New Internationalist

Confessions Of A Foreign Expert

Issue 105

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Confessions of a foreign expert

by Blair Ericsohn.
Over 300 foreign experts costing $15 million a year* are now serving time in Sri Lanka. One of them has been persuaded to tell his story:


THE FOREIGN EXPERT in Sri Lanka occupies a place somewhere between or amongst Gulliver in Lilliput, the western diplomat who drank from his finger bowl whilst dining ‘with Peter the Great, and H.G. Wells’ characterization of the one-eyed man in the Kingdom of the Blind. At one moment one is suffused with a God-like sense of Herculean personal scale, at the next with a mortifying awareness of cultural inadequacy and, maybe simultaneously, beset by a relentless conviction that one’s ‘expertise’ is resented, perhaps even feared and hated.

No thoughtful observer of the human condition is much surprised by the perception that most of us come, eventually, to dislike most those whom we most need: The bank manager and the dentist are fair examples. None of us likes visible evidence of dependence; in that sense every foreign expert in every developing country is a pimple on the body politic and a continual reminder of failure to achieve an image of national maturity.

Most foreign experts, thereby, become wildly multi-phrenic (‘schizo’ is a wholly inadequate prefix.) They feel at first (but quietly if they are wise) rather fiercely proud of their humane,charitable, selfless, indulgent commitment to less fortunate folk in this far-off land. Following immediately on that is the sense of deprivation and sacrifice: no snow at Christmas; no decent cheese in the shops; probable and periodic bouts of Colombo quick-step with its attendant distress, maybe even a severe case of food poisoning, bowel infection or dengue fever.

Sri Lankans, like North Americans of the Thirties and Forties or the British of the Twenties and before, are endlessly innovative, dextrous and improvisational; much of the island, and the economy, seems to function on a series of improbable miracles of ad hoc repair and resuscitation. The legend in Sri Lanka has it that any adult male on the island, given a pile of rusted metal and fused parts, will produce a functional automobile within 72 hours; equally, it’s said, a new Mercedes sent often enough for maintenance checks will eventually become a Japanese car.

After a period of residence on the island many foreign experts show strong symptoms of the disease (diagnosed some years ago among middle level bureaucrats) described as ‘petit Parancia’. A classic example of the disease involves the postal clerk who becomes totally obsessed by the constant interruption of customers who insist on buying stamps and mailing parcels when the clerk wants to get on with the paper work. For the foreign expert, as the postal clerk, the memo-writing begins to seem infinitely more important than the dam waiting to be built, children waiting to be nourished or land waiting to be irrigated.

If all of that sounds frustrating and debilitating, it gives an accurate picture. If it makes the huge influx of foreign experts into Sri Lanka seem wasted, the picture is wrong. The island’s greatest poverty is in professionally trained human resources; this is partly a heritage of the British colonial tradition of training middle level government bureaucrats in legions while avoiding the development of engineers, chemists, and skilled technical exports of all sorts; partly, too, the result of a self-inflicted wound — when a previous government decreed that Sinhala would be the one and only official language, professional people in their thousands left the island for more hospitable pastures in Britain, Australia and North America. Finally, pay differentials have lured more thousands of Sri Lankans abroad. Example: A trained Sri Lankan engineer of, say, twelve years’ experience may earn only 1,200 to 1,500 rupees monthly (about 80 dollars US or 35 pounds sterling) while a ‘foreign expert’ of similar experience working with them is paid up to fifty times more. With jobs ripe for the picking in the oil-rich Middle East (Sri Lankans call it West Asia) the tiny republic has lost not just engineers, doctors and teachers, but drivers, carpenters, nurses, telephone operators and nutritionists.

To the above, add the desperate efforts under way to mobilize the nation’s economy, to build an industrial base, to irrigate and revive millions of acres of farmland, to develop at least minimal self-sufficiency in energy needs, and you’ve a goal impossible of attainment without vast imports of funds, equipment and know-how of all kinds.

It’s natural, too, that a Sri Lankan hydraulics engineer may be disinclined to work overtime or do as many spot checks as need would dictate on a Sunday evening, when his German or Canadian colleague earns forty times his salary, lives in an air-conditioned bungalow and spends his weekends at a swimming pool or yacht club. Thus resentments breed and programmes are slowed, even hamstrung.

Beyond all of this there is the indisputable fact that, for some foreign experts, a posting to the developing world is a licence to take an extended paid holiday: These are a small minority but their very indolence and, too often, arrogance makes them highly visible. So foreign-expert-bashing has come close to supplanting cricket as Sri Lanka’s national sport. No day fails to add a few more newspaper editorials or letters to the editor asking, Whose country is this anyway?

The Sri Lankans in responsible governmental posts, very aware their island has become the darling of the industrial world’s aid-giving agencies (stable, pleasant climate, warm and hospitable people, attractive geography, ‘western values’ of development and democracy — all of course by comparison with other potential aid recipients) are excellent aids-men. Frequently several countries or agencies are invited to decide a particular aid-giving pie between them so that none can marshall enough clout to dictate policy to the Lankans; moreover a measure of calculated confusion as between projects can make it easier to juggle priorities and resources in the necessarily ad hoc regimen of a country which is, in bald terms, bankrupt. (Foreign aid contributes more than half the annual budget, which runs at a deficit; inflation is officially acknowledged to be over thirty per cent but is probably sixty-five per cent plus; the nation now has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world.)

Like a teenager who has recently left home, the developing nations want Mom and Dad to send money — but not advice. And, despite a remarkable and (to Western eyes) humbling cultural heritage (Sri Lanka had complex government, universities, great art and a capital city housing maybe two million people amid splendid buildings and a vast system of hydraulic engineering a thousand years before William reached England) Sri Lanka, economically and industrially, is just entering adolescence in the family of nations.

*Not including embassy officials. 90 per cent of the bill is paid for by aid.


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