Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #12: Representing the IMF abroad—being seen in plain sight and darkness

I was watching a good movie last night, The Good Shepherd, about the origins of the CIA. Towards the end, there’s a scene in Congo, Leopoldville [now Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa], where our spy hero is walking along a street near a market, wearing freshly pressed shirt and tie, carrying his jacket on his arm in what we suppose is searing heat and humidity. I immediately thought of a day on a Fund mission, when the staff member is walking casually around a new city, but what’s apparent too is it’s clearly understood by those locals around what he is: a foreigner. That’s not a hostile term, just an acknowledgement of being ‘not from here’. Hostility can wait. But, much can spin around that fact.

When I joined the Fund, staff were supplied with several ‘tools of the trade’: a black leather briefcase and a HP12c calculator.

These were like the army-supplied rifle and bayonet, canteen etc.

Mission travel was marked by the presence of people with black briefcases arriving at airports, being met by officials, then seen for about two weeks entering and leaving official buildings in business clothes, or at the weekends in casual clothes—always ‘armed’ with these ‘weapons’.

Mission meetings were marked by the presence of the calculators on desks or tables; team members, especially new ones, often tapped on them, frantically, as officials dripped numbers like pebbles from a cliff. Oddly, I never got an HP calculator when I joined 😦 I used a calculator I had from my Bank of England days. I never got one until I became a resident representative (res rep), after over 12 years; by then, I had graduated to a Casio, solar-powered—environmentally friendly before I knew it; I still have it. 🙂

But, the image of Fund staff working wasn’t what tripped my memories, it was the sight of someone walking in an area, trying to fathom what he could, while casually enjoying some air. I’ve lost count of where I’ve walked or maybe gone in a car just getting a feel for a place or just enjoying what a city or country could offer. Because most missions start with a long flight, often trans-Atlantic in my case, it was good to get the body reacclimatized to normal air and to time differences, so I often went from the hotel to get my bearings soon after checking in. Now, mission members don’t often travel as a team; individuals can have travel itineraries to suit themselves. I often took the opportunity of the permitted stopover each way to visit friends or relatives. It was great to keep home style contacts when away from home. I was lucky that, over the years, I’d made acquaintances and friends in many places. I often stopped in London and caught up with friends and relative. I stopped in Oslo often, with friends, the man had worked with me in Washington and I knew his wife and kids from when they were small. I ski and have gone straight from airport onto the snow, even having my first lesson skiing cross-country, and using my friend’s wife’s skis and salopettes to ski with 🙂 I would bring ‘gifts’ which way I was travelling.

As I related before, my first mission was to Ankara, Turkey, and I loved the hotel being on a busy street with lots of local things to see or and smell and gauge a little something about the place. Given that many Fund staff become hermits once on the road, I soon realized I was abnormal. 🙂 But, my style all comes from years of travel for personal pleasure. I get to hear people and try to understand how they handle money, their simple interactions with each other. These make for a little easier formal interaction later, if one’s observant. For instance, IMF mission briefings don’t touch on cultural practices; when I worked at the Bank of England, that was part of what people got to know, along with some background on key personalities. Not the Fund! Just jump in with hobnailed boots on and thrust the good old ‘now listen here!’ down their throats…not quite, but you get my point.

I also use time I have to decide what to do when and if I get more time to explore; that could be as little as 15 minutes or as long as a weekend. So, off I strolled in Ankara. Then, I did likewise in Kampala. You know how many people always want to know where the gym is in a hotel or the ice machine? No real difference. I found a street barber in Kampala and watched and thought…and the next weekend went for a trim. I discovered the hotel did massages 🙂 I knew where to get fresh bread and pastries in Moscow, even though I was in the swankiest hotel; my love of something local to snack on was satisfied.

In those places, I did not give much thought to how I might have stood out; I was in casual clothes. I am a black man, but Turkey and Uganda have seen and see black people often, without conflict because of colour. Ethnicity or tribal differences, are other issues. Language or accent usually mark you, though.

