Foreign Consulting Odds & Ends
The story goes that an American once saw a boy with a fish at the Copacabana beach who he asked: why he did not fish some more? to which the boy replied "whatfore"? To which the American answered "so that you can buy a fishing boat" to which the boy answered "whatfore"? To which the American replied "so that you can make more money" to which the boy replied "whatfore"? To which the American said "to take a pleasant vacation"! To which the boy replied "but that vacation I am having right now". This and many real-world examples illustrate that a consultant needs to be careful in his assessment of a situation and continuously weigh the validity of the underlying assumptions of a project. Not all goes on with monetary logic in the "other countries".
And if the above story is "reasonable and understandable" the following one tells one that not everything is reasonable: On an island of the river Chapare there once was an alligator sunbathing and not far away a scorpion was going back and forth until the heavy rains upstream raised dangerously the water levels. Under the circumstances the scorpion was obliged to wake the alligator and ask him for the favour to carry him across the river on his back....still half asleep the alligator protested by saying that halfway through the river the scorpion would lounge his poison and both would die....the scorpion thought this totally unreasonable and finally the alligator agreed to take the scorpion across the river....only to find out the hard way that the scorpion did poison him violently: why? "Because this is Boolivia"!
J* got shaken up by the Guatemala earthquake of 1976 at 3 am on the tenth floor of the Plaza Hotel. He was thrown out of bed and did not know what was going on. In the morning matters appeared bad with countless houses and buildings in ruins and 25,000 dead. Foreign aid did a lot of good in those days with rebuilding, water supply and health programs. It was an example of what may be called "determinism" i.e. where there is a clear problem, one knows what to do; where one deals with "making things better" such as in the pursuit of "development" one never quite knows how to deal with it.
After a visit to the Big Falls Ranch in Belize CS* surprised by expressing his hate of the PM, Eric King, and further proceeded to say that the worst legacy of colonization was "the inferiority complex"! It proved to be difficult to work with people that have a "chip on their shoulder"; differences cannot be legislated away as demonstrated by most "affirmative action programs". Ecce Homo: "Ressentiment Social"!
Social resentment and poverty are the breeding grounds for socialist movements and exploitation of the masses. J*'s first impression back in 1983 of Georgetown, Guyana, was "dirty, sticky, silent, hot, humid and run-down". With its social experimentation, Guyana lost its best brains and a quarter of its population to other countries. Similar sights greeted J* in Ghana, Ethiopia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Congo, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela. It takes a lot of time to redress the situation and cure the countries of dogmatic views and policies; and in quite a few cases changes came about through violence.
Consulting requires a lot of patience and common sense. J*'s involvement with the Guyana program started at the unholy hour of 3 am when his sleep was rudely interrupted by a phone-call with the question whether he could be on the plane to Barbados this morning? The High Commission down there would take care of the rest. It was urgent! What had happened? A* and Mrs. M* were on a Food Aid mission ready to fly to Georgetown from Barbados when they had some differences of opinion about "who was the boss"? which escalated to the point where A* threw the contents of a pitcher of beer at Mrs. Mrs. was the boss alright and was married to a high ranking Aid officer yet she knew nothing about Food Aid......A*'s contract was cancelled there and then and returned home in disgrace. Who could substitute A*? and allow the mission to go on without interruption? Well J* was selected but he would not go next morning and insisted that he and Mrs. M* meet at headquarters as soon as the latter could make it. This meeting turned out to be quite friendly and it was agreed that Mrs. M* would edit and finalize the report while J* would deal with the technical matters. The Mission was 'successful' inasmuch as there was harmony between its members; but Food Aid was not considered appropriate instead a fertilizer Line of Credit and the set-up of a counterpart fund was eventually approved.
On occasion of a flood-control project study, C* was obliged to calculate the value of a Bangladeshie's life. It was not much. The dikes and polders are still not built and the monsoon-flood claim their yearly drowned. It remains an eerie matter to make these calculations and not act. Also, the money standard is somewhat barbaric. Can one measure "culture" or "religion" in pennies? But go and argue with the World Bank about this.
And speaking of "standards", J*'s youngest daughter was asked by her nanny one day "if she loved her"? She replied 3000. And when asked about her mother she replied 3. And when asked about her sister she replied "3 nothings"! When J* mentioned this story to C* he observed that the poor Bangladeshies of the flood-control project "were a million nothings" yet this was an uncomfortable "lot"!
