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

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Delights Of Doing Good–Why Does Helping The Poor Have To Hurt?

In the halcyon days of the World Bank, project officers on their way to supervise bank loans travelled first class, were allowed two-day stopovers in Europe to break the long trip to India, Bangladesh, and beyond, and were on full expenses.  Three days and two nights in London on company expense, even after a well-tended flight from Washington, were thought absolutely necessary.  The delicate negotiations between Bank representatives and their host country counterparts were of high values – tens  of millions of dollars were at play and any inattention on the part of Bank staff would be immediately exploited by knowledgeable, canny, crafty, and well-rested nationals.

Image result for images first class emirates airlines

So Francis Plummer, a project manager in the South Asia Division, took full advantage of the compensatory travel – ‘compensatory’ because the Bank deliberately avoided the term ‘benefits’ which would have suggested rewards.  No, averred Bank officials, the first class travel, long European stopovers, and full expenses were not meant to encourage loyalty or reward high performance.  They were, in Bank parlance, ‘functionalities’ – add-ons to normal professional routines to ensure quality and efficiency.

Plummer, like most of his Bank colleagues dismissed the idea entirely.  Too much had been made of arduous travel, time change, and predatory counterparts; business class was good enough for a decent sleep, and better to jump in feet first and naked into foreign waters than to prolong the separation from home, family, and ease.  Yet far be it for him to suggest to HR and Travel that he didn’t need first class, that ordinary hotels would do, and that a modest per diem would easily cover expenses.  As long as the Bank was offering its largesse why not take full advantage of it?

Near the end of the Bank’s First-First-First policy (First Class air travel, First Class Hotels, and First Class Meals), his supervisors looked at him a bit critically when signing off on his travel request, but never challenged him on his itinerary and accommodations.  As long as Bank regulations allowed for what might be considered elite travel, he would approve requests consistent with them.   And as long as Plummer’s expense reports were filled out correctly with the proper documentation, HR could do nothing but approve.

Plummer saw changes coming, and therefore was sure to enjoy himself to the fullest on this all-expense-paid stopovers in London and Paris.  He ate well, went to the theatre, and invited old friends and former colleagues for drinks, dinner, and entertainment. If anything, Plummer arrived at his final destination far from rested but sated, hungover, and tired.  A night or two at Delhi’s Oberoi or Dhaka’s Sonargaon, however, or even better the Mandarin Jakarta or Bangkok Oriental, would do the trick; and by the time he had his first top-level meeting, he was ready.

Image result for images oberoi grand calcutta lobby

The World Bank, which has long since changed its policies to be more in line with bi-lateral agencies which were much more concerned with public image than rested employees, is used to illustrate the persistent, enshrined principle - ‘The Delights of Poor Countries’ which, regardless of actual travel allowances, was operational for all.

Even with the US Government’s nit-picking, niggling, and unrealistic Code of Travel, according to which the modest emoluments, benefits. and supports, and the responsibilities of the traveler were spelled out, US employees and consultants had a fine time.  When it came to expatriate living – housing and accommodating families for extended periods of time – the government was very generous indeed.   Long term expatriates had modern homes equipped with the latest Western conveniences; spacious gardens and pools; and access to the commissary, clubs, and other well-appointed and –maintained official venues.

Francis Plummer had visited over 50 countries on all continents on behalf of the World Bank and other international agencies . He traveled to small villages in the African bush, banged over dirt tracks to reach the most far-flung and isolated hamlets in the tribal regions of Madhya Pradesh, froze in the 17,000 ft. reaches of the Bolivian altiplano, and stayed in the thatched huts of curanderos and witch doctors on tributaries of the Amazon.