When I first went to Riga, I took note of a park near the hotel. I soon went there for a walk; the day was grey and cool, in autumn, but I knew Europe at that time of year, so it didn’t feel odd. I noticed the poplar trees, often seen in parks in London. Away, but homely. The cold was more severe and fur hat and boots and heavy gloves were soon part of my go-to gear.

Black people in Latvia are as common as dragons on the metro. 🙂 The former Soviet Union, really Russia, had some hostile attitudes towards people ‘of colour’. (For Russians, people from Chechnya, for instance, are called ‘black’.) Black students, often from Africa, tell torrid tales of their times studying in Moscow. But, I was a Fund official! Anyway, it was not an apparent issue, as I walked and watched people feed ducks.

What became a problem from day one of work was that no one spoke English! I had only recently started Russian lessons, so was not going to put weight on that crutch. So, my early meetings were in poor, old German (not my favourite tongue; my counterpart on the budget was fluent) or broken Russian and hand gestures and arithmetic (my counterpart on accounting was nothing if not willing to find some way for us to communicate; she was my teacher in the abstruse logic of Soviet finance). We got there, with a lot of difficulties and many cups of coffee and a little vodka 🙂

When you stay at Hotel Metropol, in Red Square, there’s no option, in my mind but to get to see the magnificent architecture in that one-time bastion of communist power and the oddly powerful juxtaposed St. Basil’s Cathedral. Arriving on a Sunday, I could join Muscovities strolling in the square, with the odd whispers (негръ (negr)—black man 🙂 ). It’s more fun when you can understand, and reply ‘Da’ (yes) and the eyes bulge.

So, I got to know some of Moscow well in my off-hours. So, too, in almost every city I visited.

I loved old cities, like Tallinn, with their medieval squares prominent; they are often great meeting places, and at the weekend, even in deep winter, can be where to see many people just ‘taking some air’. Once my language skills were better, I’d use such times to practice in the guise of seeking information, and hoping for more than just an ‘over there’ or ‘I dont know’. If the weather was nice, as in summer, then chilling at a cafe was in order. I love assimilation.

As I said, not everyone ventures out, but it’s nice to have some mission companion, especially when you can be the ‘guide’ at least because it’s not your first visit.

Things were always better, though, when the mission had a res rep in country, which was more the norm if a program was in place. They got to know the city and country inside out; that’s what excited me about my assignment when it came—to be that fountain of local knowledge of places, activity, customs and people. It’s funny, thinking back, how many people wanted to tell the res rep something 🙂

So, our res rep in Riga—a single woman from Latin America—lived in an enormous apartment in the city centre, really for four families, I guess: the Fund would make the residence fit its needs, within reason, mindful of things like access, security and communications. It was adjacent to the central bank, where she had her office. Our rep in Tallinn—an American man with a wife and young child—had a house on the outskirts of the city, and its best feature was a sauna, where the team could get a little different down time at the weekend. The rep in Moscow also lived in a ‘palace’ and the Fund’s office there was almost on a par with politburo standard, ironically sitting opposite one of bastions of Soviet power, it’s foreign ministry.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

The rep in Baku, Azerbaijan—an American man, with wife and young child—had a lovely apartment, in the city, and he’d become an expert in carpets, so his home was a splendid display of tapis, plus literature on them and their historical origins and significance. He taught me much about bargaining—I’d learned in Turkey (even mis-bidding in an auction), and Azeris are cousins. I learned that a nice rug rolls up well in a suitcase; just rearrange the documents that need to go to Washington. It was then that I learned not to carry documents back myself, but to ask the rep to put them in the ‘pouch’ to get to DC in a week or so. 🙂 Now, you’re talking!!! Our home now has the fruits of that not-so-laborious lesson.

