Vaughan Powell, scion of a distinguished east coast family, joined Foreign Service after graduating from Yale, worked as a Political Officer and steadily climbed the ladder until he retired as a Chargé d’Affaires, denied ambassadorship, he thought, only because his family’s known allegiance was with the wrong political party. He liked living abroad, though with few links to the local people, for he preferred to be a recluse.
I knew neither Christopher nor Vaughan, but gathered their stories in some detail from their sons, Steve and Hank, both of whom were my colleagues and, later, friends. They both had a childhood in the US, and then spent their adolescence in different countries with their itinerant father. Their experiences were quite different and yet they both came to the same conclusion: the way they had seen their father – and their mother – live abroad was not the way life should be lived in another country.
Steve and Hank too ended up living a large part of their life overseas. Steve was a professor in sociology whose interest in institution building led to several long stints abroad. Hank worked for a consulting group in Chicago and long-term projects in Asia and Africa gave him close intimacy with poorer countries. Both avoided four-star hotels and elite clubs, and spent all their time with villagers and city youth rather than wizened bureaucrats and businessmen.
The legacy of their predecessors, people like their fathers, was another hurdle. Local people, accustomed to playing second fiddle to expatriate advisors, were loath to risk their necks and venture a dissenting opinion. To make them feel equal, at least equal enough to express a divergent view, took some doing and several months.
Cultures, Steve and Hank found, took a long time to budge. Governments or local authorities that presided over large projects were eager to take foreign funds and – what they took as a chaser to the whisky – foreign advice, no matter how good they thought the second was. In turn, donor groups long inured to having their way without question, were resistant to spending money or time on discussing alternatives suggested by local individuals, let alone trying to implement them.
No, going native was not the answer. Nor could one stay the resolute expatriate and expect people and results to fall in line. It is a tough business trying to build trust, evoke genuine participation, and work, slowly but steadily, toward developing a genuine partnership.