12 January 2010

Predictably Inconsistent

Returned to Dar. City is quiet. Empty roads, empty caf├ęs. After three weeks away, I’m one of the first of my friends to come back to the city. Expats take long holidays.

I met with a World Bank colleague when I returned. He reminded me that he’s leaving Tanzania in March—his contract is up. He’s thinking of heading to Vienna, or maybe even Kabul of all places, for another gig.

—You’re leaving so soon, I said. We were just getting to know each other!

But it’s like that here. People come and go. Sometimes they move away, sometimes they have extended travel and dip in and out of your life. This is so common that the joke goes there are three questions expats ask each other when they first meet:

  1. Where are you from?
  2. What do you do? (and)
  3. How long will you be here?

Get that last question out of the way early and you can gauge whether or not to invest in a friendship. (This is only partly a joke.)

The expat life is full of inconsistency and unpredictability—which makes it a lot like development aid. Volatility in foreign assistance has always been a problem. Homi Kharas, in Measuring the Cost of Aid Volatility, estimates that the cost to aid recipients of historic unpredictability of committed aid flows is 15 percent.

And because most developing countries have limited access to international capital markets, they can’t borrow when expected aid fails to arrive. As a result, recipient governments must often adjust spending plans at the last minute when promised aid is not provided or when additional aid is disbursed unexpectedly.

Poor countries rely on aid to supplement domestic resources for essential services such as primary education and immunization. In many sub-Saharan African countries, close to half of all basic health sector funding comes from development assistance. When aid decreases, these services can be disrupted with an immediate negative effect on the poor.

And although more aid, even disbursed on short notice, might seem like a good thing, it's difficult for governments to spend on useful things when they can't predict what next year’s aid will amount to. For example, governments can't hire teachers with a boost in aid this year, when they don't know if they will have money to pay them next year.

In Tanzania, where total aid accounts for about 10 percent of GDP and finances on average 40 percent of outlays by the government, there is a high degree of variance between committed and disbursed levels of aid, according to forthcoming World Bank analysis. This is particularly true for project aid, (the kind favored by the United States) where actual disbursements have been well below expected levels for at least the last two fiscal years.

U.S. official development assistance channeled through the U.S. Agency for International Development is discretionary spending, which must be renewed each year, making it particularly volatile. The Brits do better: the U.K.’s Department for International Development often signs three-year agreements with governments and even has some ten-year partnership agreements. (See The Impact of U.S. and U.K. Legislatures on Aid Delivery for an interesting comparison of the two systems.)

But overall, donor aid is unpredictable. Maybe developing country governments should begin their conversations with donors the way expats begin their's:

Hello, donor. Tell me, where are you from, what do you do, and how long will you be here?

08 January 2010

A Diplomatic Spat

It's not the first time frayed nerves have led to bad decisions. Last month, a Canadian diplomat was jailed in Dar es Salaam for spitting in a policeman's face as he directed traffic. The diplomat is known on the peninsula, where he lives with his family, as even keeled, steady, not easily excited. But something made him crack, so much so he even spit in the face of the Tanzanian journalist who came to the police station to cover the story. (See the full story here.)

All of us have our moments. We all, at some point or another, come close to the edge. And every expat has their own way of coping: there's drinking (an old favorite), praying, yoga, weed, "loose loins" (another fav), arts and crafts, and massages. (Alas, my preferred method of coping--shopping--is not so possible in Dar.) Choose your mode of relief, but let this diplomat's experience be a lesson: do not spit. Ever. It's much harder to recover from than a hangover.

07 January 2010

Foggy Illuminations (Thoughts on Three Months in Africa)


I woke up at 4 a.m. to the sound of the call to prayer. The low melodic voice wafted up to God like smoke from burning incense, lonely in the black night.

My sleep had been turbulent, full of dreams. In one, I dove into a pool and descended through the cool watery depths to touch bottom. Then up, and up. But I can’t seem to reach the surface. The harder I push, the further away it seems. I’m running out of breath. Not sure I’m going to make it. Then finally I pierce the surface and wake up with a shock, gasping for breath.


