Sunday, January 30, 2011

Little Fish in a Big, Strange Pond

Last week I was asked to attend a government meeting regarding the environment.  My local colleague Zeke informed me that the provincial government authority on the agriculture and environment sector had months ago requested all NGOs to make plans and commitments for how they would contribute toward improving the environment around us, mainly, by planting trees and other long-lasting plants.   Apparently there was not a very good response from NGOs in the province, because now this government was calling for an “emergency meeting” on the matter.  So we went to the meeting.

The meeting was held at the provincial government building.  Provincial government here might be similar to state government back home.  I could tell right away that they do their best to impress their guests at this building, the first clue was the red carpet they had rolled down the steps leading up to the entrance.  The conference room we met in was also quite a sight.  An oval table perhaps 100 ft long stretched the length of the room, leather office chairs providing 50-60 seats, and a microphone in front of each chair.   The seats were perhaps half full by the time the meeting was scheduled to begin, but where was the government official leading the meeting?  He straggled in 10 minutes late, laughing and joking about how he fell asleep in his office.

As it turned out, this government official was quite a character.  In a western country perhaps he would make a good stand-up comedian, because at times he had his audience- leaders of all sorts of organizations, doubled over in hard laughter.  He was not the only character in the room.  As I looked around I realized that many of the various leaders (all locals, I was the only foreigner in the place) had had different foreign experiences.  Where all of these fellows had been, I could not guess, but they had each brought something back from their experience, something that they must have decided would be the next “it” thing in this country.  In essence as I looked around the room there were all sorts of shoes, coats, briefcases, hats, glasses, and hairdos that are definitely NOT part of the local trends here.  Put all these fellows together and it just looked like a room of misfits.  Though I was the only foreigner in the room, so how I felt like I fit in.

The meeting got underway when the leader make an elaborate speech of gratitude for all the organization’s past efforts to improve the environment.  He said that if we went into any school yard in the province, we would see new trees planted there.  After this beautiful monologue, he simplified his speech when he said, “but a lot of them are dried up.”  As he continued on to his appeal for further donations or contributions for 2011, I wondered to myself, “are we here just to do this government’s work?  Are they doing anything with their own budget, or are they just attributing our work as their own?” 

I came back to attention when I heard the government leader begin to name organizations that had not contributed in past years.  This was shocking because in this culture it is a serious thing to shame people by naming their shortcomings.  I looked around and realized that he was naming people that were not in attendance.  “Wow,” I thought, “this fellow must actually have a lot of power to be able to get away with these criticisms.”  I went on to hope that his next target was not our organization!

When our organization’s name came up, Zeke sort of quivered, then acknowledged the government leader.  To both Zeke’s and my surprise, this leader had only praises for our organization’s work.  He called us the #1 org in this sector, because of the care we put into our work.  Zeke told me later this praise might have just been because 3 years ago they planted a tree in the leader’s office yard.  Whatever the reason, the leader recommended that other organizations, including the big boys, look at our work as the model. 

Well now it seems we have some big words to live up to, and to be honest I feel pretty small about all this.  I have looked at our agriculture and environment work and felt that it has a lot of room for improvement.  But, if what we are doing is better than most others, I guess we can try to help others improve, and continuing moving in that direction ourselves as well.

Want to hear the funniest thing about the meeting though?  It was all videotaped by the local TV station, and broadcast on the nightly news, and the cameraman spent a fair amount of time catching all the angles of me, the only foreigner in the room.  Weird.

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