Excerpt from At The Table With The Family
Illustrated by Judith E. Samonte
First Page Publications (2004), 350pp
The young attractive woman approached me and introduced herself as a member of the Swedish International Development Agency. It was a mild summer afternoon under the jacaranda trees, which were in lavender bloom, and a cocktail party was in progress for members of the various foreign aid missions to the Kingdom of Swaziland. This was in 1979, and I was a member of an education project funded by the United States Agency for International Development, administered by Eastern Michigan University for the Swaziland Ministry of Education. After exchanging pleasantries, she asked: "In what field are you an expert?" I had never considered myself an "expert" for the term implied a lot of responsibility, and I also found it presumptuous to be so labeled in a developing country. I was, therefore, unprepared for the question. Taking mental note that she was attractive and refined, I did not wish to be contentious. I gave a general and vague response indicating that I was an "adviser," my official title in relation to the Swaziland Ministry of Education. She did not follow-up, so I asked her the same question. Without hesitation, she responded, "I am an expert in Biology." For one who looked young enough to be a recent college graduate, I admired her confidence. Such an attitude on the part of foreign aid agents, however, has been an issue I have struggled with as an academician, even more so at that time since I was a member of a foreign aid team.
|It is reasonable to say that the extension of foreign aid is generally motivated by the donor country's national interest, and the United States is no exception. It would be naive to assume otherwise.
This question relates to a bigger issue about the role of donor countries. Is it the intent, for instance, to impose the culture of the donor on the client country, and if so, to what extent and in what way? It is reasonable to say that the extension of foreign aid is generally motivated by the donor country's national interest, and the United States is no exception. It would be naive to assume otherwise.
If we need to be more concerned about the image Americans project abroad, the signs of improvement do not appear to be forthcoming. Recently, in a letter to the editor of TIME (January 21, 2002) a writer criticized what he called our "insensitivity to others." Quoted in full:
In your article 'Inside Tora Bora' you stated that 'the Afghans might be useful proxies for some jobs but were perhaps not quite professional enough to finish' the war against the Taliban' (The Manhunt, Dec. 24). That remark was offensive and belittling toward those Afghan soldiers who in the past weeks shed their blood in battle in their homeland. Most of America's ground forces have seen relatively little action during that time, while the 'not quite professional' Afghan troops have cleared out the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Such insensitivity to others and a tendency to self-aggrandizement often lead to hatred of the U.S. in other parts of the world.
From a more personal perspective, I remember visits to the Philippines in the 1980s and 90s when I encountered young Filipino college students who were more nationalistic than my generation. They were only too glad to tell me (particularly me, who had renounced my Philippine citizenship to become an American citizen) that the Philippines had been on the short end of the stick in its relationship with the United States. They cited the pollution left by United States Armed Forces in the naval bases in Cavite and Subic Bay, and at the airbase Clark Field. They also called my attention to the indiscriminate use by American corporations of pesticides (even those banned from use in the United States), and to the distribution of free samples of American cigarettes, at college functions and in the streets of Manila. They asked me why pharmaceutical drugs that could not be sold without prescription in the United States could be purchased over the counter in Filipino drug stores! These young people's anger was unmistakable.
I was reminded of that unpleasant situation in Korea a year later in Mannheim, Germany. This time it involved American professionals! I was invited to give a presentation at a conference of American educators in Mannheim, Germany. In the evening, about ten of the conferees decided to go out to dinner and they invited me to go along with them. We went to a small but elegant restaurant. The place was conservatively and tastefully decorated. The local customers were well dressed; the women were nicely attired for an evening out and the men wore coats and ties. The couples chatted quietly by candle light. Our group entered the place noisily and apparently unmindful of the other people in that setting. The Americans had some of the tables rearranged so they could all sit together. I saw the same disapproving and angry look from the other customers in that restaurant as I saw among the passengers in that bus in Korea! I wished then that I had gone out on my own to enjoy a nice quiet dinner somewhere! Although these are admittedly minor incidents, they reflect how Americans who behave insensitively are sometimes regarded abroad.
