21 August 2009

Confessions of an International Development Consultant

At the risk of crying in my beer, an odd concept for me given that I do not drink alcohol, the life of an International Development Consultant, at least this International Development Consultant, is far from being a bed of roses some believe it might be. From the moment I could imagine a life for myself it involved travel. I wanted to see the world and experience what it is like to live abroad as part of a society other than American. I have been "on the road" for decades having found a career which helped me realize my dream -- computer consultant par excellence

Two expressions come to mind as a warning for those who also wish such a life: the first being "be careful what you wish for"; the second a Chinese proverb "May you live in interesting times." Nothing could be truer than these two expressions, at least as they relate to the life I have led working outside of the USA. First, and foremost, in order to be able to spend extended time overseas, consultants must have the ability to place their life on hold, the part which exists inside the USA. They must literally push the hold button on the phone, get on a jet and start a new temporary life -- different country same survivor skills.

Once we land "in country", we slow everything down in our head, walk a bit slower, notice things a smidge more. Search for the commonalities between the new country and previous countries. We look for creature comforts such as someone sent to pick us up at the airport instead of running the gauntlet of finding a taxi, negotiating a price, and getting delivered to the right place -- all done in a mixture of hand signals and perhaps a little bit of English depending on where we have landed. The International consultant is most vulnerable during these first moments at the airport -- we must adapt quickly or we will get ripped off, and I hate being ripped off my cabdrivers.

Adaptability is the key to working overseas. One must be malleable to whatever confronts him -- small or big. The hotel check in is the next challenge. Will we have a nice room with air conditioning or heat; will it have rock like pillows; will it have more than a flimsy sheet; will the room have a door or a curtain which hides your bed in a hallway? I have suffered from all of these insults to the system countless times. Endless stories of poor accommodations for those of us who eschew the comforts of Hiltons, Sheratons and other, more glamorous stations, in order to save money for the project with which we are assigned to help.

Check in at the hotel is complete and all we want to do is sleep if we were unable to do so on the plane. Quite often we land early in the morning and are expected, like a sprinter shooting out of the starting blocks, to immediately go to work. There is time for sleep later, someone is paying a lot of money for an expert and we are immediately thrust into that role. We are expected to make an immediate impact, people have been awaiting our arrival, the clock is ticking, make immediate sense of things and move forward. The day is done, and now we decide between eating or sleeping in a zero sum scenario. Often desperate for sleep, food loses out and sleep rules the night.

Adaptability again! Our second day at work, assignments at hand, we try to feel out the people with whom we are working. It is important NOT to be a know-it-all, but we are getting paid to be such. It is all in the presentation. I always choose cordiality over brute force. Build consensus and try to fit in. It is a better overall approach to being a successful International Consultant than being remembered as the jerk from America who came and ordered rather than taught.

Depending on the length of the assignment, we must be prepared to create a semi-sustainable lifestyle. Going out late at night and getting up early is a perfect formula for either getting sick quickly, or burning out short of the endpoint of the assignment. I try to remain vigilant with my time schedule maintaining some semblance of order such as dinner by 7pm, at the latest; time for a walk; time for sit-ups or some form of exercise; and time to wind down the day and get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Not much different than being in the USA, with the exception of being alone.

I have learned to live a solitary life. The people with whom we work have their own lives. They don't have time, nor is there an expectation that they will spend what little spare time they have after working hours keeping us company. So alone we must be and we must be able to sustain this for a long period of time. The assignments we are given are called "Short Term Technical Assistance" but short term is just a word which means anywhere between a few days to 6 months. Unless we are able to adapt quickly, loneliness can be our greatest enemy. I have learned to force myself to get out of the "hotel" and experience some of the ambiance of where I am "living." I force myself to meet people -- not something which comes easily to me in the USA but a necessary survival skill overseas. I move around. I bring my soccer cleats and goalie gloves in search of a venue. I once showed up at a crappy field outside of Kampala, Uganda and did exactly this and it was very rewarding, not to mention a shock to the Ugandans. This helped me in Albania, Montenegro and especially in Macedonia.

