Looking for the Right Road

Michelle Chang

The old man lead me into the mud-and-stick shack. It was low and smoky, the walls covered with the grime of a thousand meals cooked over wood fires. A young, hugely pregnant girl lay on a low platform. She had been in labor for three days, the old man said. I told him he had to get her 20 miles down the road to the clinic where I worked as a health educator, or to the missionary hospital 65 miles in the other direction. Then I got back on my motorcycle and left. There was nothing to be done where we were.

I hadn't signed up for the Peace Corps purely out of selfless devotion to the betterment of humankind. I joined because I was thinking about becoming a doctor but had none of the prerequisites for medical school. So for two years in the late 1970s, I played doctor, courtesy of the Peace Corps, in a remote corner of Liberia, a West African nation founded by freed American slaves.

I was the only kwii poo, or white person, for 40 miles in any direction. Every one of the 5,000 people in the chiefdom knew who I was, where I came from, where I worked and what I was up to -- even if they had never met me in person. For the first time in my life, I sensed what celebrity meant. For a 23-year-old, it couldn't have been more exciting. Or ego-inflating.

When the pregnant girl showed up many hours later, I was surprised. I had often told people that if they didn't get to the clinic or the hospital, they would die. Most didn't listen, probably believing -- with ample reason -- that a trip to the hospital equaled certain death. Modern medicine had such a poor reputation in Liberia that JFK, the American-built hospital in the capital, Monrovia, was commonly referred to as "just for killing."

Grahyiah, the midwife, prepared the clinic's "delivery room" by putting a piece of termite-gnawed masonite on the gritty cement floor. She had come of age when adolescent girls here still had their teeth filed to sharp points as part of their tribal initiation. Her jagged smile was like a snowy eave overburdened with icicles.

Hour by hour a brew of blood, sweat, urine and feces slowly spread across the masonite and onto the floor. This was a world without electricity or anesthesia or running water. The fermenting, putrefying smell of every delivery I witnessed in Liberia remains burned in my sinuses.

Many hours later, when the girl finally delivered, her baby's head was horribly misshapen. Grahyiah put the baby aside and began cleaning up the mess. Without the mother's sustaining warmth, life quickly drained from the baby's body. Simply letting the baby die seemed contrary to my sense of self as a health educator, a Peace Corps volunteer and an American. As my co-workers watched in silent befuddlement, I got on all fours and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Grahyiah tapped me on the shoulder.

"Robert," she told me in the Gio language of Eastern Liberia, "that baby's no good. God didn't mean for that baby to live." We buried it in a shallow grave behind the clinic. The young mother cleaned herself up and began the long walk home, never having said a word.

This was the first of many times during my 22 years in international development when my best intentions ran directly into the immovable objects of foreign culture, bureaucracy and biological reality. International development -- an industry encompassing everything from Save the Children to the World Bank -- spends upward of $60 billion a year trying to improve the human condition. Among its grand-slam successes are the eradication of smallpox and the high-yielding grains of the green revolution. The countless failures are much less well-known.

In an industry that employs hundreds of thousands, I have been an intermittent bit player who continues to wonder whether the sum of good intentions and billions upon billions of dollars equals a positive or negative number. Since first going to Africa in 1978, I've worked with dozens of projects in more than 50 countries around the world. Most were as ill-conceived as the child Grahyiah mercifully set aside.

There is a certain glamour to the globe-hopping life of a development expert. But despite occasional temptation, I have never taken a full-time position overseas. I never wanted my professional judgment to be compromised by the material allure of government-subsidized expatriate life -- the cook, driver, nanny, maids, home leave, cost-of-living pay, hazardous-duty pay, American clubs, international schools. Once I even turned down a two-year position in Barbados, hardly a hardship post.

But the long string of short-term assignments I've taken has given me plenty of opportunity to wonder if anyone really has an answer for poverty and whether good intentions alone justify the billions that are squandered. Some developing countries have prospered largely on their own, while others remain chronically malnourished after 50 years on the teat of development. Academics argue over why that is. I wonder why I stay in the game.