I believe it is possible to gain the good will and friendship of people in client countries. It certainly would help if foreign aid projects were carefully conceptualized, and staffed with qualified people to implement them. Education projects, for example, need to be carefully planned to dovetail with the current level of technology in the client country. Local participation in the initiation and implementation of projects would certainly help in developing sustainable programs that can continue even after the technicians of the donor country have left. And to insure that the projects are on track, they must be monitored every step of the way. Internal evaluations of foreign aid projects appear to be less objective than assessments by external organizations. External evaluators tend to be more honest and less forgiving. Without a rigorous and honest assessment, I believe, we risk repeating poorly conceived foreign aid missions from one country to the next.
But opportunity to work overseas need not be discouraging; it can be fun and exciting, both professionally and socially. There is not much one can do about how the United States government decides to spend taxpayers' money overseas, or how universities make decisions picking people to run international projects, and much less about the mental faculties and limited experience of a project leader. So if you are involved in such projects, be your own boss to the extent you can. Get to know the local people and travel, always remembering to look out for your own safety. Find ways to enrich your experience overseas. There will be lighter moments that can lessen the drudgery of poorly conceptualized assignments.
The project in Swaziland was designed to help reform the elementary school curriculum to reflect more of the country's indigenous culture and its aspirations as an independent nation, and less of the influence of British colonialism. The project was sub-divided into different components, including Language Arts, Social Studies, Science, Mathematics, and Teacher Education. I was in charge of the teacher education component. This provided in-service training for teachers for the new materials produced by our project. It was another multi-million dollar undertaking funded by the United States Agency for International Development and administered by Eastern Michigan University.
I should mention that my local counterparts in Swaziland, as well as in North Yemen, viewed me as a colleague from another third world country. This resulted in a closer working relationship with them than what they afforded the white team members of our project. I was invited to their homes for dinner, asked to join them for a drink in Swaziland and included to chew qat (a mild narcotic) in Yemen. These occasions encouraged informality and exchange of ideas. It was at these settings that they sometimes suggested ways that they could facilitate approval of something in which I might have been interested at the time.
| Not wanting to drop the matter so easily, he reminded me that the person selected by Eastern Michigan University was white, and he was from a university other than the base of the project!
A good example was the approval of my proposal, which I called "Mobile Teachers Center" (MTC), to provide in-service training for teachers in the rural areas of Swaziland. I thought the MTC was a sensible idea for a country where most of the teachers worked in rural areas and transportation to the towns was not readily available to the teachers. For some reason, the American project leader and his Swazi counterpart were indifferent to the idea. Thus, getting the MTC approved eventually required making use of my special relationship with our other counterparts from the client country. I decided to discuss my proposal informally with the Minister of Education and his Permanent Secretary (PS), just to learn their thinking. They turned out to be enthusiastic about the concept of an MTC. Their approval was assured. They suggested, however, that we go through the formality of asking the American project leader and the Swazi Director to meet with the PS to "discuss" what their thinking was about my proposal. The Minister of Education and the PS were already aware that the American project leader and his Swazi counterpart were indifferent to the idea of a Mobile Teacher Center.
As prearranged between the PS and myself, the PS asked me to outline my proposal as the group convened in his office later that week. While I gave my presentation, the PS conspicuously made approving gestures and comments, as if he was hearing my proposal for the first time! After my brief talk, the PS asked the American project leader and Swazi Director what they thought about the MTC proposal. To my surprise they gave their enthusiastic agreement and praises for a "great concept!" They must have noticed the approving gestures of the PS during my presentation. So the two reluctant and bewildered project administrators thought it more prudent to endorse the proposal! I speculated that on their drive back from Mbabane to Manzini, the American project leader and Swazi Director probably wondered what had hit them!
After a nationally televised introduction of the Mobile Teacher Center at a government building provided by the PS, the M.T.C. was well-received by parents and teachers. The United States Ambassador attended, as did members of the Ministry of Education, and some representatives of other foreign aid missions. The event was not only televised, it was also covered on the front page of the Swazi Times, including pictures of the United States Ambassador looking at our exhibits of teaching aids made out of throw-away and/or inexpensive materials. This well-publicized introduction was calculated (1) to dramatize its approval by the Ministry of Education, (2) to insure that the teachers would be receptive to the idea, and (3) to encourage the education inspectors to be cooperative. A few months later, a delegation from the Ministry of Education of Zambia came to Swaziland to visit our education project. It was a bit of a let down for the Swazi director, who had proudly greeted them, after they told him they had come to see me to learn more about the Mobile Teacher Center!
