Vientiane Times: A Sojourn Among the Development Workers

The National Review, October 1997

AN ENGINEER I met in Vientane told me that development workers always arrived in Laos with high hopes. After a year they would sink into a funk, but after another year, they would make their peace with the country. They would learn to play a terrific game of tennis.

I had come to Laos to work for the United Nations Development Programme. Created between France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu and Britain’s withdrawal east of the Suez,

the United Nations Development Program is the world’s largest source of development grants, with a budget of more than a billion dollars and offices in 150 countries and territories. “Development,” the UNDP mission statement asserts, “is inseparable from the quest for peace and human security.” In recent years, with UN peacekeeping missions ending in repeated embarrassment, senior UN officials, including UNDP administrator James Gustave Speth, have proposed that development should be the UN’s primary goal.

The UNDP has been in the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic since 1976. On the face of it, Laos is the archetypal candidate for development assistance; the country has been ravaged by centuries of invasions, indifferent colonial rule, hapless proximity to the strategic theaters of the Vietnam War, and ruinous socialist experiments. Independence from France, in 1949, inaugurated more than two decades of coups and civil infighting. In 1975, following the collapse of Phnom Penh and Saigon, the Pathet Lao seized control of Vientiane. Under the Party’s administration, the economy has remained in shambles. One in five children dies in infancy; adult life expectancy is barely more than fifty years. Less than half the population is literate. Outside the capital, there is virtually no electricity, no railroads, nor even roads; infrastructure is primitive, and crops are regularly wiped out by floods and pestilence. The countryside is littered with unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam War. Recently, the government has instituted a series of reforms to decentralize economic decision making, a perestroikawithout the glasnost, for the Party has no intention of relinquishing political control. The media are controlled by the government, all independent political organization is banned, and dissenters are imprisoned.

The UNDP charter emphasizes what it calls “sustainable development” and “capacity building” — the training of indigenous people in the skills necessary to design and manage their own social and economic transitions. To this end, the UN mission in Laos coordinates aid from donor countries and other organizations, participates in planning meetings with government officials, and aids the government in conducting studies and workshops, often sponsoring foreign technical consultants to supervise projects. It was in this last capacity that I had been hired, although it was not clear precisely what project I would supervise.

Because I had been a journalist, my supervisor at the UNDP, an affable American named Jeffrey, proposed on my arrival that I work as a consultant to the government’s weekly English-language newspaper, the Vientiane Times. The paper had been founded as part of the opening of the country to foreign investors; its intended audience was not Laotians, but foreigners with capital. Yet among those foreigners, the paper was an object of mirth. It was a hopelessly unreadable rag, propaganda interrupted only by the occasional feature article about a villager who could play the Lao flute through his nostrils.

Jeffrey warned me that my predecessor, an Australian named Catherine, had found the Vientiane Times trying. The editor-in-chief was extremely sensitive to criticism from Westerners; Catherine had left the paper in a cloud of mutual recrimination. “She didn’t understand that this is acommunist country,” he told me. “They don’t have freedom of the press here. But really, Claire, it’s not such a bad job. You just have to do what they say and smile a lot.”

The newspaper was in a dingy, decaying building in the center of Vientiane, with one overflowing toilet by the main door. It was windowless. In the corner sat a round-faced and expressionless Party official of middle years whose job was to supervise the ideological content of the newspaper. He sat solemnly at his desk, directly across from mine, reading contraband Thai newspapers. The staff were a group of university students, mostly children of Party members. The editor-in-chief, a senior Party apparatchik, was uncomfortable in English and explained my duties to me in French. The Lao staff would do research, and I was to help them make their storiesraffinées.

