17 March 2010

Making Excuses

An American I know who works in southern Africa had girl trouble recently. The trouble wasn’t so much the girl as it was him: he’d pursued her hard, emphatically, then just when she’d started to warm to him, he backed off suddenly, dropped out of sight. The girl was understandably pissed, and in an attempt to explain his careless behavior, he told her this:

"Intense things take hold of you here in Africa when you least expect it or are prepared. You can say 'wow, I'd never do a thing like that' and you do."


It’s Saturday night, and everyone’s out, drinking at a local dive. Around 2 a.m. we gather to leave. In the parking lot, a young American girl stumbles in high heels to her car, fumbles for her keys, cheeks flushed from the heat and too many beers. She opens the door, gets behind the wheel and, laughing, says: “Man, I would never do this at home.”


Some friends and I are having brunch at a local cafĂ© when an old expat couple walks in and stops to say hello. When they pass we exchange furtive glances and smile. The couple are friendly but quirky—they seem to have abandoned all the formalities associated with their former life in the West. Like other “lifers” they sometimes seem slightly unhinged, paranoid, and just plain weird. My friends and I joke about it: “That’s what happens when you stay in Africa too long.”


In his January 14, op-ed The Underlying Tragedy, New York Times columnist David Brooks, discussing the development failure of Haiti, suggests that the culprit, the thing that keeps some poor countries poor, is culture.

“It is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty,” he says. “Most of the world’s poorest nations [suffer] from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences.”

Brooks’ solution is to find, “self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures…surrounding people…with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.”

Could this be true? And is it this culture that drives us, expats, to such strange behavior when we’re here?


The danger is that we’ll say no too quickly. None of us wants to suggest that a country’s culture is somehow responsible for poverty, to imply that something about the culture is wrong, not as good as our own. Moreover, donors, painfully aware of the meager impact of much of our aid and effort, are keen to take the blame for development failures.

But even as our instinct is to take the blame, we are also just as quick to point the finger. Our constant griping about the frustrations of living here, for example, contains implicit criticism of culture.

—I walked into the post office and the woman at the counter just stared at me. I had to practically harass her to get her to help me…why’s it so hard to just do your job?

—I know what you mean. We’ve been trying to schedule a meeting with the Ministry for months—they don’t respond, they delay, they equivocate. It’s like we’re the only ones who care about this project.

—Don’t even get me started. My driver was an hour late today, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Tanzanian incompetence!

—At least you have a driver. With taxis, it's constant negotiation no matter how loyal you are to them. All I am is a dollar sign to these people.

—Yes, but what do you expect? It's just another form of corruption, and corruption is part of the culture.

We shake our heads in resignation, we huff and puff—but press us on the issue and most of us will tell you the same thing: if you need someone to blame for development failures, throw a rock in the air. You’ll hit someone guilty.


Brooks wasn’t wrong to point the finger at developing countries. They are as responsible for their own development (and its failures) as donors, and it’s a good thing to puncture a hole in the chorus of donor knee-jerk self-flagellation.

But even if there are things about living in developing countries that expats (rightfully) find troubling, it does not excuse our own mistakes. Donor aid that is unpredictable and inflexible, redundant in some areas and feeble in others, driven more by the political/PR/security/economic interests of rich countries rather than by the needs of poor ones, under-evaluated and sometimes wasteful—and expats who are reckless, who feel above the rules of the countries they live in, who are arrogant and careless—all these things are still our mistakes and we have a responsibility to address them.

Moreover, talk of culture, that amorphous word dripping with generalizations and contradictions, is often a sign of desperation, the thing you blame when you don’t know what else to do, when you’ve given up, when you’ve resigned yourself to ineffectiveness and failure. Culture is an excuse, in other words, for not dealing with the troubling fact that there are many things rich countries could do today to address poverty but are not. (For an idea of some of these things, see a blog post by CGD president Nancy Birdsall that offers ten actionable ideas for global development—practical things rich countries can do now to improve global equity and prosperity.)


Everyone who works in development will from time to time have to face the colossal disappointment of ineffectiveness. It's easy to be mesmerized by uncertainty, to sink into resignation and finger pointing, but we must move on. There are many things we—donors and developing countries both—can do now to improve the lives of poor people in poor countries—the question is whether or not we will try.


Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to
Don’t try to see through the distances
That’s not for human beings
Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened
Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading
Take down a musical instrument
Let the beauty we love be what we do
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground