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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Memories Of Underdevelopment–The Delights Of Poor Countries

It is too much to expect that those helping the poor should live like the poor, and that comforting philosophy has given thousands of aid workers license to lead the good life in the developing world.

In order to do good, one must feel good; and feeling good means being well-rested after a comfortable flight, a good night’s sleep in a five-star hotel, and a meal at the best restaurant in town.

None of the expenditures for such sumptuous travel, went the thinking of administrators and senior staff, was excessive.  Project managers of international development banks were responsible for millions of dollars in loans and credits, and a clear mind was absolutely necessary when negotiating complex agreements.   The US Government was far less generous than these institutions, but the hotel allowances and per diems were more than sufficient for stays at starred hotels and fine meals.

Grand Hotel Calcutta

Anyone who has traveled to Africa knows that good accommodations go a long way to alleviating the trauma of crime, disease, civil unrest, and uncertain, dangerous travel.  They are oases and refuges.  They are places of resuscitation and renewal,  redoubts into which the outside world cannot enter.  They are not suggested, but required.

Even the most ethically-minded traveler soon forgets his qualms about income disparities and the irony of impossibly wealthy Americans – even one on an American civil servant’s modest salary is, seen from a development perspective, to be more wealthy than the richest emperor of Wagadu or Songhai – ministering to the desperately poor.  It is all taken as a matter of course.  His wealth, education, privilege, and good fortune all enable him to give more freely and concernedly; and the causes of local misery, perennial economic immobility, and lack of  of enterprise and independence which ensure perennial poverty are not his affair.  He is there to alleviate suffering, regardless of the cause.  The ethos underlying American foreign aid is unquestionably Christian, and helping the poor for no other reason than their suffering, is to follow in the path of Christ.

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It is this very missionary philosophy that makes five-star hotels and sumptuous meals ethically and morally justified.  Doing the Lord’s work in and of itself is good, and nothing can take that away.

The life of American expatriates is even more trying.  Not only do they have to suffer the heat and dust of their host countries for the two or three weeks of a short mission; they have to live it day in and day out.  It would be impossible to survive under such conditions without a comfortable home, spacious garden, swimming pool, servants, air conditioning,and  long paid local and European vacations (R&R).

Even at that, life for these American development workers is not all easy.  Servants steal, malarial mosquitoes bite, break-ins are common, and pumps, compressors, and toilets rarely work properly if at all.   All the more reason to live in the most American- designed, -built and –equipped quarters where plumbing and electrical wiring is new, security is high-tech, and furniture and appointments are no different from home.

Especially when expatriate families relocate to Africa with small children, such comfortable, secure, and generous housing is even more necessary.  Cars must be new, reliable, and unbreakable.  In other words, the good life is justified. 

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Perhaps most importantly, the sponsoring agency or its contractors would never be able to recruit aid workers without the guarantee of such commodious and accommodating living.  That, plus the tax-free income and generous allowances, are necessary incentives to get even the most ambitiously caring to leave home.

There are some foreign aid workers, however, who have never had qualms or any hesitation about working in the so-called Third World.  Even the most benighted places have something to recommend them in the way of the good life.  Luanda, not long after the end of Angola’s long and bloody civil war, was a nasty place – few hotel rooms, scarce restaurants, high crime rates, corruption, and civil disorder.  Yet, the seasoned traveler familiar with the city, knew exactly where to look for respite and pleasure – the Peninsula, a narrow strip between the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay, with excellent restaurants on the sea.

At one, the Delmar, the giant grilled shrimp and fresh lobsters were first rate, the selection of Portuguese and French wines outstanding, the service impeccable, and the view through the palm trees to the ocean delightful.  The costs of dinners at Delmar would be considered exorbitant anywhere but in Luanda, where limited supply and high demand resulted in $500 meals, they were considered acceptable.   Once again, there was cost to doing good – sponsoring agencies had to pay well and in accordance with local conditions.

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Bamako before ISIS, al-Qaeda, and restive Tuaregs was a relatively peaceful, simple country; but amenities were at a premium.  There was one good hotel of international quality, but outside of its restaurant, there were few choices of where to eat – except the Oasis, an outdoor restaurant overlooking the Niger River.   The scenery was picturesque, the cadre excellent – linen tablecloths, silver, Baccarat glassware – and the food, especially the Nile Perch from the river and the unusually good selection of French burgundies, excellent.  Three hour, four-course Sunday luncheons were de rigeur.  Price was no object, although never that much and affordable given generous living allowances.

The hotels of Asia are legendary to frequent travelers.  Their five-star ranking is not high enough, for the polished marble lobbies, great brass planters of tropical flowers, spacious rooms, excellent restaurants, impeccable service and irreproachable quality make them the best part of any foreign assistance mission.  Hotels in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Colombo, Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, and Dhaka set the standard of excellence for the rest of the world.  Most aid workers would never see such hotels without development assistance money.

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For the most savvy travelers, developing countries not only provide excellent accommodations, food and drink; but are welcome adventures from the humdrum of home, family, and office.  More importantly, no one is looking.  Without the blinders, tethers, and traces of home, they have fun.

There are few professions which combine moral purpose and simple pleasure like international development.  Since development consultants and expatriates are working towards a higher good – the alleviation of poverty, disease, and suffering – they can enjoy the benefits of travel without a trace of guilt or second thoughts.  They can eat well, sleep well, and have brown lovers to their hearts’ content – all on someone else’s nickel.

It would be an added benefit if such accommodations resulted in some positive outcome – that the health, welfare, or economic well-being of the populations served benefitted from the foreign assistance provided to them.  Unfortunately, the history of development assistance is a sorry one indeed.  If countries have progressed, it is thanks to the macro-economic policies put into place by reform-minded governments (liberalized currency exchanges, free trade, limited government regulation) rather than any Western-sponsored public assistance.   Yet ‘doing good’ is part and parcel of the American Christian ethos – we cannot do otherwise.  To suspend assistance programs because they don’t work but where people are suffering is an unthinkable option.

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Even though no more justification for the good life overseas is needed, the ‘giving one’s all’ rationale, is often added.    If one works hard, follows the rules, is appropriately sensitive to cross-cultural differences but sufficiently bottom-line in approach, then success or failure is irrelevant.  One has done one’s best under difficult conditions; and can enjoy life without hesitation or self-doubt.

President after president has vowed to reduce foreign aid, turn over development activities to the private sector or to countries themselves, and to withdraw support from anti-democratic, autocratic regimes.  None have done so whether Republican or Democrat.  As small as the foreign assistance program may be, it has ardent supporters.  American simply cannot be seen to be abandoning the poor.

So those in the international development industry keep on travelling, settling in as expatriates, and enjoying the good life. 

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