“I’m glad I did it, partly because it was worth it, but mostly because I shall never have to do it again.” –Mark Twain
It’s over… I am no longer in Ethiopia and I have no plans on returning any time in the near future. For me, Peace Corps is over. Africa is over. After more than two years spent on foreign soil I am finally on my way back to Colorado; albeit very indirectly. I have been writing portions of this post for months now, but have never published them because I was disillusioned enough to write the words, yet not cynical enough to press the button that would post them publically. Moreover, as I said in the No Opinion post that I also had to wait to post until leaving Ethiopia, I did not want to get in trouble with the U.S. or Ethiopian governments for speaking my mind. I have to admit that this is a half-cooked post. It is full of tangents and unfinished thoughts. I apologize in advance for the discontinuities and disorder.
The flight from Georgetown in Washington D.C. to Addis Ababa was disappointingly, terrifyingly uneventful. Most of the trainees, including myself and Claire, spent much of the flight standing in the back of the plane talking about life in the States and trying to decide what our first projects as official Peace Corps Volunteers would be. We would not complete our training and be official volunteers for another two and a half months, but everyone had grand plans for helping the people of Ethiopia. I hardly slept on the flight and I know that not many from our group were able to close their eyes for more than a few minutes at a time. The plane was approaching the East African coast on our connecting flight from Frankfurt when the warm, muted tones of sunset crept into the cabin and filled it with an orange glow. I felt proud to be going to Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer and was certain that the Ethiopian people would not only benefit from the skills I had, but that they would also be eternally grateful for the knowledge I would bestow. As I gazed out the airplane window, I fanaticized about the opening scene of the biographical film that would be created about my life and the globally-recognized and universally-inspirational NGO that I would found as a direct result of my work in Peace Corps Ethiopia. Night caught up with the plane as I was pondering what the actor playing me would say in the voiceover about my thoughts on the long plane ride over.
As we approached Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, I was surprised by the increasing density and brilliance of the lights below us. Good for them, I thought, everyone deserves to be able to stay up into the night sharing time with family and studying for school. The lights carpeted the landscape beneath the airplane in the last few minutes of the flight and I half wondered whether this was the right place.
Nations often put things they associate with their identity or successes on their flags. Mozambique has an AK-47 rifle complete with bayonet, Lebanon has the famous Cedar of Lebanon, and numerous nations have the star and crescent symbol of Islam. In Ethiopia’s case the flag should have an image of an outstretched hand. Ethiopia has been able to concurrently foster feelings of national pride and communal helplessness. Ethiopia owes its current success (existence) as a nation-state from being able to attract the help of others. Due to the famine in the 1980s many international aid organizations established their headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capitol. With the construction of the new African Union (AU) compound, Addis Ababa is quickly becoming the functional capitol of the entire continent. Not a cent of the 250 million dollar bill for the gargantuan AU compound came from Africa itself. The construction was a “gift” from the Chinese government, which has billions of dollars invested in Ethiopian infrastructure and has been “gifted” thousands of hectares of fertile land in return. Since the predecessor of USAID began giving aid to Ethiopia in 1952, millions of dollars have been provided to the Ethiopian government every year. Between 1952 and 2011 Ethiopia has been “gifted” over $9.8 billion. USAID gave Ethiopia over $678 million in 2011 alone, which is actually down from the $839 million given in 2010.[i] This is the contribution of just one agency, from just one country. In 2011, the British International Development Secretary announced that despite “reports that huge sums of money had been wasted or simply been stolen on the ground,” and cutting aid to twenty other countries, Ethiopia will become the largest recipient of foreign aid from the UK by 2015.[ii]
The salaries and office equipment of many agricultural office employees are directly funded by USAID or other U.S. backed development institutions. I have heard stories of the dedication of some of these workers and read about the work they have done towards creating an ecologically and economically sound Ethiopian future. I have personally never seen this version of reality. The reality that I have seen is how many more of these civil servants use the well-intentioned, yet misappropriated dollars from the American taxpayer. Agricultural extension agents often have to make “field visits,” which are usually trips to a rural area for several weeks at a time, where a one to three day training is held for the office’s beneficiaries. These beneficiaries are paid an exorbitant per diem to attendant the training (also indirectly funded by USAID) and many go to the trainings only to get paid, with no intention of implementing the practices being taught. When I have visited these offices and the agents have actually been at their desks, 7 times out of 10 they are playing solitaire on their computer (graciously provided by American taxpayers) or doodling on a piece of scratch paper.
