Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Life - in Development

The old man led me into the mud and stick shack. It was low and smoky, the walls covered with the grime of a thousand meals cooked over wood fires. A very young, very petite, extremely pregnant girl lay on a low platform. She had been in labor for three days the old man said. I told him to get her 20 miles down the road to the clinic where I worked as a health educator or to the missionary hospital 65 miles in the other direction. Then I got back on my motorcycle and left. There was nothing to be done where we were.
I hadn’t joined the Peace Corps out of any type of selfless devotion to the betterment of mankind. I joined because at the time I was thinking about becoming a doctor but had none of the prerequisites for medical school. So, for two years in the late 1970s I played doctor, courtesy of the Peace Corps, in a remote corner of Liberia, a West African nation founded by freed American slaves.
I was the only kwii poo or white person for 40 miles in any direction. Every one of the five thousand people in the chiefdom knew who I was, where I came from, where I worked, and what in general I was up to – even if they had never met me in person. It was the first time that I sensed what celebrity meant. For a twenty-three-year old, it couldn’t have been more exciting. Or ego-inflating.
When the pregnant girl showed up hours later I was more than surprised. Many times I had told people that if they didn’t get to the clinic or the hospital they would die. Most of the time they didn’t listen, probably believing that a trip to the hospital equaled certain death. Modern medicine had such a poor reputation in Liberia that JFK, the American-built hospital in the capital of Monrovia, was commonly referred to as “just for killing.”
Grahyiah, the midwife, prepared the clinic’s delivery room by putting a piece of termite-gnawed Masonite on the gritty cement floor. She had come of age when adolescent girls here still had their teeth filed to sharp points as part of their tribal initiation. Her jagged smile was like a snowy eave overburdened with icicles.
Hour by hour a nauseating brew of blood, sweat, urine and shit spread across the Masonite and onto the floor. This was a world without electricity or anesthesia or running water. The fermenting, putrefying smell of every delivery I witnessed in Liberia remains burned in my sinuses.
Many hours later, when the girl finally delivered, her baby’s head was horribly misshapen. Grahyiah put the baby aside and began cleaning up the mess.
Without the sustaining warmth of its mother, life quickly drained from the baby’s dusky body. It seemed contrary to my sense of self as a health educator, a Peace Corps Volunteer, and an American to let the baby die. As my co-workers watched in silent befuddlement I got on all fours and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Grahyiah tapped me on the shoulder.
“Robert,” she told me in the Gio language of Eastern Liberia, “that baby’s no good. God didn’t mean for that baby to live.” We buried it in a shallow grave behind the clinic. The young mother cleaned herself up and began the long walk home, never having said a word during the long ordeal.
This was one of the many times during my career in international development when my best intentions have run directly into the immovable objects of foreign culture, bureaucracy, and, in this case, biological reality.
Encompassing everything from Save the Children to the World Bank, “international development” is an industry that spends upwards of $60 billion a year in widely varied attempts to improve the human condition. Among its grand slam successes are the eradication of smallpox and the high yielding grains of the green revolution. The countless failures are much less well-known.
In an industry that employs hundreds of thousands, I have been an intermittent, bit-player who continues to wonder whether so many good intentions and billions upon billions of dollars sum up to a positive or negative number. Since first going to Africa in 1978 I’ve worked with dozens of projects in more than 50 countries. Most were as ill-conceived as the child Grahyiah mercifully set aside.
Despite occasional temptation, I have never taken a full-time position overseas. I never wanted my professional judgment to be compromised 100% by the material allure of government-subsidized expatriate life; the cook, driver, nanny, maids, home leave, cost-of-living pay, hazardous duty pay, American clubs, international schools, and all around big-fish-in-little-pond living. Once I even turned down a two-year position in Barbados.
But the many short-term assignments I have had have given me plenty of opportunity to wonder if anyone really has an answer for chronic poverty and whether good intentions alone justify the billions that are squandered. Some countries have prospered largely on their own while others remain chronically malnourished after 50 years on the teat of development. Academics argue why. I wonder why I stay in the game.
Perhaps it’s my desire to play the great white hope, the western expert who, with unlimited hubris, parachutes in to third world countries to unearth solutions that somehow eluded the locals. Perhaps it’s the ego-gratification of being welcomed by Ambassadors, cabinet members and other top officials I could never meet at home. Perhaps it’s the corrupting sense of self-importance that comes with free up-grades to business and first class. After more than 20 years, my motivations have become hopelessly muddled.
