Russian postcard of a warbling bird. 1984
For about 18 months I lived and worked in the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan. The small country, where the earth quaked over 700 times a year and three mountain ranges accordioned into each other along the fault lines that divide South Asia from Europe, was emerging from several years of ugly war.
Several of the smaller republics of the former USSR were ambivalent about and surprised by their freshly acquired independence. Most, like Tajikistan, were dependent upon the Soviet Union for their annual national budgets and their economies were fully integrated into the larger Soviet economy. Cut loose from Mother Russia they plummeted into poverty and social upheaval. In the case of Tajikistan, war broke out. Nascent and long suppressed Islamic groups battled for control of the new state against die-hard Communists and gangster mafias.
When I arrived in November 1999 the hot war was over but the situation was far from stable. Gun battles did break out in the streets on occasion while large areas in the central and southern and northern tiers of the country paid little more than lip service to the central government. When the sun went down the city disappeared into the darkness like a crocodile sinking deep into river water. Restaurants were few and far between–most expats spent weekend evenings in the bar of the Indian Embassy–and more often than you wished, mud, rather than water, gurgled out of the bathroom taps in the morning.
Though working and living in Tajikistan took some getting used to what with no banks, no entertainment or internet, few eateries , bribe sucking, violence-prone officials and often not enough heat to keep you warm at night the romance of Central Asia was impossible to escape. The landscape of giant mountains and utterly green but narrow valleys which produced the sweetest fruits on God’s earth were absolutely stunning. In the north the mountains gave way to high sierra. Endless horizons of brown hills not unlike the American prairie seemed the cradle of so much of human civilization: the Mongols, the Silk Road, Samarkhand, Khiva and Merv. Without a doubt, wandering around the gray dustiness of ancient Bukhara was one of the highpoints of my aid career. The massive brick citadels, mosques and tombs, largely left in a crumbling state, had that rare capacity to render you speechless and transport you in an instant, centuries back in time.
Several months into my assignment I wondered if the country itself would not be better off if someone like Microsoft or Ford or BP bought the country outright. With the transaction the corporates would acquire a highly educated and skilled workforce, a lax tax environment, a supportive officialdom that would not hesitate to crack as many heads as necessary to ensure that company rules and regulations were followed and the ability to set up alternative income streams such as adventure tourism, hydro-power and agribusiness. We’ve heard of company towns. Why not make Tajikistan the world’s first company-country? I was sure most Tajiks would have welcomed with open arms the idea of good paying, steady jobs.
We’ve heard of humanitarian wars (Kosovo, Iraq) why not humanitarian hostile take overs? These countries can’t manage themselves. So let’s buy the place give everyone jobs and tickle our humanitarian fancy all at the same time.
The idea, of course, is ridiculous. Or is it?
The entry of corporations into the business of aid and humanitarian relief is now no longer novel. It’s mainstream. It may be just a matter of time before the Red Cross or the UN or Oxfam or any of the other big players allow their brands to be co-opted, if not entirely replaced by corporate logos. Microsoft-Oxfam water systems. Coca Cola-Red Cross emergency response units. Ford-UNICEF cold chains.
Corporate management culture has long bewitched the NGO sector. Most CEOs are former heads of QUANGOs or multinationals or prematurely retired politicians. Their management teams are generally free of any content except of the sort Harvard MBAs regurgitate.Efficiency, innovation, systems, processes, the 7 S’s of McKinsey lore, have replaced building relationships with real, poor and vulnerable people. Scaling up. Globalization. Standardization. Reach billions of people. Public-private financing. These are the agenda of huge corporations. And they are increasingly the new birdsong of humanitarian and development leaders.
Big Pharma. Big Steel. Big Auto. Big Development. The progression is real and predictable. My musing about a corporate take over of Tajikstan was an idea for a book. Perhaps one day I’ll write it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Life beat Art in this race. Who knows what a Trump Presidency could do!
One cold winter morning I was in Khojand (formerly known as Leninabad) in northern Tajikistan. I was woken by the most incredible birdsong. Below is what I wrote about it at breakfast that morning. It will always sum up Central Asia for me.
Early morning. Listening to the most amazing birdcall I have heard. A loud series of confident, audacious chirrups, growls, clicks, whistles and scratches. At times a low coarse growl (very un-bird like) then a piercing whistle or two. Now, one, two, three, four; the strange almost metallic sawing sound like the inner workings of an old office chair that hasn’t been oiled in years. Just as quickly the bird finds its birdness again and lets loose a lovely syncopated series of crystalline, round, delicate squeaks. For a moment it is silent, then as if it were a one-man band playing an upbeat number, (thumping the loose bass strings, the tinkle of the cymbal, the squeak now and then of a sax and a droning harmonica) the concert begins again. Right outside my window. She taps her beak against the branch on which she is perched, like a maestro tapping the podium. And then as that elongated moment of expectation stretches out, at last, the music, in a frantic tumble of tones, begins again.
This experience, this birdsong, is rare or seems so in this place. It has a lustiness and vibrancy of a tropical setting: a Thailand or southern India. Not a bleak washed out Central Asian winter morning. But it is lovely and nearly humourous. She’s a prophet. A voice from God reminding us that He is always with us-even in the most alien, isolated and uninhabitable places.
It is quiet now. The bird has gone. In the distance further away and more subdued and barely audible above the morning traffic that is starting to whoosh through the streets, I can hear the slight, timid, weak calls of a flock of small birds. This is how I will recall Russian Asia. Ordered, unspontaneous, uninspired. But now also will I remember Khojand—-in the winter nonetheless-—for the laughably unexpected concert that woke me up and got me on my way.