After completing in 1981 my two year assignment in Swaziland, I was appointed in 1984 as "Chief of Party" for a United States Agency for International Development foreign aid project in North Yemen, administered by Eastern Michigan University. Incidentally, my selection as head of the project in North Yemen was the result of the intervention by the Yemeni Director of Education of the government of Yemen. He selected me over the person recommended by Eastern Michigan University. The Yemeni Director of Education asked me later what was the rationale that made Eastern Michigan University recommend someone who the Yemeni Director thought was clearly less qualified than me, based on his comparison of our credentials. Since I did not want to pursue what I considered an unpleasant personal experience, I jokingly replied that it was sometimes extremely difficult to understand the ways of the university. Not wanting to drop the matter so easily, he reminded me that the person selected by Eastern Michigan University was white, and he was from a university other than the base of the project! He ended his inquiry with a slight shake of his head, obviously bothered by what he called an example of "racism and discrimination" by an American university. The ranking of the two candidates by Eastern Michigan University was later confirmed to me by the university's messenger, who personally brought the two sets of credentials, mine and EMU's preferred candidate's, to Yemen.
|They did not say anything about the map until their second visit, about a week later. In a somewhat light-hearted manner, one of them commented that my map was not accurate. It had Israel on it, and he noted that "Legally, Israel does not exist."
While in Yemen, I had informal visits by officials of the Ministry of Education. A huge world map hung on the wall of my office. While chatting with me, they would casually look at my map. They did not say anything about the map until their second visit, about a week later. In a somewhat light-hearted manner, one of them commented that my map was not accurate. It had Israel on it, and he noted that "Legally, Israel does not exist." I commented that I had not given that much thought, and left it at that. The following week when they came for their visit, one of them went straight to the map. When he joined us later, while we were drinking the usual hospitality hot sweetened tea, he proudly announced that he just "helped" me. He had brought a piece of paper and Scotch tape and covered Israel! "Now," he assured me, "you are not going to be in trouble with other visitors!" With another year and a half to go for my assignment, prudence suggested that I leave the scotch tape intact on the map!
The outcome of another incident was entirely different. One afternoon when I had my weekly visit with the Director of Education who had selected me as head of the multi-million dollar education project, he called my attention to his suspicion that my Administrative Assistant was an "Israeli spy." It was an accusation that I was entirely unprepared for. I looked at my translator and suggested that he ask the Director to repeat what he had said to be sure I understood him accurately. The Director repeated the same thing that I heard the first time! He added that unless I fired the employee in question, the government of Yemen had no desire to continue the project! I replied politely that my Administrative Assistant was not an Israeli spy and that I was not even aware of his religious affiliation. What was important to me, I emphasized, was that he performed his responsibilities as a good Administrative Assistant.
I looked at the clock on the wall; it was getting close to three o'clock. I calculated I had time to go to the USAID office in Sanaa and discuss the matter with the Director of USAID and his education officer. On the way to the car, I checked with my translator, Hassan, if there was any chance that he had misunderstood the Yemeni Director of Education. Hassan was emphatic that the Director was very clear.
The Director of USAID and the Education Officer were supportive of my interpretation and suggestion that the Yemeni Director was probably bluffing, and that we should take a stand in supporting my Administrative Assistant. Assured of their support, Hassan drove me back to the Ministry since there was time left for the Director to see me. I began by indicating that I had looked forward to completing my tenure in Yemen. Unfortunately, the USAID had taken the view that we would rather discontinue the project than fire one of our employees based on no more than the allegation that he was a spy. Frankly, I had my fingers crossed as I made my pitch because my position was based on the assumption that the Director was bluffing and that Yemen could not afford to give up a multi-million dollar project. I think he was surprised that I had gone to the USAID for consultation. The Director was quiet and then he said that he had been misunderstood. It was his way out and I closed the matter at that point by indicating I was glad it was just a misunderstanding. On our way to the car, Hassan was understandably furious. "Dr. Samonte, he was very clear with what he said. And he even repeated it when you asked him!" I reassured Hassan I had confidence in his translation, but we had to give the Yemeni Director a reasonable way out. I am sure the Director realized that the Yemeni Minister of Education would have given him hell for risking a multi-million dollar project. My Administrative Assistant stayed on and I never told him about that session at the Ministry of Education.