Ah the loneliness! It is what separates the good consultant from the poor. Loneliness, and the ability to place life on hold, go hand in hand. Doing a two week consultancy is a piece of cake -- like a sprint. An eight week assignment is more akin to trying to swim underwater across a long pool -- one holds their breath as long as they can tuning out all other thoughts other than doing your job well enough to satisfy the in-country staff and the employer, and also endure the long time away from your life, which has been frozen in place back in the States.

At some point our time draws to an end, and we start to think about going home. I try to put these thoughts off, like a marathoner at mile 22 trying not to think about the fact that he still has 4 more miles to run. All of the sudden the end has come and we head to the airport. We close down our temporary life. We say goodbye to people who we will likely never see again. We go out that last day and make certain that we have purchased all the gifts we need to bring back with us to help jump start our "real life."

Finally on the plane, we hope we get some sleep, because returning to the States is like that moment when one exits the water exhausting your last bit of oxygen, that point when you hear your heart beat in your ears; that gasp for air along with the realization that you made it all the way to the other end of the pool underwater.

The director in our head yells ACTION and we pick up where we left off. We are once again surrounded by the people we left behind whose lives went on while we were away. For some, that absence was difficult, for others they say "Where ya been?" I get, at most, 10 minutes of time to tell people about the temporary life I just lived after which I am expected to become a full fledged participant in the "permanent" life I have within the USA. Travel enough and you will not know which one is temporary, and which one is permanent.

14 August 2009

Dispatches from Israel/Palestine - Epiphany Realised

`Why use the term “epiphany” to describe that I finally “Got it!” It was all right in front of me, I just couldn’t understand it until three things happened. One person told me that there was a war in 1967, the Jordanians lost, and the people in East Jerusalem have had 42 years to prepare for “eminent domain,” the right of the government to seize property – a right that all governments worldwide practice.

Another person explained the following:

‘You ask a good question which warrants an answer beyond 140(?). We were the nation of Israel before we were ever known as "the Jewish people." Yes, we practice a religion that is the root of Western civilization, but we are not simply a religion. Jews have always been a nation. We were liberated as a nation from Egyptian slavery, we received the Torah on Mount Sinai as a nation, and we entered the land that G-d chose for us as a nation. In the year 70 C.E., (C.E.???) our Holy Temple was destroyed and we were banished from our land. King G-d banished his prince, the nation of Israel, from the palace. Since then, we have been praying three times a day, everyday, to return. Furthermore, we knew from the prophecy in the Tanah (known as the Old Testament to Christians) that we would indeed return. The nation of Israel would once again have sovereignty over the land of Israel, and one day, our Holy Temple would will also be rebuilt. The independence of 1948 was like the King allowing the prince back to the palace—on a trial basis. Borders were indefensible, economy and infrastructure were weak, the newly gathered exiles held their collective breath to see if our nation would be allowed to stay permanently. The answer from came in 1967, when in six days our nation defeated the entire Arab world, and increased our hold on our Promised Land to include defensible borders.

Life is sacred, and we Israelis have no joy in seeing the stateless Arabs suffer at the hands of terrorist leaders. These Islamic zealots teach five year olds on children's TV that the highest goal in life is to kill Jews. They have Mickey Mouse knockoffs telling children to shed their blood in defiance of the Jews. Regardless, we try to help these Arabs held hostage in camps by the terrorists. We try to help them while at the same time asserting our G-d given right to our Holy Land. In a long answer to your short question - yes, it's worth it.

