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.

Continue reading