I knew it would be hard, moving to Africa. Intellectually, I could anticipate the challenges. But Gabriel Marcel* was right: there are certain thresholds which thought alone can never permit us to cross. An experience is required. After three months in Tanzania, experience taught me that I didn’t have a clue what I was getting myself into when I came here.

Everyday life—work, phone, internet, groceries, exercise, banking—all of it is hilariously challenging. My friends and I began to feel like a band of refugees on some desert island, shipwrecked, thirsty, slowly cracking up.

And then there was the robbery. My finances had taken a hit, along with my sense of security, and my ankle is still healing.

I turned off my alarm, got out of bed, and took my suitcase outside to wait for the taxi to the airport. My neighborhood, normally a carnival of activity, was vacant—and as quiet as a cathedral.

The cab driver made small talk as we drove, but I was impatient, eyes fixed on the road. I looked out the window at the asphalt rushing furiously beneath the car. That’s how I had begun to feel: like I was spinning round and round. I felt pursued, hunted. Something like a drumbeat was behind me, spiraling closer, until I thought I couldn’t handle one more day, one more hour, in this town.

I boarded the plane to Johannesburg like it was the last flight out of Saigon.


The first time I came to Africa, I met a woman named Linda. A slender blond in her fifties, Linda lives in Zambia with her husband, who works for an international NGO. One day she took me to the community center she runs in a poor shanty town in Lusaka. She showed me around the school for orphans and the rooms where women make purses out of plastic bags, which she sells in the United States (the profits fund the center).

Linda seemed edgy that day; she walked quickly, with her head down. As we left, she said suddenly: “some of these women are just lazy.” Her words were short and choppy, like bullets flicked through the air. “They don’t appreciate any of this, you know?” The women had fallen behind on the bags they had agreed to make. Linda wouldn’t have enough to send back with me to the States.

When we got in her truck and pulled out, she rolled down her window and snapped at the young man who was supposed to be manning the gate. He waved a hand in apology, but she hissed: “Quit standing there and do your job.”

When I returned to Washington, I told friends about the places I’d seen and people I’d met.

—What about the expats, they asked?

—They are like barnacles, some of them—hard and cynical, but they’re not going anywhere.

I was thinking about Linda.

I didn’t realize that after only three months in Africa (Linda has lived here on and off for thirty years) I’d sometimes feel the same way: frustrated, at the end of my rope, done being polite, politically correct. I didn’t realize that there was much more going on that day than what I could see.


From Johannesburg I drove to Swaziland to spend three weeks on holiday with my good friend, Lou. It was a welcome contrast to Dar. Mountainous and cool, smell of pine and eucalyptus, and smaller, less frenetic. The streets are smooth and wide, there are sidewalks and playgrounds and dedicated bus stops. Homes, even in poor rural areas, are tidy and attractive. And with the bustling South African port city of Durban just a few hours away, there are grocery stores full of nearly everything you could want (including Mexican-style beans!).

Swazi felt like a development haven compared to Tanzania.

—If I had to be poor in Africa, I’d live in Swaziland, I told Lou.

I hadn't heard much about Swaziland in Washington, but Tanzania was consistently hailed as the golden child of Africa, a development darling. When President Kikwete came to town, members of Congress and the cream of the development policy crop would roll out the red carpet, and talk of new programs and new possibilities. There was much patting of backs and self-congratulations. Aid can work, people would say.

Which is why it was such a shock to arrive in Dar and find so much that was still a mess: horrible roads, constant power outages, lack of sanitation and clean water, few public spaces. I loathed Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid (see my unconventional review of it here) but in Dar es Salaam, I found myself asking questions like hers’: rich countries have poured billions of dollars into this country in the last decade, and what has been gained?

I confessed my confusion to a colleague who has worked in Tanzania for decades. He nodded quietly in agreement then said:

—You’re right, but look, if you had been here in the nineties, things were a lot worse. This country has made huge progress.

And in Swaziland, despite good roads and grocery stores, there are other realities. In the capital of Mbabane, Lou took me to a site where he is conducting a survey on male circumcision, one of the interventions to slow the speed of HIV/AIDS. Swazi has the highest adult aged HIV prevalence rate in the world—26.1 percent.

