina and Brazil, and their fairly tiny population; at 3 million people, their entire country is a quarter of the size of Sao Paulo, and approximately the same number as Berlin. Pretty tiny!

But they've taken this middle of the road policy, and applied it amazingly successfully; they've recognised Palestine as a country, while remaining on good diplomatic terms with Israel, and they enjoy good relations with both Cuba and the US.

Similarly in terms of society, the 'middle-road' policy can be seen; I heard about how the vast majority of the population would rather identify themselves as middle class, rather than aspiring to be upper class. Moderation, in both politics and society, seems to be the word of the day, and, happily, it seems to be working admirably.

One recent project implemented under Mujica in particular fascinated me; the successful implementation of the One Laptop per Child programme means that every child in Uruguay now is the owner of a laptop. The potential here is truly immense. With kids learning from a young age how to program and write code, who knows what they might come up with in a few years?

Unfortunately, as I heard, the problem now is that many children are far ahead of their teachers in using the technology; there appears to be a big need for training either teachers to work with children, or to go directly to the children and provide more technical assistance, and make sure that these kids and laptops live up to their full potential.

I have complete faith though, that with passionate and intelligent activists like Mariana, Daniel and Fabrizio working on transparency and open data in Montevideo with their organisation DATA, this potential will be fulfilled, and fun will be had at the same time! I'm looking forward to returning to Montevideo in a few days time for Latin America's first Open Data unconference, AbreLATAM. For now, though, Chile awaits!

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Uruguay. Home to 1 million dogs, 3 million people, and 6 million cows- it's no wonder they're big on beef. It's a tiny country with some great quirks; a president who gives away 90% of his salary to a development fund, for example. A complete lack of social class hierarchy means you can find said president in drinking holes around Montevideo – and have a chat with him, no matter who you are. It's likely, if you're Uruguayan, that you'll probably have a friend or acquaintance in common, actually (3 million people is really not a lot). And the lack of social hierarchy drawing from job positions or ancestry has been replaced with a kind of 'culinary hierarchy' instead, with prestige bestowed upon the best meat preparer (asador) or pourer of mate tea (servador).

Those are just a few of the quirks that I found out about when I was welcomed by Mariana and Mateo in Montevideo; so warmly welcomed, in fact, that I'm now still wearing Mariana's jacket, despite now being in Santiago, Chile. This perhaps is another key characteristic of the Uruguayan people – as the people in my shuttle service taxi in Montevideo told me, “You'll have a wonderful time here! Uruguayans are so caring!!” – and my experience can definitely confirm this.

It was my first time in Montevideo, and undoubtedly my lack of knowledge of the culture shone through. For example, though I had heard a lot about the meat, especially beef, from Uruguay, I had never tried a true “asado”- a kind of barbecue, cooked on wood. Last night was my first, and I think I'm still recovering; we ordered a dish for two people, which actually ended up feeding 5 people, and leaving some left over. I'm still baffled as to how any two people could ever eat that amount of food, but they reassured me that such people do, in fact, exist.

The practice of holding an 'asado' barbecue for your friends, thus becoming the 'asador', puts you in a high position on the culinary hierarchy. I imagine it a bit like hosting Christmas dinner for a huge group of friends; “Hey, look – I'm the best chef!”

Similarly in the field of drink, Uruguayan culture rallies around drinking mate tea. In groups of friends sitting and chatting together, walking along the street with friends, studying late at night ; any excuse, mate seems to pop up. Preparing it is a true skill; good 'servadores' can use the same mate leaves to produce multiple cups of tea (tip – look out for foam, the sign of a good mate!) - and those less fortunate can ruin their mate leaves within two cups. Within groups of friends, the especially talented servadores are known, and you can tell how seriously someone takes their mate drinking by their mate container. Mariana's had her initials engraved on it, and looked beautiful – the sign of a good servadora.

They told me that, although mate drinking was a key point in cultures of other countries in the region, Uruguayans were the only ones who would carry their mate around with them, complete with a thermos full of hot water, and drink it while walking on the street. And, true to form, when at Montevideo Airport, I saw lots of people taking out their mate from their special mate bags, and pouring themselves a cup while waiting at the departures gate!