THAT afternoon, the son of a prominent government official approached me with an article. He was, like many young Laotians, endearingly shy, and smiled nervously as he placed his article in my hands. “Yambean,” it began, “is very popular food, and is good selling in the market, said Lakamsou, is gardener. Start growing yambean and corn since six years. Yambean and corn are grown and sold by her.” The text continued in the same vein. As I soon established conclusively, none of the students had more than a rudimentary grasp of English. This should have been no surprise; the Pathet Lao had until recently imposed a regime of strict isolation from the West; no Laotian of his age would have studied English in school. Foreign newspapers had been banned; he was unlikely to have read one as a student, or really even to understand what a newspaper was. I was nonetheless surprised to discover that no one on the staff spoke English even to the point necessary to have produced the issues I had read. Clearly, someone else — a Westerner, probably — had been writing the paper.

In fact, it had been another development worker, a gentle Canadian woman who had written the entire paper every week. Her eagerness to please had made her popular at the Vientiane Times; she had been rewarded with a desk job at the UN mission’s Vientiane headquarters. She told me that the paper had been written, since its inception, entirely by foreigners; the government, finding this a convenient and economical arrangement, had not arranged for a single Lao national to be trained to do the job.

Inspired by the handsome philosophy of sustainable development and capacity building, I suggested to the editor-in-chief that I might give a course in basic English, using as teaching modules a series of seminars about journalism. I drew up a teaching plan. Later that day, I found my plan in the afternoon trash.

The editor-in-chief called my supervisor to complain that he didn’t need Westerners telling him how to run his newspaper. I was summoned to Jeffrey’s office. “This job,” he told me, “isn’t about telling these people what to do. This job is about building good relations with the government. This job is about keeping the government happy. Your job is to go over there and be a good little soldier. Don’t get on their nerves, and do what they say.”

On the next day, I was given a story about a local garbage collector who was evidently in state of rapture, for it was the late President Kaysone Phomvihane’s birthday. Kaysone was the architect of the Pathet Lao victory in 1975. The Party instituted centralized economic decision making, with predictably disastrous results, and, after taking control of the media, sent thousands of Laotians to re-education camps. Ten per cent of the population fled. It was precisely because the entire class of educated Laotians was forced into exodus that there was now not a single young Laotian capable of producing a newspaper. I did not actually point this out, but I suspect the editor-in-chief sensed my disapproval. He demanded that I be replaced. My first assignment in development work came to an ignominious close.

THE UN MISSION’S headquarters occupy a set of whitewashed buildings near Vientiane’s most spectacular architectural monument, a fantastically baroque imitation of the Arc de Triomphe built with cement donated by the United States for the construction of a new airport tarmac. The mission’s hallways are decorated with tattered posters featuring happy Lao peasant women with babies on their backs and slogans such as “Our Partners in Sustainable Development.” The mission employs about 70 foreign nationals, paid upwards of $70,000 per annum; some 20 foreign consultants, paid between $300 and $400 per diem; and about 30 Lao secretaries, cleaners, maids and drivers, paid  $90 per month.

Jeffrey had concluded that I should be kept from jobs where I might again offend the government, and proposed that I be moved to the headquarters and put to use editing reports. He asked me to revise an evaluation of the Lao judiciary, written by another UN technical consultant, one of Jeffrey’s professors from Harvard. The professor had no specialized knowledge of Laos, nor of its history, economy, political life, or social structure. He spoke no Lao. His assistant was the UN Resident Representative’s daughter, who had no legal training, nor indeed any professional qualification. The consulting team had neither travelled to the provinces nor spoken to villagers. The professor had been flown, business class, to Laos from the United States. He had stayed in Vientiane’s best hotel, on a living allowance of $140 per diem. After toasts with UNDP and government officials, he had been flown home, his total contact with the country about three weeks. The cost of the consulting exceeded $100,000. The report, submitted months late, was a masterpiece of unintelligible jargon; it could be read backwards as well as forwards for equal profit. The professor had long since returned to Cambridge, and now refused to answer Jeffrey’s phone calls.

I was next asked to rewrite a series of environmental proposals submitted by a Swedish consulting group. The consultants were friends of the UN Resident Representative. They had been escorted, in chartered helicopters, to meetings with government officials throughout the country. This research had led them to a number of careful conclusions about the Lao environment, foremost among them that it would be best served by the hiring of more Swedish consultants and the writing of more Swedish reports. This report, too, was unintelligible; it had been translated from the Swedish by means of an English – Swedish dictionary, word for word.

