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

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–Henry V

“Fuck Children Are Beloved”, said our Director.  He reddened like a beet, apoplectic, gurgled and gargled some half-spoken words, and blurted “Stop them……Don’t let them advance…..Beat them!” He paused, reddened even more, spluttered and snorted, and was about to go on when the bile returned to his liver, his choler abated, and calm returned to his face.  He had gone to the edge of some emotional precipice, looked down, and walked back.

I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Henry V which I had read some years earlier and the scenes before the gates of Honfleur where Henry is urging his troops to battle and threatening the French inside the town.  Rape, eviscerate, disembowel, castrate, intimidate and beat them, he said.  Impale babies, cut their women down like wheat in a field.  Win!  War is not for sissies.  I am sure that this was what the Director was thinking, and had not spoken.

I was a little surprised and shocked at what the Director had said.  Although I had not gone overseas to do good and had little idea of what I was getting into, I did have a vague impression that the organization I joined was there for humanitarian, charitable, and entirely unselfish reasons; and this bellicose tirade didn’t fit in.

Of course it did, I realized not long afterwards.  Regardless of the exterior motive, the interior, real one was to expand, gain market share, position, and money; and not much later as my conservative instincts took hold, I thought that if competition was good for business, then why not development?  Competition would stimulate innovation, creativity, and efficiency.

Although this might have been true in principle, it had no salience in fact because the development world was ruled by an Emperor.  Although we might be princes and kings, it was the Emperor, USAID, who set his own self-serving agenda, who governed not wisely nor intelligently, but totally.  We went to his court and kneeled, took his unjust and unenlightened edicts and decisions with humble thanks; faithfully paid his dues and curried favor with his minions. 

As a result, we princes merely skirmished nastily with each other.  We created alliances, plotted against friends and enemies, read tea leaves which might give us an insight into the Emperor’s thoughts, listened for rumor and innuendo in the street, picked up whatever bits of information couriers and messengers could bring.  There were no Nietzschian Supermen and will to power in our business, no Henry the Fifths.

The word for business ally became “partner”, a gentle, positive term signifying goodwill, and a selfless collaboration. Of course the skirmishes often did turn into battles, but the bloodlust and desire to obliterate was mitigated by the ever-present Emperor and how he might look upon the internecine warfare of his subjects; and besides, enemy today, ally tomorrow; and perhaps even more important was the philosophy of the realm – be as kind and considerate of your partners as you would be of the poor people we are helping. This is not the private sector after all.

There were times when I thought that our king would raise an army, and rally the troops with as much patriotism and sense of honor and courage as Henry.  The CEO and SVP at one of the last places I worked were surely plotting to march up I-95, sail across Baltimore Harbor with an armada, and take no prisoners once they had breeched the walls of the “partner’s” castle; but they negotiated, and traded futures; and raided the monasteries, but in this genteel and principled world of development, always stopped at the gates.

We collaborated with an agency similar in outlook, operational model, and ethos to Children Are Beloved.  They worked all over the world and avowed the mission to save children, rescue them from the blight and indignity of poverty and to Do Good with big, bold, italicized capital letters. What we, their “partners” saw was duplicity, chicanery, and downright gutter fighting for turf, money, and influence.  This was the development model.  It was applied in 1968 when I began The Great Ride and continued until 2010 when I got off the train.

This particular do-good agency, however, was all the more maddening because of its wooly idealism, its patronizing attitude, and incessant, uninformed convictions about the nature of “poor people”.  If it wasn’t bad enough that this retrograde attitude governed the way it executed its projects, it carried over to the workplace.  Despite the cutthroat, aggressive tactics that helped it grow and gain market share, its professionals had to be inclusive, participatory, and respectful. 

I always liked the private firms operating in the world of development.  At least they were honest about making money.  They toadied up to USAID because it was good for business and suffered no moral compunctions.  They designed projects in a way that would win, that would satisfy the fattening Emperor, not that were in any way new or innovative or likely to improve success.  There was no bullshit.  All of the non-profit cant and posturing did not exist.

This is what has most nettled if not angered me over these years – cant and cutthroat in the same room.  Nobody wins except the landlord.  Mission obfuscates results.  The means are not as important as the ends.  This same do-good agency refused to consider projects that could have eradicated tetanus in a wide swath of Africa (comprehensive anti-tetanus vaccination campaigns using an effective, cheap, and available product) because it was too “vertical”, did not involve local communities, and was not participatory.  It could have made significant inroads against malaria by entering into a joint venture with the Chinese who were just beginning to market the extract of wormwood a powerful anti-malarial, now the drug of choice for the international community.   Why not? Too top down and too far from our model (the Emperor’s).  So rather than work with aim, focus, and principle, the agency muddled on through the largesse of the Emperor and through its devious and thuggy business practices.

So my Director those many years ago had it right. No cant, no philosophy, no do-good.  Fuck Children are Beloved and win at all costs.

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