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

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Doing Good–How Idealism Quickly Loses Its Luster In Nasty Places

Hermione Baxter joined Children Are The World to do good, to work for those children born in poverty, misery, and oppression; and to make a difference.  

While her college classmates were headed off to Business and Law School, she joined the Peace Corps.  There, she was certain, she would find the answer to life’s puzzles and bring home a restored belief in humanity and God.

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The training sessions in rural Wisconsin included an intensive course in Yoruba, the rudiments of arid agriculture, and the cultural does and don’ts of dealing with Nigerians, Muslims, and societies quite different from her own.  

Hermione had been brought up in a small town in rural Ohio, to a farm family, and one of rich American heritage.  Her Great Grandfather, Hiram,  had come from New England in the early days of Westward Expansion, found the relatively benign climate, fertile land, and peaceful Indians more than he could have ever hoped for, and settled down, the patriarch of successive generations of Baxters who never moved more than ten miles from the old homestead.

Hiram was particularly taken with the Shawnee who at the time of his migration were a semi-migratory, nomadic tribe which moved often and freely within the Ohio Valley and only occasionally set up their teepees for a longer stay.  It was during one of these temporary sojourns that Hiram got to know Tenskwatawa, twin brother of Tecumseh, and  prominent in Indian affairs in the early Nineteenth Century. 

‘Tennie’, as Hiram affectionately called him, was, like his brother, a proud man, patriotic and defiantly loyal to his tribe and his people; yet the central Ohio branch of the Shawnees which he governed had never met up to expectations.  Although the same rich Shawnee blood ran through their veins, there was something desultory about their attitude, a lack of motivation and ambition.  By the time Hiram’s son came to take over the now prosperous Baxter ranch, the Shawnee were living on three reservations in present-day Ohio -  Hog Creek, Lewistown, and Wapakaneta. 

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Conditions on the Ohio reservations were little different from the many others in the country, certainly not as bad as in the Dakotas, but bad enough.  Crime, alcoholism, and broken families were the norm.  Hiram’s son, Hermione’s grandfather, had, thanks to his father, maintained a close relationship with a number of Indians on the reservation, and would take his young granddaughter there to spend Sunday afternoons.  For him it was a pleasant reminiscence of his own childhood, and every time he was with Indians, no matter how low they had fallen, the image of the great Tenskwatawa and his heroic brother Tecumseh came to mind.

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The young Hermione, on the other hand, could see only the desperate poverty, the ramshackle trailers, mangy dogs, broken down trucks, mud, and drunkenness.  She hated the trips to the reservation but went because she adored her grandfather and would do anything with him and for him.

It was this experience, Hermione considered, that was the motivation for joining the Peace Corps.  Her work in Africa amongst the continent’s poorest, most desperate, but most beautiful, proud people would be a final expression of her childhood sympathies for underprivileged peoples.

Her co-trainees were a happy, positive, and equally motivated group who had joined the organization for the same generous regions.  They of course hoped for great adventure, but they were headed to the Dark Continent for one reason only – to do good.  As they dispersed from their in-country training camp outside Lagos, they assured each other that they would keep in touch, and looked forward to the yearly meetings which the Nigeria head office arranged on the Delta.

The Volunteers were sent to every region of the country – from the strictly Islamic North to the very tribal rainforest interior – and each were charged with different tasks and objectives.  Some were to raise poultry and pigs, others to teach school, and still others to work on public works.

Hermione’s village was a pitiful place, far worse than the Lewistown Reservation back home – shabby, mosquito-infested and fly-ridden, hot, and filthy. Worst of all were the people, thieves and tricksters who saw her not as an American savior, but a mark to be had.  

While she wrote back to her parents of ‘the lovely people’ of the village and talked only of the ‘challenges’ she faced, she had nothing but scorn for the place and its inhabitants.   She knew this was definitely not what she was supposed to feel, but she couldn’t help herself.

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The Peace Corps should have known better, she thought, and given her and her colleagues something more transitional.  How could they expect a young American woman from the Ohio farmland to survive in such a primitive place?

Paul Theroux wrote a book about just this experience.  In Lower River he describes the odyssey of a middle-aged man who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small village in Africa forty years before and who, thanks to the fond and happy memories he had kept for all those years, decided to return. 