Let me digress for a moment—I asked a question on Twitter: why a piece of Germany was not cut-out as part of post WWII reparations to create a country where European Jews could go and live in peace. I did some research prior to asking this question and discovered that there were approximately 9 million Jews living in Europe, not counting those living in Russia. These Jews were living their lives, just as those around them did, working in all walks of life. Some were very rich while others were very poor. In Romania, 600,000 Jews lived in Bucharest and Iasi , the latter being the Jewish cultural epicenter of Romania. Similar populations of Jews lived in Saloaniki, now called Thessaloniki, Greece. We all know that there were large populations of Jews living in Germany, Austria, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, France and the list goes on. These Jews may have considered Israel the promised land but they lived lives wherever they were, which was likely where their parents, grandparents and previous generations all lived. They were as tied to their homes as their non-Jewish neighbours. So if there was a trickle of a migration of Jews from Europe and Eastern Europe to Israel, but not a mass migration, then I can move to the next point. A terrible pogrom befell upon these same Jews of Europe and Eastern Europe n the form of Adolf Hitler and his ill-conceived desire to solve the Jewish problem. [Your time sequence is hard to follow; you start out talking about post WWII and now we’re in the middle of Hitler? What happened to the Jews between 1935 and 1945 sands as one of the greatest crimes against humanity alongside similar strategic pogroms in Russia, Cambodia, Sudan and Rwanda, to name just a few. In 1945, as the world realized what took place in the death camps, the United Nations was created and the world devised a c plan of reconciliation of sorts, and used the previous “contract” put forth in the Balfour Declaration. Palestine would become a Jewish state which would welcome all Jews seeking protection against persecution. In 1949 the Nationalist Chinese left their last threshold of land in Mainland China and moved to Taiwan where they too created a haven for Chinese seeking a “safe port.” Except for religion as a prerequisite to entering a country, these two migrations bare a lot of similarities.

The trump card came from my Twitter friend who provided the religious imperative explanation, for why Palestine was the “Promised Land” and his explanation is stated above.

A light bulb went off. I am not a religious person, so I cannot appreciate the fact that a religion can have as one of its tenets a promised land. That for thousands of years, the Jews, had a mandate of ownership of a land called Palestine and Israel throughout history. There was no need to carve out any land within post-World War II Europe because there already was a land which belonged to each Jew living throughout the world and in 1945, it was a protectorate of the British government called Palestine. Jews made their voyages to Israel and the book Exodus describes these journeys. British opposition to the migration of Jews to Israel eventually evaporated as bridges, trains, buildings and eventually humans were bombed and killed in the name of statehood. Eventually the state of Israel was granted its sovereign status as a country when the United Nations voted on the issue and immediately created a safe haven for Jews; concurrently that same UN decision created the Palestinian issue.

There are UN camps for displaced Palestinians still standing to this day, nearly 62 years later. A temporary situation lasting 6 months or less often becomes permanent. Lay on top of this the Six-Day War in 1967 and you have a victor and a loser. The latter group has never ever been fully capable of organizing itself into a viable governmental and national body, perhaps due in part to the way Israel has co-opted its way of life, and also its own inability to come to terms which each other and share a common goal of statehood and how that should be accomplished. Look at the West Bank versus Gaza saga and it is clear that two tribes cannot agree with each other enough to establish one strong government, and instead are handicapped by two weak institutions vying for power.

Since my arrival six weeks ago and inculcation into all things Israeli and Palestinian, I have been looking for a complex answer when, in fact, it was simple; I just didn’t have the religious understanding to see it. The Jews are Israel and Israel represents Jews worldwide. End of the story. But is it really the end of the story? Religiosity is as individual and personal as the way in which a person subscribes to and interprets a religion. Furthermore, it creates a concept of religious relativism—each person must, by definition, be as correct in his interpretation of his religion as the next person.. The only way to win the game of religious relativism is through disseminating the “proper message,” collecting adherents and controlling a large swath of public opinion. This is the case, for example, with the religious right in America which seeks to convince me that abortions are against the will of God and that, unless I accept Jesus as my Savior, I end up in Hell.

In Israel, the reason Israelis are able to take away the homes of the residents who lived here prior to the creation of Israel as a nation-state is that this is a promised land. Unless you are Jewish, the land underneath your house does not belong to you. It is that simple. Add to that that Israel defeated the Arab armies in 1967 and won back the rest of the promised land. Islam offers that unless one is Muslim, one is an infidel. An infidel’s life is unimportant than a Muslim’s. It is not the individual Muslim who believes that my life is less important, instead it is the larger driving force, lead by the leaders which have the largest followings. Christians killed Muslims and Jews alike during the Crusades. Muslims killed Orthodox Christians and Jews as they marched forward with their expansion. Throughout time,the cult of religion has been a driving force behind the deaths of millions of people worldwide. It is the oldest struggle in man’s short history on Earth.

