The Comforts of Daily Chaos

Milton: the prototypical eccentric colleague.

Milton: the prototypical eccentric colleague.

This morning I walked into the office and found a colleague ironing clothes on her desk.

Last week, a colleague sent me an SMS saying: ‘my office-mate has given up. She has taken two chairs and a cushion and made a bed to sleep in!’

One year ago, in Malawi, during an important meeting setting out a new debt policy, one staff member was assigned the crucial task of keeping track of the score of Malawi’s World Cup qualifying match against Djibouti. We won 8-1. Productivity has an inverse relationship with uncontainable joy, which in turn increases with each goal. There was literally dancing in the meeting room when news of the eighth goal was relayed to the participants by excited shouting through the window.

A friend of mine, a fellow cricket enthusiast who works for DfID, once explained to me that one particular posting (the Ministry of Finance, I believe) in Jamaica had been extremely sought after in the 1980s and early 1990s. The office building for this post was built directly overlooking Sabina Park, Jamaica’s famous Test Cricket ground. When Viv Richards came to smash the ball out of the ground or the magnificent Malcolm Marshall was bowling hand grenades at 94mph, all work would cease, sometimes for hours at a stretch.

For most of my career, I have worked in developing country Governments directly, sponsored by various donors, but with limited or non-existent outside management. From the Government point of view, the idea is that I function as a civil servant, though one with a remit to help stimulate improvements in the structure of the work done as well as to get involved in the minutiae of civil service work. It’s a privileged position, because once you’ve won the trust and friendship of colleagues, you have as close to an insider view as you ever can of how the Government actually works.

This allows me (and others with similar jobs) to see and hear exactly what Governments think about a donor’s behaviour, policy or personalities. You work with people who have a lifetime’s experience of the country, not just a few years’, and they are not the minority as they usually are for donors and INGOs. There is no better way of grounding one’s ideas about development in a country than to see 30 local people, at least ten of whom have direct power of veto over you, discuss your proposals.

You also get to see all of the glorious idiosyncrasies of a workplace in which many staff are underpaid, underemployed and under-supervised. It’s not a secret that many civil services manage the double act of being both understaffed and (on the whole) underworked. Most Government departments have a core of dedicated, hard-working professionals who will, for salaries that in the North would barely break the minimum wage, work for 12 hours and on weekends to see things through to an adequate completion point. Most also have a large and equally committed core of wasters who do as little as possible, as slowly as possible and with as many eccentricities as their personalities can accommodate.

Now don’t get me wrong. I empathise. Many are expected to do an incredible amount of work for salaries that wouldn’t get a European gas attendant out of bed. It’s all very well to say ‘at least they have jobs’, for it’s true that most people in such countries have no such steady employment. But how many readers can really say with any certainty that they could motivate themselves to mechanically enter data into a spreadsheet for eight hours a day (the working day in much of Sub-Saharan Africa is 8:00am to 5:00pm, with an hour for lunch) for the equivalent of $100 per month – or less?

Couple ridiculously low incomes with non-existent staff performance assessments and un-developed management structures, and you get time wasting of epic magnitude and characters that seem to have been devised by an African R.K. Narayan.

I had a colleague in Malawi who devoted so much time to his (admirable) extra-curricular activities, such as sponsoring education for young people in his home district, that he was barely sentient during working hours. He once managed to fall asleep in a meeting with Matt and me – despite being the only other attendee in a room roughly the size of a prison cell (this was Matt’s office). Whatever else can be said of us, neither Matt nor I are subdued people. Falling asleep there was an act of defiance, a prodigious achievement against strong odds.

Another, a man I nicknamed Oblomov, after Ivan Gonchorov’s ‘superfluous man’, came to a meeting in which he could not quote a single statistic about his sector relevant to an ongoing performance assessment framework. No so unusual, except that he was the Director of Research and Statistics for this Ministry. Still, what more could be expected from a man who worked himself up from train driver to Senior Civil Servant, without the benefit of a single obvious skill, qualification or talent (besides train-driving, one assumes)?

Here in Zanzibar, I’ve come across similarly eccentric characters. Like the IT support staffer who brought down the entire Ministry’s internet connectivity by unplugging the switch in order to charge his mobile phone. Queried, he answered that he was expecting a call.

There’s a serious point to be made here, though. Like it or not, Governments necessarily manage a great deal of the response to poverty. There simply are not in most cases viable alternatives with long term prospects for providing care and policy direction. Indeed, in most of Western Europe, Government retains great control over healthcare, education and manages the environment for business, if not necessarily using the same tools they did twenty years ago. This should make civil service reform a much higher agenda point than it actually is in dialogues on development. Sorting out pay structures and cleaning up incentives (to reduce rent-seeking for travel allowances, for example); instituting performance management and ensuring that achieved staffing ratios allow sufficient management oversight; working out the structure of the civil service to reduce duplication and redundancy of roles. All of these things will have a tangible effect on how well run the Government is, and thus how well tax revenues and aid are managed and how well the environment for privately-led growth and development and NGO-aid is maintained. They are difficult to institute, due to vested interests and extraordinarily tenacious bureaucrats, but need to be pursued.

In the meantime, one can reflect that somehow, many developing country civil services still function; often to an ultimately high standard. A friend of mine used to often say that viewed from the ground level a train station is a chaotic muddle of humanity, crossing over itself and unable to achieve any balance. Yet, from a birds eye view, patterns emerge and you understand how the whole functions despite the confusion seen from the floor. Government is a little like that, though with more dead-ends, and more torturous paths to the ticket-office. Reforming it will generate significant gains for the management of development processes (though I’m sure Easterly would shudder at the phrase) – Governments will be better able to get people on the trains and make sure they leave on time.

While we’re waiting for the reform to kick in, though, it would be churlish not to savour the great eccentrics who the civil service so amply supports. When they’re eliminated, work will be that much less interesting.

6 thoughts on “The Comforts of Daily Chaos

  1. anony mouse

    January 15, 2010 at 10:16am

    I wonder how it is in the offices of the donors? At least one matches the description above from what I can tell… As you say, at least those in government tend to have a better idea of whats going on than the donors who are equally unorganised then drop in from the moon…

  2. Ranil Dissanayake

    January 15, 2010 at 11:50am

    Well, donors do have better salaries so people perhaps don’t take so many liberties, and most also have better performance assessments, so there are differences.

    The bigger problem is that almost all serious decision-making posts are held by non-nationals, as you say.

  3. D. Watson

    January 20, 2010 at 3:52pm

    The thing that reading enough Dilbert – and knowing its popularity – tells me is that this really isn’t that unusual. It’s not specific to developing countries, though there’s local flavor. Even in the brave new world where government runs smoothly, these people will work somewhere else and do much the same. We’re all human – no better, no worse.

  4. Ranil Dissanayake

    January 20, 2010 at 5:52pm

    Well, I certainly wasn’t making the case that people are somehow fundamentally different – but I do believe that because of salaries, supervision etc. government work in developing does throw up a higher proportion of ‘characters’. Certainly, two years working in the UK civil service didn’t expose me to the same issues.

    We are all human – but we’re allowed to indulge that in work to different extents depending on the structures we find ourselves within.

  5. melody hanson

    January 29, 2010 at 7:14pm

    Having worked at a nonprofit in the states, my experience is that is true everywhere. 20% of people do 80% of work.

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