Perhaps it's a desire to play the great white hope, the Western expert who, with unlimited hubris, parachutes into the Third World to unearth solutions that somehow eluded the locals. Perhaps it's the ego gratification of being welcomed by ambassadors, cabinet ministers and other top officials I could never meet at home. Perhaps it's the seductive sense of self-importance that comes with free upgrades to business and first class. After more than 20 years, my motivations have become hopelessly muddled.

Back in 1982, in my application to Stanford's Graduate School of Business, I explained with confidence my interest in a career in international development: "The primary trouble [with] most development agencies is poor administration," I wrote. "Projects that looked great on paper invariably fouled up for lack of competent direction." Armed with an MBA, I thought I could "make a difference," as the Peace Corps recruitment brochures liked to say. My first application to the business school, when I was a college senior, had been rejected. Two years of experience in the African bush evidently made all the difference. I was asked to join the Class of 1984.

A week before classes began, I attended an orientation party wearing a flamboyant African dashiki. A classmate walked up to me, tugged on one of my billowing shirtsleeves, said, "Wanna get a job? Lose the shirt," and then left without introducing himself.

I kept the shirt and got a job after graduation anyway -- one that sent me back overseas. I took a position with a 40-person, "small is beautiful" firm in Washington, D.C., that promoted appropriate technology -- windmills, adobe bricks, improved traditional methods -- in developing countries. I spent two fascinating years at this company but never quite knew whether to be amused, appalled or ashamed by the waste I witnessed and occasionally abetted.

Just weeks after starting, I traveled to the southern tip of Luzon and the shores of the Philippine Sea to look into the feasibility of launching a small-scale seaweed processing plant. On paper it looked promising, and the preliminary work on the facility had already begun. Just one problem: there was no seaweed anywhere nearby. Time and time again fishermen waded out into the translucent water only to come back empty-handed. The project went no further.

Back in Manila, I began working with my boss -- an "old hand" in the development game -- to negotiate other projects with the charitable wing of the multinational company that had proposed the seaweed plant. Soon it became apparent that my boss, who had a significant say in how $3 million was spent each year, didn't understand the basics of finance -- like the difference between debt and equity. When I returned to Washington, I discovered that most of the firm's staff didn't either. I was learning that good intentions and a precocious understanding of multiculturalism were enough to land people in high positions. Hard skills -- the ability to actually do or produce something -- counted for much less.

On my next assignment, I was sent to assess a small-scale cement plant in Northern India. I spent two weeks calculating capacities and cash flow and watching in awe as Indian laborers loaded cement into porous jute bags -- the public health equivalent of smoking cigarettes laced with asbestos and arsenic. My report to the home office was blunt: the plant could never be commercially viable, even though it was selling cement at three times the world price thanks to India's protectionist policies. Nevertheless, we continued to fund it. The plant managers, I later learned, were old pals of our executive director. We put at least half a million dollars into the project -- a tidy sum for India in the mid-1980s.

There is no denying the ego boost of flying into some distant airport to be met by the local officials and the project manager. But about a year into this job, I began to admit to myself that few, if any, of our efforts were making a difference. It was more important for us to spend our budget than to come up with tangible results. I came face to face with that fact at a brick works we supported in Botswana.

I'd visited the plant before and had been struck by the manager's apparent incompetence. He was either incredibly stupid or hiding his cleverness behind an artful facade of imbecility. The numbers in his financial reports didn't add up -- literally. Two plus two summed to five, for example. He was, however, supervised by two German nationals, and in the predominantly white world of development, European or American oversight is presumed to imply integrity.

Checking into the hotel in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, I received a cryptic note from the project's recently fired bookkeeper, a South African of Indian ancestry. "Check invoice No. 1234," the note said.

Feeling like a detective with a hot tip, I went to the project office and demanded to see invoice No. 1234. It indicated that the United Nations Development Program had recently paid for a tractor-trailer. Our company had long ago paid for the same piece of equipment. I charged into the office of the Big Eight accounting firm that had given the project a clean audit just weeks earlier and asked the partner in charge if he knew what was going on.

