Friday, March 11, 2011

Unravelling the "Capacity" Question

I am a bureaucrat. For ten hours a day, I am a bureaucrat through-and-through. I have absorbed the lingua-franca of bureaucracy, and spin together memos about objectives, outputs and outcomes, milestones and results-indicators without flinching. The easiest paragraphs are the ones that, upon re-reading, mean nothing at all. Some re-state the previous paragraph with slight changes in the verbs that imply actions having been taken, or results achieved because actions were taken, always with non-descript responsibility for action and ownership of the results.
One term that I am learning to use in almost all contexts is ‘capacity-building.’ Functionally, it’s more vague than ‘guidebook,’ ‘seminar,’ or ‘training course,’ and so it slides by more managers and funds-providers without eliciting too much criticism. It’s also a more sensitive and acceptable way of saying ‘you folks have no idea what you’re doing,’ or ‘we’re going to have to say it to you, then show it to you, then hold your hand and do it for you.’
When I sit through meetings with directors and senior officials at one ministry or another, and hear that they need capacity to implement this or that improvement, and his diamond ring is flashing at me, and his office is awkwardly crammed with mahogany furniture and leather sofas, and the staff parking lot is full of Lexuses and Land Rovers, I’m wondering—‘Where exactly is the capacity going?’ I don’t say that, though. I just write down the areas where he says capacity is needed, and then we try to see back at the office what can we propose to do. In one of my first trainings here, I learned that it’s not productive to think of your client as corrupt. In fact, it’s not productive to use the word 'corruption,' because it is a normative word, and it makes it impossible to have a conversation as equal partners when we use normative words about each other.
But upon further reflection, I’m seeing that capacity-building is a real thing, and it’s not fair to say that someone is unmotivated or unskilled because he doesn’t do things we would expect. Take the cleaning lady, for instance. The landlord advertised this apartment as ‘serviced’, and indicated that a lady will come twice each week to clean the unit for us. What a deal! We’ve never been cleaned-up for in the US before, and felt like royalty. But after a few cleanings, I saw that her tools consisted of a dirty rag and a bucket of water. I also noticed scum and hair all around the toilet, food stuck on the counter, and dirt behind the sofa after she left. Judging by what I hear from other tenants, she’s being paid 2 or 3 dollars a day. At that rate, she’s probably living in a group apartment, maybe with a shared squat-toilet, someplace far away. So how would she know what a traveler expects when he enters a fresh hotel bathroom? How would she know what Americans see on Lysol commercials that sets the standard for a sparkling kitchen? And how could she implement that with a dirty rag? She’s undoubtedly making our home a hundred times nicer than her place, but she’s got no reference point for what I would think of as a ‘serviced apartment.’ Needless to say, I put on my bandana on Sunday, got down on my knees and had a close scrubbing of the toilets. Case closed.
Capacity-building is everywhere—the tailor shops that can’t size clothes, the tuk-tuk drivers that don’t know where they’re going, the nanny that doesn’t coordinate homework or start dinner. Labor here is shockingly cheap, sadly cheap. A tailor will take in a skirt for a dollar and make a dress for 4. A tuk-tuk driver will take you across town, wait outside for an hour, then bring you back for 3 dollars. Most nannies will work for a dollar an hour in the city and less in the country (we pay ours way above market rate).
But there has been little or no opportunity for workers to build a skill-set, to integrate knowledge with production and add value.  In America, we expect that a taxi driver integrates his knowledge of the whole city landscape with his car and his agreement to drive you someplace. Here, the tuk-tuk driver is literally just a man with a motorbike and a wagon the back, and there are thousands of them. Having no particular skill for English, or knowledge of the city layout, he is just a gas pedal, and you have to provide the turn-by-turn directions.  How long have nannies existed in Cambodia the way Americans think of them? So how far they need to go to understand expectations about learning-play, child safety, bath-time precautions, and kitchen hygiene! And what a market they will have made for themselves when they can more successfully integrate these skills with social networking among the urban elites, some English skills, and some self-promotion! There are really so many skills and expectations that I have been taking totally for granted until coming here.