Beautiful Poverty

old bus

This is an unusual post for me. It’s old, first of all – I wrote it in my personal journal, on actual paper, about six years ago, while on a work trip to a country I’m not going to name here. It’s moodier than I tend to be now. And it kind of reminds me of something that would be on Tales from the Hood, not Blood and Milk. But I still agree with it, so I thought I’d post.

In Uzbekistan I never really felt like taking pictures when I drove through rural areas. Uzbek villages are made of corrugated pre-fab boxes, no matter how small they here. The houses and barns all look the same, too, with their pale cement walls. This isn’t like that. Houses and barns are different shapes and sizes and materials and colors. And, as I looked at them, I realized why.

Here, it’s poor. Considerably poorer than Uzbekistan. That’s why there are thatched roofs and unusual buildings, why you can see cows grazing next to lean-to’s and buildings painted thirteen different colors.

And the poverty makes for great photography. Poverty has texture. Clean modern buildings give you a feeling of smoothness – they’re bland and unremarkable and rarely worth the film. The homes of the poor have none of that. Each one is unique, based on what people could afford and what they could find. They’re full of color, they’re rough, and there is nothing bland about them.

In other words, a good synonym for picturesque is desperate.

Aesthetics are seductive. It is hard not to like something because it’s pretty. That can lead you all sorts of terrible places; it can lead you to mistake tragedy for authenticity. It can make you think there is some value to authenticity when people are starving. It can lead you to take gorgeous pictures of the countryside without ever realizing that you are documenting a quiet horror.

What we can’t do, part I

Thdepressing picture of a muddy streetere have been an awful lot of people I haven’t been able to help. My career feels, sometimes, like a long list of things I haven’t been able to do, punctuated by the occasional success.

I know that isn’t unusual. When you live in a poor country, you are constantly assaulted by the terrible need of the people around you. Our ability to respond is limited by so many things – program scope, funding, human capacity and host country conditions – just to start. There is never enough money to do everything, or you need to branch out into some new area you know nothing about. Sometimes the problem is caused by destructive traditional practices or bad government regulations.

At times, you can’t help people because you failed. Your program just got it wrong. You trained doctors but they didn’t change their behavior afterwards. You wasted your money and their time and no patients benefited. Or the broiler chickens turned out to cost more to raise than they earned when you sold them. Or your families sold the vegetables from their kitchen gardens and used the money to buy sugar and children’s nutrition actually got worse.

You can make bad choices with the best of intentions, you can discover your every choice has unintended consequences, and you can just be flat out stupid. Luckily, we’re not houseflies. We have the capacity for learning. And if we’re willing to genuinely examine our failures, we can avoid making the same mistake twice. It’s hard, but it’s possible.

I’m not saying that failure is a good thing. No one wants to waste their limited resources – time, money, and community commitment. And most of the time failure isn’t failing well – it’s just an ugly mess. But you can learn to fail well, and over time most of us learn how to.

For me, at least, it’s not failure that devastates. It’s the sheer scope of the problems we face and the tininess of our ability to help. Even the most holistic project has its limits. You simply can’t tackle everything all at once. But as you live your life, everything all at once is what you see.

When I was living in Uzbekistan in 2005, there was an incident in a conservative city, Andijon, in the Ferghana valley. A protest got out of hand, leading to a break-in at the city jail and a massive demonstration in the main square. When the police got involved, it ended in violence. Somewhere between 169 and 700 people were killed. The Uzbek government holds that those who died were terrorists; NGOs in the country report deaths among innocent civilians, including women and children. It’s been a source of a lot of controversy.

Nobody, however, denies that it was bloody, terrible, and heartbreaking. The deaths in Andijon left the whole country stunned. My office manager came to me in tears; he was thinking of quitting his job. What is the point, he wanted to know, of running a health project when there were so many other things going wrong in his country? Training pediatricians struck him tiny and useless.

He had a point. Most of what we do is tiny and pointless in the grand scheme of things. One average-size project isn’t going to have much impact on an entire country. That is brought home to us every day, all the time, as we live and work in the developing world.

