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

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–Field Trips

I hate field trips, those interminably long, dusty, hot drives over rutted dirt roads, through unchanging, boring landscapes ending in the completely predictable.  Although there has been a persistent received wisdom that in order to understand a country, you have to get its taste, smell, and feel through visits to health centers, schools, and village communities, this wisdom is false.

What you get at the end of the endless drive is as predictable as the heat and the dust – health centers, dispensaries, and clinics all over the Third World are miserable places, poorly-equipped and –staffed, shelves empty of drugs, indifferent workers, flies, bloody bandages, and waiting rooms filled with patient mothers with very sick children.   Schools are sing-song lessons, a few tattered books, and distracted teachers.  Villages change from country to country only superficially – turbans or conical hats; thatch roofs with a smattering of tin; number of mangy dogs; dress of women at the well.  The holy taste, smell, and feel is more often than not open sewers, mosquitos, and sandy grit in your stringy mutton.

I have always preferred to understand the country I am working in from the capital.  A careful and thorough investigation of data from the census, health and education ministries, market research, socio-anthropological monographs, and interviews with experts in all these areas can give a much more precise and accurate picture of the country than a cursory look with foreign eyes ever could.  Although these data themselves do not change much from country to country – investments in health and education service, infrastructure, and supplies are inadequate; there are few trained and motivated teachers; food shortages exist; poverty levels remain high – they show distribution.  I can see where the situation is better and where it is worse.  I can know more about a rural community than it knows about itself because by studying its history and current trends, I can see its past and its future. 

Field visits were always a waste.  Not only did they take time away from the real business of intelligent investigation, they were patronizing and insulting – wealthy American consultants poking around in affairs they cannot possibly understand, dutifully taking notes on the abysmal conditions then leaving in a cloud of dust.

Of course the real reason for my reluctance to leave the capital was because I didn’t want to leave the air-conditioned comfort of my modern hotel, drinks by the pool, and camaraderie at the bar.  I never once went out of Dhaka, Maputo, Antananarivo, or Luanda.  I did occasionally take a field trip, but only under three conditions: 1) there was a paved road and an air-conditioned, modern car to take me and return me before dark; 2) I was travelling with an interesting companion; and 3) I was travelling with a Minister or Cabinet Secretary.

I did travel frequently in Mali because the Chinese had recently completed a modern highway from Bamako to Segou and Mopti, I travelled with the Assistant Secretary of Health who was a doctor/philosopher, and the car was a Mercedes 4x4.  All three of my conditions were met in one go.  The trips were fabulous – hours talking of Kant and Nietzsche, economics and political philosophy, culture and values.  At night on the return, hot Malian music on the stereo as we flew done the highway at 100MPH.

I also travelled in Rwanda – again because the roads were good, my companion was a student of institutional organization and management, and who took a larger perspective – that institutions were no different from any other form of human society, and studying them gave insights into the larger world. 

I once travelled by air from Brazzaville to Pointe Noire in the Congo with the Minister of Health.  Pointe Noire is the Congo’s second city, oil money, and good hotels, so I knew the trip would not be too painful.  The flight to Pointe Noire was uneventful, but the trip back had its moments.  When we arrived at the airport, we saw our pilot – the same one who had flown us down and the one who would fly us back – drinking at the bar.  After a half-hour or so, he went out onto the tarmac where the small, 25-seat, twin-engine plane was sitting.  He went over to it, pulled on the wings, shoved and rocked the nose, and yelled in French, “This plane will never take off.  Too much cargo.  Rearrange it.” 

There was a scurry of attendants, baggage handlers, and supervisors, unloading the cargo, luggage, and cases of beer (Pointe Noire had a bottling plant), and reloading it in the front and side compartments.  When the redistribution had been done, the pilot, after a few more beers at the bar, shoved, pushed, and pulled at the plane some more, and said, “Maybe it will take off, but no hand luggage.  Leave it here.  If this plane is too heavy it won’t fly”.

I did some quick rearrangement of my own cargo, putting essentials into my expandable briefcase and jettisoning the raggedy carry-on that I travel with for just these situations.  No Louis Vuitton in Africa.  We boarded, sat, and buckled.  The pilot fired up the engines and we shook and yawed down the runway.  By this time it was almost dark, and the jungle on either side of the runway was no more than a black blur.  Most of the runway lights were not working, only a few intermittent, flickering bulbs guided the pilot.  Just before the end of the runway and the thick forest beyond, we lifted off – not with the confident jet thrust I was used to, but the struggling, desperate, gradual foot-by-foot liftoff of this aging, overweight, out-of-shape relic of the past.

