Learning to be an expat, part 2

Exhibit A:
2002. I’m in Turkmenistan, my first job that requires ongoing negotiation with government officials. I am in the anteroom at the Ministry of Health, for my introductory meeting. I am very, very nervous. Natasha, our project manager and my translator for this meeting watches me fidget. She tells me, “I will translate what you say, and if I don’t understand something, I’ll just stop and ask you.” I calm down. She’s literally not going to let me say anything stupid.

Exhibit B:
Rural Turkmenistan, beginning a long gauntlet of meetings with doctors, hospital directors, and local health officials. They are good, friendly meetings that build our rapport and help our programs succeed, sometimes catch a small problem before it gets big, but they get tiring after a while. I sigh a little as I get out of the car. My colleague Zulfia hears me. “Alanna,” she says, “just keep smiling that American smile.”

Learning to be an expat, part one


I’d only been at my job for about two weeks, and Artur and I were sent off to look at some field sites. We were in Ferghana City in Uzbekistan, waiting on the tarmac to board our plane. It was very very cold, and the flight crew was only boarding transit passengers from a Russia flight. We stood there, shivering and waiting. They boarded all the Russia passengers and then they waited some more, I guess just in case more transit passengers showed up. My bones were starting to ache with the cold, and still we were waiting.

And then Artur got sick of it. He shoved me in the back and told me, “You’re American. Just keep speaking English and get us on that plane.” So I did. I climbed the stairs as a woman yelled at me, and when she told me “transit only,” in Russian, I told her, loud and in English, that I had a ticket, I was tired of standing around in the cold, and I was going to get on the plane. I did this in my best haughty American voice, and when she argued in Russian, I just repeated myself louder in English. I spoke both Russian and Uzbek, but this was not the time for reasoned communication.

The woman cracked. She said something rude to me in Russian and let me by. I was followed by a joyous stampede of other passengers. When I got on the plane, there were lots of empty seats. Artur and I flew to Tashkent with an empty seat between us.

Photo credit: yuriybrisk
That’s not the Ferghana airport, but it looked just like this.

Things I don’t believe in #6 – All powerful expatriate leadership (June 2008)

rainbow jesus


Note: August is looking like a crazy and stressful month for me, with no time to blog here. To make sure no one gets bored and abandons me, I am going to re-run some of my favorite posts from the past.


This is the first thing – expats don’t stay forever. In two or three or four years, the expat will leave. If your whole program depends on her, or the staff believes that it does, things will go to pieces when she leaves. This is the second thing – it’s disempowering. You don’t want your staff, or your stakeholders, to believe change only comes from outsiders. You want people to find their own power and their own capacity to influence their lives and communities. You don’t want them to sit around waiting and starving for the Dutch to come back and rebuild the irrigation canals.

This is the third thing. You want your staff invested in the process. You want everyone involved to know your select your pilot schools because they meet the qualifications for your program. You don’t want them thinking the schools were selected because Mr. Thomas feels really bad for the villages, or worse yet, because he thought the teachers were pretty. You want people to know you’ve got a system and your apply it fairly.

This is the fourth thing. Country Directors who allow themselves to be seen as having and exerting that kind of power end up isolated. Staff members won’t be comfortable being part of a collaborative decision-making process. They won’t offer opinions on how to make things better, and they won’t go to the CD if they identify a problem.

Good programs come from good teams, not from little gods and their adoring worshippers.

Photo credit: celinecelines
Chosen for the shiny rainbow.

What we can learn from missionaries

missionary kids

I’m going to start with #9, because a lot of you asked about it. And I don’t want people thinking I was suggesting we convert people to, well, anything. No pith helmets, bibles, Korans, or books of Mormon here. Development has nothing – nothing – to do with salvation.

But missionaries do have a model we can learn from, at least the ones that I have met. They come into a country with a long-term commitment. They don’t just want immediate results; they want souls. Missionaries bring their families and children with them, and those children go to local schools. They live in houses that are nice by local standards, but not in the expat palaces your average foreigner inhabits. They bring their stuff with them in suitcases, not container ships.