Back in 1982, in my application to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, I explained my interest in a career in international development by writing, “the primary trouble [with] most development agencies is poor administration. Projects that looked great on paper invariably fouled up for lack of competent direction.” I assumed that armed with an MBA I could, as The Peace Corps’ recruitment materials had promised, “Make a difference.” As a college senior my application to graduate school at Stanford had been rejected. Two years of experience in the African bush evidently made all the difference. I was asked to join the class of 1984.
A week before classes began I attended an orientation party wearing a flamboyant African dashiki. A classmate walked up to me, tugged on one of my billowing shirt sleeves, and said, “Wanna get a job? Lose the shirt.” He then turned away without introducing himself.
After graduation I took a job with a 40-person, “small is beautiful” firm that promoted the use of appropriate technology – windmills, adobe bricks, improved traditional technologies – in developing countries. I spent two fascinating years at this company never quite knowing whether to be amused, appalled, or ashamed by the waste I witnessed and occasionally abetted.
Just weeks after starting, I traveled to the southern tip of Luzon and the shores of the Philippine Sea to do due diligence for a small-scale seaweed processing plant. On paper it looked extremely promising. Preliminary work had already begun. There was only one problem. There was no seaweed to be found anywhere nearby. Time and again fishermen waded out into the translucent water only to come back empty-handed. This project, the first of dozens I have visited during many gallivanting goose-chases around the globe, went no further.
Back in Manila my boss, an “old hand” in the development game, and I began negotiating other projects with the charitable wing of the multi-national company that had proposed the seaweed plant. Soon it became apparent that my boss, who had a significant say in how in how $3 million were spent each year, didn’t understand the basics of finance - like the difference between debt and equity. When I returned to Washington I learned that most of the staff didn’t either. What I quickly realized was that in the world of development good intentions and a precocious understanding of multi-culturalism were enough to land people in high positions. Hard skills - the ability to actually do or produce something - counted for much less.
Soon afterward I was sent to assess a small-scale cement plant in Northern India. I spent two weeks calculating capacities and cash flow and watching in awe as Indian laborers loaded cement into porous jute bags – the public health equivalent of smoking cigarettes laced with asbestos and arsenic. My report to our home office was blunt: the plant could never be commercially viable, even though it was then selling cement at three times the world price thanks to India’s protectionist policies. Nevertheless, we continued to fund it. The managers, I later learned, were old pals of our executive director. We put at least half a million dollars into the project – quite a bit of money for India in the early 1980s.
About a year into my job I realized that - despite the personal self-importance I felt whenever the manager of a project met me at some far-flung airport - few if any of our efforts were making a difference. Our overseas partners, for all their ostensible good intentions, understood that it was more important for us to spend our budget than to come up with tangible results. I came face to face with that reality at a brick-making plant in Botswana.
I had been to the plant before and wasn’t sure if the project manager was simply an idiot or hiding some shenanigans behind a very well devised facade of mental retardation. The numbers in his financial reports didn’t add up - literally. Two plus two summed to five, for example. He was, however, supervised by two German nationals and, in the predominantly white world of development, European or American oversight is assumed to imply honesty and integrity.
Checking into the hotel in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, I received a cryptic note from the project’s recently fired bookkeeper, a South African of Indian ancestry. “Check invoice # 1234” of such and such a date, the note said.
Feeling very much like a detective with a hot tip I went to the project office and demanded to see invoice #1234. It indicated that the United Nations Development Program had recently paid for a tractor-trailer. Years earlier our company had paid for the same piece of equipment. I charged into the office of the Big Eight accounting firm that had given the project a clean audit just weeks earlier. I asked the partner in charge if he knew what was going on.
“Yes,” he told me with no hint of surprise or remorse. “And we told them if they didn’t cut it out by next year we would have to tell you.”
With the Germans and local manager in tow I went to Barclay’s Bank and seized the project’s funds. I cabled the news back to Washington where I expected to be greeted with a hero’s welcome if not a small ticker-tape parade.
What I got was nearly fired. My bosses furiously and profanely wondered aloud how I imagined I had the authority to seize a project’s assets. Did I have any idea how bad it would make them look at the United States Agency for International Development – our chief backer - to have to put the money back on the books? “The name of the game is spend the money, honey,” our director of finance had told me many times. I didn’t expect that would extend to looking the other way in the face of unapologetic corruption.