If you’re working for an HIV project, helping people access anti-retrovirals, you know you’re saving lives. If you visit a clinic that is giving out the drugs, you can actually watch people get healthier over time. But what about all the people who don’t have AIDS? What about your neighbor, whose mother has cancer and there is no treatment available in the country for it? What about your friend’s son, who has no way to pay for university? What about the woman down the street, who always has bruises and you can hear the shouting in her house? And the children begging in the street, or the local school which has no windows or books?

(photo credit: me)

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.

Getting the most out of field visits

I’ve mentioned in a previous entry that doing the occasional visit to your field programs does not count as in-country experience. If you’re HQ-based, though, or managing several countries, you can’t just move to be close to your sites. Field visits are all you have to get the inside story on your programs and the communities they partner with.

Done right, field visits are a useful tool. They are not as good as living and working in-country, but they’re a lot better than nothing. Here’s how to get the most out of your field visits:

1) Don’t call them missions. That’s just offensive. It’s a field visit, a site visit, or a trip out to see your programs. Unless you are trying to convert people to the one true faith of your choice, it’s not a mission. Calling it one implies that you’re heading out there to teach the locals what’s what. You are heading out there so the locals can teach you. Don’t forget it.

2) Always keep this in mind: your two primary goals in any trip are to learn more about your programs, and more about the context they operate in. You may have specific tasks to achieve on your trip, but if you fail at those your trip still has value as long as you learn.

3) Listen. Talk to people. Talk to your staff. Talk to your beneficiaries. Talk to government officials and community leaders, and taxi drivers. It doesn’t take probing questions, or special insight on your part, just a willingness to sit down and hear what people have to say. Pack your schedule with as many meetings as you can humanly stand. By listening, you learn how your project and organization is perceived, what your community thinks of you, and what your own staff is thinking. You can unearth technical problems and discover what you’re doing well. You also learn about the culture you’re in.

A health educator once told me that they were showing slow behavior change rates in one region because “the women just weren’t very smart there.” That was a major clue that we had a problem in how we thought about education. A doctor my program had trained told me that the most useful thing about our trainings was the chance to talk to other physicians and swap for clinic supplies; we built an extra session into our trainings just for trading. A community leader told me she was sorry our children’s program was closing down in August, which made it clear that the concept of local handover was not being understood.

4) Look. Pay attention, all the time. In Tashkent, the mulberry trees drop their berries to the ground where they rot and make a sticky mess. In Cairo, children climb the trees and pick the berries. Very few fall to the ground. What does it mean? Maybe Egyptian children are hungrier. Maybe Uzbek children are afraid of heights. But it means something, and something you notice now and something you notice later may fit together into information you can use.

Do the traffic police seem to know and like your office driver? An intern once pointed out to me that our information sessions consisted of a male educator standing up while women sat on the ground all around him – what message was that sending? Do your cars have no guns stickers and do your drivers actually follow that rule? How do men and women relate to each other in your host country? How do people treat racial and linguistic minorities?

Much like listening, watching takes no more than your undivided attention. Provide it, and create as many opportunities to look around you as you can. Drive to further-out sites instead of flying, if it’s feasible. Get out of your hotel and take a walk. If you are not a visually observant person, train yourself to become one.

5) Focus your attention on people, not things. If your project repairs water towers, don’t drive out to look at a tower. Instead, talk to your water and sanitation engineers about the rehabilitation process, and talk to the project manager. Talk to people who get their water from the tower. Talk to the mayor of the village the tower is in.

6) Don’t forget women. Don’t forget either gender, but women are far more often overlooked. If none of your meetings are with women, schedule some. Your government officials may be disproportionately male, but the community you work with should not be. If no one in your project can suggest women for you to meet with, something is very, very wrong.

Edited to add: I thought of this in a meeting today – take notes at all your meetings, in a notebook, unless it makes the other person uncomfortable. At the end of every day, transcribe your meeting notes and add anything you noticed during the day. This will help you remember and process what you learned and provide a great basis for your trip report.