Missionaries don’t try to do any soul-saving at first, spending a minimum of six months learning local language and culture. Mormons are renowned for their language skills. And once they have learned it, they stick around, spending years or even decades in country. They devote themselves to work in one particular place.

Compare that to your average expatriate working in development, for a donor or implementing a project. The expat lives in a little bubble of fake-home, cushioned by consumable shipments, huge shipping allowances, and hardship pay. With air conditioning and heating to ensure they’re even in a different climate. And they stay in one place for approximately 35 seconds.

Good people don’t have time to get great, and average people don’t even have time to get good. Complicated programs suffer as a result, and funding is biased toward things that are easy to implement and understand. No one has time to learn local context.

Donor governments rarely have people in place for longer than five years. In some cases, it’s not even allowed. Implementers are the same way. Three to five years, on average. The incentives are to keep moving from place to place. If you get a job in, say, Hanoi, while you’re already living in Hanoi, do you get housing and shipping and expat allowances? No. You get brought on as a local hire, and whatever salary they think you’ll settle for. If you want the big package, you apply for a job somewhere else.

And the ambitious, hard-working people who are good at running programs are usually chasing that big package. Think of the one guy you know who’s been in country for ten years, taking jobs with different projects as he can find them. Is he full of useful his skills and local knowledge? No, mostly he’s just a loser. Usually he doesn’t even have language skills to show for his decade of residence. If you set things up so that the ambitious people need to hop, then they will hop. The only ones who stay in place will be the people without the ability to move on. That doesn’t support good program management.

It’s even more painful with the donor types. At least program staff are bound by the specific terms of their grant or contract. An incompetent or philosophically opposed country director can only do so much damage. Every two or three years, someone brand new comes in, with the authority to radically alter all current programs. There’s a six month learning curve while they sort out their job and get some clue about the country. Then a nice two years, at best, of reasonably competent donor oversight, and then they’re emotionally checked out and focused on the next posting.

I’ve seen USAID country directors come in and kill programs that they thought weren’t working. And they were, but they were also hard to understand. Too hard to figure out in a couple weeks of reading reports.

Host country donor staff make a major difference in institutional competence, but it’s a rare donor who lets national staff run their programs. The fear is corruption, mostly, but there is also a capacity problem. The people with the education and skills to really run a donor program aren’t working for USAID, World Bank, or CIDA salaries.

Two years of reasonably competent donor oversight is a depressing best case scenario. When you have a really good donor representative, they are like an extra brain for your efforts. They can help you dodge problems, adapt quickly to challenges, and negotiate different government relationships. It’s a synergy that can make all the difference.

And it pretty much never happens. More often than not, your funder’s representative doesn’t speak the local language and doesn’t even know the nation’s major cities before they land. No matter how smart or committed you are, you don’t have time in a few years to get up to speed enough to be really useful. One of the very few things we know about what works in development is that your interventions need to be precisely targeted to the local context. We can’t do that if nobody knows enough about the local context to make that happen. And how do you take a long view on development when no one stays for enough time to think that way?

So that’s what we can learn from missionaries. Stick around until you know what you’re doing. Project managers, and donor representatives, should have regional knowledge and language skills. They should be deeply steeped in local culture. We need incentives to get good people to stay in one place and become experts at it. Well, first we need it to be permitted. Then we need incentives.

If we’re uncomfortable keeping country directors around for the long haul because of corruption concerns, then we could keep other people in country instead. Technical people, for example. You could have some just-rotated-in manager making the final decisions, guided by a team who’s been working in this context long enough to know what works. You also need host country nationals in as many positions of authority as possible. Get past those corruption fears with good financial controls, ethics training, and employee mentoring. (Yes, it’s an incomplete solution, but so is rotating people constantly to keep them from getting attached.)

Photo credit: bp6316
Chosen because they look exactly like the missionary kids I see in Tajikistan.

How to ride in a white SUV

1. Look sheepish, like you would never been in this huge vehicle if you weren’t forced into it by overprotective security officers.

