Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Uglier Side of NGOs

The NGO world is a funny place. There are many successful, well-meaning organizations like mothers2mothers (I’m drinking the Kool-Aid—I loved it before I even started, and the more I learn, the more enamored I become of m2m), but for every good deed and success story, there’s another organization that is not always so well intentioned or is so dysfunctional that it hurts more than it helps. I do not mean to point fingers at any specific group or groups—this is all accepted knowledge in the NGO world, and there are lots of excellent articles about the problems that come with the territory.

Some organizations try to stay in business, never actually solving a problem so much as keeping cushy jobs, nice houses, and drivers. Others mean well but do not have themselves set up in a way so as to be effective and can even do more damage when they don’t have the resources, knowledge, expertise, and support to do what they set out to do. Many organizations close because they don’t have enough money and leave a vacuum behind them of clients who no longer have the support that they needed and local staff out of jobs and in need of the same services that have now disappeared. A huge problem is that are limited funds out there for organizations to snap up—and competition between rival NGOs can be beyond fierce—it can be dirty, corrupt, and downright nasty. This is the nature of the job. But it’s sickening at times to hear stories of the lengths that some organizations will go to in order to sabotage competitors.

There’s no solution, probably—it’s the nature of the world we live in. NGOs are not immune to the ugliness that occurs in the private sector merely because they are doing something for the benefit of others. When businesses close, there’s often a reason—there isn’t a market or demand for their services, or the business had bad luck, or there were too many competitors, or they didn’t do a good job at what they offered. It’s the same with NGOs, and the closure of both of these tends to have serious ramifications in the communities in which they operate. NGOs, however, are often serving people that are lacking basic necessities—food, clean water, housing, medical care. NGOs have of course suffered in the current economic climate—donors aren’t giving as much as they used to, endowments have shrunk as the stock market fluctuates, and governmental grants are smaller, or cut completely.

Anyway, all the same, despite the fact that competition is unavoidable in the NGO world, it still leaves a bad aftertaste. There has to be some way that we can work together instead of tearing each other down—two different NGOS working to prevent and treat TB, for example, are both trying to accomplish the same thing. Maybe it’s na├»ve, but I wish I didn’t have to keep hearing and reading about these ugly behind-the-scenes disputes.

Then again, when an NGO is truly hurting more than helping, it needs to close—it should recognize this fact on its own and bow out with dignity, but there comes a time when others need to step in. Incompetency is too dangerous, too damaging, to allow it to continue.

It can be hard to see beyond your own organization, to see both sides of an issue, especially when all you hear are nasty stories about the other side or feel that you’re being attacked. But it’s time that NGOs looked beyond their own borders and saw how they fit into the global community of those who do work for the betterment of humankind. If they’re doing harm and cannot self-correct, they should step aside. If they can cooperate instead of compete with other organizations, they should reach out and offer the olive branch. And most importantly, organizations need to realize that the ultimate goal, the best-case scenario, is working themselves out of a job, out of a country, out of existence, instead of trying to sustain their presence at the cost of curing the ills that they target. Imagine what it would be like to say “I used to work in HIV prevention, but we’ve been able to achieve an HIV-free generation, and my services are no longer needed.” The NGO community cannot be truly sustainable until organizations are able to do these things. We will not truly claim that we work for the benefit of humankind if we cannot set aside the ego and whatever else divides us.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

On Eating

I’ve been to a lot of restaurants and done a fair amount of eating in my time. The first restaurant I ever ate in, I’m told, was Brigitte’s (we called it Brih-gee-tah’s—I have no idea if that was a weird Robinson thing or not) in Santa Barbara, California. We used to eat there frequently before it shut down/switched owners/whatever happened, and I remember, vaguely, nice chargrilled slices of chicken breast and avocado.

Since then, I’ve eaten in restaurants, both humble and fancy, all over the US, in Canada, France, Switzerland, Spain, England, Italy, Senegal, Morocco, Sierra Leone, and South Africa. Every country, and distinct geographical region, particularly in the case of the US, has its own way of eating and of serving.