It was time to move on.
I expected to get out of development altogether. But to my surprise I had gained a reputation as someone who spoke the unvarnished truth and this resulted in a continuing stream of invitations to join short-term consulting teams. Soon I was back in Liberia, reviewing a USAID-funded small credit program.
There’s a variant of Murphy’s Law, well known in the development world, which states that “everything that can go wrong has already gone wrong... you just don’t know about it yet.” The Liberian credit program proved the law.
In the late 1980s, with the country on the verge of an economic meltdown, one of the international economic agencies suggested that the government infuse the economy with much needed liquidity by minting more coins. The strategy worked so well that then President Samuel Doe decided to stamp a huge number of five-dollar “Doe-lar” coins.
These quickly drove the official Liberian currency, the American dollar, out of circulation. Problem was that program’s loan agents could no longer make their collections and distributions by motorcycle. The coins simply weighed too much. Even small jeeps weren’t up to the load. One broke in two while traversing a bad section of bush road.
Still, the assignment gave me the chance to revisit the village where I had been a volunteer. In addition to working as a health educator, I had been involved in a number of community development projects. Perhaps the high-water mark of my volunteer career came when I had dinner with the then President of Liberia, William R. Tolbert, Jr. He had come to the village, together with the American Ambassador, to dedicate a school construction project I had coordinated. Over dinner at the Paramount Chief’s house (into which electricity and hot and cold running water had been run for the occasion) the Ambassador whispered in my ear, “Do you think the people really like him?”
“I’m not sure,” I lied, stunned that with the resources of America’s largest embassy in black Africa at his disposal the Ambassador would ask me, a Peace Corps volunteer, for my opinion.
The President’s entourage left the village the following morning. That afternoon the electric generator and water pumps followed, leaving behind one hundred yards of dirt road framed by streetlights that would never work again. Five weeks later the Ambassador got the answer to his question when Samuel Doe, then a Master Sergeant in the Liberian army, disemboweled President Tolbert in the Executive Mansion.
The vast majority of the country erupted in jubilation.
Eight years later, I entered the village with a confusing mix of trepidation and nervous excitement. What would I find? Who would remember me? At the school a big chunk of the roof was missing. Goat droppings littered the floors of every room. In the three villages where I had overseen the installation of simple water systems, every pump was broken. The disconnected telephone poles, however, remained standing outside the Paramount Chief’s house.
None of my old friends and work colleagues seemed to lament these reversals. As an energetic, well-meaning volunteer I had organized brigade after brigade of village women who hauled tons of sand on their heads from river beds to construction sites in long caravans that conjured up Biblical images of the pyramids under construction. How could they let so much of their own effort fall into utter disrepair? Did they do it only to accommodate the edifice complex of a young American who wanted to leave his mark? I have no idea. Despite my complete dismay, I didn’t have the heart to ask.
Another one of the things I have never been able to fully understand is the disparity of income one finds in the developing world. It’s not that I don’t understand it intellectually. My lack of comprehension exists on some deeper, early childhood understanding of fairness, one that was etched in memory during recess on the schoolyard playground.
During an 18-month stretch in 1995 and 1996 I traveled to Mozambique, Vietnam, South Sudan, Mali, and Armenia – all of which claimed to be among the world’s most impoverished nations. In development, misery attracts money and for a poor country it’s probably better to be among the poorest ten than the poorest twenty. But poverty at the bottom of the pile is so undifferentiated that economic statistics become meaningless. In South Sudan, villagers ambled into a rural market wearing only leaves. In that same market people bartered for small fragments of paper money, trying to piece together the few threadbare bank notes that they still had.
Mozambique had gone so far as to publish a beautiful four-color investment brochure which boasted that the country’s annual per capita income of $69 made it a unique foreign investment opportunity. A few days later I checked into the only guest house in the Northern Mozambique town of Namapa. It had previously been a slaughterhouse and the entire place reeked of dried animal blood. That night I became so sick that for the first time ever I thought I would not survive the night. That I had come to this remote corner of hell primarily to make in a day what an average Mozambican makes in a decade only angered and made me ashamed.
Getting sick and surviving is one of the merit badges any long-time development hand wears with quiet machismo. In Sri Lanka I was once in the midst of negotiating an ambitious joint venture with some very senior officials. Suddenly, an intestinal terrorist attacked with no warning. Having been through the same experience many, many times before, I knew I had exactly 30 seconds to find a bathroom. It was right next door, I was told. The office had once been a colonial mansion. We were conferring in the former master bedroom.
