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

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Down And Dirty By Day, Luxury Hotels By Night–The Delightful Irony Of African Development

There is something to be said for counterpoint.  Stark differences make each one more sharply defined.  Take the journeys of Robert Henry, a management consultant charged with improving the delivery of government services in Africa.  With satchels full of grant money, Henry travelled to the worst places in the world on a mission to reverse the downward, persistent spiral of inefficiency, mismanagement, and corruption that plagued Angola, the Congo, Chad, the Central African Republic, and just about every other nation on the continent.  

American diplomats searched in vain for success stories, but finding none and still beholden to a restive black American community, they felt it was essential, whatever the cost, to invest in Africa.  They knew that their money would likely drain quickly into Swiss bank accounts, but investment in human capital was right and necessary.

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The autocrats ruling these benighted, impossible places loved those two words – human capital – for  thanks to the imprecision and idealism suggested by them, diversion of funds was simple, easy, and trouble-free. Funds for training courses never had to be run, social welfare programs were inaugurated with festoons and music, then abandoned; and best of all programs to improve governance and democratic processes were simply ignored.  

A few handshakes on the tarmac, visits to non-existent election boards, bureaucrats pulled out of their no-show jobs to shuffle through old ballots, and promises to increase polling vigilance and vote-counting.  Human capital was a government shell game, a scam, and a rathole down which millions of dollars went missing.

Of course big infrastructure projects were more lucrative, but the corruption took more smoke and mirrors to disguise.  Too many people – private contractors, ministry officials, municipal authorities, and surrounding communities – had their hands out and the paper trail demanded by donors needed after-hours attention.

So, as an honest broker riding herd on these swindles, Henry put up with fly-specked, malarial airports, customs and immigration shake-downs, rutted, pot-holed streets, and the daily threat of assault, disease, the misery of slums, the stink of bloodied and broken health centers, and the blank-eyed poverty of mud-and-wattle villages.

However, he stayed in great hotels.  In fact, in 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, 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 hotels in Africa were, by and large, nothing compared to these famous grandes dames but some, like those on the Corniche in Dakar, were more than acceptable.  The Teranga in its day was the watering hole of Senegal’s rich and powerful and the venue for international trysts and affairs.  A lot of business was conducted there and many assignations concluded.  

Lunch around the pool was an elegant affair – the best French wines, fresh seafood prepared by Parisian chefs, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and a view of the ocean. Evenings at the bar were musical affairs, romantic conclusions to unpleasant days in the heat and dust of rural travel. 

Every African capital had its starred hotel which was the center of expatriate and high-class local life.  These hotels were international redoubts - cool, quiet, refuges for those who had banged over rutted, impossible rural roads, visited pestilential slums, or waited hours in musty, shambling government offices.

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From time to time this disconnect between the abysmal poverty of Africa and the all-expenses-paid sybaritic life of the foreign aid consultant was examined by Congress, demands were made to reform the system and oblige travelers to approximate the living conditions of the beneficiaries they were to serve.  

Of course such demands were ignored.  There was no way that a US government officer was going to travel in the back of plane for 15 hours only to ride in a crate to a dump for the night.  Performance was predicated on comfort, the consultants argued.  We don’t want to live like pashas, but a modicum of reasonable accommodations is necessary for our well-being.

So per diems were trimmed, the list of approved hotels was limited, and for a few months at most, pleasant routines were interrupted.  But, as all American functionaries know, it is easy to slide by Congress, to go before Senate committees contrite and responsible, only to return to the inner maze of the bureaucracy and revert back to normal.

There were some young first-timers whose idealism, compassion for the poor, and do-good work ethic led them to the world of international development; and they insisted on staying at the very low-end of African hotels – the hotels where Africans only stayed, airless cowsheds with rangy meat and sandy manioc for dinner. 

Of course the fantasy didn’t last for long.  It was true what their handlers said, that work efficiency was impossible after a sleepless night in a noisy, hot, and rank hotel room; and so they moved up and out and. One and done with that idle misconception.

This luxury, this good living after dark, was all the more important because of the sham of ‘development’ itself.  Given the self-serving political motivation of Congress, the idealism of young, ambitious bureaucrats, the ponderous demands for accountability, objective indicators, and positive numbers; and the corruption and venality of African government recipients, all projects were destined to fail.   

Yes, they were implemented, but in the most desultory, indifferent way.  No matter how assiduous and serious the consultant, nothing ever happened other than a few brochures here, a promising curriculum or a string of vaccinations there, a dose or two of chloroquine and a bed net, screens over a window.  If one banged about all day on hot, crime-ridden streets for a project that had no chance of succeeding, why not relax by the pool afterwards?

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When Bob Henry returned back home to the States, he was always greeted warmly by his friends and family.  He should be proud , they said, of doing so much good, extending such a helping hand to the world’s poor. His neighbors were only shuffling papers at the office while he braved the dangers of life to make a difference.

Bob never once disabused them of that notion, better to let the fable persist; and so it was that on the days before departure back to Africa he was given sympathetic handshakes and hugs.  “Bon voyage” his friends wished him, patted him on the back, and smiled.  

On the plane to Paris where he had a two-day stopover, he looked forward to his very French cinq-a-sept with a Moroccan woman he had met in Tangier on his way to the desert.  A brief European idyll before heading to the worst places in the world with the best, to-die-for places to rest his head. 

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