2. Look ill. Maintain a greenish-grey visage that makes it clear that if you weren’t so terribly ill, you’d be on a local bus at this very moment.

3. Ride with someone older than you, and develop a facial expression that indicates you are just the gormless flunky riding involuntarily in the VIP car.

4. Fill your vehicle with boxes and bags, to make it clear that the SUV is hauling important equipment and you’re just along for the ride.

5. Wear your damn seatbelt. If you’re going to cruise around in a symbol of oblivious neo-imperialism you owe it to world to be safe.


(photo credit: hoyasmeg)

Anger, control, and finding the zone

I have, once again, given up substantial amounts of control over my life.

Living overseas does that to you. Part of it is the expatriate experience. The language barrier makes it hard to know what’s going on much of the time, and the cultural gap means that even when you’ve got the language skills, you’re still missing most of the nuance of everything that’s happening around you. You don’t get to customize your environment like you would in your home country – you accept whatever flavor of juices is offered to you, and you let them paint the walls any color your landlord likes. Doing anything else is an exhausting and unpleasant way to spend your time. People who can’t give up control should stay home.

The loss of control runs deeper than being an outsider, though. The fact is that poor people have less control over their lives. This is the damage done by poverty. They cannot easily change jobs or locations, they are less resilient in the face of crisis, and they are at the mercy of often autocratic governments.

And when you go to live in a poor country, you accept those same limitations. You get special treatment for being an expat, yes, but there are limits to this. The police officer will do what he wants regardless of the facts of the situation. There is no treatment for HIV. The government just repossessed your house and now it will be torn down. Women can be beaten for undercooking dinner. That is how it is and your foreign passport can’t fix it.

It’s a fine line between realistically facing limitations, and accepting the very conditions that you are there to change. If you’re working for an anti-corruption project, you need to stay angry at cops who require bribes. If you’re trying to improve health, you need to identify the obstacles to HIV treatment (generally lack of funds and inability to write decent Global Fund grant, coupled with provider inexperience) and find a way around them.

If you push too hard and get too angry, you burn out, fast. It hurts you and it doesn’t do much for your projects. It could get you kicked out of the country. But if you are too laid back and do too little, you’re just a waste of funding that could be used for something that matters. You have to find that sweet spot, somewhere in between, where you don’t mind a late plane but you do mind physicians who must be bribed to provide care.

Finding that mental space is hard. Staying in it is harder. But it’s one of the many things you have to manage if you want to do things well.


(photo credit: Ko:(char *)hook)

Chosen because it’s a nice harmless photo of a control room – searching Flickr for “control” brings you freaky, freaky things.

Things that do damage

Badly planned, badly thought out NGO operations hurt the communities they attempt to serve. We’re all aware of that in the big ways, like allowing food aid to be turned into a weapon by dictatorships, or sexually abusing aid recipients. Aside from the big blunders, though, we also undermine in smaller ways. Here are two:

1. Using highly visible security where it isn’t called for. Seeing the foreigners ride around in armored cars or helmets is scary. It makes everything seem like a war zone.

In an actual war zone, people are in a war mindset. Using war zone precautions in other contexts generates fear. It actually makes people feel less safe in the place where they live. Maybe your expatriates are genuinely more at risk than local inhabitants (though Michael Kleinman has his doubts and honestly so do I) but how are people supposed to know that?

Security precautions should be appropriate to the level of risk, and as unobtrusive as possible. Considering how much of safety is about population support and acceptance of the work, this benefits NGO programs as well as the communities they work with.

2. Living visibly lavish lifestyles. There is research showing that inequality makes people unhappy. Poor people feel less happy with their lives when they’ve got rich people making them feel deprived. Don’t be those rich people. In addition, no local community is going to feel like a partner if you roll around like wealthy big shots. They are going to feel like the recipient of charity, with nothing to do but wait and accept it.

Expatriate employees need to be fairly comfortable and fairly happy to function and do their best for the organization. I know that. But don’t fly in their cheese or give them palaces to live in.

(photo credit: Cayusa)
Chosen because it feels like the big white car is shoved right into your face.