Through a friend of President Reagan, in the early 80's J* handed over an unsolicited proposal dealing with the consequences of the population growth of Mexico and Central America. The title "Guns along the Border" hardly appeared exaggerated for already in those days 1 to 2 million "Illegals" crossed the Rio Grande. No one read the analysis, no one did anything about it. While the Berlin Wall fell, the Americans build walls along the Rio Grande and kill those that venture too far. It was and it continues to be a sorry state of affair where Congress and later Governments---while waging foreign wars---have had no guts "to do something about it". "Illegals" are cheap labour and subject to extortion; so, opportunism has lead America to a slow but perceptible change. Some Americans resent this while they should be looking themselves in the mirror. The Mexicans call it the "Reconquista"!
Has "Globalization" been a "solution" to "poverty"? Judging from the number of "walls" that have been set up to prevent migrations (e.g. Rumania, US-Mexico, Israel, the Mediterranean) the answer is a definite NO!
The last time J* went to Honduras, President Maduro made it his policy to materially support emmigrants to the US. The Mexicans had something similar. No wonder that the giant of the north builds walls. Yet the numbers keep rising---over 40 million---are changing the political map in the US.
In many LDC's the biggest business has become the export of workers. Millions, no Trillions, are transferred to the countries of origin and creating sizable economic shifts e.g. in the case of Grenada, over 80% of its GDP consists of transfers from Grenadians abroad. No wonder that "home" consists of retired caretakers who don't care to work. Globalization is in, Nationalism is out; it is the mighty buck that counts.
With E* appeared the news of the "Beehive Management" concept: here, all project participants buzzed around and all talked at the same time until no decisions were made possible. Then matters were referred to various committee's that could never be responsible for anything. The last that spoke to him "was right" and so many things went wrong and needed "fixing". In many cases it was too late. Government posts seem to have become a "right" that does not fit with responsibility. No wonder that so little works.
Associated to "Beehive Management" it occurred to E* "not to give up" and invented the "clutch theory of development". This was the answer to the general concept of some LDC's "readiness"; the recognition of the "necessity" but also the recognition of apparent impossibility in bringing all conditions together for success. Supposedly the "clutch" could get things started and the way it got activated came in many fuzzy forms but generally got its help from good will on the part of all concerned and appreciation of the LDC side of the quality of the aid program.
B* once asked J* about "competitiveness" in the international consulting business? This is a broad question replied J* and depends on many factors such as experience, specialization, and subject matter. In general though, J*'s experience had provided him with the following breakdown for specialists: 25% are good and competitive; another 25% are OK; 10% are passable and the remainder is useless. Of course: Aid Agencies try to select “the best”, but more often than not selections depend upon other factors than excellence: quotas; number of projects already executed with a given agency; political pressures; nationality; etc. The result is seldom ideal and often non-workable.
A reputable engineering firm once was involved with a river basin plan for a Southeast Asian country. In the process it made a capital mistake in calculating the necessary earthworks. Delays and cost overruns were the consequence. There were evaluations and acrimonious discussions between the firm and the aid-client which ended up with the aid-client "pulling the plug" and terminating the contract. The recipient country as well as the donor country "trade authorities" had always assumed that the engineering firm would actually "execute" the plan, but the aid authorities stubbornly insisted on their point of view. Not all donor countries have similar independent arrangements. In the end, the project was terminated against a selection of a similar project in a neighbouring country. Why? Because of political pressure!
The other day B* was upset because he needed to meet the Civil Service Union on account of whether the non-professional staff had a right to 15 rather than 10 minutes coffee-brake. The whole took a week. Finally B* agreed to the 15 minutes. Can these aid-administrators care for the poor?
USAID is even worse: Israel receives monies for arms; Egypt receives food aid to keep quiet; and Colombia has its Drug-program. Thus 80% of the budget is spent on things that have little to do with "aid". If one has such a program or if it is more important to have 15 rather than 10 minutes coffee-brake it is best to cancel everything. But no one has the guts to do that!
Consulting is not for everybody: it took J* 14 years to "win" a Sri Lanka job for 35 million. He dreamt of retirement in a sunny climate but it was not to be: the Tamil Tigers appeared and the aid program got cancelled! Against that J* received a smaller Mali project in less than three months.
Terms of reference are another matter: in one extreme 34 single spaced pages specified exhaustedly what was expected; on another occasion a verbal "fix it" was deemed sufficient.
And speaking of "fix it": after a few cases, patterns seem to evolve that relate to poor planning, management mistakes, politically related conveniences. If properly dealt with these patterns, no "Fix it" missions needed to be undertaken.....yet here experience showed that bureaucratic bungling did not permit principled decisions. Single problems were usually "fixable"; systemic problems are not. Shakespeare thought that "action is eloquence"; typically bureaucrats apply the "demi-verite's qu' arrangent" instead of the "verite's qu' arrangent". Consequently, bureaucrats pass on the endemic problem without fixing it. A lot of consultants find it convenient to perpetuate the problem.
