Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Wait (guest post)

Remixed from: Inside Art New Orleans 

The Wait

Prologue: In this (completely fictional) scene from a Juba noir in the making, a private
detective who just survived a scuffle arrives to question South Sudan’s Minister of Finance on
the recent murder of the Minister of Wildlife and Animal Resources.

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. There’s a Macy’s Day parade of pain marching through my head
and I’m barely floating.

The office manager’s pals stroll in, more tea is called for, hands are shook, the old, fat Dinka
ministry made men play with their ill-gotten iPhones, laugh and congratulate each other in
Arabic not on a job well done, but on jobs not done at all. Development purgatory.

The cold metal of the flask in my jacket bumps against my chest like an old friend and
I am relieved that for once they did not frisk me before letting me in—there are some
benefits to arriving to see the minster during tea time. Not that anyone has anything
against drink during work hours—it’s just that ever since the assassination there’s been an
acute aversion to unexpected concealed objects, particularly those with which I am most
intimately acquainted.

My thumb unscrews the lid and the whiskey washes over my mouth like Picasso coloring a
canvas. I might as well be wearing a leisure suit.

I know the minister is a busy man and I’m not like advisors who bustle in here expecting
him to rearrange his schedule like Moses parting the Red Sea. I never understood that
really—how this whole damn industry can profess to be there to support, to build, to
strengthen, but at the same time can’t stomach when counterparts don’t play nice, or don’t
play at all. We are here to empower you, as long as you remember your place.

Back in the golden age, the boss man was boss and what he said was the word. I’ve always
been convinced every development professional who takes his work seriously is at heart a
colonialist, or at least romanticizes the notion. After all consultants can only have so much
expertise, so much seniority, before it’s impossible for them to start marching into places
and expecting everyone to do what they say.

Blame it on the system, man. Aid to perpetuate a strategy, a strategy all about the
beneficiary except when it comes to what matters. Donor gets money. Donor spends
money. Consultant gets his danger pay. Counterpart scratches head, yawns. Tale as old as

Seeing a donor designing an aid program is a bit like watching a mad scientist at work,
except without the science. The curtains are drawn, consultants live in a world of
whispers about what’s cooking, and the counterparts go about their business oblivious
and unengaged. Then five years later a small forest has been converted into reports, but
overall everyone is surprised how little is accomplished. But the best people to do the
jobs are not those with new ideas, but the ones who have already done it before with
outstanding mediocrity, so the donors put their heads together, the consultants insinuate
their own plans and personnel into the mix, and the result is another couple millions worth
of incestuous, bastardized programs reshuffling old work the counterpart does not give a
damn about.

Same circus, different clowns, but they don’t realize the joke’s on them. Because while no
one can touch the plan, the scarce resource isn’t dollars, it’s places to put them. Donors
spending and consultants earning, both to advance their careers. And the counterpart
is the prettiest girl at the ball, except instead of a tight, low cut dress what really gets
mouths watering is complete and utter lack of capacity. Counterpart willingness to address
problems is beside the point—you might as well be voting for prom queen based on
personality. The development pie gets baked and split up, and everyone eats except those
who are hungry. Where’s a cigarette when you need one?

Just as my headache’s getting to be too much the minister’s door swings open like the
pearly gates in all their heavenly glamour, and a consultant shakes hands goodbye
unctuously, homage paid by another castrated colonialist.

The minister is the Big Man, the Earth Mother, the end and the beginning. I take one more
long, hard draw, and force myself into a toothy smile.


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