Image result for Altiplano Bolivia Famous Landmarks

He rode colectivo taxis over the Peruvian Andean passes, jammed in the back seat of a banged-up Toyota for the twelve-hour ride from Huancayo to Ayacucho.  He rode reconditioned Bluebird school buses up the narrow, rock-strewn roads of the lower Himalayas teetering above the 1000 ft. gorges on either side.  He traveled across the heart of India third class on the Deccan Queen in high summer, got stranded in the Mauritanian desert, and ground along for interminable hours on the Bamako to Mopti road before the Chinese highway was built.

He wandered through the mazes of markets and bazaars in Old Delhi, Niamey, and Bangkok, took tea with village elders under a banyan tree in North India, drank home-brewed beer in the quartiers of Kinshasa, ate mechoui on the roof of the prefect in a Saharan oasis, and battled flies in dank restaurants in Thana.

However, he stayed in great hotels.  In fact, some of the great hotels of the world – the Oriental in Bangkok, the Grand Hotel in Calcutta, the Raffles in Singapore, the Galle Face in Colombo, elegant grande dame hotels in the Carpathians, five-star hotels on the Corniche in Dakar, the Victorian polished mahogany and teak Splendide and the gingerbread watering hold of Graham Greene, the Oloffson n Port-au-Prince and many, many more.  One can live in luxury and get down and dirty on the same trip.

The Raffles Singapore

The Oloffson, Port-au-Prince

He saw no contradiction whatsoever in living the life of the locals by day – hard, hot, dusty, unaccommodating and often miserable – and the life of the wealthiest of the wealthy by night.  His own organization, the World Bank, had sanctioned such comfort; but even if they had not offered any moral cover to the contraction between the desperately poor and the impossibly wealthy, he would have stayed in the finest quarters of the finest hotels, eaten the best food, and enjoyed all the comforts of spas, air conditioning, and impeccable service.

From a personal point of view – and that, after all, was what counted since Francis went into development not because of any missionary zeal but for adventure – his trips to the most remote parts of Africa, Asia, and South America were value-plus add-ons. Although there was some discomfort involved in remote travel, he got to see parts of the world no one had ever seen and few would ever see.  If his development projects were irrelevant – all projects designed by bureaucrats in Washington, London, or Stockholm were ipso facto doomed to failure because of the impossibility of ‘culture-matching’, another international term to describe the impossibility of the cross-cultural purpose -  then enjoy life after heat-and-dust knowing that one had tried.

The difference between Francis and many of his colleagues was degree of guilt.  While they stayed at four-star hotels with some moral misgivings, questioned the value of meals at the best restaurants on the peninsular beaches of Luanda, and wondered at the irony of airconditioned travel in Mercedes 4x4’s while the streets of Calcutta were hot, crowded, and nasty; he had no qualms whatsoever.  Not only were comfortable accommodations right and proper for the job, but he joined the profession exactly because of the benefits.  A day’s work was a day’s work, but an evening’s enjoyment with fine food, good company, and gracious surroundings was precisely what he signed up for.

Francis was never a slacker.  He performed at a very high level on every assignment entrusted to him regardless of the likelihood of success.  In fact those who appreciated the inefficiencies of the system, the political purposes of project designers, and the sheer impossibility of reaching first-world targets in the outposts of Chad or Burkina Faso, saw Francis as a model.  A man who did his best even though he knew his efforts would never matter; and who enjoyed himself to the fullest on someone else’s nickel.  A man for all seasons.

The so-called ‘development’ industry already is dying a slow death.  Private sector investments, capital market borrowing, and international business competition are replacing the old do-good style of ‘helping others’.  Those currently ‘on the ground’ will remain and are likely to finish out their careers in the same Third World backwaters where they started; but fewer and fewer young people are opting for the old paradigm.  While travel to God-forsaken places still has allure for the young, it should be done under different circumstances with more accountability, more bottom-line management.

However they proceed and whatever they do, the end will be the same.  They will enjoy high-class living, a glimpse into the interior of the ‘real world’; and some heat and dust; but what they will remember just like the thousands who went before them, will be the Oberoi Grand, the Raffles, the Oriental, and the Mandarin.

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