So, when I became a rep, I paid it forward-backward and made sure mission members knew I’d happily send papers back from my office, so that they could put carvings or paintings into their luggage 🙂 But, it could also be a two-way street, as we could not get supplies from DC other than say ‘official stationery’, so missions knew to arrive with things like Pringles and coffee and biscuits 🙂 It was good for them also to bring things they enjoyed themselves, so that meetings would have a level of comfort that can be conducive to good rapport. The art was to pick up something interesting in-transit, so the international flair could show.

That said, not all reps are ready for their spaces to be ‘invaded’, especially their offices. I remember the scene when a mission chief had the temerity to take over the rep’s desk and chair! In the field, the rep can outrank the mission chief, not because of level of seniority or classification within the Fund, but because it’s his world—the position sit apart from those at HQ (and it’s full ambassador rank). I got those things clearly understood, early, and had no problems. Of course, we can renegotiate space etc. Same way with staff: the res rep’s staff are his resources, not the missions’: get the mission secretary to make copies and make binders. 🙂

I always tried to be generous, knowing that being far from home, tired, frustrated, angry etc all make for bad work. So, our home was always a refuge for missions, and our cook was ever ready to show off what he could do on the spur of the moment. If you want relaxed, just drop in. “Yes, you can play with the baby.” That humanizing aspect was always important to me.

But, working in the field is often not smooth sailing, and the arrival and departure are not just simple events, they can be when matters are shaped or broken. I have been in the VIP departure lounge with missions when the agreement with the authorities is not yet reached; the conversations could be tense, on matters of substance (eg actions that must be taken) or numbers (budget and financials that are not reconciled). Missions have to explain where they reached, once back at HQ, and cannot just spin around and get back on a plane to iron things out. It’s both matters of principle and money. Fortunately, the time between when missions leave and have to report to Management at the Fund can be about a week, and a lot can and has happened in that time…thank goodness.

Whatever happens, the res rep is often left ‘cleaning’ up and ‘clearing’ up after missions 😦 We may be the ones to explain to local media the facts and dispel rumours. Your media friends can be vital. The Fund used to be really secretive; now transparency and openness are part of our mantra. However, that doesn’t mean that one can blab about any and everything to those outside official circles.

Reps may not know how all the numbers are supposed to gel, in detail, and we are not single sector experts, anymore. The best thing is that the res rep normally doesn’t have to do ‘grunt’ work on spreadsheets. Yea! Even walking away and letting team members sort them out and send the file for review. Oh, blessings! We can also have no need to write from scratch, but become reviewers and editors. Oh, this is the life! That’s why many res reps return to HQ and have the worst of times with deadlines over numbers and texts.

Being in the field is the best. It’s why many res reps make a career out of filling such posts. Our man in Baku did about three postings back-to-back. If that doesn’t happen, then assignments with a little space in between can work, just fine.

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #11: Have faith! A brief look at religion on the road.

You get an interesting insight into faith when you travel and moreso if you stay in any country more than a few days.

Africa is almost split across its middle between the dominance of Islam (north) and Christianity (south); it has a close connection too with whether countries are francophone or anglophone but less so than the simple geographical split, as the linguistic layer cake later. That makes sense, given how Islam was spread by refugees from the Arab peninsula and then through Moor conquests coming down from the north.

However, many people in Africa have firm Animist beliefs–voodoo has its roots in Benin; worship of spirits is common. b, from Baga traditions) and her statue was placed facing the doorway for that purpose. (We’ve, since, always, had Nimba statues in our homes.)

You get to see Animism in the most surprising settings. Early during my posting in Guinea, I was invited to a football match, as a guest along with the British Ambassador, who was my neighbour. Neither of us had been in-country long. As a former player, I was fascinated to see a local match up close. The formalities all seemed normal, with my ambassador-neighbour doing the honours at the coin toss. Just when I thought the guests would leave the field and the teams get on with the game, someone brought a chicken to the centre, holding it aloft. After some chanting that I did not understand, the chicken’s neck was cut! Its blood was drained around the centre circle, then the man took it to the side. The field was new and had now been duly sanctified.

