Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Under the Promise of Development, the Ever-Present Thorns

I have very serious things on my mind tonight related to ethics and the funding of projects in the developing world, spurred by recent news here of slave-like conditions in a start-up roses production project run by the ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mozambique. To what point are the consultants, multi-lateral institutions, commercial banks and donors involved in a particular project responsible in part for its outcome?

Certainly when the project goes well, all involved in its support and preparation are quick to lay claim to some of the merits. Even when a project fails due to poor market conditions, faulty strategy, lack of training or whatever other "legitimate" reasons one can point a finger at, for the most part the people and institutions involved in its realization step up to the plate and recognize the situation, drawing up a ubiquitous "lessons learned" report to hedge against damage.

But what happens when a project or a company goes seriously awry? To the point of involving abuse of power, abuse of funds and abuse of human life? Who is responsible then, in the large chain of players, and to what extent? Was it possible to see such an outcome before it happened? Would a different approach, or more cautious decisions along the way have prevented such a disastrous situation? Or are such things bound to happen no matter how careful the consultant or how many strings the donor institution attaches to the support it extends? Will unscrupulous people concerned with filling their own coffers always find a way to manipulate, bribe and oppress their way to the top?

In all aspects of the problem, I see money at the core. Financial gain is what motivates the consultant to push a project, even though he may see red flags associated with the feasibility of the idea proposed or the moral character of the project promoter. The need to spend the year's aid budget is what pressures many donors and development institutions to give money to beneficiaries who are, perhaps, less than deserving in an ideal scenario; but there are no other viable projects to be found, and that money must be allocated before the end of the fiscal year, so out it goes lest the next round of funding to the institution be put in jeopardy. Similarly, the desire to make money, either in the form of interest payments or by reclaiming assets on a failed venture, is what motivates banks and other lenders to back projects. Who can blame any of these players, especially when the entire game is given the positive spin of "development for [insert poor country here]"?

I don't think that any one of them deliberately acts in ill will, funding projects they know shouldn't receive support; no, it is much more subtle - an intuitive pang in the gut that something is off, numbers that don't quite add up, a scenario that looks a bit too perfect on paper for the reality in the field, etc. It is easy to overlook these issues and write them off to the conditions of doing business in the developing world. Still, at some point, I believe that at least one person involved in the support of a project hears the little voice say, "This isn't right." How does one act on that when there is such tremendous money-related pressure, on both a personal and an institutional level, to ignore what seems to be a small detail - intangible, even - and push forward with the deal?

It is certainly a complex situation, especially when a project promoter shows up with the right image, the right credentials and the right talk, a true chameleon when it comes to playing into the development system, only to turn around and carry out his project in a way that tarnishes the image of all of the players involved, if not the entire country as a result.

Happily - and quite surprisingly, given the political and economic clout of the owners of the roses project - the Human Rights League and the Mozambican Labor Ministry have conducted a serious investigation following the allegations of slave-like conditions for some 100 workers brought to the Moamba district of Maputo from far-away home towns in Manica and Tete Provinces. The latest news is that operations have been suspended, the minimal response appropriate given what has happened.

This is the subject for a much longer post than I have time for now, but the thoughts still swirl heavily through my head.

To add to my development-work-related ethical debate, I have an observation that Ahmed made this afternoon on repeat in my mind, weighing my conscience in a similar way to the discomfort I feel about the situation of the roses project. This morning Ahmed asked if I take a taxi to work every day, and I said yes, that I still don't have a car and I can't feasibly take a chapa (mini-bus taxi) since I'm hauling my laptop back and forth from home to the office (not to mention that chapas are inconvenient, piloted by maniacs with no regard for road rules or human life, and too much of a hassle for me to justify saving the money - who cares if they are "authentic").

Ahmed did a quick sum on his calculater and whistled at the result. "Who pays for your taxi?"

"The company reimburses me," I told him, not seeing the point in covering up the truth.

"Your taxi costs the equivalent of 4 minimum salaries each month!"

"Thanks for pointing that out," I said. "Now I'm going to feel guilty all afternoon."

And I did, despite all of the justifications in my head that the value I add to the company will bring about growth and job creation for much more than 4 minimum wage workers, not to mention the constant voice popping in to ask me why on earth I even felt guilty in the first place. Still, there is something about such a comparison - an expense you take for granted being equivalent to the lifeblood of a person's monthly existance - that is impossible to ignore in good conscience.

On a lighter note, Ahmed has thankfully gotten the message about the unsolicited grilled chicken lunches and afternoon snacks. I still get a daily ice cream cone, but I'm satisfied that he buys them for several other people and that, while I am certainly the most frequent recipient, I'm not the only one.

This afternoon I was down in the warehouse doing an inventory of all the things that need to be bought/fixed/etc. (I have a new addition to my job title - Building Administrator - though Hugh Marlboro used some latin word when he first described it that sounded totally dirty to me, phonetically it was along the lines of "fuck-totem", though I'm pretty certain this isn't correct. Must Google later. Updated: I did Google - the word he used is here.)

As Ahmed and I were putting together the master inventory, I was snacking on some carrot sticks I'd brought from home. Everyone in the warehouse thought I was clinically insane for eating carrots, as if my tupperware were filled with toenails or something equivalently revolting. Finally Ahmed had a few, but not before everyone on the warehouse floor had taken a good, light-hearted jab at my eating habits.

Later in the afternoon, one of the assistants from downstairs came to my office bearing a gift: a gigantic wooden spoon, quite rustic looking, with some charred designs along the hand-carved handle. "This is from Ahmed, but really from all of us, so that you can do some tasty cooking at home."

I nearly fell off my seat laughing. Apparently the boys in the warehouse have a spot-on sense of humor! The oversized spoon now sits in the glass utensil jar next to my stove, taking up a bit more than its fair share of space, just taunting me to make a green chile stew and knock their socks off with some homecooked spice.


--jenna said...

Hugh Marlboro knows LATIN??????

Masd said...

I enjoyed.

Poppy Fields said...

Even with humanitarian projects, money seems to be at the core when things go bad. I'm trying to understand out what went wrong with the Arche de Zoé in Tchad.

Ali la Loca said...

~Jenna - Oh, you know, just the basic Latin that any banana farmer knows...

~Masd - I'm glad there was something enjoyable in with all that cynicism!

~Poppy Fields - That does seem to be the case, unfortunately. I'm not familiar with Arche de Zoé - I'll have to do some more Googling.