I learned the idea of intolerance stacks from my father, whose work for many years has involved the manufacturing of components for larger, nested systems. The concept is equally applicable to airplanes, pocket calculators, pencils and cultures. Many systems, whether mechanical, ecological or social, operate within a range of tolerances. These ranges of tolerances are determined by the components of the system as well as the connections with the larger systems that it is a part of. The system works fine as long as all of its components are working within a certain range of conditions. If something is off a sixteenth of a millimeter here, and a hair’s breadth there the system can often still function. When a system is dominated by these slight deviations, however, these intolerances “stack up” and the system does not run well. For a loose musical interpretation please see Reggie Watts’s music video “F*ck S*it Stack”.
Of course, it is relatively easy to say that a component of a machine is too far from a stated standard to operate. It is much more difficult to say that an entire culture has missed the mark and is relentlessly grinding away its gears. The Command-and-Control mentality that dominated natural resource decisions in 20th century America revealed the dangers of treating complex, adaptable system like machines. When applied to organic and/or highly variable systems like sociological interactions the concept is imperfect, however, it is still applicable. Development work often treats complex, nested systems like simple machines with inputs and outputs yet simultaneously fails to recognize the intolerances as they pile up onto one another.
I may be a disillusioned cynic when it comes to Africa’s “development,” but having spoken to literally dozens of people who have been drained of their passion and optimism on this continent, I know that I am not alone. On the other hand, there are also literally hundreds of amazing people doing amazing work all over the continent. Unfortunately and misleadingly, in the never-ending quest for future funding it is usually these success stories that get pushed to the surface of the mainstream. The lion’s share drifts to the bottom. No one likes to advertise a failure, but for NGOs making a failure public could mean a decline in funding. I have tried to be optimistic; to find the good even on the most trying days.
Unfortunately, ‘what should be,’ ‘what could be’ and ‘what is’ are completely different realities. One could say the same for most countries, although in most countries this failure to be ‘what could be’ is not a matter of life and death. I do not mean something as prosaic as human death, but rather the death of an entire landscape; the ability of a place to support life. Of course Ethiopia will always have something green. I am not so pessimistic and disheartened to think that there will be a time when nothing grows here. It is rather the loss of richness and the loss of potential that will never be restored while humanity is still on Earth.
I hate Ayn Rand… no, really, I need you to understand. I HATE Ayn Rand; it’s not just one of those things people say. There are very few people, aside from Ann Coulter, that I have an equal level of contempt for. Rand fanaticized about an ideal society that was the absolute antithesis of the faltering Soviet socio-economic system that she blamed most of the world’s problems on. She went from one nonfunctional extreme to the opposite nonfunctional extreme. I had read Atlas Shrugged in high school, but wanted to reread it while in Peace Corps because I thought its bulk would be good way to burn up a few weeks of time. I stopped reading it after 50 pages (or about 0.00000007% of the book) because I could not stand a single character that Rand created. Glorified narcissism, rationalized greed and an aversion to the economic lower-class were all shared by the book’s “heroes.”
I am grateful to Rand for one thing, however, and that is for the enduring visual with which she ends her cumbersome tome. The book closes with an airplane spiriting the book’s main characters away from a failing communist country and towards a golden capitalist Utopia. As the unappreciated saints of narcissus are looking out the airplane they see the city lights below them shut off one by one as the tide of socialist iniquity and laziness spreads across the country.
As our plane took off from the Addis airport a similar vision played in the back of my mind. As the landing gear leaves the runway the lights alongside the tarmac begin to flutter like candles as if the turbulence from the plane itself was threatening to blow them out. After a few wavering moments the lights flicker out and the airport below the plane is plunged into a depthless darkness. As the plane rises farther into the night sky the lights in the cosmopolitan area surrounding the airport also begin to flicker off and on for a few seconds before finally tiring to the wave of darkness. The lights struggle for less and less time to stay on as more areas of the city go dark, as if accepting the quickening pace of night’s encroachment. This is the future I see for Ethiopia without the crutch of foreign aid holding up a country with a failing agricultural sector, unyielding traditionalist culture and dependency on foreign investment and support. “In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau made the catastrophic prediction that Ethiopia’s population by 2050 wills more than triple to 278 million… Considering the fact that Ethiopia cannot feed its 90 million people today, how could it possibly feed triple that number in less than forty years?”[iii] We can debate the merits and disadvantages of international aid for decades (and we have), but the sad fact – yes, I will call it a fact – is that Ethiopia cannot currently survive as a functional organizational structure without frequent transfusions of capital from other bodies. If aid stops people die, if aid continues people die; they just die more slowly and in greater numbers. The Millennium Development Goals to end poverty that were created by the United Nations will not be fulfilled in this generation or the next. What was once a global problem is now gradually becoming an African problem. Abject poverty will make its last stand in Africa.