The Yemeni Director and I worked well together for the duration of my stay. He even requested that I undertake a survey of schools, allowing me to select my own sample, and identify their strengths and weaknesses. I did just that, much to the surprise of the USAID office, which informed me that two American educators who had wanted to carry out a similar survey were refused by the Director. The two researchers were later asked to leave the country! Obviously, the Director of Education continued to have confidence in me, in spite of my stand against him when I supported my Administrative Assistant.
|He said, "You stay, Dr. Samonte. You, Director of Education of Yemen. You fix bad project when you come. You finished quickly." I thanked him for his confidence.
I cannot forget the other workers who helped me a great deal in connection with the project in North Yemen. I had translators, drivers, and one I will call my "special fixer." Ibrahim, one of four drivers of the project, used to bring clusters of freshly harvested dates to the apartment when Judy was visiting from the United States. He must have remembered, too, my story about one of my trips to the seaport of Hodeida when I could not get fresh fish at a seaside restaurant. The waiter had assured me he had something even better, "imported canned sardines from Portugal!" During one of my subsequent trips to Hodeida with Judy, Ibrahim knocked at our hotel door one evening to surprise us with delicious grilled fish that was still hot. He had bought it at the public market. They did have fresh fish in Hodeida!
Sadek was another driver with the project. When I found out that four of the seven vehicles no longer had insurance coverage, I had them impounded until all insurance papers were in order. Sadek came to my office and politely assured me not to worry about insurance papers. He said "Allah will take care." I thanked him for his concern, but I also indicated that since I was not Muslim,I was not sure I was protected by Allah.
Sadek drove me home one day and confided that his wife had been vomiting in the morning. I suggested the possibility that she might be pregnant. "It cannot be. I already have eight children!" he countered. A couple of days later, as we were walking across the parking lot, he got closer to me and he looked around to be sure nobody was listening. He said, in a whisper, that he had special medicine for his wife. I was puzzled by all the secrecy. Looking around some more, he took something from his pocket that he called "special medicine from Israel." There in his cupped hand was a small bottle of Alka Seltzer! A week later, I asked how the special medicine from Israel was working. He was quiet for a while, which got me a little worried, and then he said his wife was pregnant again!
For all his family concerns, he came to see me during my last week in Yemen. He said, "You stay, Dr. Samonte. You, Director of Education of Yemen. You fix bad project when you come. You finished quickly." I thanked him for his confidence. After Sadek left my office, I must confess I felt a bit elated to think one of the Yemenis I worked with felt that way. I chuckled, too, when I recalled that it was Sadek who joked about "driving for Dr. Samonte was like Ramadan," for I did not allow smoking or drinking in the car when I was a passenger. Later on during my tenure in Yemen, I did allow the driver to chew qat when I was a passenger and we were on long trips since the driver informed me chewing qat helped him to stay awake!
|He made sure I did not drive if it could be avoided. He knew that if I ever got into a car accident, the foreigner was always at fault, with all kinds of unpleasant consequences.
Hassan was in a class by himself. He was my personal driver, translator and my "special fixer." He could get shipments for the project released from the Bureau of Customs in one or two days. That was quite an achievement if you consider how other projects struggled with that problem. The Chief of Party of one of the American projects mentioned that he counted 48 signatures and waited another three weeks before one of his shipments was released. He asked me how long it took to get my shipments. I just said "It takes time." I did not want to reveal my secret. Evidently it was a secret I could not conceal indefinitely for, one day, I received a call from a friend at the USAID office. He asked delicately if I "could lend Hassan to their office even just for a few days?"
Hassan was always protective of me. He made sure I did not drive if it could be avoided. He knew that if I ever got into a car accident, the foreigner was always at fault, with all kinds of unpleasant consequences. He was also concerned about my housekeeping chores. Since I was in Yemen by myself, living in a huge four-bedroom luxury apartment, in a complex built especially for the families of members of the diplomatic corps and foreign business representatives, he suggested it would not be a bad idea if I had a "young live-in maid from Ethiopia!" His attractive wife was from Ethiopia, and their house was usually a gathering place for a handful of Ethiopian refugees for Sunday dinner. Three or four young Ethiopian women were invited regularly for these Sunday dinners. The women were nice-looking, and I did not miss that. I could not help but smile at the thought that Hassan was an incurable fixer indeed, always looking out for my well-being.
© Quirico S. Samonte, Jr.
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