Thursday, December 18, 2014

I (Won't Be) Home for Christmas

When my partner moved here, we decided that it was too expensive to fly both of us back from Africa to spend the holidays with our families. Additionally, with combined family spread all over the US, it likely wouldn’t be the relaxing, snow-filled, memory-maker we imagined. As a signal to the new era of Us, we decided to stay here and explore South Africa as a couple. It will be the trip of a lifetime! We crowed. By September, the tickets were booked.

Now that it is upon us, though, I’m struggling. It just doesn’t feel the same. It’s 95 degrees. I’m dusty. And tired. Although the air gets more humid every day, the rains refuse to fall. My brown garden withers under the protracted heat. The idea of a crisp snowfall and a hearty fireplace feels alien and unattainably awesome. I am slathering on sunscreen and trying very hard not to sweat. We both hope that Capetown is cooler.

But then I remember my favorite quote by Thornton Wilder: “The test of an adventure is that when you're in the middle of it, you say to yourself "Oh now I've got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home. And the sign that something's wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure.”

Upon further reflection, I"m taking my discomfort as a sign that I’m doing something right. In the year of Tropical Christmas, I’m out having lots of adventure - even if feeling a tiny bit homesick. I'm grateful for the change and the discomfort. (That’s not to say there’s no Christmas cheer here at all. Unlike Bob Geldof’s idiotic song, yes they do know it’s Christmas here. With the largest evangelical Christian population in the world, it’s kind of a big deal.)

So, where ever you are this Christmas, remember that adventures happen in all forms. Being uncomfortable is good for you...and Santa will find you, wherever you are.

Here’s to an adventurous 2015!

Sunday, December 14, 2014


For the past few weeks judiciary civil servants across Malawi have been on strike. Their strike is in response to an approved 300% salary increase for parliamentarians, who rely on civil servants to fulfill their mandate to the electorate, but to whom the increase was conveniently not extended. This strike has crippled the court system, raised the prison population to critical levels, and left hundreds of families in limbo. Because the default of the police seems to be throwing people in jail first and asking questions later, it’s kind of a tough time to run amok of the law.

As far as I can tell the criminal justice system in Malawi works like this: When faced with an alleged crime, the police use jail as a holding pen while they investigate. Because it’s so easy to melt back into the populace (no street signs, variable contact information, fluid borders, etc), I can kind of understand wanting to hold suspects - if it wasn’t such a gross breach of due process. Bail, if allowed, is variable. If it is found that there is evidence, then there is a hearing in front of a magistrate, who decides if there is enough evidence to go to actual trial. In an efficient system, this might work itself out in a few hours; in Malawi, depending on how motivated and resource constrained the police are, it can take much longer.

Over dinner a few weeks ago, our host told us of his friend who had just been robbed. The suspects were apprehended, but claimed that the accuser was one of their gang trying to frame them.  Just to be on the safe side, the police threw the accuser in too, leaving to the courts to decide whether or not there was any validity to the charges. The police refused to set bail. Our host was going to go down the next day to see what he could do.

Now, I understand that it is hard and perhaps unfair to judge an entire judicial system based on just this anecdote. I also think it’s terribly cliché to write about corruption in developing country. We Westerners often treated it as a fait accompli, simultaneously revealing our jaded experiences and our condescension. As the #blacklivesmatter protests rock the States, we’d do well to scrutinize our own systems before casting aspersions on others.

However, I do know I’ve been stopped by the cops more than once and asked for a bribe (Madam, I am so thirsty…). I do know that the prisons here are overcrowded, and that vigilante mobs exist to fill the role of an inefficient and ineffective police unit (a robber was beat to death by one just outside our office). It’s frustrating and scary and hopeless all at the same time. And when I asked my friend how he was going to get the robbery victim out of jail, he just looked at me like I was an idiot. 

“More bail,” he deadpanned. 

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Problem with International Development…is Us

A friend of mine sent me this article a few weeks ago, and I’ve since seen it blow up all over my Facebook feed. Doing a blog post on such a rich and thorough article is daunting, but Michael Hobbes gets it so right on so many points, I can’t help but get on my little soapbox to echo them. 

1. The myth of Overhead. The cost of keeping the lights on (overhead) versus handing out the blankets (activity funds) has already been written about prolifically in the domestic non-profit sector (See here. Or all of here). It’s just as bad in the international scene. I’ve seen donors reject multi-million dollar proposals, on the grounds that they only want to see a 15% overhead. How does one run the activities without the means to pay a living wage to staff, or keep the lights on?  Mr. Hobbes says what I've always wanted to say to a donor: just because you say we shouldn't pay for it doesn't mean the need for it doesn't exist. We need toilet paper. We need printers. We need (like, reeeally need) HR Managers.

Instead, those roles and tasks become diffused throughout the organization until the staff are wearing so many hats they lose their heads. In my own working life, I’m a logistician, supply chain manager, low-level bookkeeper, financial manager, janitor, HR manager, GIS expert, chief operating officer, communication specialist, procurement manager, contracts manager  and, apparently, the only one who can refill a fuel card in less than 10 working days. 

2. The myth of scaling up. Man I hate that word, "scaling up" As in somehow, magically, what works in Malawi will work in rural Azerbaijan. Hobbes calls this the Paradigm of the Big Idea. Why are we so intent on finding a one-size fits all approach to saving the world? Is it easier than actually thinking broadly, creatively? I think we've duped ourselves into believing this.

Letting go of this myth that what works in one place will work in another makes space for innovation and creativity. It embraces this wild crazy patchwork-diverse world we live in.  It's scary and messy. Shouldn’t the “solution” to a complicated problem such as endemic global poverty be as equally confounding and similarly heartbreakingly intricate? Then let it be so. Acknowledging that it is half the battle.

3. Our expectations of international development are off. I’ve read many of the same books as Mr. Hobbes and thought many of the same downtrodden thoughts of international development. Why isn’t this working? Why are Malawians still so poor? What am I even doing here, messing around with these stupid fuel cards? 

Hobbes argues that development is happening - just not in the way we expect. Since 2008, Lilongwe has seen three and a half new, enormous shopping complexes erected. (Never mind that most people are still too poor to shop there, and they are mostly empty). Change will look like what it looks like. 

I realized that it was time to let go of the expectation that world hunger will fall away because we start giving fortified peanut butter instead of living wages; that we have a magic bullet to scale up; that someone will notice that there is fuel in all the cars. Letting go of this expectation has been tremendously thought-provoking, and a bit freeing (thus, why it took so long to write this post).

Hobbes ends this article with some of excellent advice:  

 “If we really want to fix development, we need to stop chasing after ideas the way we go on fad diets. Successful programs should be allowed to expand by degrees, not digits […] NGOs need to be free to invest in the kinds of systems and processes we’re always telling developing countries to put in place. And rich countries need to spend less time debating how to divide up the tiny sliver of our GDP we spend on development and more time figuring out how to leverage our vast economic and political power to let it happen on its own.”

Amen, Mr. Hobbes. A-freakin’-men.