I’ve worked in both Islamic and Christian states, including Orthodox Christian Ethiopia. I loved living in Guinea; predominantly Muslim but also celebrating major Christian festivals, Easter and Christmas 🙂 Islam has had a long tradition of tolerating other religions. My secretary was a Catholic and all other staff were Muslims.

Seeing a world revolve around a weekend that starts on Friday and ends on Sunday was a big change only for coordination with my Washington or UK lives. The main prayers on Fridays shifts focus well. The reverence of Friday prayers was always evident by the glorious display of robes that day (boubous). My office closed at noon.

Living in a world where Ramadan and fasting drive lives is revealing. In my first year, I fasted the whole of Ramadan; it was tough. It was tougher than it needed to be because I didn’t know I could drink water, and I hadn’t learned that you should get up before dawn and load up on food 🙂 You don’t fool me twice! I cracked that the second year.

What Ramadan revealed was how the lower energy levels just drive down productivity; lassitude is just everywhere. I was lucky to break fast in the evenings (iftar) with friends and families, most days, which gave a much clearer meaning to what the prolonged fasting meant. The whole process is cleansing, physically and spiritually.

Guinea practised what I called ‘Islam light’. That was evidenced by the absence of extreme form of modest clothing throughout–long clothes were common forms of attire–to the extent that seeing bare-breasted women was commonplace.

Photo I took driving through Labé

Black Africans are generally not ashamed of their bodies.

Burqas and all black attire were seen to any large extent only in parts of the Fouta Djallon, amongst some fundamentalist elements of the Peuhl population. Yet, even in the heart of that community, you’d see things like motorcycle taxis where women were riders and men pillion passengers.

Most Christians only know of monogamy as a way of life, whether formally married or not; many have a hard time with the idea of polygamy, when a man with multiple female partners, simultaneously. Well, the Muslim marriage allows up to four wives; it doesn’t give the reverse polygamous rights, as if polyandry were accepted. It took a while to understand how that worked out, and I did not have any judgments, but noted that for some men it was about raising the odds on creating a family, eg by taking on some younger woman(en) to add to his marriage. The tenet is that each wife should be loved equally. I don’t know what the test or proof of that is; it’s understood, though that the husband can and will have his favourite. Guinea’s president during my time, Lansana Conté, had three wives, one of whom was a Christian. Let’s not delve into the less-know area of extra-marital arrangements when a man has several wives already. 🙂

We attended a Catholic church in Conakry for several years, as a way of introducing our young child to Christian workshop. For me, a Protestant, that was no simple journey of faith, but the priest was a wonderful man and the congregation, mainly people from Sierra Leone was truly joyous.

One of my best Guinean friends, now departed, El Hadj Sow (who was secretary-general in the ministry of finance), was an Imam of great repute, who hailed from the town of Dinguiraye, a holy city for African Muslims. He taught me what little I know about Islam and the Quran. I was fortunate to speed several weekends with him, his brothers and, his family, when they had the tradition of taking each meal at a different brothers house, from Friday through Sunday. It was very simple and open and I have great memories of Rhian wandering into the prayer area and kneeling to join the prayers, something she was accustomed to doing at home when our household staff had their prayers 🙂

I know many Muslims who have been to Mecca for the Hadj; many more than Christians I know who have made any pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The power of faith and religion was best brought home to me in places where it had been denied for years, the former Soviet Union. If nothing else marked regime change, it was people flocking freely to and in churches. Ironically, Soviet leaders had understood the power of Christian and other beliefs within Russia and the satellite states, and did little to damage the physical structures, such as churches or mosques, some of the most beautiful examples of which exist within that political regime.

Little can touch the beauty of Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral, poised defiantly in. Red Square.

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. 🙂

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #9: Affair of flying

I have no fascination with planes, much as I don’t with cars; but work has created love affairs with flying and some messy divorces.