A stereotypical diner waiter in New York City is very different from one in the South or in California (NYC: abrupt; South: calls you “Hon;” CA: may get involved in your conversation). American service is often DIY (“Please seat yourself”) and quick—the plates are cleared at the first sign of the food being finished, the check comes without prompting, water and wine glasses get filled once they are empty or look low. Some people may not like this approach, since one can feel rushed in and out of a meal, and you really don’t want to mess with serious and/or snobby wine people about pouring wine too quickly.

Moroccans will try to entice/pressure you into their restaurants, going up to you with a menu on the street. Sierra Leonean restaurants, as a general rule, do not have very friendly service—not a sign that populace isn’t nice so much as a symptom of servers getting paid far below a living wage (one woman I interviewed for a catering position made about $20 a month for her previous full-time waitress and cooking job in a restaurant) and not getting very good, if any, tips. French waiters are very solicitous in a hands-off sort of way, and you must assure them at the end of each course that it was very good (if you leave food on the plate you have to assure doubly hard). You don’t tip in Switzerland. Senegalese waiters go crazy when you try a little Wolof (it may take you a good ten minutes to get through an order if you start out in Wolof because you have to explain your entire life story and demonstrate what your language level is). I got a few free drinks in Italy.

South African service has, so far, been a bit spotty, or at least different from what I find comfortable (I prefer the US way, even if it is a bit rushed). South African waitrons, as they are called—it sounds like a robot waiter to me—are always anxious to warn you that you have to be out by such-and-such time, usually anywhere from one and a half to three hours later, because South Africans linger over their food. Waitrons tend to be overly attentive in a sometimes awkward way—the water doesn’t get filled or the bill brought without asking, but they’ll try to tie a bib on you (no joke) or explain the entire menu or SOPs of the restaurant to you. The upfront warning and the lack of bill bringing make sense—waitrons don’t want to seem as if they are rushing you or being rude. In the US, servers assume you know that they want to turn over the table and generally don’t mind kicking you out—all bow to the almighty profit (although, again, this rarely bothers me; after all, an establishment’s gotta make money, especially these days, and servers, who get paid below minimum wage in some states, get more tips if they have more tables). Anyway, the service in South Africa is something I still need to get used to.

Eating is just as different. Americans like to use their hands for some things, like pizzas, hamburgers, and burritos. A French person wouldn’t be caught dead using his or her hands—you have to eat a slice of pizza and even Freedom fries with a knife and a fork. French salad must not be cut up, even though it comes out to you with full, untorn leaves—you have to make a little packet using a knife and fork.

Senegalese and Sierra Leoneans (I would assume most Africans) eat with their right hand or a spoon—knives and forks are less common. One of my favorite things when eating with my host family in Senegal around a bowl was watching people help each other get a piece of meat off the bone. Since it is beyond rude to use your left hand (not a lot of money spent on the luxury of toilet paper) for eating, the person next to you has to hold the meat bone while you pull off a piece, and vice versa. It’s nice—collaborating while eating. Sometimes the cook or head of the household would distribute the meat by throwing a piece into the little hole you’re supposed to dig out of the rice in front of you. Every time you eat it, she throws another one in (which is great when you’re eating intestines—you can eat around it in your rice space for a while and therefore eat less of it overall). Even eating with hands is different. In India, I’ve been told, you are not supposed to get food in the center of your palm but rather use your fingertips. In Senegal and Sierra Leone, you make a food ball in your palm, a skill that I could never master and that usually ended in me as covered in rice as my two-year-old host cousin.

Eating on the street is generally not done outside of the US, at least in the places where I’ve been, though there is street food everywhere I’ve gone (from falafel to “bush meat”—ie, probably monkey or dik-dik if you’re lucky). Not eating on the street seems to make sense in the African countries where I’ve been, since you are expected to share food (it’s incredibly rude to not offer your food to other people, at least in Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Morocco—I don’t know the rules in SA yet) and it feels very callous and ignorant be munching a falafel wrap when an emaciated woman with legs bent from polio and carrying a child on her back asks you for food or money on the street. I’m not sure why it’s not OK in France, though I hear that since the smoking ban in restaurants and cafes and the advent of Starbucks, the French are loosening a bit.