Shortly thereafter, a program officer from the rural development division wandered into my office. He asked me if I knew of anyone who could edit another report for him. I replied grudgingly that I supposed I could. “Oh no,” he exclaimed brightly, “we need a professional editor because it’s in our budget.” I asked how much had been allocated. “Five thousand dollars,” he replied. I glanced at the report; it was a two-day project.

Not long before my arrival, at a conference organized by the Resident Representative, a senior Lao official had been presumptuous enough to say what everyone in the Lao government feels: “Why doesn’t the UNDP stop spending all its money on reports and consultants and meetings like this and just give it to us instead?” A shocked silence fell upon the room. The man was demoted at the next Party reshuffle, presumably for having bit the hand that fed him.

Not all the UN’s resources were invested in hiring consultants to write and edit reports. A great deal of money was simply handed over to the government. But where it went was a mystery. The disorganization of the Lao bureaucracy made it nearly impossible to keep tabs on the influx of donor aid. According to Decree 162 of the Lao National Assembly, for example, any person or group in Laos is permitted to approach any donor for assistance. In practice, the decree allows provincial governors to ask donors for aid already requested by the central government. Governors can, moreover, solicit aid for the same purpose from multiple donors, and often do. When the aid arrives, in duplicate or triplicate, none of the donors are informed about the others. No one knows where the surplus ends up, or if they do, they aren’t telling. According to one memorandum, for example, a donation of $62,000 from the Vatican, for famine relief, had simply disappeared. No one at the Vatican or in the Lao government could tell the UN where it had gone. Decree 162 allowed government ministers to wring their hands and purport ignorance. The UN cannot demand greater accountability: it exists, as I had been reminded by my supervisor, to support the governments of developing countries, not to tell them what to do.

The government felt sufficiently assured of foreign aid that it often could not be bothered to draft its own letters requesting financial assistance. UN agencies did it for them. These requests had to be worded so as to avoid offending the Party’s exceptionally delicate sensibilities. Descriptions of Laos as a one-party state were pencilled out, and replaced by the phrasestrong leadership. “You have to be careful what you say around here,” Jeffrey told me. “They’re very sensitive.” He intimated that one false step could see the while UN mission – along with our jobs, of course – dissolved.

The UNDP spent much of what remained of its resources on bizarre conferences. While I was there, 120 UN staff members were treated to a weekend at a luxury hotel in Thailand, where employees were asked to participate in role-playing games about development. The Resident Representative shared his feelings about development through skits and a song. Planning these conferences could occupy a dozen staffers for several weeks.

Surely the most extraordinary document I encountered in Laos was a memorandum from the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. “As you well know,” it read, “the United Nations Programme on Space Applications was created to assist developing countries in the understanding and utilization of space technology for their economic development and to promote indigenous capacity at the local level.” The memorandum encouraged the UN mission in Laos to send envoys to regional conferences, training courses, and workshops in order to strengthen Laos’s technical infrastructure in space science.

At any given moment, I was told by a senior UN official, as many as half the country’s top-level officials were out of the country attending UN conferences, seminars, or workshops. The ministers could hardly be blamed for finding these expeditions appealing; the per diem spending allowance for trips to Geneva, Tokyo, or Rome exceeded their monthly salary. Few Lao officials could speak or understand any UN language, but this was not considered an impediment. Rumors abounded about the size of various ministers’ frequent flier accounts. One high-flier had recently managed everyone’s goal: to piggyback two conferences and pocket a ticket for future use. The UN sent another official to an international conference on Women in the Maritime Industries. It occurred to no one, apparently, that Laos, being landlocked, has no maritime industries.

In 1995, a mid-level official from Vientiane Province was sent to Turin for a conference on Labor Relations in a Changing World. Of course, anyone mentioning the word strike in Laos would certainly find his world changed, probably winning a free trip to the re-education camp in Houaphanh.

