How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust the Moneylender

A grizzled, cynical old aid worker.

A grizzled, cynical old aid worker.

“Be careful when you take taxis”, a grizzled old expat told me when I arrived on my first ever aid deployment, “they rig the fare meters.” I nodded obediently. “And careful at the shops,” he continued, “they’ll cheat you soon as look at you.” I nodded again. “In fact, it’s best you just don’t talk with anyone who isn’t grizzled, old, and an expat.”

He didn’t actually say the last sentence, but could well have done. Large numbers of development workers have a pervasive distrust of local services, institutions, and people. Sometimes cynicism is borne of experience. Often, however, paranoia borders on racism. I’m certainly not immune to this trend. However, two incidents from the last few months have made me think more critically about how we perceive others.

In Sierra Leone, I changed money with a random guy in the street. I foolishly failed to count my money properly, and didn’t notice that he had given me about thirty dollars too little. I was still completely oblivious to this back in the hotel room, when I heard a knock on the door and found the money-changer there, out of breath from having chased my taxi down the street. He apologised for the mistake and gave me the correct change.

In Kenya, I lent the security guard at my guesthouse about ten dollars. Security guards here, incidentally, work a 72 hour week for about a hundred dollars a month, which has certainly put my own complaints about being overworked and underpaid into perspective. We agreed that he would pay me back the money when I returned to Kenya. It was a few months before I arrived back, and the incident had completely passed out of my mind. It hadn’t passed from his; his eyes lit up when he saw me arrive back at the guesthouse, and he ran to pick up an envelope containing the repayment.

This made me realise that the times that I’ve unfairly assumed bad faith far outnumber the times that I’ve been innocently cheated. I think distrust and cynicism can act as a protective barrier, helping to cope with disorientating changes of environment and personnel. This may help keep many aid workers sane – but also contributes to their tendency to lock themselves up in compounds, seek out expat bars and isolate themselves from the world in which they work. So next time you take a taxi, trust the fare meter.

(Does anyone have any stories to add, positive or negative? Add a comment below.)

9 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust the Moneylender

  1. I’d heard many warnings about scams and dishonesty in Vietnam. When I arrived at the airport in Hanoi, I arranged for my guesthouse to send a taxi to meet me rather than catching one at the airport that would undoubtedly have a rigged meter. 😉

    When I arrived at my guesthouse and tried to give the driver $20, not realizing the guesthouse had paid him, he refused to take it. Flew in the face of the dishonesty I had been told to expect!

  2. @LungiWallah quite rightly questioned my casual statement; ‘distrust can act as a protective barrier, helping to cope with changes of environment’. Now I read it over, it does raise more problems than I recognised when I wrote it. Distrust is a valid coping statement for many, but as @LungiWallah said, a ‘coping strategy can damage who you are.’

    And thanks for the story Allison!

  3. Thanks for this post. It raises an even bigger question of what kind of impact distrust might be having at an institutional level if it can have this kind of distorting impact at personal level. What can development cooperation providers do – within their systems – to avoid these kinds of distortions? ODI have, in recent work on “localising aid” suggested that organisations should take a differentiated response to risk, setting out four types of risk which all require different mitigation strategies – rather than the tendency to act on distrust and stop using country systems, budget support, etc. Do you agree? Is there other work on this topic?

    • Thanks Hannah. Your point is certainly valid. ODI’s work highlights what many of us have been thinking for a long time i.e. that risk is not adequately dealt with in the aid sector. Institutions tend to be very risk averse, often dampening the possibilities for innovation or natural evolution. I’ve often quoted the fact that the private sector expect 25% of projects to fail, whereas in the aid sector donors expect an almost 0% failure rate. Distrust and risk aversion are certainly damaging the sector by reducing the incentives of programme managers to try new things or depend upon non-official actors like community members. But getting a balance when much of the money comes from tax payers is far from easy.

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  5. Absolutely! The tendency to “other” is just below the surface of even the most open-minded. It’s good to abandon naive noble savage images before even setting foot in a country, but the cynical expat quickly becomes the oppressor if they don’t continue to challenge judgmental outsiders’ narratives. I’ve long argued that an over-emphasis on risk aversion, particularly using “isolationist” safety methods, makes people both less effective and less safe. Sadly, in the ongoing expansion of Australian development volunteering, I have seen a greater emphasis on personal security in the form of barriers rather than in the form of functioning relationships.

    Sadly, though we all have stories like the ones shared above, they are still framed as exceptions to the rule of the untrustworthy other, rather than vice versa. What is interesting about these stories is our own prejudice, not the exceptional nature of the honest local.

  6. We’ve all been swindled and lied to. We’ve all met people who try to take advantage of others. But the more I travel, the more I realize that we’re kidding ourselves when we don’t acknowledge that bad stuff happens when we’re locals at much deeper levels than when we’re foreigners. When you pay double for a cab, that’s rough. When you pay 1.00 for a bottle of water and everyone else pays .50, that’s tough luck. But when you’re beat down and can’t get a living wage, and arrested for looking suspicious, and your house is stolen out from under you, and you get shot at in the dark when you ARE a local, AND a citizen… That’s when we grizzled old aid workers may need to pause and reflect. What kind of cynicism and racism and baggage are we somehow sneaking past the customs officers into other countries? What does it really looks like to “them”? If the locals haven’t answered that question for you openly and honestly, in friendship, what are you doing there long-term? Are you not simply on extended paid vacation?

    Thank you for such a well-written and insightful post.

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