It doesn’t help that the king, one of Africa’s three remaining monarchs, is a polygamist who made waves in 2001 when he married a 17 year old (he has 14 wives). Jobs are hard to come by, even for the educated, and being a woman compounds the problem. I asked the Swazi girlfriend of one of Lou’s colleagues what she wants to do after university. She said: get out of Swaziland.

The juxtaposition of Tanzania and Swaziland was a reminder, again, of my limited vision. I had known intellectually before, but now could really see, that each African country is making some progress, and each is facing gigantic challenges.

Development takes time. And time is not linear.


I’d considered leaving Africa. Spend another three or four months in Tanzania, then go back to Washington or maybe London. Back to tree-lined streets and not being sick all the time, back to order and rules I understand.

But then I was on the road one afternoon, warm sunshine touching my face through the window. I was with friends: the doctor who tends to the sick and poor in Zambia; the aid worker who helps women access safe abortions; the statistician who evaluates donor aid programs. I was glad to be with them, glad to be part of the huge tide of people who come here because they want to help. And suddenly I didn’t mind that it isn’t easy—I didn't mind because it’s real.

And I knew then that I wanted to stay.

*Quoted, A. Gelin, Les Pauvres de Yahve, Paris, 1954, p. 57.

Photos from the Road

The view from the house, Mbabane, Swaziland

Rural Swaziland

Another of rural Swazi

Durban, South Africa

Drakensberg, South Africa


Maputo, Mozambique


On the road


My travel partner, Lou

04 January 2010

A Border Crossing

We left Maputo at eight o’clock in the morning—plenty of time, we thought, to cross the border into South Africa and get our friends to the airport in Johannesburg by three.

The drive started out nice enough. After a weekend spent lazing at the beach and bumming around the streets of the old Portuguese colonial capital, the five of us settled into our seats in the car and sat in congenial silence, listening to music. There was Adam, a lanky blond geologist and native Zambian; Emma, an aid worker from Ireland with a singsong accent and fire red hair; Jack, a Dutch doctor who runs some clinics in Lusaka; Lou, an American statistician working in Swaziland; and me.

About an hour into our drive, we came round a bend and slammed to a halt. Cars, buses, and trucks, for as far as we could see, were stopped in the road. We waited a moment for it to pick up, but it didn’t, so Emma, Jack and I walked down the highway in search of an explanation.

It was cool out. Drops of rain spat down onto the green stretches of hills dotted with bush. The men manning the road block told us that, though it was just ten kilometers away, it would be hours before we got to the border. It was jammed with people returning from holiday and traveling for work into South Africa. The border crossing itself would take even longer.

After several conversations (please, sir, we have flights to catch!) and trips back and forth to the car (plus 100 rand), the men let us cut ahead, past the long line of cars, into empty highway.

We hit deadlock again not long after. While we debated whether to walk to the border or stick together in the car, Lou called Felix, a guy who had (for a small fee) helped us sort through temporary car insurance and immigration when we crossed into Mozambique. About thirty minutes later, Felix was at our car with a plan for getting us through the stop in traffic, he just needed some cash, which we gave him. He returned thirty minutes later with instructions for moving ahead. It worked. He caught up with us down the road (where traffic was sluggish again), gathered our passports and walked with Jack and Adam to the border post to take care of our paperwork.

Lou, Emma and I crept on down the highway, inch by inch, snacking on dried fruit and biscuits, reading books that were lying around the car, and watching passers-by. Outside, floods of people had abandoned their vehicles, wagering that it would be faster to make the journey by foot. Men with briefcases. Women with babies. Hipsters with sunglasses. Families. Friends. All trudging along the wet asphalt and muddy hillsides. It felt a little like a block party: strangers greeted each other, guys sold drinks and nuts, and the smell of rain mixed with the smell of smoke as women cooked food by the side of the road.

Jack and Adam returned with our passports, which had been processed and stamped in a back room at immigration, we paid Felix (again) and were on our way.

With our completed paperwork in hand, energy and humor came back to the car. We bounced down the road, relieved smiles and laughs, and were nearly to the crossing when we saw the exodus.