The bathroom was immense, equipped with tarnished porcelain amenities for every conceivable European and Asian necessity. Feeling as though a scimitar was slowly turning my guts, I relieved myself with the wall-shuddering subtlety of an exploding rendering plant. I then sat for about ten minutes as my innards repositioned themselves.
Flushing any British toilet of colonial vintage is not a simple matter of pushing or pulling a lever. It requires both a great deal of experience and a certain dexterity of hand. With my stomach finally unknotted, I attempted to flush the toilet. A mouthful of spit gurgled out of the tank, which then fell silent. Repeated and increasingly frantic attempts to cajole the toilet into flushing yielded no precipitation whatsoever.
Fortunately, the bath was equipped with a pail, which I could fill and then use to “bucket flush” the toilet. I placed it under the sink, opened the tap and a quarter cup of revolting, rusting sludge oozed forth. The sink was as dry as the Forbidden Quarter of Arabia.
By this point my thoughts of “What the hell am I doing here” had long crossed over into “What the hell am I going to do?” My shirt and my skin were bonded together with a grimy epoxy of sweat. Just next door my Sri Lankan counterparts, Oxonians and Sandhurst alums included among them, had been listening to an orchestra of human and mechanical plumbing that would challenge a synthesizer. I went to the bidet, positioned the pail as I could, and turned the faucet.
A fountain of water rocketed up to the ceiling, simultaneously knocking the pail from my hands while drenching me and everything in the room.
At this point, I simply gave up. With my shirt and tie completely soaked, I returned to the meeting, looked at my colleagues and said, “Shall we resume now, gentlemen?” as though I had been gone only for a brief moment rather than 20 or 30 minutes.
Every two or three years I tell myself I can no longer do this work and still face myself in the mirror. Perhaps what keeps me coming back are the bizarre opportunities, the surreal absurdity I encounter but can’t quite believe. I suppose it’s like the guilty pleasure people once got from freak shows. I know I shouldn’t but I find myself inexorably drawn. The oxymoronic names of some of my assignments should have appealed to my better judgment. “Long range strategic planning for Afghanistan?” I facilitated the workshop. (Who could resist an all expenses paid trip to Kabul?)
In 1995 I went to Mali to advise a rural credit program. To reach the towns outside Djenné, a traditional Muslim town on a tributary of the River Niger, I traveled in a Toyota Land Cruiser that cost more, far more, than the total volume of funds the project had extended. A dead horse, its bloated hide split down the side, lay just outside the mud walls of the first village we entered.
There I took my place with several elders on dried goatskin mats in a low hut. They spoke the local dialect, which a colleague translated into Bambara, which another translated into French, which I transcribed into English for myself.
After several hours of sitting in the heat and dust and flies it seemed we were going over the same ground again and again. And that’s just what we were doing. As I later learned, the tradition in that village was to start the conversation over - from the beginning - when anyone new entered the hut. We had now done that four or five times. It really didn’t matter. I had time to kill. My employers had brought me out for two weeks. On the first day I realized that the program was spending $50 for every dollar it lent. Not a loan shark in the world that can sustain a situation like that.
When I inquired some years later about this project, all knowledge of its existence had evaporated – like the instructions that begin a Mission Impossible! episode. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, had been wasted. Expectations were falsely raised. Nothing was learned. Nothing was achieved. It’s a perfect example of what a former colleague calls “The Three Rules of Development.” One, we never learn from our mistakes. Two, there is no bottom line. And three, no one ever gets fired.
Maybe it’s the cross-cultural absurdities that have hooked me. With little to do in Djenn√© I went to the local movie theater, open to the desert sky and constituting the town’s only form of modern entertainment. Game of Death, starring Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was playing. Plastered all around town, in direct competition with posters for the movie, were large notices outlining the steps the public needed to take to arrest the cholera that was sweeping through the area.
When the show ended I got up to go back to my room at a makeshift guesthouse. “Ce n’est pas fini, Monsieur,” a boy sitting on the ground said to me. “Il y a plus.” I went back inside for the second feature. The boy, who could not have been more than 10, also came back in. But he did so on his hands, dragging his two polio-withered legs behind him in the dirt.
On the screen a film even more bizarre than Game of Death flickered to life. It was a multi-racial, costume drama set in 18th century France. It was also one of the more explicit porno films I’ve ever seen. What I knew at that moment was that despite all the good intentions and the billions of dollars, films like this would have far more impact among these young men than any project the development community could possibly bring.
