The Narrow line
The narrow line between poverty and decadence – Development Cooperation in Sri Lanka
The white SUV quickly floats on the pothole littered road, to the left and right there is only green to see, occasionally a few villages pass on the roadside. At certain times we send a radio message to base telling them where we are. From time to time we have to pass a few roadblocks, which works out quite easily because of the symbol on our car.
We are on our way to a region where due to people’s different ethnic and religious diversity there has been 26 years of suffering through a vicious civil war. My job is to reconcile these people and create an economic basis for cooperation. With many good intentions and little idea of the reality, I sit with my translator in the community hall and hear of problems, hopes and desires. Again and again I have to realise that our different origin means a different understanding of many things.
With mixed feelings, but full of hope we drive back to my apartment with air conditioning, cable TV and a security guard in the centre of Colombo. Luckily, it’s Friday night. After a shower and a fresh shirt I go out for dinner at a former British colonial club where you get the feeling that time has stood still: although there is no longer a selection according to skin colour, the thickness of the purse provides a natural separation. After five days eating only rice and chicken, a hamburger with friends tastes wonderful. Due to the fact that all my friends are working for international organisations, the conversations revolve exclusively around the work. Just like in politics, much of the work in development cooperations is done through personal contacts in leisure time. Therefore, we move on to the expat bar. You cannot find this place – you will be taken there. Here, every friday night people from all over the world meet and enjoy the expat life. The fine wine from around the world costs not a dime and at the end of the evening you give only what you feel the night was worth: a really great concept.
Monday morning I make my way back to my air-conditioned office to match what was heard from the previous week with my ideas and capture everything on paper. That implies writing, gauging risks, communicating with local decision makers and budgeting. This work takes weeks and also means to meet with partners in my spare time, in the bars of expensive hotels. After the puzzle slowly assembles to form a picture, I go back on the road. Together with my driver and a translator we drive to the field to spend a few days there.
Field work differs immensely to the office. Due to the oppressive heat my shirt and trousers are soaked quickly. We rush from meeting to meeting. Often, we have to search for the people we are supposed to meet. Especially lunchtime is an ordeal. Again and again, we have to move our appointments. At the end of the day I have done far less than I had planned and I get the impression that I need to change my strategy. I extend my stay in the region for a few days and plan to live in the community and experience local life. The next day, I move in with a family that has offered me to stay in their humble abode. For five days, we share food, stories, experiences and a lot of laughs. The father shows me the local life, tells me about the needs and brings me into contact with the right people. I begin to understand.
Back in Colombo I change a major part of my concept and reap the incomprehension of my colleagues. I was sure of my new direction. After I telling my boss of the results, I get a reprimand, as the kind of residence I used during my trip is not permitted for employees of this organisation. However, he is fully behind me and I can get it started.
One more time, I drive back into the field to give the go-ahead to the project. After last formalities and conversations I leave the region with a positive feeling.
A few days later, it is oppressively hot again. I lie in a hammock under a palm tree and enjoy life. Behind me is a small village, in front of me a bay with a white sandy beach. I look into the ocean, to the beach and the footprints there. I wonder if my work will also leave a footprint.
The future will show the answer.
Aaron is a peace & conflict consultant and NGO specialist, he lives in Hamburg, Germany.