What to Do When Things Go Wrong

On Jennifer Lentfer’s blog on international development, a discussion is under way about “how our own personal approach affects the relationships and processes of which we are a part,” or as I interpret it: how our own baggage helps or hinders our efforts to make the world a better place.

Bamboo workaround for the composting toilet gets wrapped in chicken wire and plastered with cement.

Of the many questions up for debate, one caused me to wander through the corridor of memories that takes me through the five years I spent living in Ecuador and the three years prior to that working in Latin America.

What did I do when things weren’t going my way?

If you are a Westerner who has spent any longer than two weeks in a developing country trying to “help,” you have an answer, or at least a reaction, to this question. Here is my top five list of tactics, in ascending order of effectiveness:

5. Sit in the dirt and cry. Yes, I did actually do this once, after a four-hour scavenger hunt to track down a generator so the contractor could power his thirty year-old tile cutter to finish laying five tiles around a bathroom sink. In the neighborhood where the house is located, the electric company refused to install power lines. The good news is that it wasn’t a community project or development work that drove me to tears. It was my foolish quest to build a house in the Amazonian equivalent of Hooterville. That’s another story.

4. Shout and gesticulate at lazy, entitled bureaucrats. Slightly more effective than curling into a sobbing ball, this option is actually kind of fun. In small Ecuadorian towns, many government workers are short on qualifications and long on personal connections to the party in power, hence the lack of “customer service.” Bureaucrats were usually dismissive of me as a white foreigner and sometimes downright rude to the indigenous community members I accompanied to government offices. To be fair, I did see some improvement in officials’ attitudes and follow-through in the five years I lived there. I doubt my shouting and gesticulating had much to do with it, though on a few occasions it did send a clear message that stonewalling was not acceptable, and we did get some results.

3. Find a work-around. This was my favorite and most frequently used tactic. Running short on metal armex to build a dry toilet? Fashion a skeleton out of bamboo strips. Small landslide closed the only road out to the community, and buses aren’t running? Catch a ride with an oil worker in his Toyota four-by-four, and don’t talk politics. Outlets not working in the building you were told would have electricity to run your video projector for a community meeting? Splice a length of extension cord with the nearest wire, bind it with duct tape, and appreciate your rubber-soled shoes. The beauty of living in a place where improvisation is standard operating procedure is that you discover the recipe to resilience: one part creativity, one part optimism, and two parts sense of humor. These ingredients are not optional.

2. Do nothing. Sometimes I would try for days to reach a far-flung community member by cell phone, only to get a voicemail (which no one ever checked) or their teenage son, who seemed never to know where his parent had gone or when he or she would return. I even left messages at the person’s house if I was in the area. Having given up, I’d be sitting at a restaurant or in the park in Tena, the provincial capital where our office was located, and said missing person would call to me from across the street. It got to the point where I could just think about someone I needed to contact, and invariably I’d run into him or her in town in a day or two. Now that I’m back in the U.S., where we’re all convinced that striving is the way to get things done, I still find that doing nothing is more effective than doing too much.

1. Let go. If working with people from different cultures and being an outsider teaches you anything, it’s that you really have no control over most things. I must have intuited this in my travels before moving abroad, because I didn’t struggle too much against this truth when I settled in Ecuador. As I let go of my expectations, I was liberated to see things as they are, positive and negative, and to discover what is intriguing, logical, and generous in others’ world views. That’s not to say I checked my own culture and values at the door, which is impossible, but the process of letting go allowed me to be more present. I began to lose count of the moments of beauty I experienced, each of which coaxed me to reflect on what I believe truly matters.

Later, when things really didn’t go my way, that understanding of what is important in life came in very handy.

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One thought on “What to Do When Things Go Wrong

  1. Enjoyed it. My favorite? #2–“Do nothing.” What you needed came to you. I also appreciated #3–improvisation, innovation, “work-around:” Whatever you want to call it, creativity is at its core. #5 certainly brings relief, doesn’t it? Sense of humor is what ties all five of these together.

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