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GC Magazine




Former law firm attorney and Professor William Kosar chats to Catherine Wycherley from Botswana, where he is beginning a new role as senior legal advisor to a trade facilitation project for US government aid agency USAID. Now living in Kenya, his development work has seen him venture to countries as far flung from his native Canada as Rwanda, Iraq, South Sudan and Somalia.

G C     I N T E R V I E W

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GC: Did you always want to be a lawyer, and what led you in that direction, career-wise?

William Kosar (WK): Actually, I wanted to do a PhD in medieval Russian history! My parents and family friends convinced me that maybe I should study law – at least I’d be able to get a job and I could keep Russian history as a hobby.

GC: Why law?

WK: There were two reasons. Number one, my late father was a construction contractor, so I had a ready-made client. The story that I always joke about is that there was a classmate of mine in grade 11 and I remember going into the student pub at McMaster University where I did my undergrad degree, and seeing him. I said, “John! What are you doing?” And he said, “I’m studying law.” And I said, “John, if you can get into law school, anyone can get into law school, so why can’t I?” That’s going back nearly 40 years ago now.

GC: What was it that made you choose a route that wasn’t the traditional private practice route?

WK: I practised with a firm for a year and then I had my own shop for almost 18 years after that. I had had enough of the routine practice of law. I was a sole practitioner in a medium-sized town in Canada and I just wasn’t satisfied with my career. I wanted to do international development work. I went and did a Masters, and then I thought that if I taught law, maybe that would be an entrée to international development work - which is now what I’ve been doing for several years.

GC: What was it that appealed to you about international development work in Africa?

WK: The adventure of it, to be honest. I’m in Gaborone right now [the capital city of Botswana] and this is too normal for me! There are no bombs going off, I’m not locked in a compound somewhere and I can just drive around town. I just went to a normal grocery store…I can’t get used to this! What they say about people in development work is that they are one of the “three Ms” - mercenaries, missionaries or misfits. I think I am probably all three in good quantity!

GC: When you’ve advised entities in places like Somalia and Rwanda and so on, did you actually live on the ground in those countries?

WK: Oh yes. Somalia was the exception because of the danger there. I’ve only been to Somalia three times. When I went to Somalia to meet the ministries, I had to go in armoured personnel carriers in a convoy of three. In Rwanda, where I worked for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP),  and every other place, I lived there. In Somalia, where I was working for African Legal Support Facility (ALSF), I came and went, and I worked from home or from our office in Nairobi.

GC: You have a new role based in Botswana. Can you tell me a little bit about that and the work you’re going to be doing?

WK: I now work for a USAID contractor. I will be working in Botswana with responsibilities also for Malawi and Namibia, and I’ll be helping establish a National Single Window.

GC: What’s a National Single Window?

WK: For example, if you want to export goats or cattle to, say, Namibia, you might have to get 18 or 20 different permissions to allow you to go ahead. You have the ministry of agriculture, you might have the ministry of health, customs - you’ll have all those things. A National Single Window is basically a one stop shop. So you go online, and you’re the trader, or you’re the forwarder, or the logistics people. You register online and they have the facility that everyone else can give their comments and their permissions to at the same time.

National Single Window (NSW) is a rather new and innovative approach to border processing and clearance which allows parties involved in trade and transport to electronically submit all standardised information and documents - import, export and transit - required by regulatory agencies via a single electronic entry point. It’s a one stop shop for exporters. NSW is a crucial instrument for eliminating inefficiency and ineffectiveness in business and government procedures and document requirements along the international supply chain. It provides significant cost savings to the trading community and governments by enabling an easier, faster, more transparent approval and clearance process while improving border control, compliance and security. E-government has never made more sense nor had such a large impact as in the relationship between traders and government authorities in connection to border crossings.

Also, single window is in about 25% of the countries of the world. There are just over 200 total countries. So, around 50 have it.

GC: What are the main economic challenges and opportunities in Botswana at the moment?

WK: I just got here two weeks ago. But like many of the other countries I’ve worked in, for example, Iraq or South Sudan, the economy is 90% based around one product. In South Sudan it’s oil; here it’s diamonds. They’re trying to diversify the economy from what I understand. Part of the issue is organising meetings with people. I’m told it’s very hierarchical here. I have to go through protocol.

GC: I wanted to ask you a little bit about Somalia. What economic challenges and opportunities does Somalia present?

WK: Somalia is the second largest exporter of livestock on the planet – just behind Australia. They used to be the lead. They’re exporting cattle and they’re exporting goats, mostly to the Gulf. These were the best people I’d ever worked with. I loved working with the Somalis. They’re just brilliant people, they’re unlike anyone else I’ve ever worked with. They get it. You tell them something today, they’re doing it tomorrow. They know they need the capacity, they need the knowledge, which they don’t have.

GC: But there were huge security challenges to be overcome, which is why you weren’t based on the ground in Somalia?

WK: It is a problem. I actually wrote a recommendation that we open an office in Hargeisa, Somaliland. Although geographically maybe we would have been further from Mogadishu than Nairobi is, psychologically for the people, Somaliland is still part of Somalia even though it is quasi-independent. They pick up the phone and it’s a local call, rather than long-distance to Kenya.

