"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Barely Surviving ‘Children Are Life’

Children Are Life – or just ‘Children’ -  is a non-profit organization funded in part from the donations generated from its late-night TV ads.  You have seen them - children with cleft palates, flies crawling in their eyes, or just looking up, mournful and pitiful at the camera. “Please”, implores the chisel-jawed announcer, just a trace of graying chest hair peeking out of his bush shirt …There’s not a minute to waste”.  He turns to the waif in a tattered dress, standing in the dirt.  A dog snuffles in the dust.  “Her life depends on you.  Give now, and call the number on your screen”.

Children Are Life also profits from the largesse of the United States government – large grants given to non-governmental organizations with a mission.  The mission can be religious or, as in the case of Children, secular.  In the government’s eyes there is very little difference.  Both types of agencies are free from local government interference and both spread the message that the United States is a caring, humane, and generous country.

The offices of Children Are Life are in a non-descript ten-story bottom-line building typical of the many that line L Street – not exactly K Street, the home of lobbyists, litigation lawyers, and national trade associations and the real power alley of the city, but one street away, a do-good ghetto with offices of organizations equally flush with government money.  The offices are deliberately uninspiring – no bright colors, Danish-inspired furniture, modern art on the walls, track lighting, or attractive carpeting.  The image must always be one of selfless denial, and humility in the face of poverty and disease.  The only color on the drab walls is that of traditional African or Asian garments worn by women drawing water from a well, or walking elegantly with brass pots on their heads.  The lighting is florescent and harsh, the furniture government-issue, and the dress of the employees standard and institutional.

While the mission of the organization may be reducing poverty and saving children’s lives, the boardroom has only one mission – more contracts, more market share, and more influence.  “We are fourth in revenue, fifth in total contracts, and only sixth….sixth, mind you…in health, the biggest growth industry in Africa” said the President of the company.  “AIDS is decimating the continent, malaria still is the biggest killer, and diarrhea – remember the squirts? – is not yet under control.  And where are we?  Sixth!.  I want new numbers, people, higher numbers.  A balance sheet we can be proud of. You know what you have to do”.

In the pit, meanwhile, the minions worked because of mission not despite it.  They believed in what they were doing and were willing to take low pay, long hours, and poor working conditions to promote the cause.  In fact the reason why Children are Life was so successful was exactly because of their low overhead.  These young people were the professional equivalent of undocumented workers, and if one did not perform, out she went and one hundred were there to take her place.  This alone provided the incentive for hard work and dedication.  The marketplace was at its most efficient in the development business.

The overseer of the minions was an unreconstructed Sixties liberal, Mildred Buckley.  The older she got the more she railed against the unwanted and untoward intrusion of the private sector.  She turned purple at the mention of Nestlé's, Monsanto, or Pfizer – predatory, immoral, and scabrous companies making millions off the backs of the poor.  She was immune to arguments which demonstrated the effectiveness of these companies in meeting emerging market needs for milk products, agricultural products whose yield had increased tenfold since genetic modification, or miracle drugs that were slowing the spread of HIV.  She only saw the capitalist demons of her younger days.  Her visions were like the worst graphic images of the Soviet bloc – demonic, bloody, fanged faces of capitalists in Monopoly top hats standing astride the working poor. In fact, she was as disciplined as a Communist block monitor and as efficient in detecting the first signs of flagging commitment.  She was like the second grade teacher that you feared because she would put you in the creepy closet with the floor mops if you misbehaved.

Mildred – no one ever called her Milly – ran a project called NGO (Non-Governmental-Organizations) Systems, designed to link small community organizations together to form ‘synergistic unions’.  Mildred could be very persuasive and had convinced the technocrats at USAID that this concept one day could unify all NGOS in Africa and create professional links with similar networks in Asia in Latin America.  Without explicitly stating it, her vision was global.  Mildred had one foot in each of Children are Life’s camps – she was a fierce and aggressive hunter of new business and a defender of her Sixties belief in collaboration, cooperation, and community participation. 

