Colleagues had fallen like flies. The project was ten weeks old and had already become a ‘what not to do’ example of remote working in developing countries.
1: Don’t put several adults in shared accommodation they are incapable of leaving when the frustrations build.
2: Be sure to recruit sane and emotionally stable people.
3: Don’t filter out the well-balanced, the emotionally mature and psychologically healthy at the early stages of staff selection.
4: Make some attempt to plan the project in advance and anticipate potential problems. Managing by crisis is not a sensible policy.
One wonders if this is how the empire was lost.
The Election Plan
Myanmar’s first democratic election in decades was held on November 8th 2015 – My 39th birthday. The runup to it was full of uncertainties. How would the Junta react? Would there be civil unrest? The organisation, with a long history of leaving people behind during evacuations, formulated what, in theory, we could call a plan. My colleague Beaumont had been left behind during the pull-out of Syria and we greeted the plans with due scepticism.
We all had bags packed; we all kept phones charged. One option was to take refuge at the UNDP compound in Naypyidaw. Except nobody in Yangon could tell us where it was or bothered to contact them. We were sent a link to their social media page. Having met many of the UN people in town, I’d rather have taken my chance at the mercies of the angry mob.
The second plan was to go back to the capital and meet at the Brit Club, adjoining the ambassador’s residence. ‘One more G&T before the Off, boys!’ It all seemed somewhat Carry On Up The Khyber. Put rationally, the plan was then to leave Naypyidaw, a town with a massive military presence – our nominal landlord was a general who often invited us to his house – and about the safest place in the country, to return to the burning capital for a classical dash and evacuation from the airport in a rain of bullets. Given the organisation’s inability to deliver stationery, we decided it safer to make our own plans. One of the latest batch was ex-military – he’d taught his daughter hand-to-hand combat – and so we formulated a dash for the Indian border. It seemed a safer option.
The election was a triumph. The good people of Naypyidaw all queued patiently and voted. The blackened finger, an anti-voter fraud device, was waved aloft as a mark of honour. I’m not a sentimentalist and even I was proud of them all. After decades of military horror and living in a charnel house, they deserved better. The National League for Democracy won a landslide.
The Ongoing Project
New blood arrived in the form of Mary, a morbidly obese depressive from Bristol. Aside from work, she never left the house and spent her entire time eating Pringles on the sofa and watching CSI. She was on first name terms with all of the characters. Rather than laughing at the absurdity we were part of and attempting to explore the place, Mary did her best to bring everybody down.
She had previously been an auditor. She said she could smell when something was off in a organisation and ours stunk to high-heaven. She quit at Christmas, and declined her in-country exit interview, preferring to have it at head office in the UK. There were things she wanted to say. It never happened. Funny that. She went home after paying her way into a get rich quick training scheme which failed within the year.
Aging Gym Woman was forced on us from on high due to the depth of her expertise. What it was in surely wasn’t related to what we were doing in Myanmar. She smoked like a forest fire and consumed strong drink like a dry river bed. She had the stick thin frame of a true addict as she clearly had no remaining appetite for food. She would sit around the office in her lycra and sports bra telling anyone that couldn’t pick up on the laboured visual clues that she went to the gym. She had the skin pallor of a desiccated corpse and a complexion like an aged saddle. She would spend one-to-one meetings with staff discussing which of them looked better for their age. Oh and she was the dictionary definition of incompetent. A rising star within the Organisation.
Thankfully, Demi moved out as she was incapable of dealing with people. A weight lifted.
John, ex-military, arrived on a Friday. After a weekend in the house with Mary, he was ready to quit. The centre manager, a withered shrew of a woman, an alcoholic chain-smoker, did her best to intimidate him into staying. He laughed in her face. On the morning he left, he went to the local mall and bought toys for all the children in the slums near the house.
Emma arrived as several of us left for a break out of the country. Emma had been held captive by Demi, who had insisted she produce all sorts of professional documents to prove her competence. Demi told her she was not welcome at the Residency. The staff there had made their antagonism to her joining them ‘clear’. As we departed, one colleague advised her to get out as quickly as possible as the place was ‘fucking toxic’. Mary arrived just in time to take a 7-day holiday. Good timing.
On the plus side, several months in, we had discovered the delights of Naypyidaw: a handful of luxury hotels with some nice pools and fine menus. Two Italian restaurants with actual Italian chefs. The Obama Soda at the Kempinski (named after the President who had several when he stayed there) was damn fine. The other stresses all seemed manageable on a Friday afternoon, after a nice meal, a round or two of Obamas and a float in the pool.
Clearly, we had been sent to Naypyidaw to have a thoroughly miserable time. The idiot that did the pilot programme had ‘gone mad’ with boredom when she was there. She hadn’t left her accommodation and having met her, I can safely say her mental health worries had a long pre-history she couldn’t blame the location for. When it got back to Yangon we were having fun, suddenly managers took an interest in the project. They always managed to stay in a hotel with a pool and a complimentary breakfast. Resentment started to build. We were suddenly under scrutiny.
Emma and I ploughed on through the end of the project. We both hired motorbikes from locals. Emma was reassured hers was ‘a good one’; it had cosmetic bullet hole stickers all over it and was clearly the private property of an imagination-starved teenage male. The brakes hardly worked.
The local driver had long gone and Demi managed to anger the client by treating the driver they were kind enough to provide as her private chauffer. She eventually ‘resigned’ as her incompetence became impossible for the organisation to deny. After a year of utter chaos and organisational incompetence, it was the one sign that things were improving. I agreed to stay for a second year.
In the final days of that project, I was alone in the Residence. A dozen staff had come and gone. Most cracked and burnt out spectacularly. Of the four of us that started the previous year, I was the only one that stayed the distance. I was never interested in the job; the drama and the personalities amused me. I had little faith in the organisation after meeting the idiots running it. For me, the reason to be there was to explore the country, meet the locals. This blog is full of the result of those experiences. Sure the job was hellish at times, but it was worth it. Myanmar and its people are fabulous.
Year two could only be an improvement, right?