In Hargeisa I walked around, I went to the markets – there are money markets where they have skids of cash on display! No one’s robbing them! Likewise there’s a gold jewellery part, it’s the same sort of thing. They go for lunch, they just put a little tiny lock on the display case and it’s there when they come back! In Somaliland you are able to avoid the security problems of Somalia.

Now, you may have heard this past week that an MP from Somaliland was killed by Al-Shabaab in Mogadishu. The challenges are there. But people are coming in thinking it’s the Wild West, and no, there are procedures, there are people working on it and ensuring that it is not the Wild West and that proper protocol is followed - that they’re not going directly to the Prime Minister or the President to cut a deal. Proper procedures need to be followed.

GC: What are the differences between dealing with governments as your client, as opposed to dealing with corporations or private sector entities?

WK: I find generally, in dealing with the people, that they listen to my advice and they take it. I’m sure that of the hundreds or thousands of lawyers you’ve talked to, the big problem is that clients don’t listen to you. That being said, I’ll always consider myself to be a professional pessimist. It’s my job to tell my client what could go wrong. I say: “These are the risks. These are how you’re going to get sued. This is what can happen. Now, you’re the businessman, you make the decision.” So many lawyers are deal-killers. I don’t want to stop business from happening – I want to make sure it happens without any problems or consequences for the client. Counsel should be finding a way to facilitate the deal and make it happen. Unless it’s a really bad deal, in which case: don’t walk from this deal, run from this deal! I’ve told clients that.

GC: How big is the team you’re working with in your new role in Botswana?

WK: It’s huge. I think there’s about 70 or so people across eight different countries. We’re all across Southern Africa. The project is multifaceted - there’s agriculture, there’s textiles, there’s trade facilitation. I’m the only legal adviser right now.

GC: What is the secret to being a good legal leader?

WK: To me, looking at my two or three best bosses, they have been the kind of people who removed hurdles and obstacles. My management style is like this: I will discuss with my counterparts that this is the objective, we need to get from A to Z. I say: “Now, how you get to Z is your business. If you need to go to J first before you go to B that’s fine. And if you have a problem, you come to me and I will fix that problem or I will try to remove the hurdles.” This is what I also look for. When I look back at my career, my best bosses were people that inspired and motivated me. The best bosses were also the ones that just let me do my job.

GC: If you could go back in time and give your junior self some advice, what would it be? What would have been helpful for you to have known earlier on in your career?

WK: To learn about patience. I’ve never considered myself a patient man, and you really have to develop a sense of patience working in these developing contexts. Things don’t happen as fast as we’d like it to. We’re not working in laboratory conditions – I’m working, literally in many cases, out in the bush. No water, and bombs going off. This is the real world, and not everyone is cut out for this stuff. We have had people come off the plane, take one look around, and say, “I’m going home”. There is no Starbucks over here, there isn’t necessarily high speed internet - although things are getting better. Water isn’t consistent, electricity isn’t consistent.

GC: What is the difference between those people and someone like you that thrives in that kind of environment?

WK: When I was driving around Mogadishu or Hargeisa, I was so happy. I was in the field again. I didn’t like working in the office in Nairobi and to me, trying to solve Somalia’s problems from sitting in Nairobi was like trying to change a light bulb with an 800-kilometer-long screwdriver. It can be done, but not with any degree of precision!

I guess I have a sense of adventure. I live in Kenya, I live in a village (albeit a very lovely tourist village) on Kenya’s north coast. I need a 4x4 just to get out of my gate. The road’s bad and it’s been two months since we’ve had water because the water utility hasn’t paid the electrical utility bill. Luckily, we have a huge water tank and we buy water and we fill up the tank. If the electricity goes off, we have a generator. You just get on with it.

I’m happy because I love travelling and I can see every country I want to see on the planet on someone else’s nickel! And not just work there – spend time there, getting to know the people, getting to know the place.

GC: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

WK: I’ve been sailing since I was 12 or 13, I have a beach catamaran in Kenya and actually I’m sending a friend of mine in Rome to go to Naples this weekend to look at a trimaran there that I want to buy and then have shipped to Kenya. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine wanted to put his 44ft catamaran into charter in the Seychelles, so me, him and four others took less than seven days to deliver it to Port Victoria Harbour. It was magnificent. It was really an extraordinary experience. I’ve wanted to sail offshore all my life. I subscribe to five sailing magazines and I’ve been an armchair cruiser for years now, so I finally had a chance to get some offshore hours.

There are two things I do when I arrive in a place. I look for the Hash House Harriers [an international “drinking club for people with a running problem”] and then I also look for a Rotary Club. So the week I arrived in Botswana, I went to Rotary and the Hash and then I had instant friendshad some friends. And then I know where to go to get what I need. I need a car, I ask where do I go for a car? Where’s the best place to go for groceries? And I find life-long friends, wherever I’ve been, in the Rotary or the Hash.

GC: If you couldn’t be a lawyer anymore, what would be the alternative career for you?

WK: In my career I’ve done three things. I was a practising lawyer, I taught law for five or six years and now I’m a development professional. I’d go back to teach probably, if I couldn’t be a lawyer. But could I go back to working in a law firm? No, I could never do that. I don’t wear socks, I don’t wear a tie; I wear shorts. It would make me crazy to have to wear shirts and shoes and a Savile Row suit. I couldn’t do that anymore.