Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Emma from the Funding Agency of a Country South of Canada

Emma has been with the donor agency of a country south of Canada for a bit over one year now, and although she really hates her life here in Moroni, she is determined to see her contract through, as she sees this dump as a career maker. She can put up with hardship also because she has gained her experience and field credentials with a stint in the Peace Corps, a formative period in her life that she makes daily reference too, often when providing unsolicited advice to "implementing partners" about areas she doesn’t understand.

Her name is actually Emily, but she prefers to be called Emma as she thinks that sounds more mature. She has been known to give very negative “technical reviews” to organizations whose “chief of party” referred to her as Emily once. Her surname is vaguely French and that contributes to her being even more of a social bore as she always makes reference to her “European heritage”, at dinner parties implying that cooking souffl├ęs is somehow imbedded in her DNA and no souffl├ęs cooked by anybody else is ever good enough. She doesn’t speak any French, although “she used to be fluent when she was in the Peace Corps” – Emma has the distinction of completely having forgotten a language in two years “because of lack of practice”, being busy with her job and all, in spite of the three months spent in Paris “for language training” before taking up her job with the donor agency, in what is after all a francophone country. The two years between her peace corps stint and this job were spent in “grad school”, the destination of choice for any unemployable, skill-les overachiever who never had a proper job although they are well in their thirties.

On account of the combination of her masters’ degree from a very good school and her overwhelming practical experience in the peace corps, she fancies herself as both a strong technical expert and someone who knows the ins and outs of “community-based” implementation. She has also attended a training on communication once, which makes her a communications expert, having a specific expertise in the benign impact of logos on larger communication strategies. Given that in her world Moroni is not exactly a desirable destination she gets the big fish in the small pond benefit, which effectively puts more responsibilities in her hand that she can handle.

She never left the city (except on a PR visit when she escorted the ambassador to see a HRI "Launch") and spends all her time with the Embassy staff at the compound. She drives around in a white Rav4 (the car of choice for any discerning expat) and has no friends in town. Like many of us she has impeded her ability to operate machinery several times at the usual Thursday night parties-that-only-expats-attend, which made her even more bitter and secluded. She does not attend the parties anymore and when asked why she blames it on “too much work” and on the fact that, given her position, she needs to be always careful to separate her private life from her work.

In grad school she once sat through a case-study on HRI, which makes her a knowledgeable friend. That and the fact that during her peace corps days she was used as a community contact by a HRI affiliate partial to selling American college kids as community credentials to donors. She also really appreciates having a genuine friend in Nathan the intern whom she managed to bond with over similar peace corps experiences – she particularly likes calling him up and treating him like the minion he is. She genuinely appreciates the “comprehensive” approach HRI has to our work, and the consistency with which we give credit to her agency for their generous support. She understands that our NICRA rates and overheads can be a bit too high and that, in a difficult environment, one has to rely on outside consultants all too often, and she definitely understands "capacity challenges" we are encountering working in such a difficult environment and our reluctance to measure impact, neatly formulated as “not wasting money on research”, which is somebody else’s business. She keeps saying she is “an implementer at heart” and she is very pleased to hear me say that she would do a great job working for HRI.

Emma thinks in 300 words snippets. She can never mention Uganda without making reference to a “that successful campaign” and she could never mention Sierra Leone without mentioning the “amputee soccer club”. She has a good feel for fashionable ("trending?") topics and reacts positively when stimulated with empty talk of “innovation” and “using modern technology, such as cell phones”. This is why, in her head she equates HRI with innovation which goes to show that she really is the right person on the right job.

Her massive professional insecurity is actually a significant advantage as she takes easy offence from competitors other partners who, foolishly, are a bit more outspoken in their technical and programmatic disagreements with her, sometimes even implying that their job is to achieve some sort of “impact” that no-one ever asked from them. In their ignorance, these amateurs don’t realize that this business is about pleasing donors (in this case Emma), and that a neatly printed calendar with the right logos, plus an old fashioned t-shirts and caps project along with sustained sessions of lifesaving workshops and trainings go a long way to achieving that. You throw a “sms campaign” into the mix and Emma loves you like the fat kid loves cake. The "impact" thingy should be the concern of underfunded “subs”, and that’s the way things work. Protesting against that may be “innovative” but will lead to a decrease of funding and control, all smoothly transferred to HRI where they belong.

So here’s to Emma, you rock!


  1. Brilliant! I've worked with Emma. Several Emmas. Entire Embassies full of Emmas.

    In fact, there is a (somewhat masculine looking) Emma in an unnamed Embassy defunding one of our projects as I type this.

  2. I can't get over pronouncing 'corps', well, corpse and not core. I'm checking the spelling of my name.

  3. you probably deserve to be "defunded" seeing that you probably are one of those given to flights of fancy about "impact" and who knows what other reactionary excentricities.

    did i read about you winging in the economist by the way about this?

  4. no no - YOU rock, HRI!

    We all know Emma. The "I used to speak X language fluently" bit is SUCH a common insecure-American-girl thing. How many cringe-inducing people have we been forced to interact with? All this trying to prove oneself etc. may stop if parents would just raise their kids in such a way as to make them realize that it doesn't matter if they are more or less special than anyone else and cease this never-ending quest for praise. Stop the Irritation!

    And, love the sms campaign=innovation equation.
    I bet Emma aims to be an inspiration to people back in that country south of Canada and dreams of being on Oprah. I can picture her 'compelling' facebook profile photos and I'm sick. She bought an expensive camera and by default fancies herself a photographer. Oh God..does she blog? She probably blogs! Eeeewwww.

    I suspect this Till Bruckner character is an Emma.

  5. As a returned Peace Corps volunteer and a recent graduate of an MPH program at Hopkins, I cannot emphasize enough how great this post was. I met many "Emmas" at Hopkins on their way do do similar outreach and education programs. I got so sick of being exposed to those types that I quit the development field entirely. Which is sad really, because I did love those ex-pat parties.

  6. Dear Dr Kurtz
    Ms Emma is a treasure and Im sure you will miss her when she finishes her contract and is Peter Principled to a higher calling. Speaking from a large island somewhat to the South of Moroni well known for its Mangoustan rum I can only say when she moves up to better things I hope it is to our bigger island as we can use all the Emmas the country South of Canada can provide. Her expertise, language and social skills will fit in perfectly here.

  7. Dr Kurtz, please write a book.

  8. I wanted to post this on my FB page but I suspect that "my" Emma monitors my FB page on an hourly basis - bless her soul

  9. That's great! Reminds me of the stupid white guys in There You Go! - Dr. Kurtz pleaaaaaase write a book! (I am sure they will publish it!

  10. This makes me so tired. I know, it is meant to be funny, and probably is, but I'm reminded of why I started my career working for local NGOs and need to go back to that. Or turn over the entire system and structures of "development," just dump 'em on their heads. I'm also reminded of how much I hate people asking me if I was in the Peace Corps. NO. NO. NO. NEVER. Not everyone from that country south of Canada is an "Emma." Nor is everyone in that country south of Canada only capable of speaking 'Merikan.