I’ve flown with many of the world’s major airlines. I’ve had the luxury of flying first class and on Concorde, thanks to work. (They always gave passengers sterling silver gifts on Concorde flights, and I usually gave mine away to friends with whom I stayed with overnight en route.)

I’ve also flown on what my wife calls juk-juk’ (tiny) planes, for private travel, not just puddle jumpers in the Caribbean (LIAT, you’re unparalleled), but ‘bigger’ airlines for what are ‘sketchy’ airlines (the Turkish central bank booked it, so I had faith). I’ve travelled by helicopter and found it generally terrifying, more so with a baby in tow—between Conakry and Freetown—and the sight of vodka bottles under the pilots’ seats was as frightening as you’d imagine. I’ve flown alone and with family, friends and colleagues. I’ve met interesting people on planes but also some absolute cuckoos: I’ve played hard of hearing for an 8-hour flight to avoid the prattling of a be-pearled old lady who just seemed too nervous to stop talking. I’ve had flights leave early and arrive late; flights that left late or not at all, including sitting on the tarmac wondering for 3-4 hours.

I’ve learned over the years that almost anything can happen with flights, and now travel with ‘insurance’: change of clothes, toiletries, snacks, mainly. My family get a royal ribbing if they are sitting in a lounge like me and walk out without at least a bag of peanuts. When they say “Daddy, do you have anything to eat?”, when the crew explain they cannot serve anything will we wait on the runway another hour, they know ‘the look’.

I’ve lost luggage in transit and had items stolen on a flight (I’ll be generous and say that someone saw something they liked unattended on a seat and…). I’ve had people grab my luggage, swearing it was theirs, even after I showed the tags that identified them as mine. I’ve had luggage damaged, and (touch wood) never had an issue getting compensation for that. My most recent experience was one of the funniest, when I travelled to London last February, when Virgin Airlines’ rep told me she’d just process a refund rather than go through all the fuss of having me submit a claim etc. She’d seen the photo of the damaged bag and the luggage tag, taken as I’d collected the bag at Heathrow, and that was enough. I thought, I had to argue…not 🙂

I’ve gone through whole business trips where my luggage never reached and came back to me after I got home.

I’ve had airline staff act the total fool about damage or loss claims and they are now in mental, if not physical, intensive care. My wife doesn’t engage airlines, she just says “You deal with them!” My daughters know how I operate and now regale me with stories of how they got their just desserts and more from ‘acting like Daddy’ 🙂

I can play the fool, but I don’t suffer fools gladly.

I’ve had to tear up my travel itinerary at the drop of a hat. I’ve switched airlines at departure when my airline cancelled but I had another airline option at hand—one of the benefits of premium travel. Sudden changes made me a ‘suspect’ on the US Department of Homeland Security lists and I was subjected to ‘random’ checks almost every time I flew from Dulles Airport after 9/11. I had to take on DHS to get the ‘red flags’ removed from my profile. Those who say they think that reactions were calm, even ones I admire like Paul Krugman, must be in a deep freezer.

I’ve rarely had issues at immigration; most of my business travel was on a UN laisser-passer (including the rarer red ones for ambassadors). On visiting Libya, I’ve yet to see what the entry process is, having been whisked to a VIP lounge, the truly whisked at high speed into Tripoli to the hotel.

But, I had a Russian Customs official admire my watch so much and so suggestively that I had to tackle the ‘bribe’ moment frankly and just say he was wasting his time.

I’ve had an airline try to bump me from business class for a president’s relative, I’ve had a plane hold its door for me to arrive before departure. I’ve taken an international flight (many times) without having to go through immigration and Customs, either sitting in the VIP lounge, or just going straight to the plane on the tarmac. Once, my friend who was a transport magnate, got the call for the flight while we were dining and drove me there himself 🙂 Now, that is special!