It always amazes me that something so universal—the need to eat—varies so widely from country to country. When it comes down to it, it’s just shoving some fuel in your mouth to keep going. But it’s so much more than that to everyone on the planet—both to those lucky enough to get three squares a day and to those who consider themselves fortunate when they get a handful of rice provided by the UN’s World Food Program. Although there are some of us who live to eat, others who eat to live, and many in between, we all have very different opinions about how it’s done. One thing that’s universal, however: burgers and fries. The patty might have an egg perched on top, and the fries may come with mayo or vinegar, but they’re there.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Do I Understand Your Question, Man?

Warning for the reader: This post has nothing to do with South Africa.


So Bob Dylan is releasing a Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart. I’ve been a Dylan fan for a long time—probably since my sitar-playing music teacher at Monica Ros (Preschool-3rd Grade…possibly the happiest years of my life—there was a wooden pirate ship on the playground) had us all sit around barefoot and sing Blowin’ in the Wind. I wrote more than one paper in high school based in some way on Dylan—one a comparison of the music of Woody Guthrie, folk Dylan, and post-Newport Folk Festival Dylan (when he plugged in and went electric) for my American History class, the other a senior exhibition (thesis-ish) on the Weather Underground, an extremist Marxist group that carried out bombings and radical actions in the 60s and 70s that took its name from Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues—“Keep a clean nose / An’ watch the plainclothes / You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” They shifted from the Weathermen to the Weather Underground when the Weather ladies protested. Note: You may have heard of this group more recently because one of the founders, Bill Ayers, was portrayed by the Right as the best friend of then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama. I won’t go there today, nor will I get into a discussion of the Weather Underground because it makes people all crazy like. As it is, I can go on about Dylan for hours and hours (as evidenced by my 20-page American History term paper), and probably after I finish this I’ll lament that I forgot something I wanted add in because I got distracted by all the other stuff that surfaced in the process. This post is also going to expose me for the extreme geek that I am, as if people didn’t know already.

So, Bob Dylan. There’s no one nastier when he’s angry (Positively Fourth Street, Like A Rollin’ Stone), sweet when he’s in love (Love Minus Zero/No Limit, the meaning of title puzzled me until I took Calculus and was also a record store owner's way of testing my Dylan knowledge--I failed--Girl From the North Country), funnier (Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum), or full of outrage over injustice—both starkly overt protest (Masters of War, Hurricane) and slightly less so (Mr. Tambourine Man, which is NOT about drugs or maybe not entirely about drugs, Desolation Row, It’s Alright Ma). PS for all the really big nerds out there, you can probably tell I’ve been on a Bringing It All Back Home kick, since I just named a bunch of songs as examples. I like his newer stuff as well, though my favorite time period is the Rolling Thunder Revue tour era in the mid-70s. To be honest, I’ve tried and never gotten that far into the “Bad Dylan” phase, though I own most of the non-bootleg Dylan albums out there. One of the gems from the Bad Dylan era, however, is a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Boxer on Self Portrait, in which he sings his own back up vocals. Every time that song is played, a fairy somewhere in the world may fall down dead.

Dylan is of course famous for his mystique and unpredictability—his lyrics that the craziest Dylanheads pore over for meaning, his random conversion to Christianity, the appearance in the Victoria’s Secret ad, the fact that he puts his Oscar on stage with him (I am not kidding—I’ve seen him live twice), his refusal to take on the mantle of the “voice of a generation” that so many thrust at him (they can’t help it; it’s what he is, though since he seems to find a lot of nerdy followers in my generation, his voice might be a tad more universal).

