I’ve gone over to the dark side at work, preferring to hire Westerners now because I know they will actually answer my calls and will probably do the work we contract them to do. It wasn’t actually intentional. I would’ve happily worked with a Tanzanian graphic designer, even after sleazy Amour (who disappeared somewhere, the only trace an e-mail from his former boss to warn me to avoid working with him on a private basis – ha!), but those I contacted simply never answered my request. Or maybe they never received my e-mail, or didn’t open their inbox – you can never be sure.
And now when the printers fail to deliver the correct file for the third time in a row, six weeks after we ordered from them – well, my employer’s principles of sourcing locally start to feel like something they throw in just to add an extra challenge to your day.
The other side of capacity-building – one of those bits of awful development aid jargon, nicely lambasted here – is how we work with our own colleagues.
Yep, we’re supposed to be helping people get the skills they need to do all of this once we leave, which is also why very few of my colleagues are international staff. In one of the first meetings I had in this job, I was surprised to find my (European) boss keeping quiet while all the Tanzanians held forth about the format of the cover page or the need for brackets in the draft report, but didn’t notice that what was written didn’t actually correspond to the headings and that the conclusions made no sense. I delicately asked my boss about this afterwards, and his reply was: “Well, it’s not my job… They have to learn.”
And that, essentially, is what we do here: bite our tongues during meetings while the Tanzanians come to conclusions in their longwinded, everyone-has-to-make-a-speech-but-add-nothing-new kind of way; resist pushing them too hard to meet deadlines but resist just giving up and doing all the work yourself; think of ways to achieve the project objectives thought up four years ago by some white, crusty, 50-year-old “expert”, while the local government officials supposedly doing the work that we’re supervising don’t have the time or interest in doing it without a nice daily allowance (a workshop will always go down well, the further away and the longer it is, the better); and generally, plead with everyone to do things More Like Us: read your e-mails, reply to requests, submit reports, use the intranet (ha!), use our templates, do stuff on time.
That’s probably why my favourite alternative to “capacity-building”, as suggested here, is “kicking asses”. Not that ass-kicking is an exclusively African career – there are many job opportunities in ass-kicking in the West, especially in the public sector. But here it comes with a bit of added emotional/political baggage. It’s uncomfortable, embarrassing, and odd to think about your colleagues – many of whom are older, more experienced and maybe more qualified than you – the way you would about your children or your students. Then again, being the lost outsider in a culture that still confuses (Why do people keep hanging up on me before I’ve finished my sentence? How am I going to explain to them that I failed to take close-up photos of our colleague’s face in the open coffin? etc.) – well, it somehow means you never really get the upper hand.