But enough of food. For now. More later, on the fascinating politics, poorest president, and middle-road foreign policy!

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This blog first appeared on OpenOil.net

As you may already have seen, our “Understanding Contracts” booksprint was a success, and the book is now available for download from the OpenOil site. I had the chance to see the sprint from the start, and as you can imagine, it was a fascinating process.

One main point from the week was that, among the melting pot of experience from the authors, we brought together a group of people who would rarely (if ever) get the opportunity to pool all of this experience and work together, rather than simply remaining within their area of expertise and having a passing coffee at industry conferences.

This is a key point; it seems as though frequently the development world around extractive industries remains entirely separate to the industry world around extractives. As one of the authors commented; often, in terms of governance, all of the extractive industries (oil, gas, mining) are lumped together in one programme. However, this classification would never happen on a technical level; the number of companies that work in both oil and mining is very few, and on a more human level, I would guess that it is impossible to find someone who is both a petroleum engineer and a mining engineer.

Within the booksprint participants, we had a third whose experience lies heavily in the industry side of extractives; not CSR representatives, but oil and gas specialist lawyers, and an environmentalist who is consulting now to a large mining company. I like to think that this inclusion and genuine engagement of the industry in such a project gives it much more depth and value. It is great to see discussions of how to engage industry have become much more mainstreamed in initiatives such as EITI, through the multi-stakeholder group, but it’s also important to include technical experts from within the industry, not just social responsibility representatives.

The booksprint provided a great opportunity for people from these two ‘worlds’ to actually sit down and work together, and feedback from the participants showed that this was one of the aspects of the week that they most valued.

On another note, seeing the 10 participants work in such an untraditional method, which must have been quite a change to workshops that they are used to, was also very interesting to watch. It was facilitated by Adam Hyde, founder of BookSprints.net, who has now completed some 50 sprints, but none until now around the extractive industries. Some of the main principles of the book provided quite a departure from more conventional work ethics – for example, that nobody ‘owned’ their writing. Watching your writing being cut, edited, re-edited, and moved around, meant that any sense of proprietorship towards it had to be got rid of fairly quickly, to avoid being offended by future (or immediate!) edits.

The fact that all decisions had to be consensus driven also provided for some interesting discussions, but I’m pleased to report all fistfights were successfully avoided. Of course, those with expertise in certain areas took temporary ownership of writing certain sections, but once those were written, ownership was transferred and the chapters went through a thorough procedure of editing and re-editing. The collaborative software, Booktype, that we used for this was great too, as it allowed everyone to see what others were working on, as well as comparing back to previous ‘versions’ of specific chapters with coloured highlights of what exactly had been changed.

My role as ‘target reader’ for the book taught me a lot, and gave me the liberty to sit down with the authors of particular sections, ask for detailed explanation of complex issues within sections, and request rewrites, or in some cases simply rewrite it myself. However, my experience at OpenOil gave me a slight headstart to the actual imaginary target reader for the book, so to get this level of non-knowledge, we brought in someone with absolutely no experience of the industry.

It was great listening to complicated contract terms, or industry basics, being explained to him (with many questions!) – until they were in simple enough words for him to understand. Then, we would sit down and rewrite the section to a level that he understood, and voila, you have a guide for the non-specialist.

Of course, there are some sections (fiscal terms, for example) which are undoubtedly complex. With these, we had to accept that complex ideas need a lot of explanation, but I can testify that upon reading the section a couple of times over, and looking through actual contracts themselves, it does actually sink in and your understanding will deepen as you go along.

Having an illustrator in the room through the booksprint provided one (fun) way to try and explain complicated issues. Lynne’s method of asking people to come up with a title for their graphic before going into detail with her what it was about, was an efficient way to make sure that actual concepts were being explained in an easier way, rather than simply pictures to break the text up. And seeing an idea being turned into a beautifully illustrated graphic is great motivation to keep going!

As the pdf you can download now is the very first version of the book, complete with the occasional typing and formatting error, we ask everyone to bear with us while we go through the final copy editing procedure. Not all of the lovely graphics are included quite yet, but the final version will be released on November 30th.

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