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Monday, December 23, 2019

Living The Expatriate Good Life In Awful Places–Whoever Said That Poverty Was A Problem?

A colleague at a well-known Washington company that provided technical services to governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, referred to the African country in which she worked as “a shithole with oil”, and for all intents and purposes she was exactly right.  Having recently come out of a long, brutal civil war, it was now ungovernable, chaotic, without police or an army.  It was also a country whose leaders who had seen all public sector proceeds from the sale of oil, diamonds, and rare earth metals go to war materiel and troop support, were now enjoying fabulous wealth from its natural resources.

Land Rovers, Hummers, and Lamborghinis were seen on the streets of the capital shortly after the peace accord, money was safely secured in Swiss bank accounts, and new homes built on the choicest land on beach front properties.  Poverty rates, as low as any on the African continent had dramatically increased during the decades of civil conflict, and the post-war ruling autocracy, while claiming compassion and duty, did nothing for those on the margins – 90 percent of the population.

Image result for images restaurants luanda peninsula

Although the ruling regime had been accused of atrocities and war crimes, the case against them never made it through the first round of hearings in the Hague, largely because the United States wanted nothing to interfere with the soon to be lucrative market for oil and especially the rare earths which were indispensable components in cell phones and computers.  The American administration’s view of post-conflict resolution was a return to stable markets, and so was the country’s staunch ally in all international tribunals.

Of course, none of this was expressed publicly.  The United States had always been on the side of the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised, officials said; but behind the scenes and away from the cameras, very profitable deals were struck.

The regime was asked to make public statements about their commitment to rebuilding the country in the interest of the poor, investment in infrastructure and human services, and judicial and political reform; but were assured by the State Department that they had no need to worry.  As long as their public posture was accommodating and reasonable, the United States would do all it could to support them.

The regime was obliged to take foreign aid in return and the phalanx of development workers who would assist them in the social reforms necessary to facilitate private investment through better education, medical services, and social security and welfare that went along with it; but again, the United States assured the regime that it would not hold them to any unrealistic standards.

US envoys and aid workers knew that reform could not happen overnight and that effort would be rewarded as much as objectively verifiable indicators of return on investment.  In other words, the government was given license to do what it wanted.  As long as it assured the US easy access to its oil, gems, and rare earths, we would look away.

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Despite the many well-meaning, idealistic, young people who signed up for Africa out of social and moral purpose, the powers that be and their handlers had no interest in either economic or social progress.  The country in question would always be a shithole with oil, and the sooner liberals in Congress realized this the better.

Everyone would benefit from a treaty with the country – the United States and its private sector oil companies and contractors; the country itself because of the windfall of tens of millions of dollars in ‘development aid’ that they could ‘borrow’ for their own personal use;  American development agencies who received large grants to ‘help’ the country; and the expatriate staff and consultants who would receive salaries, benefits, expenses, and cost-of-living adjustments for living in the country categorized by the State Department as ‘Questionable’.

It is this last category which is the most interesting.  Made up largely of ex-Peace Corps volunteers – a group it was nastily rumored, had been vetted for their ordinariness, their clean political, social, and civic record, and who individually, to have the intelligence, attitude, and work habits of Greyhound Bus drivers.  In other words, Peace Corps Volunteers were expected never to be bored by routine, to be intelligent enough to keep the bus on the road but never smart enough to take detours, to be loyal to the company and to the American economy and political system of which it was a part, and to be trusted to be sure the vehicles they drove were maintained properly.

Image result for images greyhound bus driver 50s

For these new arrivals, the country was at first daunting – services, even for Africa, were not what they should have been.  Traffic was impossible, crime was an endemic problem, and securing personal services and supplies difficult. Yet, especially for those expatriates who had been down this road before, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Given the conditions of their contracts, they were able to live rent-free in fabulous homes on the beach with gardens, pools, and servants; to have enough in their expense accounts to afford the most sumptuous restaurants and the best of imported European goods, and to have high salaries, all of which could be banked.

Despite the recent civil war and the rather chaotic civilian life which came afterwards, the wealthiest Africans quickly established and secured a pipeline to Europe for all they needed; and expatriates benefited from lobsters, oysters, foie gras, burgundy, and fresh greens from France and Portugal.