A widespread rumor held that floods threatening Vientiane in 1995 had occurred because the release of water from the Nam Ngum Dam had been delayed. The engineer responsible for supervising the dam had been in Scandinavia for a UN conference.

DURING the time I was there, hearings were held on a proposal to build a massive dam in central Laos, on the upper Theun river. It was to be funded by UN agencies. Every environmental organization that did not stand to profit from the contracting denounced the Nam Theun II project, certain that it would wreak catastrophic damage on the Nakai plateau and disrupt the fisheries and agriculture upon which thousands of villagers depended. The project, like those before it, was expected to enrich only a handful of Lao elite. The government’s original flood estimates had been exposed by a Bangkok newspaper based on the wrong topographical maps. The forcible resettlement of indigenous populations was, a senior UN official confided to me, leading to more deaths from malaria, diarrhea, and other disorders of dislocation than all the deaths from accidental ordnance detonation.

Such stories were common. The UN had promoted the construction of roads to permit inter-village commerce, yet as soon as roads were built, trucks stacked with logs had begun streaming out of the forest, one of the last intact, contiguous areas of tropical cover in Southeast Asia. Living regally on the proceeds was General Cheng, a singularly venal Party official known for murdering anyone who noted that the logging was an obscenity. Paramilitary logging conglomerates such as the DAFI group under General Bou Phon had become warlords in the countryside. The consequence of the deforestation were unknown; it may have caused the flooding that destroyed rice crops several years running, leaving almost 140,000 peasants without food.

These debacles were not isolated incidents. They were the natural consequence of the development industry’s essential ideology. Development assistance rests on the proposition that the UNDP – an organization that is not elected, whose officials rarely have intimate knowledge of the countries they are sent – is in a position to determine the path development should take. Most UNDP employees move from country to country in quick rotation. Perhaps one in ten UNDP employees spoke passable Lao. None had lived for any length of time with a Lao family. When I arrived, I asked if it would be possible for me to do so, and was told by my colleagues that it would make the family uncomfortable, no UNDP staff member ever had, and besides, the government would not approve of it.

Before coming to Laos, I had worked as a journalist in Bangkok. Sitting in traffic for hours at a stretch each day gave me personal cause to consider the costs of rapid economic development. Thailand has, in the past twenty years, realized the goals the UNDP is striving to achieve in Laos, such as longer life expectancy, higher wages, and decreased infant mortality. But these achievements came at an enormous price. Bangkok is a filthy, Stygian hellhole; traditional rural ways of life have collapsed; AIDS, in part a consequence of large-scale social alienation, is epidemic. Thailand’s tree cover is gone. Thailand is eager to participate in the development of Laos precisely because no matter how frivolous the project, the contractor who executes it has the right to clear trees. Given this, I began to wonder, were foreign-aid workers truly in a position to decide what progress was, and what price Laos should pay for it? And if not, why on earth should they?

According to its mission statement, the UNDP exists “to create opportunities through which people’s abilities, talents and creativity can find full expression … [and] to help countries to develop the capacity to manage their economies, fight poverty, ignorance and disease, conserve the environment, stimulate technological innovation, and recognize and enhance the contribution of women to society.” This sentiment, oddly enough, resembles nothing so much as that expressed in 1925 by Louis Proust, member of the French Conseil Supérieuer des Colonies: “The marvel of our colonial effort is not making cities spring forth from the deserts, not casting across the bush and the forests the long ribbons of highway, nor installing in the virgin country prosperous industries and superb scientific establishments … it is reaching deep into these childlike souls, gently steering them from the mists of their savagery to the light of civilization, making, in the end, of these indolent and bloodthirsty populations a real people of merchants, artisans and farmers.”

The mission civilatrice is now an object of derision, of course.

