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AFRO-NETS> Reflections of an old Socialist (8b)

  • Subject: AFRO-NETS> Reflections of an old Socialist (8b)
  • From: Claudio Schuftan <aviva@netnam.org.vn>
  • Date: Mon, 1 Dec 1997 16:55:35 -0500 (EST)

Reflections of an old Socialist (8b)

(Part two of two)

3. The Donor Agency Officer

He is in his fourth-year of his overseas assignment in a Third World
country and is counting the days until it is over and he is reas-
signed to a more developed country. His lifestyle, similar to that of
the expert, is quite comfortable by any standards. Most of his
friends and acquaintances are expatriates, and most of these from his
own country.

As a career officer in the foreign service, he enjoys travelling from
country to country, but he has demonstrated little interest in get-
ting to know the people. He speaks English and a little French, and
two or three words in two or three other vernacular languages. He
seldom sets foot in the working class section of town, he has never
taken a trip in a local bus, and he has only once eaten dinner at the
house of a local person (a professor at the university). His dis-
torted awareness of the local people's priorities, expectations,
abilities and ways of life is worrisome, especially given the fact
that he earns his salary working in "development".

Outside the guarded gate of his one-acre villa is a world which he
barely understands. Understanding it better would require a serious
investment in time and effort. Moreover, it would require that he
lower his defences, accept his profound ignorance of the norms and
expectations of a society very different from his own and risk making
mistakes. It is much safer to retreat into the shelter of the expa-
triate enclave found in all developing countries. There, expatriate
children study in international schools with other expatriate chil-
dren; expatriate social gatherings are regularly held to which few
local people are invited. The way he sees it, since he will be reas-
signed to another country within a year or two, the benefits of as-
similation are not worth the effort.

After fourteen years in the foreign service, he knows what is a
"good" project and what is not. "Good" projects are mostly large pro-
jects conducted on behalf of a governmental organisation in the host
country. The specific focus of the projects submitted varies, as the
priorities of the donor organisation change. (These days, family
planning - or population control? - projects are quite popular). Pro-
jects which create demand for experts, which sell high-technology
equipment and supplies, or which are in strategic policymaking
branches of the government are preferred. "Unsuitable" projects are
generally those submitted by small, non-governmental organisations
involved in local, small-scale efforts requiring few external inputs.

The donor officer is accountable to his home office for all that he
does. The home office is ultimately responsible for approving the
project, and monitoring it based on the documents submitted to it by
its local representatives. Since the performance of the donor's proj-
ect manager is often evaluated based in part on the quantity of funds
he disburses (the size of his project portfolio), and since the work
required to review a project is more or less the same regardless of
the amount funded, the donor home offices also generally favours
large projects. A few large projects are also easier to monitor than
many small projects.

Bi-lateral aid is often given by the donor government with a view to-
ward influencing economic or sectoral policies of the host govern-
ment. All things being equal, projects which are strongly backed or
desired by the host government are more likely to be funded than the
ones which do not receive strong government support. Where aid is
provided in the form of loans, large institutions (such as the gov-
ernment) are perceived to be more creditworthy than small, non-profit
organisations. It is, therefore, not surprising that the bulk of de-
velopment aid passes through the hands of the host government.

In addition to reviewing and selecting "good" projects, the donor of-
ficer spends much of his time monitoring the activities of these pro-
jects once they are funded. Since he was responsible for recommending
them, he has an interest in ensuring that they are successful, or are
perceived to be successful in the eyes of the home office. He, there-
fore, requires from the lead consultant detailed status reports and
intermediate "products" (usually paper) demonstrating progress. Since
a successful project should show systematic movement towards achiev-
ing established objectives, the donor is highly resistant to signifi-
cant shifts in the scope of work or project approach.

4. The Civil Servant

He completed his studies at the university six years ago, one of the
privileged few to have made it this far in a country with scarce edu-
cational resources. Having graduated with honours, he is initially
enthusiastic about the possibilities of getting a high-paying job in
the private sector. (Also enthusiastic are the many friends and rela-
tives whose contributions financed him through school.) After eight
months of rejections, he soberly accepts an appointment from the em-
ployer of last resort: the government.

He quickly adapts his behaviour and expectations to the demands of
his new job. Accountability is quite low in the ministry, so he
learns that he is free to work or not work, as he pleases. Still ac-
customed to the intense, competitive environment of the university,
he prefers to work, so he finds himself a worthwhile project and,
like the expert, dives in. Anxious to do a good job in an environment
where things are often in disarray, he devotes himself to creating
some order amid the chaos, not yet realising that the disorder is not
really an accident. One or several of his co-workers have an interest
in keeping things as they are, and they find ways to frustrate his

Seeing the futility of direct confrontation, he resolves to work hard
on a less sensitive project - one which can threaten no one. Yet even
then he faces many of the same obstacles to accomplishing his goals
as does the expert. Meetings are cancelled or postponed due to lack
of quorum, co-workers fail to fulfil commitments, managers insist on
being involved but fail to contribute. After five years of frustrat-
ing, energy-consuming failures, he has come to hate his job.

But he is afraid to leave it, remembering the difficulty he had get-
ting work as a fresh graduate, and knowing that jobs are even more
scarce now. He has since married and has a wife and three children to
support. Prices have gone up faster than his income. Relatives from
his home village arrive weekly for financial assistance: school fees,
a wedding, a funeral, short-term lodging. He sends money home to his
parents each month.

At some point, his frustrations turn to cynicism. He makes no waves
trying to improve the prevailing systems. He follows the tide. As
much as he awaits his pay check at the end of the month, it angers
him to see how little money it brings. And all around him, others
less scrupulous than himself are supplementing their meagre earnings
using government resources. Some do outside work using government
supplies and equipment; others steal; others take bribes; still oth-
ers fail to show up at all, or are earning two salaries. Most come
late and leave early; and few are enthusiastic about their work.

As a consequence, at all levels of the ministry, expectations are low
that significant positive change is possible. Creativity and drive
are systematically discouraged by the prevailing social norms, moti-
vation is low, and it takes an exceptional person to withstand these
pressures, continue to work hard and be effective, and still maintain
his sanity. Most civil servants would welcome the opportunity to find
employment outside the civil service, although many of them have
since given up hope.

...Anyone wants to add a profile for the NGO worker...?

Regardless of the formal rationality of a proposed change, the feel-
ings and perceptions of the individuals involved are far more criti-
cal to its success than either the professional expertise of the ex-
pert advisor, the perceived need for the change, the size of the
budget, or the neatness of the plan. Somehow, ministry counterparts
have to develop enthusiasm, commitment and interest in the project if
the untapped reserve of energy and resources in Third World minis-
tries is to be used more effectively.

But even if a project succeeds in creating sustainable changes, it
mostly fails to address the much more critical problem of power: who
is guiding the health development activities of a particular Third
World country, and in whose interest?

Underlying the issue of the individual motivation of the civil ser-
vant is the not unfounded perception that he has no control in his
work environment, that he is powerless, and that things are only get-
ting worse. His feeling of powerlessness, and the resulting despon-
dency and cynicism, frustration and lack of hope for the future are
inseparably related to his job performance. Unless ways can be found
to somehow empower the civil servant so that his work takes on new
meaning, health sector development projects will continue to die
quiet deaths.

Claudio Schuftan
Hanoi, Vietnam

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