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.