Life in the Sun

Matt Collin’s recent post on the contradictions of the life of a development worker prompted me to put down my own thoughts on rationalising what I do, and how I fit my own life (poorly paid by western standards, but v well off compared to the people we are helping) with the severe poverty that constantly surrounds me. These contradictions arise precisely because we are here to help others. Someone running a business out here may occasionally feel guilty about their relative wealth (though they can also balance that against the clear need for the kind of investment they’re making), but when push comes to shove they can remember that they are here to make a profit, and a profit commensurate with the level of risk they are taking (which is often significantly greater than in the developed world).

In contrast, a development worker is here to help. To what extent should we devote our whole lives to helping? Most development workers are good people, but none I know count themselves as saints. We all need our down time when we will often enjoy pleasures denied (by reasons of wealth) to most of the population we are here to help. Cultural factors also come into play and often this relaxation takes place in different places and different styles to those which many local people do not care for. (Except for those educated overseas.) At night or at the weekend, it is rare to find me and my co-workers in the same bar, even when in a small town. Thus do the divisions between the expats and middle class locals become clear. Are we holding ourselves above those we have come to help? I don’t think so, but it can sometimes appear this way.

Whenever we pay for any kind of product or service here we have to bargain for a good price. If I paid the same price as one would in UK every time I would be swiftly bankrupted, but, for the most part, I can easily afford to pay more. We disdain the tourists and the ignoranti in their embassies who pay way over the odds most of the time (indeed it is often an opening gambit in the bargaining to demand that I am not paying the ‘tourist’ price), and feel a kind of duty to other Whities* to drive a good bargain whenever possible so as not to queer the pitch for the next person. (Equally I despair when I find prices fixed ridiculously high just because some people have conceded too much before me.) Though I confess sometimes I am too tired and pay 10-20% more than I know I should for a taxi: sorry, guys!

But, of course, paying over the odds distorts the economy. For the odd taxi ride this is not a big problem, but anyone who’s had to rent home / office space in a development boom town, knows the extremes this can reach. (I’m thinking Maputo after the end of the civil war; I assume a similar problem pertains in Kabul right now.) Indeed this is exactly one of the criticisms levelled at development aid by people such as Dambisa Moyo. Every other taxi I take the driver asks me if our project needs a driver. Why? Because the UN and many BINGOs pay about twice the going rate in the private sector. Many of these drivers are very good, but so are plenty of taxi drivers, and I’ve also come across my fair share of poor, overly-aggresive drivers working for big institutions, so I’m not entirely convinced value for money is being had. In countries with small economies and large aid contributions – Malawi is the classic example – a significant portion of the economy is basically just geared to servicing the aid industry.

So, whenever I buy some fruit and veg down the local market, call the plumber to fix the tap which has broken for the nth time, hire a maid, negotiate with someone to collect our rubbish, or jump in a taxi, I feel almost duty-bound to negotiate a price that is not just fair to me, but in line with the local going rate. And, any way, nobody likes to look a fool by paying more than necessary. This approach extends to our fieldwork. In common with many other development projects we pay small per diems to the supposed beneficiaries to participate in relevant meetings (the ethics of which I will explore in another blog post), and we are as keen to obtain ‘value for money’ (whatever THAT is in this context) on this as any other cost element of the project.

Taken a step further, I believe that one of the reasons I can justify my meager salary is that, having spent a fair bit of time here, I know what’s what and how to get things done, including knowing what is a fair price. Thus I am partially paid in order to drive a harder bargain with the very people I am supposed to be trying to help! No wonder many development workers find the need to make more direct, more personal interventions, even if we know these may be just as doomed (in terms of sustainability and creating false incentives) as so many of the other projects which we are so ready to criticise.

All of which means you had better really believe in the project(s) on which you are working! A subject for my next post

* Here (and several other African countries I have visited) is by far the most racist place I have ever been. Not in an abusive way, indeed it is often inverted; quite simply the colour of your skin is a primary factor in determining many other peoples’ initial reactions to you. Sometimes this works against you, e.g. higher starting price when bargaining, other times in your favour, e.g. no questions asked when entering some classy joint, to which you may or may not have a ticket. This is slowly changing but if you want to see racism alive and well come to sub-Saharan Africa!


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