Nothing wrong with "experimenting" as long as it makes sense.....In the early 8o's the Ghana aid-program was avant-garde and quite peculiar: it selected the Northern Region and named a Dagomba man as "coordinator" just when the Dagomba tribe had invaded the neighbouring Nanumba and had killed 500 with bows and arrows. The aid program responsibles and even the Embassy in Accra were surprisingly non-chalant about the situation (what are 500 less?) and just added a "pacification" activity for its consultants. Could the Dagomba coordinator be objective? Would there be a Nanumba revenge? How could foreigners who did not know the tribal customs and languages, "pacify" let alone induce "development"?
In addition, the Ghana aid program wanted to try "local empowerment" by sending five consulting firm representatives to the project area to "compete" with each other publicly in front of the local authorities. Unheard of yet true! The regional Governor of Tamale organized a trial run of the consultant selection process: first, the consultants needed to drink Gin--the one that drank the most won--; second, the consultants needed to dance with girls selected by the Governor--the one who danced best, won; third, and last, the consultants were tested in bed by their dance partners who later reported on it to the Governor! Well, after so much laughable effort who won? The only gay consultant! How so? Because his boss was the friend of our PM! Yes, consulting is not for everybody.
Once J* got hired by a private company to assess the feasibility of establishing fishing terminals along the coast of Nigeria. In the process, one day, J*, M* and an officer from the Department of Fisheries set out from Igbogoda to the mouth of the Benin river in a speed-boat. Two hours was the time calculated for that trip but it turned out to be closer to seven hours and this brought a major problem with the low tide in the mud-flats of the Benin river: the outboard motors sucked up too much mud and that finished their operation. From the coast a small boat came to the rescue but asked for too much money. M* was worried that we would run into unfriendly coastal villages (cannibals were reported?)......but finally the closest village "Oba" (village head) sent three persons to pull us to a canal and the village. It took hours but when arrived, J* believed that the mud would not be very deep and jumped from the boat into the canal only to get stuck to the hip causing lots of laughter in the polder village crowd. J* had to be pulled out with a rope and the Oba ordered a bunch of girls to "clean" him up to further laughter. When the others made it to shore via planks it was dark. Everybody came to the Oba's house where a Coke was offered but there was no opener: no problems! M* tried with his teeth only to be sprayed by the gushing Coke. Everybody laughed once more especially the fisheries officer who sat against the wall below a boxed in image of Christ and on occasion of his laughter bumped the wall and caused the door of the box to fall on his head! Laughter would not stop and the ice was broken. Then they could talk shop of how much the village motorized and non-motorized canoes produced per day? At 1 am the tide allowed the speedboat to depart.
J*, P* and B* shared an hotel suite in Lima sometime ago. J* drank a lot of Pisco one evening and snored violently thereafter; B* who slept close by could not stand it and moved with his sheets and pillows next door where he found P* staring at the window where B*'s white reflection appeared.....P* asked the window: "are you a ghost"? No! I am B*!
Our world is in turmoil. Crises come thick and fast. Everyone’s list is different, but all include Ukraine. The crisis there has lit the fuse of new cold war.
There is constant talk of who’s to blame.
The West accuses Russia of aggression in Georgia, in Ukraine, in the Baltics, in Syria. Its president is a demon, a bully, a spoiler, a thief, a war criminal, a fixer of U.S. elections — choose your epithet; they’re all in regular use. He’s out to restore the Soviet Union, to conquer the Balts again, to make life miserable for Ukraine and generally to thwart the West at every turn.
I think that narrative is faulty. Vladimir Putin is no choirboy; no great power leader dare be. He is tough, ruthless if need be serving Russia’s security interests, but not at all the demon he’s made out to be. And though nothing is as offensive as Russia on the defensive, I don’t think Moscow is an aggressive marauder. I don’t think it wants war and a broken Ukraine on its western flank. I do think it won’t abide a security threat there, though, and that it will pay and impose very high costs, as it’s doing, to avoid one.
More generally, I think that Russia demands more respect than it’s been getting; that Putin is prepared to be our partner, but never our puppet; and that he’s damned if the United States is going to go on running as much of the world as it’s been doing — and running it so badly. Just think of the U.S. foreign policy fiascos Putin has seen in his 17 years of power, above all in the Middle East — and imagine how the charge that he’s the one who’s “aggressive” strikes him.
We hear much less about others to blame for this mess we’re in.
A 2014 infographic shows that the advanced placement of NATO’s ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems and increased naval and troop presence encircling Russia and China, fundamentally alters strategic balance.
We wrote Russia off when the Soviet Union collapsed. We decided we could ignore its interests. For a decade, Yeltsin played along. Putin won’t. For one thing, he will contain NATO. He made that clear in Georgia in 2008 and he’s making it clear now in Ukraine.