Next to the highway, on a gentle sweep of rain-spattered hillside, thousands of people (that’s right, thousands) stood in a line ten deep. This was the line for immigration for those who couldn't pay their way through. They looked like refugees, an ocean of them, possessions in hand, a frozen current.

We drove quickly by, turning our heads to watch them recede into the distance, our mouths open wide in amazement. Thank goodness, Emma said, that we’re not in that.


Down the road, nearly to the crossing, we hit deadlock again. To our left was a coned off empty lane, which we considered cutting into, but hesitated. Back in Maputo, Jack had accidentally made a wrong turn down a one-way street, and we were pulled over immediately. It took nearly twenty minutes to negotiate the bribe down and convince the police to let us go.

Eventually, we pulled up next to a border security agent, told him our paperwork was complete, and he waved us into the fast lane. Happily, surprisingly, we sailed through the border and crossed into South Africa. Deep exhale: we had made it.

But not quite. A young border guard on the South Africa side flagged us down with a stern wag of his finger. Clad in a dark navy blue uniform, he told us to turn around and go to the back of the line. “You are not finished,” he said.

Sick silence from Adam and I; cursing from Emma—fuckers!; and Lou, boiling at the steering wheel while Jack, masking his disgust, tried to sweet talk, and then reason with, the young man.

It got us no where. The more we protested, the more he hardened against us. And when we tried defiantly to pull over instead of turning around, he raised his voice: Turn around.

So we did. After hours and countless bribes, we drove to the back of the line, and waited.

The guard’s insistence wasn’t entirely spurious. We had actually missed “passport control,” which consisted of a fat, sluggish woman stopping each car to look absently at passports and take some money. We had just scraped together the cash and were approaching her when, for some reason, she turned around and walked away. And once again, we drove across the border and into South Africa, bewildered and deflated.


The whole affair took three hours and cost about 1,300 rand. We’d interacted with about 10 separate individuals and had paid nearly all of them.


I never used to think much about corruption, back when I worked at the Center for Global Development, a think tank in Washington, DC. Conversations in liberal policy and advocacy circles were dominated by efforts to make programs more “country owned.” The donors need to get out of the way and “let the countries lead.” CGD’s HIV/AIDS Monitor, for example, tirelessly recommends that PEPFAR, the massive U.S. AIDS program, stop relying so heavily on international NGOs and parallel systems to implement its programs, and instead, channel aid through country systems, in order to build capacity and prevent duplication.

When I asked Jack and Emma about aid modalities over dinner one evening, they laughed and recalled a corruption scandal that rocked the Zambian Ministry of Health back in May 2009. Two European donors, who channel health aid directly to the ministry, temporarily suspended the flow of funds in response. “The Americans must have been laughing,” Jack said. “They do it right: they control their aid as much as possible.”

Keep aid away from the system, he implied, because the system—from the high ups in government to the guy on the street selling bananas—is corrupt to the bone.


Why on earth don’t they do something about this, I asked as we left the border? I already knew the answer. Countless people were profiting, and not just a few dodgy immigration officials, but everyone. And they had all the time in the world. We could either wait and pay or not pay and wait even longer.

And what if we, a group of expats, were upset at having to pay bribes, at the total nonexistence of rules and order? What if the Africans were upset at having to spend all day at the border because there was no good system for processing them? Who would any of us complain to about any of it?


Everyone is corrupt. (Or at least it feels that way sometimes.) And not in the Swiss-bank-account-and-Paris-shopping-spree-kind-of-way. Corruption is more subtle than that, and more insidious. It’s about conversations with officials that circle round and round and go no where; minor bribes for everything; constant skimming off the top; workers who don’t work very hard, who seem unconcerned with either quality or efficiency; civil servants who demand massive per diems, first class flights, and Landrovers; and aid officials who give it to them over and over again.

Not that it’s entirely about money. The guard who forced us to turn around didn’t gain any money (that we know of) from the incident, but he did gain something: it was a fight, and he had won. Corruption is also about power. A young guy from the African sticks puts on a uniform, and suddenly he can force four Western aid workers and one white Zambian—five people whose privileges in life far exceed his own—to go to the back of the line. I imagine it was satisfying, to see us reeling, powerless, to watch us lose.