It’s funny—he both embraces and repudiates his music-god status. At the beginning of every concert, an announcer says: “The poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the '60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the '70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to 'find Jesus,' who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan.” This is apparently from a journalist, Jeff Miers, who published it in a profile of Dylan in the Buffalo News in August 2002.

Dylan is all of these things, but it’s strange that he allows them to be said about him. Dylan’s always been a complete puzzle, and he certainly enjoys messing with people—you can watch the way he plays with journalists in Dont Look Back, a fly-on-the-wall documentary by D.A. Pennebaker about Dylan’s tour in the UK in 1965, and also see how much it stung when people yelled “Judas” at him for going electric. Pete Seeger, as the legend goes, tried to take an ax to the soundboard or power cables or something at Newport in ’65 when Dylan went on stage and plugged in an electric guitar, to the shock of the folk world. In Dont Look Back, when people call him Judas, he turns to his band and says “Play it fucking loud” before launching into a blistering Like A Rolling Stone, but you can see how much it hurt that people didn’t get it. It feels to me like so much of his anger at crazy fans for idolizing him, his bizarre behavior, his nasty and often misogynistic songs (though I think everyone’s nasty at the end of a bad breakup, and he just sang it out loud to other people), all of it—is in some way Dylan expressing his disappointment that we, all of us, just don’t get it. And of course we don’t. Because he’s him and we’re us.

One of the things I love most about Dylan is his humor. It’s dry, it’s incredibly witty, and it always has the air of an in-joke about it. Which is probably why so many young people latched on in the Sixties—they felt, erroneously perhaps, that he was speaking in a language that only they could understand, a language that was not their parents’. There’s a Dylan world, and you can always go too far with it—seriously, go to a Dylan concert and you’ll see what I mean—but it’s a nice place to visit. I think the recent I’m Not There, in which several actors in different storylines portrayed a semi-fantasy semi-biographical depiction of Dylan, captured this world very nicely, in fact. The film’s worth it just for Jim James of My Morning Jacket singing Goin’ to Acapulco in the Billy the Kid vignette, and for Cate Blanchett, who does a spot-on 1965 speed freak Dylan.

But Dylan’s always done things that are so outside the realm of normal—again, that creepy Victoria’s Secret ad—that it’s easy to scratch your head, to even get upset. I try to laugh at it. Everything he does is such a non sequitur that it’s hilarious, though it’s sometimes confusing whether Dylan means it as a joke, or whether he’s deadly serious. Which brings me back to the Christmas album. I listened to snatches of a few songs, and I have to say that it left me confused and made me laugh, and not always in a good way. But I’ll certainly buy it. It may ruin Here Comes Santa Claus forever. Listening to it may bring me one step closer to solving the Dylan mystery. Or throw me off track again. The way I feel about this newest musical choice by the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond (to quote Joan Baez) is from a Dylan song. He knocked me out, and took my boots, and I was on the street again.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Camels in the Garden

I've been driving instead of walking to work this week due to inclement weather and late meetings. Today it looked like it wouldn't rain on the way in, at least, so I walked. The walk is generally uneventful, but it usually offers a few quirks, as one sees in cities. There's the man who plays the recorder from a park bench, the sea gulls that sound like cats, a few homeless transvestites coming back from a late night somewhere, or sometimes an armored car surrounded by guards with automatic rifles and flak jackets.

Today, I didn't expect much. The tourist population in Company's Garden, the main park that's across the street from my apartment, has grown as it's gotten closer to the high season. There's more light to photograph Table Mountain as well. Anyway, as I was walking through the garden, I saw the area through which I normally walk cordoned off. I assumed they were doing some landscaping, but as I passed the statue of Cecil Rhodes, I saw three men with dreadlocks saddling camels, and beyond, a film crew laying down track for the camera and setting up a crane. The trees were festooned with Christmas ornaments and tinsel, and floodlights softened by silkscreens cast a strange glow. I assume they must have been filming for some sort of Nativity or acid trip scene--I'm unsure. But I did not expect to see camels at 8AM this morning.