Development will never be able to compete with the lure of easy living displayed around the world in low-brow American television shows too stupid to be syndicated in the U.S. Or with Coke and Marlboro advertising that reaches every corner of the world. Or with porno films that undermine cultural traditions that go back centuries.
It's disheartening to realize that few in the international development business ever question the system itself. Sure, every now and then a book comes out that decries the emperor’s state of undress. But we easily ignore the message, believing that UNICEF or some other program may be doing enough good somewhere to compensate for the harm and waste that occurs elsewhere.
My dressing-down came in an unlikely corner of the world. It had all the effect of a single palm tree falling in the plantation. I had been hired to explore small business opportunities in the South Pacific. Over a period of two months, I island-hopped from Fiji, to Papua New Guinea, to Vanuatu, and, finally, to Tonga, a Polynesian kingdom with 110,000 subjects. There I paid a call on the Secretary for Labor, Commerce, Industries and Tourism.
Before I could finish explaining the purpose of my visit, the Secretary began screaming. “Another consultant!” he yelled. “What do all you people do? USAID, UN, EEC, World Bank. Come here. Expect soft drinks. Ask me questions. Act important. When are you going to do something for us? Where is the money?” he ranted, anticipating the line from Jerry McGuire by a decade. I thought he might add, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” but instead he simply told me to not waste his time and get out. It was the shortest, most truthful audience I have ever had during my time in the development game.
I suppose the world of development needs true believers – and skeptics and cynics like me to keep them in check. But sometimes I think that a former colleague of mine had it right when he said we should just take all the money and drop it from a plane.
The distribution would be inexpensive and it would be fair. No dictator could hoard more than he could gather. I’ve worked with programs in which poor borrowers were hounded for overdue payments on $100 loans. Yet if the country’s president has embezzled hundreds of millions or billions the IMF finds a way to reschedule payments.
Drop it from a plane.
Looking back on my life in development, two screaming matches I had with my boss at the clinic in Liberia stand out as my proudest moments. Once Charlie and I went at over the five tongue depressors we had in stock. I wanted to use them to splint the severely lacerated hand of a boy who had fallen on his machete. Without anesthesia we cleaned the deep wound, splinted each finger with a tongue depressor, and sewed him up with tailor’s thread. The boy never said a word. Just as we finished, he vomited a thick sludge over the two of us. We never saw him again.
Another time, with nothing more than the Merck Manual and Where There is No Doctor, I diagnosed meningitis in a six-year old boy who was lapsing in and out of consciousness. If we were going to try to save his life, it would take every one of the few vials of ampicillin we had on hand. Screaming at me, Charlie insisted it was a waste. I went ahead and began the injections. When the boy recovered, his parents gave me a ceremonial carved wooden spoon. Along with some of my father’s ashes, it’s one of my most cherished possessions.
But it’s another memory from Liberia that continues to play over and over in my mind. One evening Matthew, the town chief’s oldest son, came to my house with his band of small boys. Kids from the village often watched me for hours as I did ordinary things like type letters or wash dishes or just listen to the radio. Eventually they would gather the courage to say what was on their minds. Matthew had a particular interest in the heavens. He once asked if the moon was held in place with a rope. My explanation of gravity was far less satisfactory.
“Rah-bah,” he began in the clipped patois known as Liberian English. “Dat true dat man wen’ to dah moon?”
“Yes, Matthew,” I answered. “In 1969. When I was 13 years old. Just like you are now.”
Matthew smiled at his friends. He had a wall-eye that accentuated his adolescent smugness.
“Dat ‘merican man?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I told him. “His name was Neil Armstrong.”
“Dat man,” Matthew said, “dat man, when he go der, to da moon, Rah-bah, dat ‘merican man, Neil Armstraw, he see God?”
Outside, the drums that came to life every evening began to beat. The boys sat patiently, their faces reflecting the bronze light of kerosene lanterns, as they awaited my answer.
“Did he see God?” I said to myself, repeating Matthew’s question. “I don’t know,” I finally answered to the boys’ disappointment.
Years later, I still haven’t found out. All I know is that those of us in the development game shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we’re up to the part.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2000 issue of Stanford magazine. Since then, I did take a full-time position overseas, serving as the country director for the Peace Corps in Cameroon from 2002 until 2007.

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