The idea was flawed from the very start, but both she and her government handlers looked through the same prism of idealism.  Small community organizations being so close to the people where the real truth lay, simply had to be the answer.  Top-down, vertical programs of the past where the community were only recipients of aid but had no power or say in their design, were erratic anomalies.  Never mind that every wacko religious group, women’s crochet society, or men’s political rant group lined up to become an NGO and benefit from US largess; and never mind that because of the neo-religious faith that people’s organizations could do no wrong, few monitoring and oversight measures were put in place (if they could do no wrong, then why should they be enslaved in the white man’s traces?) and the NGOs diverted funds to their relatives just like the autocrats in power in Luanda, Kinshasa, or Nairobi. 

Mildred was obviously loved by her beneficiaries when she went on tour.  Although, by company regulations, she was forced to travel in the back of the plane and stay in shit hotels on stopovers in Brussels, once she arrived in Africa, she travelled in style.  In Luanda, the head of the biggest recipient of project funds, N’Goma Fula’Ne, an organization constituted to help the families of ex-combatants of the recently concluded civil war, came to the airport to greet her.  Because Luanda was a lawless, crime-ridden, pestilential city with choking traffic, corrupt officials, and a barely-working infrastructure, Mildred willingly rode in the Mercedes 4x4 of Mr. Gomes, the Director and accepted the offer to stay in his villa in an exclusive part of town.  From that comfortable vantage point, and in Mr. Gomes’ reliable and bulletproof transportation, Mildred would be able to visit a number of the small organizations within the NGO System.

It was later found out that Mr. Gomes still had ties to the MPLA, the rebel movement which had outlasted the government and its South African allies, and ran guns from Portugal via Guinea-Bissau to still unpacified groups of insurgents camped in the diamond region bordering Congo.  Much of the money from Children are Life was siphoned off to these groups, and although it was not much, it gave them enough support supplies to last for at least two years.

Mr. Gomes was also a charmer, a Portuguese-Angolan half-breed who wore his mestizo colors with pride.  He was indeterminate enough of race that he could have been a Sicilian Don Juan or a Brazilian lover from Copacabana.  Mr. Gomes was the real reason why Mildred spent so much time in Angola.  He was a lively, sporting lover, with great staying power even with the over-the-hill, faded, and rumpled Miss Buckley.  “Oh, Jaime”, she would coo after a night of satisfying lovemaking, “I do love you so”.

Jaime, of course, had no sentiments whatsoever for Mildred, but knew as soon as he saw this tightly-wound woman, that she would be easy prey.  As with all of us who justify questionable actions when they suit us, Mildred saw no contradiction in screwing one of her beneficiaries.  In fact, in her moments of reflection, considered that it was a particularly good thing for her to truly understand Angola and its people. 

The small NGOs which comprised Jaime Gomes’ network were a rag-tag bunch, but he had his advance men do their work, and when he and Mildred arrived in the village, the residents were all out to greet her and show her what they had accomplished.  Children had been assembled in their best clothes, the girls with pink ribbons in their hair and the boys in clean, white shirts; Children Are Life posters on malaria and diarrhea prevention were neatly tacked onto the newly whitewashed walls of the school, and the smell of cooking – preparations of US-donated cornmeal-soy blend in Angolan spices filled the courtyard.  The books had also been cooked and neatly arrayed on the headmaster’s desk for inspection. 

Mildred, with a look of serious intent, pored over the ratty notebooks and smeared scrawl, and smiled.  Who cared about numbers, she thought, when the children looked healthy and happy.  Mr. Gomes, of course, did not drive his Mercedes through the back rutted lanes of the village where the real poor lived.  Mildred would have recognized the faces and tatters from Children’s TV ads, but reality was another thing altogether.  The only students in school were from the wealthiest families in the community, even if they had little money.  Money hath its privileges in a shithole African village or Washington, DC.

As they travelled over the bumpy tracks from village to village, Mildred happily let her legs bump against those of Mr. Gomes, and grabbed his hand and squeezed it lovingly every time they tipped into a pothole.  This is what development is all about, she thought.  A mission, adventure, and a man.

Back in Washington, a deal with the devil was being concluded.  Under USAID’s new ‘Private Sector Initiative’, the agency was looking for new ‘public-private partnerships’ and over the outcry of many of its older members, those of an unleavened liberalism, Children Are Life agreed to mount a malaria program in Angola with the generous support of Exxon Mobil.  It was a sweet deal.  The oil company would give a $ 5 million grant to USAID to be then awarded to a non-profit agency which would design and implement a program of prevention – drug distribution, the production of insecticide-treated bed nets, and an extensive marketing campaign. 

