Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The professionalization of help is not help

I often find myself in meetings with some well educated people. My friend, Victor Amauris, is one such person. He's good natured, clear headed, and a peacemaker. We’ve both had business careers before our development jobs, he in the cacao trade and me in commercial real estate. We’re the same age. Victor Amauris is a good guy, me cae bien.

So I’m at this meeting with a group of small coffee producers seeking low-interest loans from a new microcredit fund, financed as a “gift from the American people” through USAID. Before the start of the meeting, my friend Victor greets me with a pristine ¿Cómo estás?, and asks if I know what a mecanismo (mechanism) is. I stifle a laugh knowing this was not a joke, but rather a sort of password to enter the dark, smoky speakeasy of the development business in-crowd. I’m not one to quibble with a little intellectual challenge, so I launch into something about a mechanism being a set of procedures to bring about a desired end, that the component parts must be well defined and properly delegated, and more such nonsense. I finish and Victor smiles, “That’s exactly what it is.”
Cultural Sidebar: To explain the pronunciation of S issue, an example is in order. ¿Cómo estás? in Dominicano becomes just ¿Cómo ‘ta? The plural form of banana changes from los guineos to lo guineo. The educated, having seen their language written with all of its resplendent S’s, know how to pronounce them in formal settings. Some people, knowing their countrymen drop the S, will overcompensate, adding S’s indiscriminately, donde quiera. This is extremely annoying. The Case of the Missing S’s is not mysterious or difficult to understand once you’re used to it. It’s just the standard pronunciation of Caribbean Spanish (Lo cubano and lo puertorriqueño do it too).
Okay, now I’m “in.” I can traipse around and drink cocktails with professionals from USAID and UNDP and Plan International without seeming out of place. I should feel accomplished. Instead I feel no better than I did drinking chilled top-shelf tequila shots with our fat cat clients back in my brokerage days.

While Victor and I prove our stunning intelligence to each other, the coffee producers mill about, nervous and guarded. Each one worried for their families, who exist in a permanent state of indebtedness because one coffee harvest rarely leaves enough profit to harvest the next. Their precarious balance sheets and dismal literacy and numeracy often leave them prey to usurious lenders. Every year is a total crapshoot with the weather. Too much rain or wind at the wrong time and the precious berry-producing flowers, or the coffee berries themselves, tumble to the ground. Too little rain and few flowers even appear. Nasty beetles called broca burrow into the beans, reducing weight and quality. Few have the money to apply chemical or organic fertilizers, or practice the pruning and soil preservation techniques that help increase yields. These worries, smelling of mud, rot, and desperation, cloud the air while Victor and I prattle away up in the sunny stratosphere.

The farmers, dressed in plaid shirts and battered baseball caps, show up to these meetings to show their commitment to the new proyecto, the way peasants came humbly to the courts of their lords to request favors. The powers that be, namely USAID, require a semblance of community participation and training for projects they fund. Don’t get me wrong, a participatory process is admirable as an analog to our open comment legislative processes in the US, but the education gap between those managing projects and those supposedly benefiting from them makes it difficult to execute in the Dominican Republic.

So what does a meeting about microcredit mechanisms look like? Having attended these sorts of things before, I had braced myself for another Sahara PowerPoint, with words as numerous as grains of sand, and not a single image to whet my parched visual cortex. Sadly, I would not even enjoy the melancholy desolation of the desert. Instead, I was subjected to the same discombobulated Word document the local project bureaucrats had submitted to USAID, projected onto the big screen. There were complicated tables and procedures and bullet points galore. There were pointless cyclic diagrams and organizational flow charts. Believe me, this presentation was just dripping with synergy.

Maybe the fine print Word Doc writ large on the big screen demonstrated breathtaking intellectual power, maybe not. What I’m sure it didn’t do is communicate. Let me summarize in five slides what Victor wanted to say:
  1. We (the Cluster de Café) just got one million pesos to lend.
  2. You must fill out a form listing your land in coffee production with the amount of money you want.
  3. Your neighbors will review the form and tell us if you’re good for it or a lazy shyster who’ll never pay us back.
  4. Based on your land with coffee and the judgment of your character from your neighbors, we’ll either loan you the money or not.
  5. No double-dipping. You can’t have loans with the Cluster and ASCAJA (the coffee cooperative I work with) at the same time.
My slides aren’t exciting and probably wouldn’t have helped get the million pesos from USAID in the first place, but they do communicate with our target audience, the humble coffee farmer.

So why didn’t my friend Victor just say what he meant? What’s with all the statistical misdirection and highfalutin vocabulary? Well, Victor gets paid a lot of money. If he just spoke like everyone else, maybe they’d stop thinking he was worth it. Victor must be a professional, to prove his dominance to those below and his competence to those above. Seeing the realities of the small farmer in la Dominicana, you might think, “Wow. Look at all these poor people. Look at the almost total vacuum of managerial capacity amongst these poor people. I think I need…a professional.” Then you would hire Victor and give him a million pesos to solve the problem.

The professionalization of help is not help. The long, text-packed PowerPoint presentations and hideous fourteen column Annual Plans are not help. Help is not white elephant infrastructure projects that are worse than plain vanilla welfare payments. Help is not attracting all the country’s best and brightest into grant-writing and project administration positions, when they should be starting businesses, creating art, inventing new products, and agitating for government reform.

Help is sacrifice. Help is altruism. Help is taking risks. Help is donating your time and treasure for the common good, while postponing personal gain. Help is art and entrepreneurship and invention. Help is becoming a teacher or mentor and sharing your knowledge with others. Help, as currently practiced by Big Development, is not help.

Capitalism and the Hacker Ethic

One American cultural trait I try to demonstrate in my Peace Corps work is persistence. In the design of the accounting for the coffee association I work with, we were met with a number of obstacles. I would design the account hierarchy in one way, modeling the business as I understood it – one expense account here, another inventory account there, all these account payables over in aquel lado. As we continued entering the mountain of paper receipts into the program we would inevitably run into problems in the account model. I had understood the business one way, and it turned out to work another. No big deal right. These things are not set in stone, we’ll just rework the model.

But my project partner, the association’s operations manager, would get very dispirited. While I frowned and scratched my head and tapped my fingers, puzzling over the solution, Arelis would sigh and fuss and worry herself. She’d lament, "Oh, I guess this won't ever work. We'll just have to give up and try something else." This spoken by someone who had watched the association pay professional accountants thousands to try and fail to wrap their heads around the business. I said, "No, Arelis. That's not how we do it. We enjoy puzzles. We like challenges. We finish what we start."

Sometimes we'd resolve the issue within minutes, other times it took days. But I never doubted for a minute that the brilliant GnuCash system could not be molded to our will. I knew it was sufficiently flexible and robust for any business of our size. If there was a problem, it was to be found in our own thinking, our own creativity. This was not how Arelis, the association's Dominican secretary saw things. She'd see the puzzled look come over my face and would be ready to give up. This stick-to-it-iveness, this Hacker Ethic, is an essential skill for a small Caribbean island, with few comparative advantages but its own charming people. If these people can develop the persistence to educate themselves in modern commercial arts and technology, this place might get a reputation for more than sunny beaches and great cigars.