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The life of the American expatriate in this benighted shithole was if anything even more luxurious than in other African countries. The hazardous duty pay and cost-of-living adjustments gave the savvy American ample funds for high-security gates, armed guards and vehicles, and trusted US-vetted personal ‘assistants’.  Not for everyone, perhaps – the choices of places to spend their wealth was more limited than in say, Madagascar, which once its civil conflicts had ended and private investment had tripled, new European restaurants, beach resorts, and wildlife photo-safaris sprang up and were easily affordable and accessible.  The lush gardens, vast, up-to-date homes, and the cornucopia of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats and the servants to prepare them, all posted and circulated on social media, were the envy of all their home- and office-bound colleagues.

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Africa wasn’t the only place to enjoy the good life.   An officer of another well-known Washington non-profit organization wrote of her delight at the Grand Hotel of Calcutta – a renovated, five-star old English colonial hotel set in the middle of the most populous commercial and residential area of the city.
I meandered for hours on the streets and in the bazaars of Old Calcutta – a kaleidoscope of colors, sounds, smells and humanity; a fascinating, privileged glimpse into the real India, the India of sacred cows, sadhus, beggars, shopkeepers, and naked children.  I walked through the spice markets, the meat markets, the trinket corners, and the endless carpet shops until I was overwhelmed.  I took a cycle rickshaw back to the Grand, was met at the door by a stately, tall Sikh who welcomed me like a beloved, long-lost cousin.  I was home – home to the chill of the lobby, the marble and brass planters, the elegance, the sophistication, and the delight to be in one of the world’s grandest hotels.
Image result for images grand hotel calcutta interior lobby
Mauritania has never had any purchase on statehood.  It is a country whose nomadic Moors have been forced into refugee tent cities in the capital and whose black population living along the Senegal River was newly-bonded (never enslaved stated the World Bank whose myopic loans for damming the river to provide irrigation in both Mauritania and Senegal had encouraged the ruling Moors to acquire newly rich lands for their own and to ‘employ’ the black Africans who lived on the flood plains).  Mauritania is not exactly a shithole, but simply a desert country which survives  only thanks to the largesse of foreign donors.

Thanks to this largesse, a large community of expatriates settled in the country to administer US State Department monies designed to raise the country out of its abysmal poverty and marginal social conditions.  As in all countries which have negotiated international development agreements, the expatriates had access to the best homes, the best imported food, servants, security, and the good life.

The bounty of the rich coastal Atlantic waters offered lobster, tuna, and every other variety of fish and seafood. Prime beef was imported from Scotland, lamb from New Zealand, and poultry from French farmers in Senegal.  In the midst of a harsh, hot, dry desert environment, American expatriates lived exceptionally well.  While there were few outside places to go, the life of the expatriate community was large, vibrant, and satisfied.

Who ever said that poverty and the good life should never co-exist; that luxury in the lap of poverty was immodest and immoral; that those were in-country to help the poor while not living poor should at least show through their temperance and good judgment, restraint? 

By the looks of things, no one.  In fact expatriates easily justified their lifestyle by the nature of their Christian work – since they spent eight hours a day helping those in need, no one should begrudge them compensation.  Not only were their consciences clean but those of their bureaucratic handlers who knew that to be successful at raising the poor out of misery, expatriates had to be comfortable.
All well and good, and stories of broken pipes, power outages, and failed coups notwithstanding, expatriates are a fortunate lot.

However the lives of such good –livers only prolong the inevitable – the final, complete, and absolute dismantling of a corrupting pseudo-economic, political system.  The shitholes of the world need American ‘aid’ like a hole in the head; and the sooner  the umbilical cord between them and generous, venal, politically-minded donors like the United States is cut, the better.  Everyone who wants to remain in these corrupt, failed countries does them a disservice, perpetuating dependency, greed, and bad governance.

Yet, for anyone who has lunched elegantly on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, in the shadows of the mountains between Rwanda and Burundi; or who has stayed at the Oberoi Grand in Calcutta, the Oriental in Bangkok, and the Raffles in Singapore; who has stayed at Carpathian spas and hot springs; or who has eaten the best of all possible meals on the Corniche in Dakar, leaving the expatriate life is unconscionable.

Image result for images restaruantws on lake tanganyiaka

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