Virgin Upper Class offers a limo service—excellent. I’ve a friend now who’s a London cabbie, who’s ready to do my pick-up and drop off as soon as I message him, no matter how many years since we last saw each other. We discovered by chance that we’d played football together sometime in our earlier lives.

Arrivals and departures during ‘normal’ hours can seem a luxury. I think it was about 3am in the morning when I arrived in Addis Ababa, then the shock of thin air as the altitude hit me. Trips to Guyana always involved midnight/early morning arrival/departures; it took many trips before I saw the airport road in daylight. Trips there involved undoubtedly the worst stopover at the airport hotel at Piarco, Trinidad, the most vivid recollections of which are the size of the cockroaches.

You might not note it, but smooth checking in can matter. German efficiency from Lufthansa was only bettered at times by BA’s Concorde desk. Fast track used to be really fast until 9/11 made all travel slow and painfully slow. Air France in Conakry was unmatched because it was ore-check-in and my bags etc could go from my office and all I had to do was present myself at the airport.

Amenities are interesting. Lufthansa gave some neat toiletries in a little leather case. British Airways first class offered them in a series of cotton bags with printed flying scenes; I still use one regularly. Concorde bags were sleek; mostly given away, especially if I could grab a extra one. Kenyan Airways was nothing to talk about. Virgin and BA offered nice jump suit pajamas; my youngest loves wearing one I snagged for her.

Lounges can make or break a trip. Virgin have the best for imagination and variety and design. American tended to be just so. BA’s always excellent at Heathrow and Dulles, especially for pre-flight dining. I love transiting London for a spot of old English grub—bacon 👍🏾🇬🇧

My favourite airport? Heathrow, even with its immensity, but once direct rail access was added, it was one of the easiest to reach and leave. I loved Stockholm in m-transit. Really don’t like De Gaulle. Frankfurt has great free luggage carts, but is enormous. Schipol and Brussels get honourable mentions. Really dislike Piarco 😡Dakar could be interesting in an odd west African way 🤔😂But, Singapore! 🙏🏾👍🏾👍🏾👍🏾

In-flight entertainment goes to BA and Virgin; Air France, you’ve work to do.

Finally, airline food and drink. Best of both was usually British Airways (BA); Air France was surprisingly meh, often. I especially love BA offering a snack bar that had some chocolates bars that took back years. 👍🏾😳 Service with a snarl was usually an American carrier; I avoided them trans-Atlantic at all costs. Touch wood, I never got food poisoning from flying.

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #8: Take me to your leader

Guinea is heading towards presidential elections in mid-October, and at least three friends may be candidates, including one who was prime minister between 2004 and 2006, during my time as resident representative. That led me to think about about how work thrusts you into the midst of leaders past, present, and yet to-be. One good friend, whom I met as a colleague in another multilateral agency in 2003 is now finance minister in Guinea, after spending some of her working years in Jamaica. Doors open and close all over.

I never had any idea what my working life would throw up in the ‘celebrities’ stake; economists are just technocrats, right? I should have had an inkling from my days at the Bank of England when economists with whom I’d worked were next seen as presidents or finance ministers or central bank governors; one even became prime minister 👀. (I’d have taken bets on Theresa May never becoming PM.) None of these outcomes are far off the career path, really.

In many countries, economists are revered in politics much as lawyers are in many developed countries. I did work with Ernesto Zedillo on capital flight from Latin America during the mid-1980s, while he was at Banco de México, and had no idea of his political aspirations or affiliations (President 1994-2000). His predecessor, Miguel de la Madrid (1988-94), was one of the funniest politicians I ever met, and recall well a story he told about being late for his daughter’s wedding because he was playing dominoes.

But, Fund work sends you to the top of the tree all the time, and if you’re easily overawed by trappings of position and power, then it’s likely not going to be a happy place for you. I’m an iconoclast, so treat all people much the same. Yes, I have been abrupt, direct and far from self-effacing when ‘talking to power’ 😉 I don’t jump to my feet when ‘powerful’ people walk into rooms; I don’t cede my place to them, either. As my father used to say, “We all have bottoms.”

