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 café 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.


  1. very very good. food for that most bulimic of beasts - thought. One point though: if it has a parking lot, it's not a dive!

  2. Good point Peter -- you got me!!! I hope you're well.

  3. I think culture has often been used in the past to explain the lack of development in a lot of places, along the lines "it's inherent about these people - country X will never be able to surmount it" - including places that later did take off, like Japan, China, other Asian tigers...isn't that right? my instinct is that these observations of a culture of incompetence, etc. are far more of a symptom of systemic problems - and yes an excuse - than a cause...

  4. Thanks Lindsay, this is fascinating. Insights like these can only be gotten 1) by actually living for a long time abroad and 2) by having as perceptive a mind as yours.

    I cannot count the number of times I have talked about sensible development policies with people who say, "Things don't work that way here", when what they mean is "I do not feel like bearing the tiny cost to myself that would be involved in enacting that massively beneficial policy."

  5. Thanks for those kind words Michael.

    I think that when people say 'things don't work that way here,' part of what they might mean is that they don't want to pay the price, do the work of making the policy work, or at least giving it a try. But another part of what they mean is that things really are harder when you're here. There's a sense that peeps in Western capitals underestimate the challenges, and often, let's face it, we do.

    And rather than simply not wanting to do the work, as Peter Bofin of Swahili Street (a great local blog) says, expats get tired because they have tried to do the work, and it hasn't worked! And this can lead to resignation and, the worst, cynnicism.

    But I agree with you -- there are so many sensible things we can do and it's unfortunate that sometimes, the knee-jerk reaction from expats is: that won't work. People in the field need something they can believe in again.

  6. After having suffered the Motor Vehicle Administration in a very developed country (overregulated country?) any bureaucracy in Africa, as tedious as it may, seems child's play. May we pray that the African countries will not go the MVA way! You see glitches of underfunded bureaucracies that well-fed do-gooders try to uhm change?. Keep blogging!

  7. Good post! I think it is a very worthwile question to think about that. What we doing-development-people tend to forget, I think, is that there is always two (or even more) sides of the coin.
    There is us and there is them, or let's say there's me and an opposite and I have to admit that each one has his or her own specifically traits and manners shaped by socialization. Now we cannot jump out of our hides (as we say in Germany), but neither can the other one. Thus we have to try to understand why someone might apparently be unwilling, lazy, whatever.
    While I have frequently been quite angry with certain things (such as the polepole-culture, for example), I also learned to appreciate Tanzania for especially these things that make it different from my native Germany.
    And I also have frequently been appalled by oh so many expats who from the start on were looking down on everything "strange" and "native" as somehow inferior, never bothering to ask "why".
    So yes, I think there are indeed cultural differences, but as culture is lived out by people, the truth must be somehow in between. To simply blame things on "culture" - often without even trying to understand what one specific culture actually is, and without acknowledging that each and every culture is unique and fantastic in itself, this is just ignorant and arrogant.

  8. I lived and worked for 3-years in Dar es Salaam and throughout Tanzania with many outstanding Tanzanians who delivered results far exceeding my organization's expectations...in business development no less. I don't think "culture" is the problem, but rather the same problem that plagues people everywhere...the human heart and soul. These needs transformation for people to change for the better. Sure I was often frustrated by the things that frustrate Lindsay, but its important to remind oneself that there are equally frustrating and confounding cultural problems and issues in places like the U.S.