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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Margot Turnbull, Jargon, And The Myth of ‘Development’

Margot Turnbull was the Senior Vice President of the Social Action Group and a go-getter. Her division always scored the highest of any on the corporate performance scale, and the CEO of the company pointed to her as the institutional role model.  She won more than her share of government contracts – the lifeblood of the company – managed her projects under budget and on time, and had, at least in the eyes of top management, created an esprit de corps which was the envy of all.  Henry Parker himself had honored Margot with the Ellison Award, the company’s top honor, for stellar achievement.  She was the youngest executive to receive the award since it had been established in 1962 in honor of Ellison Parker, the company’s founder and Henry’s father.

The truth of the matter was that Margot Turnbull ran her division like a Roman trireme.  While she stood on the prow sighting the far shore her lieutenants flayed the Nubian slaves in the watery galley, whipping them to greater effort in the service of the Emperor.  Margot managed by intimidation, coercion, and humiliation; and yet was so canny and careful in her methods that her tactics went totally unnoticed by higher ups.  In other words, she had learned how to wrap her truncheon in a baby blanket so that the bruises wouldn’t show.

She was able to rule with such absolute authority because all her minions knew that they were replaceable.  Even in good times HR had far more applications than positions, and the young twenty-somethings who had joined Parker International knew that if they got thrown out into the street, the road back to employment would be long indeed.

The reason why there was always such a long queue of job applicants was not for the salary or the benefits or even the working conditions which were known to be demanding.  It was because the company was in the business of International Development, the goal of which was to alleviate poverty, improve standards of health and hygiene, and increase economic productivity.  In other words to do good, a mission that few young women could ignore.  A job at Parker International or any of its competitors meant early motherhood, caring for the world’s children until they were ready for their own.

Margot was brilliant at her deception, and could change colors like a chameleon.  She could be hectoring an underling in public, berating and humiliating the young woman and reducing her to tears; but if the CEO walked in, her twisted, malevolent face turned sweet, congenial, and happy.  She would not miss a beat.  “I was just complimenting the group on how well they had done on the Chad project.  Our receivables are in top shape, our projections on target, and our prospects for continued profitability excellent.  Joanie, why don’t you tell Mr. Parker about your good work.”

Here she turned to Joan Sheffield, the project director, a woman who had come under the worst, most brutal, and excoriating attacks from Margot. Chad was a sinkhole of government corruption, venality, greed, and dishonesty; and no external project could possibly succeed in this miasma of indifference.  Yet Joan was supposed to produce, keep the client (the US Government) happy, and generate positive balance sheets, 5+ official performance reviews, and strategic positioning for add-on contracts.

The young woman, like all of Margot’s minions, had been well trained and knew how to behave in the presence of her superiors – especially Henry Parker who was not only a good businessman but a soft-hearted liberal who took his mission seriously.  Margot had trained her staff well and given them chapter and verse to recite when Mr. Parker showed up.

“Using a participatory approach”, Joan began, “we rejected all top-down solutions in our efforts to be collaborative and respectful of all beneficiaries.  We empowered all stakeholders to build a sustainable community-based program based on gender-sensitive local ownership; and together we have reached our targets of sustainability, inclusion, and leveraging of resources. Using this model we will scale up our efforts to increase coverage while assuring community input.”

She looked up and saw the stern but approving look of Margot Turnbull and the generous, appreciative smile of Henry Parker.

Of course she had said nothing at all because she had been well-schooled by Turnbull to say nothing – to spin impressive-sounding soliloquies which were empty, devoid of any meaning, and as worthless as ads for maple syrup.  For all of Margot Turnbull’s sturm und drang she understood the fundamental lie of the development business.  International assistance programs were meant to satisfy lobby groups who were outraged at African misery, Congressmen who were anxious to serve their adamant constituents and spend money to show their political support, Presidents who wanted to show their commiseration with the African American community and keep African governments friendly, and American businesses who wanted to promote their own products and services.

Since these clear and unequivocal objectives could never be admitted in public, it was quite natural to cloak them in a soft and fuzzy blanket.  It made no difference whatsoever if statements made sense.  What counted was whether or not they sounded good.

Mr. Parker rose and thanked both Joan and Margot Turnbull for their excellent work.  “I’m sure I will have questions later”, he said, “after I have read your Report.  But for now I would only like to say that it is thanks to people like you that the folks in Africa are leading a better life”.

Call it what you will – fire and ice; good cop, bad cop; vinegar and honey – the management style of Margot Turnbull was ideal for the company.  She knew that although Henry Parker went all goofy when the children of Africa were mentioned, he was as unsparingly rigid when it came to the bottom line as anyone in the business; so she laid on the cat-o’-nine-tails so that her slaves rowed until they dropped, and at the same time served the client slavishly.  She gave the government agency with which Parker International worked exactly what they wanted – treacly gobbledygook and idealistic projects which didn’t have a chance in hell of improving anyone’s life.

No one down the long line from Congress to contractor actually cared about end results; and everyone knew that the only performance standard ever looked at was ‘money out the door’.  Parker International’s profits were based on expenditures.  The government agency doling out contracts to the likes of Parker was under the gun to spend what Congress authorized; Congress always felt the pressure of insistent constituents; and God knows, the recipient countries were as happy as could be when American sluice gates were opened with no questions asked. 

Which brings me to the subject of jargon.  In many ways jargon is a useful tool, for with a few code words, an entire concept can be conveyed.  A ‘participatory approach’ means nothing in itself; but signals to the bureaucrat that the writer or speaker understands that development is all about people and respect for them.  A participatory approach means a rejection of authoritarian, neo-colonialist dismissiveness; and is all about engaging the beneficiaries of development in its process. 

Of course, as I have mentioned above, the development process is as condescending as the worst colonial enterprise.  After all it is only the US Government and its contractor lackeys who benefit from the provision of ‘aid’, and what else can one call this feel-good treatment of ‘the people’ but patronizing?

The jargon of participatory approaches, capacity-building, community ownership, local stakeholders, empowerment of women, gender, partnership, and sustainability serves a very definite purpose – to obfuscate the cynical truth.

There was good reason, then, why Margot Turnbull was a highly-prized employee of Parker International.  She understood that the substance of her work meant nothing at all; that no one was really interested in poor African children; and that the only reason she sat in her corner office was to make money.  To make money she had to beat every employee until they toppled over onto their spreadsheets.  She had to engineer the writing of proposals which spewed back every inanity expressed in government RFPs.  She had to manage projects with the bottom line in mind, the client in her sights, and the corrupt government officials at bay.  She became a master at the Monthly Progress Report.  She worked a magical alchemy to turn dismal failures into challenges, failures into successes, and successes into miracles.  She was brilliant.

In short, Margot Turnbull had learned how to manage the affairs of a government contractor – take-no-hostages management, syrupy say-nothing prose, and a woven veil of jargon and feel-good success stories.

The retention rate of the Social Action Group was the lowest in the company; but senior management was unconcerned about this attrition because of the famous queue.  Margot, in addition to her many other talents, was a canny judge of people.  She knew exactly which young women she could control – who had a combination of insecurity and idealism but with enough intelligence to follow orders but not too much to defy authority.

In 2010 she was asked to give the keynote speech at the Annual Parker International Conference held at the Willard Hotel in Washington.  “Good friends”, she began, “the children of Africa thank you”.  It was all downhill from there – or uphill and building to a glorious crescendo if you were Henry Parker sitting on the dais looking up admiringly at Margot Turnbull.  She pulled out all stops, used every bit of jargon in the books, but was so deft at presentation and delivery that she made it sound like Roman oratory.

“Ownership”, she said, “is at the very heart of our wonderful American economy.  It is who we are.”  Here she paused and looked out over the eager, admiring audience. “Ownership is very different for the poor African family who owns nothing of value, and can only scratch a few rows of millet out of the dry, unforgiving earth. But these poor peasant farmers do own something – their pride and their dignity.”

It was a magnificent performance.  She soared with passion and commitment, got down to the brass tacks of corporate discipline and organization, complimented everyone from the CEO to the janitorial staff, and closed with a tearful reminder, “Don’t forget the children”.

She received thunderous applause and a standing ovation.  She smiled like a conquering hero, an Emperor riding in a chariot down the Appian Way to admiration and adulation. Margot Turnbull was the very best there was.

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