My office in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
With the guts gone all that remained was a career. Stripped of moral trappings aid work lost its lustre. Yet, this was now my career. I had invested more than 10 years of my life in understanding what the whole caper was about. I knew the lingo and was building up a catalogue of yarns. I enjoyed the feeling of no longer being a novice but a veteran. Even though I now saw aid in a less-than-glamorous light I believed I had no option but to press on.
All careers come with ladders included, so I started to climb. I passed a couple of years idling in what I considered to be jobs that were below my capability but which gave me space for other things. Time for Yvonne and writing. Between 1997-1999, in Melbourne and later in Oxford, I revised my first novel and wrote a second one. Much of the work on these was done during office hours in jobs that required very little intellectual imagination or long hours. At the time I hated them. In retrospect I thank God for blessing me!
The experience of so much writing coupled with the tedious task of finding a publisher drained me of creativity. In mid-1999 my first novel was accepted for publication. A few months later Yvonne finished her Masters and we headed back to the field. Angola was a distant memory. My urge to make my mark in aid was coming on strong. When I got confirmed as Country Director, Tajikistan for an American NGO my professional juices raced through my veins. I was on my way again.
I have to be honest. The ego trip of senior management was a big part of my ongoing motivation. In Tajikistan I had ultimate responsibility for the safety and security of a dozen international staff and more than 100 nationals. The country was run by ex-Communist and emerging Islamist thugs. The banking sector didn’t exist, forcing me to regularly cross international borders with wads of USD stuffed in my pockets so that our programs could run. The NGO had programs all over Tajikistan and Northern Afghanistan; the former was just emerging from a civil war, the latter was still fighting one. The value of our assets and programs cleared the USD 12m mark. There were moving parts aplenty. The environment was ‘unstable’. And I was in charge.
I enjoyed the authority I was given and the trust extended to me by my employer. I loved being able to make decisions and not answer (on a daily basis) to anyone. My superiors on the West Coast wanted regular reports and no fuckups. As long as I delivered on both fronts no one wanted to breathe down my neck.
It’s easy for this to go to your head and many people did succumb to the temptation to be little sultans. Some would say I did. They puff themselves up as Experts and treat others with disdain. Tellingly, they refuse to return to HQ and jump from agency to agency to stay in the field where they can avoid close scrutiny. They are the sort of characters Conrad modelled Kurtz on.
The ledger wasn’t all negative though. As a manager of people I grew immensely. My appreciation of the political dimensions and imperatives of organizations deepened as well. My previous fundraising job proved to give me an edge in preparing funding proposals. I made mistakes which allowed me to understand my limitations and strengths as never before. Many of the characters I had to negotiate with made the peshmarga look like Girl Scouts. If I wasn’t a credible manager when I arrived in Tajikistan, I certainly was when I left 18 months later.
A good friend left her job in Melbourne as head of the International Department of a big aid agency and I applied to take her place. What I wanted more than another field position was to prove to myself that I could handle a senior position back in the West. My underdeveloped sense of self needed further evidence that I was capable. I got the job but not without some minor drama: the interview panel thought I was too ‘laidback’ and withheld their decision for several days. But eventually the good news came. You’re the successful candidate!
I had finally cracked it! I was well paid. I worked for a revered organization. I was on TV and radio regularly talking about humanitarian issues. People whom I looked up to seemed to respect me too! Amazing. As far as I could see into the future I had nothing but the road rising up to meet me.
Little did I know, however, that from this point on my career was beginning its slow but steady descent to the ground.