April 3, 2013

Development Makes A Strange Bedfellow

"Bengali Friends" in  Bangladesh  by David Lazar.
Guest Post by Thomas Lasseau

There is an old Bangladeshi saying that goes, "you can't take out the trash without getting your hands dirty." On a previous visit to Bangladesh to work in microfinance in 2009, my fellow interns and I found ourselves staring into the twin barrels of a sawed-off shotgun, wielded by a man with a police badge, blue jeans and flip flops. We had rented ATVs to explore Cox's Bazar, the longest beach in the world, and this man was claiming, in screamed Bengali, that for this infraction we owed him a "fine."

After paying him off and returning from our adventure, an argument ensued with the owners of the ATVs about who should internalize the cost of the bribe. After much haggling, it was divided between our cost of rental and the owner's cost of doing business, but we still left suspicious of an even bigger con. Needless to say, on a national level, the World Bank recently declined to loan Bangladesh $2 billion to build a bridge on account of a $17 million dollar "fine" required to grease the gears of construction.

Although it's dangerous to generalize about poverty, conflict zones and authoritarian regimes, a delicately stated common theme appears to be the mismanagement and misappropriation of national assets. Counterproductive resource allocations are visible in the global struggles between squatters, landowners and developers, in the violent seizing and reseizing of Africa's diamond territories, and in the pilfering of aid money by corrupt bureaucracies.

I believe the Bangladeshi proverb rings true insofar as we have to make the initial assumption that the governance of communal resources in extreme economic and political conditions has "fallen into the wrong hands." The tragic result of this grand misallocation of capital is that the majority stakeholders on the other side of the table (or the sawed-off shotgun as the case may be) have every reason to hold on fast, unless we can change their incentives.

The success of any process of disarmament, reconstruction, regime change or wealth redistribution hinges on the incentives of its participants who have the most to lose (whether inherited or acquired). Consequently, unless forcing new incentives through revolution or armed intervention (neither the province of the planner), the war criminals and corrupt officials of the world are our necessary allies in the philanthropic cause. The obvious risk of this acknowledgement is that in forging these alliances we become partners in corruption and crime.

So if successful development work is necessarily transactional, this means that we, as development workers, must learn to trade in trade-offs. How can we structure the deal to keep our hands as clean as possible while still actually helping people? The collateral damage can be measured by the degree of opportunity for taking back what's being given away. The trick is to somehow work against, while working with, but not working for the kleptocrat or militia on the other side of the deal. The sensitivity of this balance is why so many development projects merely perpetuate the crippling inequities they set out to fix.

Extreme conditions are tough on the stomach in more ways than one. Working in them is fundamentally a question of amplitude. In my legal training, I'm being taught to represent my client's interests against hostile forces with friendly professionalism. This training in civility has been invaluable. Cultivating the level of clarity and compassion necessary to negotiate amiably, no matter the stakes, is a lofty goal. I'm still a long way away, but I approach it like a kind of yoga. It may take years to finally touch your toes, but every inch counts.

In building the multidisciplinary toolkit required for improving urban living, I've studied and worked in architectural design, green building, development economics, finance, governance, real estate and contract law. While I believe that each of these is an essential piece of the puzzle, the secret sauce that ultimately coheres these ingredients is the human element that isn't taught in school.

Good analogies for trying to improve the distribution of resources are at worst piratical parleys, and are at best legal representation in settlement negotiations. At best, your clients get damages and injunctions and the guilty party gets off the hook. At worst, you have to somehow pay the dictator more to go away than they can make by staying and oppressing (e.g. fire sale privatizations only benefitting the former regime and multinational capital).

The practical balance lies somewhere between these poles. The necessary alliances must be built on common ground. Building the common ground is where our work begins. The most violent and oppressive people in the world, whether acting from greed, hate, fear or desperation, are also human. We should start there, no matter how reluctant we may be to do so. We need to be able to make friends with the warlord before we can convince him to build sewers and hospitals instead of buying more guns.

Thomas Lasseau is currently a law student at the UCLA School of Law.   He previously worked with Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and studied economics and art at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.