In a few minutes the lights of Pointe Noire had receded in the distance, and there was nothing below but the dense and impenetrable central African forest – vast, black nothingness.  The two engines roared at full throttle, and there was complete silence in the cabin.  The door of the cockpit swung open, and we could hear the co-pilot yelling into his radio.  “Brazza, Brazza, ou etes vous? Over”.  Static, and loud hissing heard even over the engines.  He repeated, “Brazza, Brazza, where are you?  Come in.  Over”.  Nothing, only the hissing and static and the total silence in the cabin. 

We were lost over the vast tropical jungle, doomed to circle until we spiraled down and crashed in a fiery blaze.  This was an age before GPS, flight recorders, and radios that worked.  We would be civilian MIA, our survivors given medals in our honor.  Those brave men and women doing good.

The Minister of Health who was sitting next to me pulled out her rosary beads, grabbed my hand, and looked at me sadly.  For some strange reason I am very calm in these situations.  I get weird and very twisted in airports, sweating out delays, imagining worst case scenarios of no driver waiting at the dangerous local airport where I was to arrive, being a stateless wanderer trying to find a hotel room, robbed, slashed, and left to die on the side of the road.  However, once I am on the plane a soothing calm comes over me.  Whereas on the ground I can always bail, blow of the entire trip, leave the next day, once on the plane I am a Prisoner of Fate.  So I took the lady’s hand and said, “Everything will be all right, Madame le Ministre.  I promise you”. 

Of course, I wasn’t sure at all.  It was usually the foreigners who freaked while the locals, seasoned by all kinds of trash and nastiness, shrugged and went about their business in cars that broke down, trains that left hours late, busses that careened off the road, and planes that blew tires, had no toilet, and, like this one, barely managed to take off.  To see this particular seasoned local pull out her rosary and grab the hand of an infidel must mean that we were in deep, deep trouble.

There was a collective yipping and yelling when the lights of Brazzaville twinkled in the distance.  We had made it after all. 

For me travel in Eastern and Central Europe after the demise of the Soviet Union never qualified as field trips.  This was Europe, after all, maybe at the far end of what could be called Europe, but Europe nevertheless.  I travelled on good roads, in good cars, with poets, doctors, and teachers, to fabulous destinations. 

Romania is beautiful and diverse country.  I visited regions that looked like Tuscany, Switzerland, and France.  I visited the monasteries of Suchava where frescoes painted on the outside of churches over 600 years ago still retained color and subtlety.  I did the same in Georgia, certainly the last outpost of Europe and far more East than West, and visited early medieval churches and wine regions (Telavi where the Saporavi grape predominates – a rich, shiraz-type varietal.  In Ukraine I travelled to Lviv, a very West European city, on a civilized overnight train, drank Armenian cognac in lively bars, and walked the city at night.  

These were not so much field trips as insider tourist trips with a health center thrown in to justify the cost.  In fact, my time in Eastern Europe, coming near the end of my career (I had another 5 years of desperation in Africa before I retired), were the best of my 40 year career.  I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to work in Europe!!  No disease, most things worked (at least compared to Africa), the food was great and safe to eat, and I was a close observer of the unimaginable transition from Communism to Capitalism, dictatorship to democracy.

I travelled in Romania, Georgia, Poland, Slovakia, Macedonia, Ukraine, and Bulgaria and loved every minute of it. 

The field trip nonsense exists to this day, and for one recent firm I worked for, management insisted that the only way to write a proposal was to, once again, “get the taste and feel” of the country.  That old saw is as bent and dull as it ever was.  Despite endless exploratory trips, interviews with everyone from priests to peddlers, and endless trips to remote health centers, the notes so eagerly and meticulously taken by young minions new to “development” and anxious to travel, were tossed in the trash, and the proposals were written on the basis of solid evidence collected from the Internet and the experience of more experienced staff who knew, as I did, that “seen one health center, seen ‘em all”.

I very much appreciated the enthusiasm and energy of this young staff; and early field trips for them as it was for me, were definitely rites of initiation.  For most, expectations are confirmed. The Third World is a fantasyland of adventure, romance, and cultural thrills; but it is the perspective of that adventure that is formed on the first trips.  There are those like me who saw that the adventure, romance, and thrills were the reason for my work and travels, both the ends and the means of my travel; and those who saw only poverty, misery, and misfortune, and who would flagellate themselves from the first trip to the last to do good.  The only ‘tweeners were the USAID bureaucrats who go abroad for neither excitement nor commitment.  Insulated from thrills and adventure and in the Third World because of career advancement, they could care less about “the people” or the sybaritic pleasures many of us enjoyed.

As I have concluded many of my Travel posts – It has been a Great Ride!

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