Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Expatriate Conversation

This was another world in Malabo, the world of the colonialist.  Or better, ex-colonialist.  An African servant was passing out the drinks, another tended Guillermo and Marisol's small son, and a third prepared the fire for cooking.  The hors d'oeuvres had been imported from Cameroon and Spain.  The style of the conversation was the kind one seems to find among expatriates in almost every developing country I know: a combination of gossip about leading figures, complaints about "the system" and "the people," and great cynicism. 
That's from Robert Klitgaard's Tropical Gangsters, written in Equatorial Guinea in 1990, but it could have been written in Abidjan in 2013.  Although in fairness the U.S. Foreign Service crowd is not like this.  I've found them to be culturally sensitive, and they are not integrated enough into Ivorian life to know any interesting gossip.  The UN crowd on the other hand...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Families, Governance and Stability

More observations from December in Abidjan:

Culture of Family Making -- There are 21 million people in Cote d'Ivoire in 2013.  There are expected to be 30 million by 2030.  When I spend time around Ivorians, it's not hard to see why.  Making a family is just such a big part of the culture here.  I've yet to meet a cab driver who doesn't have a wife and kids.  I haven't discussed this issue in detail with people, but there doesn't seem to be any concept of deciding whether one wants a wife and family, as we do in the U.S.  Getting married and having babies is what one does here.  My colleagues made fun of me recently for saying that Sheila and I were considering having kids soon, mocking the idea that planning a family should require such organization and forethought.

Governance in West Africa -- In a team meeting at work, a colleague yelled at another colleague for recommending a policy that Ghana had implemented.  "If we were even one-third as well governed as Ghana, that might be possible!  Or Rwanda!  But you know that's not possible here!"  It leads one to believe that Ghana is handily winning the West African Wager.

Governance in the Ministry of Health -- That being said, I've been impressed with how knowledgeable and competent all of my co-workers are.  They are intelligent, well educated and they have a good understanding of the issues facing their country's health care system.  I suppose I had fantasies of coming here and teaching them how to improve their health care system.  Instead, I find that this has been almost completely a learning experience (remind me to use this paragraph for my next college essay!).

Anyway, it's a good lesson for me about the value of experience and institutional knowledge over education and theoretical knowledge.  I knew a lot of health care policy generally, but very little about Cote d'Ivoire's health care system, its institutions, its way of policymaking.  The latter issues are clearly much more important categories of knowledge for my work here.  Remind me of this next time I talk about wanting to get a PhD.

Progress -- I did make a few semi-helpful suggestions during a team strategy meeting at work this past week. My French is getting better and I'm feeling increasingly competent.

Post-Coup Stability -- I don't know what it was like during the coup, but things seem pretty stable now.  The "crise" was bad, and people are clearly scarred by it, but life seems to have gone mostly back to normal.  On the surface, the country is building as if unconcerned about the possibility of future turmoil in the 2015 election.  Roads, bridges and buildings are springing up.  My office at the ministry of health is embarking on a complicated reform of the health system that will take several years to fully implement.  For a new arrival like me, the only real evidence of the crisis comes from the occasional stories of taxi drivers or Ivorians who talk about the people and things they lost.  I very much hope that the elections go off smoothly.  For the majority of Ivorians with whom I've discussed, their main concern seems to be stability.  One cab driver told me that he doesn't care who the president is, that his president is his children and trying to give them a better life.

Cultural Differences -- In the bathroom at work (in the Ministry of Health!), there is a sign above the sink that says "Interdit de pisser dans le lavabo" ("Urinating in the sink is prohibited").