Robert Gurevich (Thailand 1963–1965)
The author, a veteran of numerous stints in countries around the world managing and overseeing a variety of development projects, takes us on a wild ride through one year as an NGO Project Director of a school and education upgrading program in three provinces of Ethiopia.
The setting is in a country that has recently overthrown a 15-year, communist-inspired, military dictatorship, and hopes are high that the country can quickly move forward to rebuild the school system, address the poverty in the rural areas and prosper under the new found democracy. It seemed the wind was blowing in a very good direction indeed, and the U. S Government, through USAID education grants to several NGOs was eager to help.
The book’s main character, the new Project Director for the NGO was recruited on an amazingly rapid basis, given minimal — suspiciously so — guidance in Washington and fast tracked to the field, only to discover on arrival that there had been an embezzlement problem under the previous grant, the new grant was awarded his NGO on a probationary basis, and the key players in USAID Addis Ababa and the Ministry of Education considered the project already six months behind schedule and operating under a cloud of suspicion because of the previous embezzlement.
What to do first
Given that wonderful welcome, our Hero Project Director was off and running with much to be accomplished in 90 days:
- Current staff to be evaluated and 40 outreach workers to be hired in the provinces
- Offices located, leased and fitted for modern communications in two locations
- Communities to be visited and selected for future projects,
- local leadership identified,
- school improvement,
- projects designed,
- local contributions arranged,
- work to be done,
- and a million dollars to be properly spent.
Could corruption be far behind?
Actually it was just around the corner, coming first in the proffered house and compound for the new NGO office, which turned out to be owned by the family of a Ministry of Education official, an offer that had to be diplomatically rejected, lest an enemy by made in the host ministry. Then there was the identification of the person(s) responsible for the embezzlement and their dismissal followed by the installation of revised financial controls while avoiding a wrongful dismissal suit. Our Hero found the lawyer advising his actions was himself corrupt, and at least one of the existing senior local staff probably aided and abetted the embezzlement — but who and how? Thirdly, the senior staff member in charge of field operations had built himself a network of loyal field officers with power bases and informal “financial arrangements” at stake (Who to trust?)
How our Hero, the Project Director, dons his safari jacket, heads cross-country in the proverbial trusty LandRover, to do battle amidst all these elements in the far provinces in order to deliver better schools, latrines, books and materials to the villages in rural Ethiopia is the heart of the story. He had done this before in other countries and by gory he would do it again — with or without support from the NGO headquarters in Washington, the Ministry of Education and/or the USAID office in Addis, because it was the right thing to do, and it would be of great benefit to the teachers and children in the village schools. And all this at warp speed by host country standards, thirty schools in ninety days or bust!!! And similar targets for each succeeding calendar quarter!
A page turner
Though the story is delivered without the requisite sex, or action packed great physical danger to entice the reader (our Hero is no James Bond), yet it is a genuine page turner. The author generates his readers’ interest by drawing them into the intriguing web of actions and reactions our Hero weaves to bring to fruition this Herculean project management dilemma he has been handed. The end of each chapter leaves you wondering how will he escape this cross-cultural dilemma; this overture from a corrupt official, this restitution from a unscrupulous local contract , this sorting out which staff and local leaders can be entrusted with his sacred mission, and will our Hero succeed in the end or will his project management “house of cards” collapse under the weight of all the odds against him.
It is a good read that should be required homework for every new international development Project Director (whether NGO or For Profit Contractor) before they depart for their overseas post. More importantly, it should be required reading for all new USAID staff, for it gives great insights into host government complexities, the temptations of “Manna from Heaven” American aid money, the tribulations of USAID contractors and the complexity of roles a USAID staff member must play in this development drama we inflict on communities and countries all around the world. “Read’em and Weep”!!!
Reviewer John Chromy was a Peace Corps Volunteer in India (1963–65), a PC Country Director in the Eastern Caribbean (1977–79), and Associate Director at Peace Corps/Washington (1979–1981) overseeing Volunteer Recruitment, Selection, Placement, Medical Services and Payroll. He spent several weeks in Afghanistan in 1976 and again in 2004.
He is now retired and living in Washington, DC after a 40 year career in community-based development on both the domestic and international fronts.