Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #10: Dealing with the unexpected

We don’t usually get hazard pay for work done on the job, but sometimes we should. When I started my Guinea assignment, I spent a weekend with my assistant on the roof of the building that hosted our office. Why? The Fund knew it couldn’t rely on the parlous state of local telecommunications so wanted to install a satellite connection. Problem? No technician to do that. So, naturally, my assistant and I were up on the roof of our building jiggling a huge satellite and trying to liaise by phone with a technician in another country the physical installation and the technical calibration. I’d not swear to being able to get a job doing that, but, who knows? My assistant and I were forever well-bonded by this experience. [In passing, I did the unthinkable of proposing him for training several times, and as a result the technical capacity of the post was enhanced greatly. He’s now a senior economist/resident representative for the Fund in The Gambia 🙂 Job done!]

One mission to Riga, Latvia in 1994, was memorable for SAS losing my luggage. Checks showed it had gone to Iceland. Well, fine. My briefcase and computer bag were all I had. So, for the next day, a colleague offered me a jacket, shirt and tie. I never travelled long-distance in business clothes. I had no toiletries–never again, and I always have or make sure I keep the vanity kits from in-flight. At the end of day 1, still no bag, which had somehow not been sent to Riga, but Valletta, Malta. The airline suggested I buy some clothes and would get compensated. Great! You probably cannot imagine what lack of choice looked like in recently former Soviet countries: dark grey or dark brown. Jeez!

Security can be an issue, especially when you work for an organization that often doesn’t ‘get the love’. That said, I have never been shot at, though presidential guards’ guns were trained on my driver and car in Guinea, with me inside. Diplomatic privileges kicked in fast—shouldn’t have been necessary—and hostilities (for reasons unknown) were ended.

We were often moved around with lots of security in tow, but that was more for the politicians we were meeting than us. We sometimes could not be trusted to keep our mobile phones in meetings and had to leave them in a tray outside the room.

Some people never felt safe or secure on mission, either because of some deep fear of being in a foreign country, or because the political or social state of the country caused them concerns. I remember one mission to ‘Tana, when one mission member never set foot outside the hotel other than for meetings, after we’d been walking and saw people defecating on the sidewalk. One can understand some mission members, often women, not feeling that walking alone at night was for them; but some felt that way about daytimes. Sadly, that meant when missions offered some downtime from the string of meetings, at the weekends, they were among those always found in their rooms, at worst, or somewhere on the hotel property. In tropical places, like Guyana, that was fine, where the hotel had a nice courtyard with trees and plants that offered a great alternative to the four walls of a room. But, imagine Moscow in February. Many Fund economists will admit they know nothing about their countries beyond the journey to and from the airport, their hotel, and and where they had their meetings.

Choice can pose problems when travelling, and if food options are limited, get used to being back again and again…like regulars…and the menu may mean the same meals, again, and again… It’s usually only 2 weeks and not every meal, lunch and dinner. Going out at night was usually a short walk or if further missions usually had cars and drivers assigned to them by the national authorities, so no need to navigate fares and journeys with taxi drivers. I’ve done that, though, and lived to tell the tale of how to drive the wrong way along one-way streets in Ankara at night: there was a lot of traffic 🙂

By contrast, I was an adverturer. I’ve travelled a lot for pleasure and I have a facility with languages, so was not overawed easily. I grew up in London so thought I could navigate most urban situations with at worst some simple braggadocio. However, you don’t want to attract undue attention to yourself, so the open mike or Karaoke can be skipped, especially if a bit wasted. So, I had no problem doing soft cultural things on my own, or with a colleague, and I was always up for that. I would also want to explore local street or cafe food. In some places, I had acquaintances who would be helpful guides. So, in Moscow, for instance, I spent a few weekends with friends in their typical Russian flat, with their kids, eating and drinking vodka on a winter’s day. I’d been picked up and dropped off in their car, but I’d have happily taken the fabulous Moscow metro.

Adventures could be simple pleasures, like having my hair cut by a street barber in Kampala. They involved hunting the market in Moscow for film or driving out to a dascha with colleagues who were both Russian-speaking and knew Russia. It could involve taking the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki to see what it was like to head there for shopping. When I worked the monetary sector, I always tried to get a good feel for how money and finance worked on the ground, whether in banks (I opened a bank account in Uganda), or in parallel FX markets (I’ve changed lots of money, even though sometimes Fund rules strictly forbade it), or is regular markets (to see where goods were coming from—the power of China was often visible in consumer goods). A trip to the Pushkin Museum or the ballet in Moscow, which cost 1 ruble; going to the opening of the McDonald’s in Moscow—my first ever Big Mac!

National authorities can test your adventurous nature, too. I’ve told my food stories. But, there are the ‘trips’, some boring, to nationally significant places, but with the added ‘special’ meal or ‘entertainment’. Sword swallowers? OK. Balalaika players? OK. Taking the floor with belly dancers? Not OK, for me 😦 Trips along lazy rivers with lunch at the end? Very OK. Hunting (never took up the offer)? Not OK. I enjoyed visiting the bobsled track at Sigulda, Latvia, and am forever grateful we were not asked to take a ride in a sled for the full experience.

