Review of Michael S. Gerber's Sweet Teeth and Loose Bowels

sweet-teeth-140Sweet Teeth and Loose Bowels: The Adventures of an International Aid Worker
by Michael S. Gerber (Philippines 1970–73)
Troubador Publishing
296 pages
$18.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by Robert E. Hamilton (Ethiopia 1965–67)

UNDERSTANDABLY, ONE DOESN’T INFORM the family gathered around the Thanksgiving table, “Hey, I’m reading an informative book on international aid with the interesting title of . . ..”  One alternative:  “Read Chapter 34 of Book Two of  Dr. Michael Gerber’s 2007 publication.” There the title is explained.  A better title might have derived from a comment by a fellow Non-Government Organization (NGO) colleague:  “It is the poor and the suffering who create jobs for us.” (Page 252)  Or, as his youngest son, then 11, remarked, following Gerber’s description of what an NGO director does: “Now I understand your job. I can just tell my friends you are a ‘professional beggar.'”

Michael Gerber (BA, MA, Ph.D.) worked in Asia and Africa for almost three decades, retiring in 1998 as Director General of AMREF (African Medical & Research Foundation), based in Nairobi, aka The Flying Doctors.  In retirement, the Gerbers move to Portimao, Portugal, although Michael continues as a volunteer, including chairman of IIRR (International Institute of Rural Reconstruction), headquartered in Silang, Philippines.

Book One of Sweet Teeth and Loose Bowels (“Youthful Idealism: The Peace Corps Years”) and Book Two (“Making of a Skeptic: The African Years”) contain a total of 38 chapters of personal, family, and professional narrative. Michael and wife Ina experience a number of problems with Peace Corps Washington during their application, training, and placement months (and later as well), but they and their three young sons thoroughly enjoy the assignment in Legaspi City, Philippines, for three years (1970–73) where Michael taught on the faculty of Bicol University.

In Book Three, “The ‘Business’ of Development: The Actors and the Issues,” Gerber provides a valuable overview of the history, structure, and function of the international aid “industry.” This is particularly useful for those who are either considering a career in international aid or who are prospective volunteers and/or donors. Gerber notes that the earliest “missionary” and international aid organizations advertised their goal of “working themselves out of a job.”  Current large NGO and International NGOs (e.g. the European Union, UNICEF, the FAO) have no such goal.  The increasing number of smaller non-profit organizations which assist a school or clinic in Africa compete for private donor funds with larger organizations such as the Red Cross, Mercy Corps, or AMREF — or want to collaborate with them to share the work, the funding, and the glory. Gerber notes the dangers of “celebrity” fundraising, of poor accountability, and what this reviewer constantly reminds students and foundations that provide funding:  “There are far more excellent web-masters than there are excellent NGOs.”

It is time for Dr. Michael Gerber’s next book:  It will expand in greater detail upon the themes developed in Book Three and provide: advice for those debating whether to start their own nonprofit endeavor or assist an existing one; guidelines for the transition from small nonprofit status and the “scaling up” process to become a successful, larger NGO; and help dealing with the “iconic founder” who refuses to give way to a more professionally trained administrator. The latter may not be an internationally renowned opera diva, Hollywood actor, or neurosurgeon but rather an experienced manager who knows how to handle financial, personnel, logistical, and other administrative matters which allow the “star” to do what she does best:  charm, enchant, and raise money.

Dr. Robert E. Hamilton has been a university lecturer in African history; worked in the coal mining and trucking business and as a stock broker; directed a nonprofit corporation doing work in India and Africa; and acted as consulting Africa field director to develop neurosurgical training for African doctors.  He is currently Africa project director for Applied Peace Technologies in Portland, Oregon, and is a volunteer for neighborhood association, Elders in Action, and Hillsdale Main Street programs.

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