Saturday, October 04, 2014

Work and Culture

Part of my job is giving out government grants. I read proposals, rank them with our team, conduct site visits and pull together all the paperwork (to ensure we’re not giving money to terrorists). There are a ridiculous number of hoops to jump through to get one of these out the door, but I’ve spent the better part of the year getting the system nailed down. I’ve done 13 grants this year, ranging from $100 - $38,000, each requiring about 25 pages of paperwork (no matter what the size).

Recently, I went to see a guy who applied for a grant in Nkhotakota (about three hours from Lilongwe). He owns an agro-vet supply store, filled with chemicals, seed, farming tools, and animal vaccinations. It’s in our project area, deals with vet supplies, and buys seed from my organization’s farmer groups. He’s a good candidate, and I wanted to talk to him about the in’s and out outs of what it means to get a grant from us and what he needs to do (the hoop jumping doesn’t end with me, unfortunately…)

The guy had waited for me, but I was late. I’d been visiting with our admin team, who often need a bit of guidance and direction. In addition to heading up the grants department, I’m also head of Operations and Administration, which means whenever the lights go out, fuel goes missing, guards don’t show up for work or basically someone want to complain, I get involved. It’s frustrating, but I’ve built up a pretty good team. They just need some personal attention and management from time to time.

So, I was late. By the time I got over there, the business owner had left for a funeral. I had no idea whose funeral it was, why he was there or what his role was. It could have been his mother, it could have been his neighbor’s mother. He didn’t tell me he had a funeral to go to; I didn’t tell him I was running late.

When someone in your neighborhood dies in Malawi, you are absolutely required to give a bit of money and conduct visitation, even if you have to take off of work.  In our office, this sometimes causes a problem because four of our staff live in the same neighborhood. If someone dies in their part of town, it basically shuts down our office. However, one apparently faces severe social stigma if this isn’t done. So, I was surprised that he had waited for me.

My colleague offered to go get him, but I was unsure. I find it kind of nice that the whole community is socially obliged to mark someone’s passing and I didn’t want to get him socially ostracized because I was late. As development professionals, we’re told to be as culturally aware as possible. I try- I really do- but I'm learning that this dogma has limits. In this situation, I could come back later (but not too much later, as we still had to drive back to Lilongwe). Further, I didn’t know how long this funeral would take (they often go all day). I hemmed and hawed. I felt guilty for taking the time to help my staff while this guy waited. I should've called.

And then I remembered: I was there to interview him for a $10,000 grant. I was giving money to him. Why did I have to feel guilty? He should've called! If he wanted the money, he would come. Full stop. I didn’t think that taking 20 minutes away from a funeral for $10,000 would cause him too much social stigma.  

Apparently, he didn’t think so either, because he arrived 15 minutes later.

We made it through the interview, but these observations stayed with me as I drove away. It’s important to be culturally sensitive, sure. But why had I so quickly allowed myself to be led into ambiguous and guilt-ridden ether over it? It doesn’t hurt to have my own hard line (which, in this case, turned out to be exactly the right thing). In fact, without doing so, I lose respect for myself. I’m sure others do, too.

It was a banner revelation, and one that feels just a little bit naughty: I didn’t have to constantly bow to culture just because. Not that I’m going to start demanding my own way all the time. We both certainly could’ve communicated better.  But, I also have a right to get my stuff done, too.  I won’t feel guilty or nervous over having those needs. I’ll continue to struggle and learn how to accomplish that is a culture that is not my own, but I will no longer feel bad. 

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