"Yes," he told me with no hint of surprise or remorse. "And we told them if they didn't cut it out by next year, we would have to tell you."

With the Germans and local manager in tow, I went to Barclay's Bank and seized the project's funds. I cabled the news back to Washington, where I expected to be greeted with a hero's welcome, if not a ticker-tape parade.

What I got was nearly fired. My bosses furiously and profanely wondered aloud how I imagined I had the authority to seize a project's assets. Did I have any idea how bad it would make them look at the U.S. Agency for International Development (our chief backer) to "deobligate" the funding? For accounting purposes, the money was already spent. This would put it back on our books. "The name of the game is spend the money, honey," our former director of finance had told me many times. I didn't know that would extend to looking the other way in the face of unapologetic corruption.

It was time to move on.

I though I'd get out of development altogether. But to my surprise, I had gained a reputation as someone who spoke the unvarnished truth. The result was a continuing stream of invitations to join short-term consulting teams -- a mode of employment that has kept me on the road intermittently for the last two decades. Every two or three years, I tell myself I can no longer do this work and still face myself in the mirror. Maybe what keeps me coming back are the bizarre opportunities, the surreal absurdity I encounter but can't quite believe. Even the oxymoronic titles of some of my assignments add to the allure. "Long-range strategic planning for Afghanistan"? I facilitated the workshop -- in the country's capital, Kabul. I suppose it's like the guilty thrill people once got from freak shows. I know I shouldn't be, but I find myself inexorably drawn.

In 1995 I went to Mali to advise a rural credit program. Outside Djenné, a traditional Muslim town on a tributary of the River Niger, I traveled to various communities where loans had been made. I got around in a Toyota Land Cruiser that cost more, far more, than the total volume of loans the project had extended. Poverty ruled here. A dead horse, its bloated hide split down the side, lay just outside the mud walls of the first village my colleagues and I entered.

I took my place with several elders on goatskin mats in a low hut. They spoke the local dialect, which a colleague translated into Bambara, which another translated into French, which I transcribed into English for myself.

After several hours of sitting in the heat and dust and flies, it seemed we were going over the same ground again and again. And that's just what we were doing. As I later learned, the tradition in that village was to start the conversation over -- from the beginning -- when anyone new entered the hut. We had now done that four or five times. It really didn't matter. I had time to kill. My employers had brought me out for two weeks. On the first day, I realized that the program was spending $50 for every dollar it lent. Not a loan shark in the world can sustain a situation like that.

When I inquired recently about this project, all knowledge of its existence had evaporated -- like the instructions that begin an episode of Mission: Impossible. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, had been wasted. False expectations were raised. Nothing was learned. Nothing was achieved. It's a perfect example of what a former colleague calls the Three Rules of Development. One, we never learn from our mistakes. Two, there is no bottom line. And three, no one ever gets fired.

Maybe it's the cross-cultural absurdities that have hooked me. With little to do in Djenné, I went to the local movie theater, open to the desert sky and constituting the town's only form of modern entertainment. Game of Death starring Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was playing. Plastered all around town, in direct competition with posters for the movie, were large notices outlining the steps people needed to take to arrest the cholera that was sweeping through the area.

When the show ended, I got up to go back to my room at a makeshift guesthouse. "Ce n'est pas fini, Monsieur," a boy sitting on the ground said to me. "Il y a plus." I went back inside for the second feature. The boy, who could not have been more than 10, also came back in. But he did so on his hands, dragging his two polio-withered legs behind him in the dirt.

On the screen, a film even more bizarre than Game of Death flickered to life. It was a multiracial costume drama set in 18th-century France. It was also one of the most explicit pornographic films I've ever seen. What I knew at that moment was that despite all the good intentions and the billions of dollars, films like this would have far more impact among the young men in the audience than any project the development community could possibly bring.

Development will never be able to compete with the picture of easy living displayed around the world in lowbrow American television shows too stupid to be syndicated in the States. Or with Coke and Marlboro advertising that penetrates every corner of the world. Or with porn films that undermine longstanding cultural traditions.