The Johnny Nash lyric I can see clearly now the rain is gone describes my enlightenment at this point in time. As long as religion is wielded to subjugate , there will never be a peace.

08 August 2009

Dispatches from Israel - Religious Observations

A few years back I went on several safaris——in the Masai Mara of Kenya, the Serengeti of Tanzania and in two national parks in Uganda. I saw the “Big Five” animals, and the one thing that I remember more than anything else was the magnificence of the river crossings the wildebeest and the zebra made. Both animals know to find the shortest crossing point and when they did, hundreds of thousands of them would wait for just the right moment to cross. The slightest noise and they would retreat. I checked this once by clapping my hands as I was watching them wait for that perfect moment. The challenge for these animals was that they knew that crocodiles were waiting for them. If they moved en masse, the group’s chance for survival was far better than if one lone animal made the crossing. Once one of the wildebeest made a move to cross the river, they all acted as a single organism. The "crocs" picked off the babies, or those on the edges of the herd. Eventually the herd made it to the other side, albeit minus some of its more vulnerable members. This migration happens every year as the animals search for new supplies of grass upon which to feed.

In Jerusalem, there is a road not far from my hotel which divides the Muslims’ area from the Jews’. The road leads to the Damascus Gate through which Jews pass to make their way to the Western Wall to pray at the holiest Jewish shrine in the world. I went to the Western Wall one Friday at sunset and observed as Jewish families made their way on the road. Hundreds of people were dressed in religious clothes, the men wearing either a black fedora or a round flat bushy hat that looked like a cake carefully balanced atop of one’s head. All the men had Hasidim curls, the young boys still with light hair had blonde curls while the older men had black or graying curls.

Unlike any other day, Friday is the holy day, which begins at sundown. To help secure the safe passage of the Jews along this road on Fridays, there is an overabundance of police, with rifles held at the ready who make certain that nothing happens. The massive numbers of people making their way to the Wall reminded me of the wildebeest and zebra pilgrimages for sustenance.

I joined the migration to the Western Wall and walked through the ageless passage ways of the Old City of Jerusalem until we got to what looks like the convergence of 14 different lanes of traffic into 2 lanes heading into the Lincoln Tunnel across the Hudson River in New York. I broke away and took the high road so that I could look from above at the plaza in front of the Wall and the throngs of people. From up there I observed that the Israeli Defense Forces were everywhere, protecting the assembled from attack. Everyone who enters the plaza passes through metal detectors which are set far back from the Wall to protect the people milling about the plaza should something happen.

This trek is repeated daily by some, while others make it every Friday as the sun begins to drift below the horizon. The length to which those who make this trek are protected is amazing. It made me think about what it must be like to be Jewish and weather a history of torment and anti-Semitism spanning over 2000 years. To survive the murder of six million Jews during World War II. Yet, every day people make their way to the Wall, honoring their faith and creed, and paying homage to their relatives and ancestors who sacrificed so much.

As I exited the Old City and returned back up the road to the hotel, people were still making their way in the evening light to the Wall. The police were still there protecting the route. Within minutes I was on the other end of the road in another world where only non-Jews go—Arabs, Palestinians, Christians and tourists.

04 August 2009

Top 10 Reasons for Attending SOCAP09

10. Great food thanks to Heidi (You have to meet Heidi although she couldn't smuggle in
any Mountain Dew for me I still think she is the best)
9. Great venue. I cannot imagine a nice place to hold a conference.
8. You get to see the event organisers and help staff really try to make this a
meaningful event
7. The free time allocated over the 2 1/2 days really made the conference worthwhile
6. An opportunity to meet your never before seen Twitter and Facebook and other social
media friends
5. A magnificent array of speakers
4. So much good stuff that you have trouble selecting between GREAT AND GREAT
3. You get to see Jerry Michalski organise a free flow of ideas on the last day. For
me, this really made the event incredibly worthwhile and unique.
2. Making friends with people who believe in the same ideas as you and finding a
synergy to come together and work on future activities
1. What better way is there to spend three days with some of the most creative people
you will ever meet.