Sunday, January 26, 2014

These are a few of my most exhausting things:

I'm exhausted.

Not tired. I get plenty of sleep, and I make sure of that. Yeah, sometimes I don't exactly bounce out of bed in the morning. But I know what tired is - that was what I was in college during mid-terms and finals and band tours. That was when I could fall asleep standing up in the lunch line and the moment the professor lowered the lights and turned on the overhead projector.

This is different.

This is the mental and physical pit of quicksand that sucks me down from the most contented and productive heights with the simple breath of a word. The stuff that turns me into an internal hedgehog at the glimpse of an e-mail subject line. The stuff that makes me wonder if McDonald's is hiring.

These are the things that let the air out of my balloon and leave me flat for the rest of the day. And most of them have to do with nagging, unresolved/unresolvable administrative issues.

This, currently, is the topmost among them:

Office space has been a persistent migraine for our office since well before I began working in 2010. For years our department has been told they were going to move to a new location, most likely in the county courthouse, once another county department moved out to a new location. So, little by little, our department gave up office space in our current location, consolidating ourselves and preparing for the day we'd start packing boxes,  putting up with deteriorating conditions and other "just get by" solutions for the time being.

Then, in 2012, after the departure of our office leader, I took the administrative leadership role. For two years now I have watched (and fought) as (unsurprisingly) temporary solutions become permanent, productive conversations and decisions are either delayed or, eventually overturned, and decisions forced upon us without collaboration or consultation. I have experienced some of the worst political two-faced dealings I have ever been personally subjected to. In short, I have found myself bitterly accepting all those negative stereotypes about local government as the veil of jaded cynicism for the future of good governance slips over my eyes.

This all makes me sad. Almost as sad as watching the small progress we'd witnessed in Madagascar be swept away in one quick African coup d'etat. Here we'd hoped that the big island might have grown beyond some of the stereotypes of the African continent. We'd hoped that the transition to openness and reform might be the beginning of a country extracting itself from the bottom of the pile of oppressive statistics that threatened to suffocate it. Instead, it was all washed away in a flash flood of violence and corruption.

Here, I don't hold the fate of a small African nation in my hands, but I am watching the systems that we (USAID, the US Embassy, etc.) were trying to instill through our Good Governance education programs overseas, fail at exactly the issues we were trying to hold rural African tribal communities accountable for. Through Chemonics, International's USAID-funded project, Kominina Mendrika (Champion Communities), we were charged with working with communities to develop collaborative, open, transparent forms of governance that would bring communities together to meet commonly-held objectives. The models we held up were based on those models we claimed to be so effective in promoting democracy in communities across the United States. By bringing community leaders together in open discourse, better decisions and more appropriate use of scarce funds would benefit the whole.

Do as I say, not as I do.

All of those those qualities that lead non-profit organizations to scoff at local officials in both Madagascar and Vietnam - lack of investment in training, lack of access to and capacity to use basic technology (i.e., updated computers, wi-fi networks, mobile technology, etc.), a graveyard pace of decision-making, and Titanic-turning responsiveness to new and emerging issues - are now the anchor and chain that drag on our programs here. True, it's a vast generalization, and nobody is content with the problems, but the problems remain. My youthful and perhaps naive optimism is challenged every day, and make me begin to wonder if these features of the public sector - world wide - are perhaps too deeply embedded to be changed.

Somebody in Madagascar once remarked that I was lucky to live in the United States, "where there is no corruption." I thought about that and responded that there was indeed corruption in the US, we had just institutionalized in it. How little did I understand the truth of my flippant response.

And this exhausts me.

Which leads me to believe that there might be hope for me yet. The day it stops exhausting me, the day I simply accept it, roll over, and curl into that little hedgehog ball - or, worse yet, the day that it energizes and excites me and leaves me itching for more - will be the day I have lost the battle. I may give up, but please, never let me give in.