When Mildred returned from Angola and the arms of Jaime Gomes, she was livid, apoplectic.  The company had given away the store in her absence, used this quiet hiatus in her liberal hectoring to negotiate a deal which allow them to move out of their now cramped offices to more spacious (and sumptuous) ones on K Street, to refresh the bottom line, and enter the mainstream of corporate-government deal making. 

“How…could….you….do….such….a…thing?”, she spluttered.  “It is unthinkable, abominable, regressive, immoral, and irremediably evil”. 

She did not have her way, of course, since, although she often forgot it, she was only an overseer, not a decision-maker.  And she was given to very elegant self-deception, especially when it came to Jaime Gomes.  This new contract meant even more trips to Angola, and more blissful nights with her lover.

Gomes, on the other hand, saw the $5 million with absolute glee.  He would no longer need to fuck the old bag, for the money would just keep rolling in.  The US would never let the Angolan Government see a penny of this money (although Gomes and his compatriots would have to kick back 10 percent to them, so what did they care), so it would flow directly to the NGO network.  So, no Jaime and no Mercedes showed up at the airport, and Mildred had to take a local taxi – in the development business the no-no of all no-no’s.  Her cell phone did not work in Luanda, there were no diplomats on whose coattails she could ride into town, so trembling and clutching her stomach where money belt was tightly wound, she chose the most roadworthy vehicle and the most reputable-looking driver.  She had a last minute moment of panic, and thought she should perhaps stay in the airport overnight and take her chances in the morning; but the thought of sleeping on cracked, dilapidated chairs with thieves and rapists prowling in the deserted building was far worse.

The ride in from the airport took three hours instead of one.  The driver had to stop many places in between, mysterious in-and-outs in dark lanes and darker houses, packages transferred.  In the end she had in fact chosen a reputable driver because he only took her cash, nothing else, left her with her suitcase of bush clothes and leaflets, and in fact dropped her at the Tropicana Hotel before heading off into the night. 

It is always this way.  You know when it is time to hang ‘em up.  You may have enthusiasm in one area – sexual acrobatics in the case of Mildred Buckley – but none in others; and the travel, the danger, the lurking corruption (even she opened her eyes enough to see the flaws in the system), and the inevitable fading of professional passion led to her retirement.  She was not that old, too young to formally retire, but she withdrew from the international life.  She went out to Colorado to stay with her sister for a while until she was able to draw her breath, get the stink of Africa out of her lungs, and think what she was going to do with the rest of her life.  She moped for a while, worked at her sister’s clothing store in Colorado Springs, then disappeared.  The few friends she had Googled her from time to time, checked Facebook and LinkedIn, but soon gave up.

Not only was she not missed – who could miss that vinegary, demanding soul? – but she was the subject of a game similar to Five Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon.  “Where is Mildred Buckley now?”, the minions queried each other; and the responses varied from ‘back in Africa’ to an Idaho shed like the one the Unibomber lived in.  Only one person guessed that she was with Jaime Gomes somewhere.  “Are you kidding?”, replied Melinda Barnes.  “That mothafucka is daid”.

1 comment:

  1. IIRC, the game was "Six Degrees of Separation" from Kevin Bacon. Yep, here it is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_degrees_of_separation. They did a movie on it as well: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Six-Degrees-of-Separation/109434892407754 Interestingly enough, not too long ago, they did a study and concluded that *everyone* (since the advent of Facebook, Twitter, et cetera) people are merely 1.57 degrees from one another. Here's an interesting study behind that (Facebook at one point concluded that it was 4.74 (https://www.facebook.com/notes/facebook-data-team/anatomy-of-facebook/10150388519243859)

    I know this is veering from the import and very tangential with regard to the import of the subject material of your article. I just noticed that one quickly, as I was absorbed into the story.

    This also brings a popular quote to mind: "There are lies, damn lies and statistics."

    If you're a Christian and you know God, there are no degrees between anyone, neither friend nor foe. I am a Christian, so I can go from God to anyone in a prayer at any time (although it's expounding upon the human degrees to quite an extent).

    Enjoy your articles (as usual).

    KG

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