Everything however had changed.  The warm, generous, welcoming, and friendly people and fertile, modestly prosperous environment had disappeared.  He found only corruption, exploitation, thievery, and deceit.  The years since African independence had not been kind to Africa, and the heady optimism felt in the first days of liberation had disappeared entirely.  Much of the continent was ruled by despots, petty autocrats, and Big Men, and their corruption had filtered down to the lowest village.  The Theroux character gets embroiled in dangerous village politics and barely escapes with his life.

Lower River By Paul Theroux - Used (Good) - 0544002253 By Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company | Thriftbooks.Com

So Hermione’s experience should have been expected.  Africa was no longer the place of simplicity, generosity, and good will; but had been deformed by the exploitation of the ruling class, the diversion of foreign investment into Swiss bank accounts, tribal hatred, and a historic international indifference to the plight of Africa.

Fortunately there were other Americans in the area – a well-driller and his young family who lived in town; a Methodist missionary who lived in a white frame house in the jungle that tearfully reminded her of the Midwest, and a Dominican priest who had been sent by his Archbishop to take over a small church which had sought spiritual assistance – and Hermione found herself spending most of her time with all three.  The other Volunteers in the area also frequented these congenial homes away from home, and the families and priest were quite happy to have company.

Over time a new, unpleasant ethos emerged.  The Nigerians were called ‘Jeers’ and laughed at by the Volunteers for their backwardness, insensitivity, and ignorance.  The poultry farms set up by the Volunteers to be productive, commercial enterprises had within months fallen apart.  The original breeding chickens had been eaten, the cages had been dismantled and the chicken wire diverted for irrelevant uses, and only a few, ragged chickens and one cropless rooster remained.  

The schoolteachers faced empty classrooms, diffident local administrators, and no supplies.  Those Volunteers who were to work on public works projects found the same levels of apathy and indifference.  Roads did not get improved, wells were never dug, and repairs to public buildings ignored.

The cadre the US government had trained as the future cadre of American international development - Peace Corps Volunteers chosen for their Americanness, their down-home rectitude and goodness, and modest but never challenging intelligence - turned out to be just the opposite of their compassionate vision, a group whose clients would always be ‘Jeers’, ‘Guats’, and ‘Bunglers’.

Sent out to the more needy and deserving parts of the world, Volunteers were supposed to return convinced of the appropriateness of their can-do enterprise, filled with a renewed idealism, and with the practical experience of managing development projects in the Third World.  They returned with none of the above but with a conviction that development would never work; and worse, why even bother?

With her experience, Hermione was sought after by the Washington non-profit agencies which were the beneficiaries of generous US Government contracts to help raise African countries out of poverty, to instill a sense of American-style justice and civil society, and provide humanitarian assistance to the disadvantaged.  

She took a job with one of the most well-known agencies, and headed back to Africa, feeling that having an office in the capital city, a house in the international quarter, a car, driver, and full expenses, she could finally do the good she had earlier intended.

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Of course her expectations were as idealistic as they had been upon joining the Peace Corps, and she was disappointed to find that the projects so liberally financed by the United States were politically driven, overly ambitious, and largely outside the cultural context of the ‘beneficiary’ countries. Millions of dollars in foreign assistance authorized by Congress went quickly and easily into the pockets of local authorities. 

Project after project failed dismally, only to be refinanced because “We have learned our lesson”. The World Bank’s Annual Development Review persistently claimed an upward trajectory only to retract such optimism in subsequent Reviews.  International development was a joke, yet despite the eradicable idealism of those in government, in Congress, and in the non-profits, it continued and continues to this day.

Hermione kept with it for years.  Managed well, it was a good life – nice hotels and restaurants in rapidly developing capitals, assignations among the international development consultants freed from home, wife, and children for a beach idyll in the tropics, good pay, and collegial friends.  She like most, gave up on any idea of doing good long ago, and took what was given – a not unreasonable, not unpleasant life.

So much for idealism, so easily corrupted.  One non-profit agency for which Hermione worked was granted millions by a private foundation.  Freed from heavy-handed, obstructionist government rules and regulations, the agency could finally do what it wanted and make a difference.  Yet, so enamored with is ‘participatory, cooperative, down-up, community approach’ to development where the means were more important than the ends (in this case reducing infant and maternal mortality) it failed miserably, refusing massive tetanus vaccinations and malaria drug prophylaxis for communalism and ‘sharing’. 

Hermione eventually retired and never looked back in the rear view mirror.  Development had treated her well.  Thanks to the same nihilism that affects most people who work in professions which pay well but do little, she had few regrets and many fond memories.

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