I WAS unwilling to give full voice to my doubts, for my life there was seductive. I lived in a way I could never hope to in the West, enjoying a rare combination of luxury and exoticism. My salary and benefits were generous by any standard, but lavish in the context of Laos, where per-capita yearly income is less than $350. I had full health insurance, and was assured that in the event of misfortune, I would be evacuated to the First World by helicopter. I was enamored of Vientiane, with the sagging mansions built by French colonists, with the mysterious curled script, with the antique merchants who sold porcelain opium pipes that resembled flutes. My marble terrace overlooked a lush garden of mango and papaya trees. My bedroom overlooked the golden spires of a dilapidated Buddhist temple; in the morning, the temple monks would ring bells and chant. At nightfall the scent of jasmine from the temple grounds entered my room. I began feeding the thin, tragic stray cats in my garden, who were touchingly grateful to be spared the daily hunt for lizards and crickets. Soon all the cats in the neighborhood learned that there was good eating to be had at my house, and came by every evening, licking their paws and rubbing happily against my ankles.

The sense among other expatriates was that the UN was profligate, to be sure, but that it could always be worse. A number of foreigners met every Monday evening to go running and then drink beer, the high point of their week. They would plough through the Lao countryside, perhaps fifty portly middle-aged men and women, huffing and panting and making a great deal of noise. A Swede with a bugle brought up the rear. The villagers would stand agape, marvelling at the strangeness of it all. The countryside was lovely and mysterious, especially at sunset when the air smelled of coal fires and frangipani. After running, the expatriates would get fabulously drunk. When their wives were away, the men would arrive with teenage Lao bar hostesses, at whom the remaining wives would glare. Whenever I remarked at these soireés that all that money – the projects, the conferences, the reports, the programs – seemed to accomplish very little, someone would invariably respond, “well, at least it’s better than Africa.” Those who had been in Africa would nod vigorously.

Like all UN employees, I had a cohort of servants. Jeffrey warned me – in all seriousness, I think – not to spoil them. The UN, to my surprise, paid for them directly; they were itemized in the budget as watchmen, as if to suggest that they were responsible for my security rather than my cooking and laundry. One of my servants, Nouane, was a veteran of Dienbienphu. Doubtless due to malnutrition, he was dwarfed and frail. His voluble French was incomprehensible, but we managed to communicate by means of trial, error and sign language; in this fashion I came to understand that his only son had gone to Bangladesh in search of work, and they had not seen or spoken to one another in eighteen years. Nouane had never been able to afford a long-distance phone call. The UNDP paid him $90 each month, on which he supported his cousins, daughters, sister, and nephews. I cannot say that I ever did anything for Nouane but tip him well when I left. In fact, I cannot claim that I renounced any of the extraordinary UN perks, nor that I left Laos in any manner better off than I had found it.

There was, however, one expatriate with more guts than me. Some time after I left, someone published a parody of the Vientiane Times, with headlines such as “Nam Theun II Dam to Eradicate Brain Tumors in Laos,” and articles assuring the public that villagers resettled under the dam scheme would receive “health care, schools, clean drinking water, irrigated rice paddies, mechanized farm machinery, their own Internet connections, satellite TV, microwave ovens, weed-whackers, and the latest in fashionable swim wear and snorkeling equipment – for those occasional trips back to the old village to pay respects to the ancestors.” The publication was a scandal, tremendously embarrassing to the government and the apologists for the dam. It was a perfect parody of the newspaper in every respect, except, of course, that it was far better written and vastly more entertaining. All of Vientiane was seized with animated gossip about who had written it; it was understood that the culprit, when caught, would be thrown out of the country. Many people believed I had written it. I confess now that I didn’t. But I wish I could take the credit.

It was only when I left Vientiane that I thought to worry about the cats in my garden. They had become accustomed to regular meals. I gave my maid money and implored her to keep feeding them, but I expect she pocketed it for herself, and who could blame her? One cat, hugely pregnant, seemed to have given up entirely on catching mice, living grandly, for the first time in her hard life, on the Purina cat food I had imported for her from Thailand. I worried that in her condition, having become used to luxury, she might no longer be fit enough to mouse, and that her kittens might starve.

But that is just one idle thought, among many others about development work, that troubles me to this day.

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