A long time ago, I started my first HQ job with an organization whose main office was in the Washington D.C. area. I was young and cocky, several cumulative years of experience as a low-level staffer in Southeast Asia under my belt, the ink not quite dry on my graduate degree in anthropology. Just a few weeks into that new position with a new organization, I was assigned the task of managing an internal project, one element of which included supervising a consultant who was much older and had many years more experience in the industry than I.
There is no delicate way to put this: he was a pompous, belligerent old bastard. He was crusty, cranky, jaded, cynical, field-hardened, and prone to sweeping generalizations and ridiculously extreme pronouncements. A lifetime of aid work had taken it’s toll on his body and on his personal life. He’d been divorced a couple of times and had a couple of chronic conditions of the sort that you tend pick up when your life is spent in or bouncing between impoverished places, always a little bit ill, sleep-deprived and far from family for weeks/months on end. He’d been around quite a bit and had a strongly developed set of opinions about what worked and what didn’t. And he wore his disdain for me and my bright, new ideas on his sleeve.
I won’t bore you with the details of how things went except to say that after a predictably explosive three weeks together in rural India, I chose to escalate our issues up the chain of management. I basically got him fired. Not just fired, but effectively blacklisted for future consultancy with my then employer. And, as the aid world often really is a big good ol’ boys network, being blacklisted by one NGO can quickly turn into being blacklisted by many.
The actual quality of his work was of secondary relevance, I told myself. He was so offensive and difficult to work with that it outweighed the value of his actual performance or contribution to the project.
While I didn’t keep in touch with him, via my own networks I stayed loosely, vaguely aware of how things went for him after that. And they didn’t go well at all. His consultancies started to dry up, and he eventually retired early to survive by selling real estate.
For several years thereafter, in my heart of hearts, I’d occasionally congratulate myself for having indirectly made the world a better place by helping him find his way out of the aid industry.
* * *
Not quite as long ago, this time in a field position, “my” finance department presented to me evidence that one of the local project managers – someone I supervised directly – had essentially embezzled funds from the organization.
The actual amount in question was not large. And as we looked carefully at the circumstances surrounding that embezzlement, I also understood that while a clear and intentional violation of policy had taken place, it was also in some ways not entirely cut-and-dried. It was one of those odd but not-as-rare-as-you-might-think situations where one interpretation of what had happened, could be that he was simply doing what was culturally accepted and even expected in that context.
It was a situation that I wrestled with. In terms of effect on the project that he was running, the diversion of those funds he’d embezzled was of no material consequence. Outputs and targets would be achieved on schedule, impact and sustainability prospects would not change one iota.
Moreover, I could not shake the human element: I liked the guy, and prior to that had been quite pleased with his performance. He was a young man with a young family – a pretty young wife who’d insisted on playing the perfect hostess each time I’d been at the project site; a dribbling baby daughter, less than one year old who’d bounced on my knee on several occasions.
Taking the action required by company policy in this situation would have serious negative repercussions for my employee and his family. In some ways putting that family through hardship seemed exactly opposite to my entire purpose for being in that country, at that time in the first place. All made worse by the fact that I knew them all personally.
But in the end, despite some very deep emotional reservations, I fired him.
It was a straightforward, letter-of-the-law policy decision. It was about maintaining a “zero tolerance” stance on fraud or corruption in any form, and setting the right precedent in the office. My employer’s policy required that I do it, and the labor code of the country we were in allowed for it under our particular circumstances. It had to be done.
* * *
We all change over time.
As I look back through old correspondence, I’m often re-surprised to see the ways in which my thinking has evolved over the years. My first five years in aid showed the most significant change. While some ideas and ways of thinking become even more solidified, others – things I’d previously taken as “self-evident truths” – ended up going out the window.
I think back often to those two situations where I made similar choices but for very different reasons. And I can’t help but be struck by the fact that what seems crystal clear right now, with a year of hindsight can change 180 degrees; the reality that today’s principled vitriol is very often tomorrow’s self-doubt. This is made all the more troubling by the fact that very often we have more power than we think we do. Very often what we do – even things that seem small – matters more than we think it does. Whether we like it or not. And all too often we’re unaware of the impact of it all until long after the fact, by which time it is far too late.
What happens when you base large, far-reaching decisions on assumptions and opinions that you later come to realize were dead wrong?
You do this job long enough and you begin to accrue an account of stains on your soul. Do this long enough and your dark moments are haunted by the faces of beneficiaries you’ve had to turn away; by the memory of communities not necessarily made better by a pet project that maybe served your interests at the time – or worse, one that failed miserably; by the memory of actions taken in fits of self-righteous self-empowerment but later regretted; by faces of those you’ve had to injure in some way, perhaps in the name of “the greater good.”
* * *
The belligerent consultant with whom I traveled to India was truly a mean, nasty person who should not have been hired for that job in the first place. To this day that is my sincere and honest opinion.
But I have come to understand him better in recent years.
Call me old school. Call me status quo. Call me conservative, if you must (although I may shoot myself). But you’ll understand, gentle readers, when I do not immediately jump to embrace every bright new idea, every shiny new boutique NGO, or every anti-the aid establishment opinion out there.
And the less I seek my source for some definitive Closer I am to fine – Indigo Girls