It's disheartening to realize that few in the international development business ever question the system itself. Sure, every now and then a book comes out that decries the emperor's state of undress. But we easily ignore the message, believing that somewhere UNICEF or some other program may be doing enough good to compensate for the harm and waste that occur elsewhere.

My dressing-down came in an unlikely corner of the world. It had all the effect of a single palm tree falling in the plantation. I was hired to explore small-business opportunities in the South Pacific. Over a period of two months, I island-hopped from Fiji to Papua New Guinea to Vanuatu and, finally, to Tonga, a Polynesian kingdom with 110,000 subjects. There I paid a call on the secretary for labor, commerce, industries and tourism.

Before I could finish telling him why I was there, the secretary began screaming. "Another consultant! What do all you people do? USAID, UN, EEC, World Bank. Come here. Expect soft drinks. Ask me questions. Act important. When are you going to do something for us? Where is the money?" he ranted, anticipating the line from Jerry Maguire by a decade. I thought he might add, "At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" But instead, he simply told me to get out and not waste his time. It was the shortest, most honest audience I've had in the 22 years I've been in the trade.

I suppose the world of development needs true believers -- and skeptics and cynics like me to keep them in check. But sometimes I think a former colleague of mine had it right when he said we should just take all the money and drop it from a plane. The distribution would be inexpensive, and it would be fair. No dictator could hoard more than he could gather. I've worked with programs in which poor borrowers are hounded for overdue payments on $100 loans, yet if the country's president has embezzled hundreds of millions, the IMF finds a way to reschedule payments. Drop it from a plane.

Looking back, I realize that two of my proudest moments working in the developing world had nothing to do with business. They came while I was still in the Peace Corps, at the clinic in Liberia. They both involved screaming matches with my boss. Once, Charlie and I went at it over the five tongue depressors we had in stock. I wanted to use them all to splint the severely lacerated hand of a boy who had fallen on his machete. Without anesthesia, we cleaned the deep wound, splinted each finger with a tongue depressor and sewed the skin up with tailor's thread. The boy never said a word. Just as we finished, he vomited all over the two of us. We never saw him again.

Another time, with nothing more than the Merck Manual and Where There Is No Doctor, I diagnosed meningitis in a 6-year-old boy who was lapsing in and out of consciousness. If we were going to try to save his life, it would take all the ampicillin we had on hand. Screaming at me, Charlie insisted it was a waste. I went ahead and began the injections. When the boy recovered, his parents gave me a ceremonial carved wooden spoon. Along with some of my father's ashes, it's one of my most cherished possessions.

But it's another memory from Liberia that continues to play over and over in my mind. One evening, Matthew, the town chief's oldest son, came to my house with his band of friends. Kids from the village often watched me for hours as I did ordinary things like type letters or wash dishes or just listen to the radio. Eventually, they would gather the courage to say what was on their minds. Matthew had a particular interest in the heavens. He once asked if the moon was held in place with a rope. My explanation of gravity was far less satisfactory.

"Rah-bah," he began in the clipped patois known as Liberian English. "Dat true dat man wen' to dah moon?"

"Yes, Matthew," I answered. "In 1969. When I was 13 years old. Just like you are now."

Matthew smiled at his friends. He had a walleye that accentuated his adolescent smugness.

"Dat 'merican man?" he asked me.

"Yes," I told him. "His name was Neil Armstrong."

"Dat man," Matthew said, "dat man, when he go der, to da moon, Rah-bah, dat 'merican man, Neil Armstraw, he see God?"

Outside, the drums that came to life every evening began to beat. The boys sat patiently, their faces reflecting the bronze light of kerosene lanterns as they awaited my answer.

"Did he see God?" I said, repeating Matthew's question. "I don't know," I finally answered.

More than 20 years later, I still haven't found out. All I know is that those of us in the development game shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking we're up to the part.

Robert L. Strauss, MA '84, MBA '84, is a business consultant and freelance writer in San Francisco. His new book, How to Have a Baby, is available at www.mightywords.com.