Stress on missions is normal: the Fund has a lot of learning by doing on the job; no mission tutorials, for instance. Working hours are usually long and mission chiefs can be autocratic. I’ve been on mission where a new team member was totally at sea about how to do ‘routine’ forecasts, and we spent hours with her tearfully working through her sector numbers. She was no technical dud, coming from a senior position in her home country, but missions can be solitary and your colleagues may actually or apparently undermine you. Some departments thrive on that, even seating mission members on the same tasks, unbeknownst to them to develop creative tension. Not my style and not my liking 😡

Some just cannot handle the sometimes crazy deadlines on missions and the frequent iterations and integration of numbers. Whether simply flustered or in a downright panic, as I have been, it’s just no fun. My worst nightmare was doing a debt sustainability analysis (necessary to assess if a country had achieved their goal for widescale debt relief); the program kept on crashing. Now, the calculations can be done by hand, but, really? My other nightmare came when I realized I’d calculated some date with the wrong signs—not uncommon with the balance of payments, where some flows need the opposite sign because they are ‘below the line’ (financing items). But, my best was non-nightmare. I was presenting my budget forecast to the finance minister, who was visibly angry and asked “Where did these numbers come from?” I looked at the budget director, with whom I had spent days working on them item by item, mainly in German and Russian. He nodded his accord. The minister was furious because I had a 3% deficit and he thought it ought to be 6%. That’s normally the reverse reaction. A lot of whispering and huddling went on for a few minutes, then the minister came back: “I don’t like these numbers, but I’ll accept them!” I think that was an apology.

Working all night, especially towards the end of missions was normal, even doing numbers on the way to the airport and in the lounge waiting to fly, with some official ready to take the electronic file (disks back in the day, thumb drives later, and now just a shared link). Then, you could crash on the flight…or maybe, just remember that you’d made or not corrected some cockup 😦

Not surprising, then, that coping skills can be tested. I’m a chocoholic; I’d load up on Cadbury’s when I transitted London. I wasn’t a drinker or smoker; but others were. Mission chiefs should sense anxiety but how it’s dealt with varies. One mission chief always had a few sessions where the team read scenes from a Shakespearean play 🤔Another always opened the nightly team meetings by offering the contents of his minibar; his expenses were no issue. Both were good icebreakers, at the end of f sad sad sometimes trying days.

I was never on a mission where any hanky-panky took place amongst or involving mission members. I have been on missions with people who were later found to have been hanky-pankying…. 🙂 The nearest I came was being taken to a night club with Latvian officials—the club was in the penthouse of our hotel—and there I saw how the top apparatchiks could live: young ladies, endless drinks, no paying, sleezy-looking associates… 🙂

Air travel issues are one thing but living in a place brings other ones. Guinea isn’t well served by air travel in or out or within. Most distance travel is by road. The IMF doesn’t have projects to assess but other lending agencies do. I’d often be invited and it helped put flesh on economic activities. A close acquaintance was the rep for the Islamic Development Bank; his office was adjacent to mine at the central bank. I joined him on a road trip to check on a rice project in the Fouta Djallon. He was a Peuhl (Fulani) and that was his native region. We travelled in my Land Cruiser with my driver and economic assistant both of whom were also Peuhl. We’d agreed to stop at their home villages. However, coming uphill from the site, the car hit a large hole in the road and was tipped onto its side. We were four in the car, but could not move it. Fortunately, workers from the rice fields were quick to come to our aid.

Who’d think a plush hotel suite would be hazardous? The Metropol in Moscow is the most elegant hotel I’ve ever stayed in: its rooms are mainly like studio apartments, and really feel like personal space. Once you stayed several times, they happily assign you your favourite room. But, they also decide upgrades. So, I was thrilled to get a suite the size of a 2-bedroom apartment, with palatial trimming.

However, I never expected to host my mission chief there for any meetings, but he insisted. Well, it was his first trip to Moscow and he’d been given a plain room. When he got to my suite, his eyes popped out on stalks. I explained how things worked at the Metropole. As soon as we’d done, he headed to reception to demand an upgrade; he got it, but it was meh. 🤔😇

Finally, fittingly, maybe, is the matter of gifts. The Fund had a clear policy on accepting gifts and the acceptable value that did not need declaring. Grandiose gifts could be donated to the institution. I have no stash of expensive watches given by any government 🙂 I had fond memories of eating or drinking my gifts, or giving them to friends. Sadly, gifts are often given at the most inconvenient time, eg on arrival at the airport or worse, on our way from the lounge to the plane, when there’s no chance to put the items into checked luggage and one has to negotiate carrying a mini-statue of Tutankhamen all the way back to Washington. But, let’s keep things in perspective: I’ve some trinkets and commemorative coins that hold many tales of good and bad times serving the world. 🙂

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

2 thoughts on “Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #10: Dealing with the unexpected”

  1. Dennis, I so enjoyed reading your article. Having traveled so much on the job and been on missions with other consultants. I can so relate to many of your experiences. A treasure of experiences shared here and well written.

    Thanks Dennis

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My pleasure, to share, Michele. So nice that it resonates and many ex-Fund colleagues have noted that they relate; they too have stories to tell. It’s been easier than trying to go chronologically or truly biographical. I’ve done more in a short time than I had envisaged, so will see what else surfaces that’s fit to print. 🙂 Best. DJ


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