NATO, Russians know, is not a knitting club. I think driving our well-armed military alliance up Russia’s nose was a colossal, counterproductively provocative mistake. That deed’s been done, though, and we have to live with it. Expanding NATO further, however, to include Georgia and Ukraine — as Canada has advocated — would invite catastrophe.
Independent Ukraine’s performance hasn’t helped much either.
Politically, Kyiv lost a fateful measure of the loyalty of its large ethnic Russian minority. It also failed to wrest political control from oligarchs.
Economically, Ukraine has fallen far behind its neighbours, east and west.
In foreign policy, Kyiv’s mistakes have been devastating.
It failed to keep the peace with its giant neighbour. Three years ago, with hard-line nationalists in charge, who’d trashed a European Union-brokered settlement we’d all welcomed, the Maidan picked a fight Kyiv can’t win with the Kremlin.
Kyiv can’t make the West care more — and can’t make the Kremlin care less. Like them or not, theory aside, major powers’ spheres of influence are real. We Canadians know that; we live in one. In the real world, Kyiv has about as much freedom to undermine Moscow’s security as Ottawa has to undermine Washington’s. (And, of course, its effective sovereignty is compromised. Welcome to the club.)
Kyiv was mistaken too in taking European promises of integration, of EU membership even, far too seriously. The prospect of EU membership was always a dream; now, with the EU beset, it’s pure fantasy.
Kyiv was mistaken as well in letting Westerners mind so much of its business. We’ve seen the U.S. choose a prime minister. We’ve seen American-proxy finance ministers. We’ve seen foreigners as ministers of reform and anti-corruption. And now we’re seeing the spectacle of Mikhail Saakashvili, fresh from picking his own fight with Russia and losing a good chunk of his country, show up in Ukraine as a regional governor and would-be president.
Through the quarter century of Ukraine’s independence, Canada has been determined to play a prominent role, driven above all by passionate diaspora sentiment. Quite out of character, and far from keeping with our modest military means, we became the West’s leading hawk. This aggressive posture, with its evident disdain for Russia, is struck to this day.
What I find striking in this record is that we’ve stood our values on their heads in Ukraine. We go out of our way, for one thing, to get along with our giant neighbour. With Ukrainians, though, who also live beside a giant, we cooperate in confrontation. The Russian bear should be poked in the eye at every opportunity.
Consider as well that while at home we practice pluralism, we pander in Ukraine to lethally exclusive ethnic nationalism. The latest example bound to exacerbate interethnic animosity is a new education policy banning Russian language instruction after Grade 4. Ethnic Russian Ukrainians, however patriotic — and Russians — cannot help but take offence. Wouldn’t you?
No country in the world has a more profound interest in good bilateral and Western relations with Russia than does Ukraine. Yet no country in the world has done less than its best, loudest friend, Canada, to encourage essential reconciliation.
Consider our Magnitsky sanctions (a House of Commons bill called Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act based on the U.S. government’s Magnitsky Act), enacted unanimously. What shred of due process do they entail? Who decides how long the list, who’s guilty, who’s not? At a time of new, tense Cold War and global upheaval, and particularly in the glaring, ahistorical absence of any Canadian effort whatever to ease tension, reduce risk, Canada’s grandstanding contribution of a late, ill-timed, imitative, redundantly duplicative, and entirely due process-free set of new Russia sanctions serves no good end whatever. This is our best shot, all we have to offer? To everything there is a season, including selective moral outrage.
Whoever’s to blame, though, we are where we are, on the verge of greater disaster, and, given the stakes, we really do have to keep some peace with Russia.
To do so, to respond to this imperative, my view is that we need to foreswear further NATO growth and make room and arrangements for Ukraine to trade well with both Europe and Russia, while posing a security threat to neither — and to have the space and peace and quiet it needs to try to reunite, recover, reform and succeed. Far from “sacrificing” Ukraine, as critics will claim, neutrality and détente would permit its salvation.
In sharp contrast, our government’s view is apparently that if we give Ukraine enough help, it will defeat the rebels and Russia in the Donbas, win back the loyalty of the now bitterly alienated ethnic Russians there, retrieve Crimea, join the West and Europe and NATO and live happily ever after, hostile all the while to its vast neighbour, Russia. I find that vision incoherent, full of delusions, sure recipes for more misery, more war.
I recommend that we devote intellectual and diplomatic talent to the conception and promotion bilaterally and multilaterally of a coherent, realistic vision of Eurasian security; that we recognize, comprehend and restore rational relations with Russia; that we reconsider our advocacy of further NATO expansion; that we promote essential Ukrainian-Russian reconciliation; and that we meantime sustain our necessarily modest contribution to NATO in Europe and enhance our armed forces at home.
It’s a tall order, but along with three oceans to sail, we have promises to keep.
This article first appeared in the December issue of Esprit de Corps.