Friday, August 13, 2010

People Management

Working in southern Sudan is stressful, although maybe not in the ways you might think.

I have actually had an overwhelmingly positive, if tiring, week, filling in this time for my mentor himself, who is as I type probably enjoying an exquisite five course meal during a (hard-earned) week of leave in southeastern France.

One of our program assistants was out this week with typhoid. That left myself, the remaining program assistant and two extension workers, neither of whom speak much English, to manage vegetable seed distribution and training for about 500 beneficiaries. We had our fair share of glitches; in one case, we failed to bring the appropriate number of seeds, and so had to ask a group of would-be recipients to come back another day; in another, our vehicle's 8:30 am departure was delayed until 11:30, thanks to the logistics department's "planning," or lack thereof. All of the distributions featured non-beneficiary bystanders who naturally wanted seeds, too. Although we of course can't just give seeds to anybody, and must adhere to the list of vulnerable people supplied this time by the interim government of southern Sudan, it's never a good feeling to have to refuse a young man with a deformed foot, for example, or a toothless and gaunt elderly woman. And while they would no doubt query ANYONE dishing out freebies, my pale skin amplifies their intensity and persistence. I can't help but resent what comes across as the sense of entitlement behind these requests, and at the same time I feel incredibly guilty turning people down, knowing full well that I will go home each evening to a filling, if unappetizing, meal and more per diem than I have immediate use for.

And yet it seemed to me that this week marked some modest forward progress, for both me personally and for the Food Security program. Despite the language barrier, an extension worker and I eventually worked out a system for foolproof distribution (after two almost laughably botched attempts). I facilitated a meeting with the Alek gardener to arrange for continued management of the garden after I am gone, and to get him the rubber boots and raincoat he has been requesting for months now. I feel like the program assistant and I are working as pretty effective and mutually respectful partners. And today, upon invitation, I talked to local secondary schoolers about why more girls aren't in school (they're not stupid, just home tending the chilluns), appropriate agricultural technology (ox plows) and how to become President of southern Sudan (stay in school!) after an invitation from the friendly and earnest Ugandan teachers that run the place.

I have heard countless times that learning to manage people is the hardest part of almost any job. Perhaps it is the stressful situation we find ourselves in, but I feel like the higher-ranking staff here do a pretty shoddy job in this regard, and the burden of their deficiencies rests on the local employees. For example, the gardener today said that until now, no one has thoroughly explained to him what his responsibilities are or who he needs to report to. When one of the extension workers came in this morning to request permission to take some time off, in order to help out his brother, whose front teeth were recently punched out during a heated dominoes game (!), our admin officer in charge of the relevant paperwork snapped at him impatiently for hovering near his desk. Before heading to France, my mentor failed to arrange for the annual leave of his program assistants, whose allotted days will expire at the end of the month.

The environment here is undoubtedly stressful, from the spiders lurking in the recesses of the tent flaps and the early curfew to the intermittent internet connection, the formidable communication barrier and the constant attention, both benign and unwelcome, that being a foreigner here brings. Yet I find the callousness with which many of our managers treat the local people truly disturbing. We are here, I would have thought, because we genuinely care about the plight of the Dinka, who have suffered prolonged and intense hardship. To treat them as inferior simply because they are poor and uneducated, or simply because we are stressed out, is not only poor "people management," it is inexcusable.

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