But, just crawling through the undergrowth of the past, who’s memorable?

Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi (aka ‘Brother Leader’) was stunning, more because he just showed up midway through a discussion session of central bank governors, all flowing robes, and launched into a long tirade about multilateral financiers, and how we were part of some massive geopolitical problems, then left. The first clearly unhinged political leader I had ever seen up close.

Stretching my mind backwards to my Bank of England days, I was thrilled to rub shoulders with then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, especially as my new graduate banking peers had selected me to give the vote of thanks at a banquet hosted by the Lord Mayor of the City of London. But, how does one navigate a world where significant figures in your workplace are peers of the realm? But, my kind of person was the governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi, who was the first man on the dance floor and the last to leave 🙂

In country work, it gets to be ‘stock in trade’ to have courtesy meetings with presidents and prime ministers. As a res rep, though, these people can be on the meeting schedules very often. In Guinea, I only met the late president Lansana Conté once. I met his (revolving set of) prime ministers often, though, and visits to La Primature were regular. Conakry is compact when it comes to location of most government offices, so it was no more than a 5 minute spin in the car. Sometimes, I walked.

Some presidents want to show they are in charge and make a big show at the beginning and end of missions, to set the ground clearly and check that their ‘instructions’ had been understood. Azerbaijan was the most notable, there, with former president Heydar Aliyev (father of the current president) making a big final meeting show. His career had involved being head of the security services and he ran an authoritarian (some say ‘police’) state. His son, Ilmar’s, succession tells all [FYI he’d been first vice-president of SOCAR, the state-owned Azeri oil and gas company (the source of most national revenues) when I worked in Baku. :)]

Guyana was interesting because the president (1999-2011), Bharrat Jagdeo, at the time had been the former finance minister (1995-99), with whom we’d gone tooth and nail over budget figures, so he couldn’t help showing his mastery of that and understanding of Fund financial programming.

One of the strangest interactions was with Latvia’s Einars Repše. (He graduated from Latvia State University (now known as University of Latvia) in 1986 with a degree in physics (specialisation – radio electronics). He first entered politics in 1988 as one of the founders of the Latvian National Independence Movement (LNNK), a political organization promoting Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union. He was elected to the parliament of Latvia in 1990.) From 1991 to 2001, So, he was a seasoned politician when the IMF missions first began working with Latvia. Repše was the president of the Bank of Latvia (Latvia’s central bank). During this period, he oversaw the introduction of the Latvian rublis, Latvia’s temporary transition currency and the Lats, independent Latvia’s new currency. So, my first encounter with him was as central bank president. He was astonishingly frank is stating he understood nothing about monetary policy and just needed to know what numbers to watch. Being a physicist, he learned the arithmetic of monetary analysis fast. He was the most ‘successful’ central banker I have ever met.

He went back into politics and became PM (2002-2004). He founded the New Era Party, a Populist anti-corruption party. After the 2002 elections, Repše became the Prime Minister of Latvia in November 2002. He led a coalition of his own New Era Party, the Latvia’s First Party, the Union of Greens and Farmers and For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK. Repše’s government became known for an outspoken fight against corruption and tax evasion. He was finance minister 2009-10 and also defence minister in 2004. He’s described as flamboyant but eccentric seems more fitting, in my mind.

Interestingly, his deputy during my time, Ilmar Rimšēvičs became governor in 2001-19, but more recently (2018) was charged with accepting bribes; the case is pending.

But, here’s the rub in much of this. Status or rank are things that matter more in context. Notions like he who pays the piper calls the tune put status into one context. The Fund, as major financial supporter of economic policy and often with that political power, tends to stand above any individual’s status. If we can’t agree on a program, then start to figure out how and when the reserves are going to get replenished, and from the support that comes from the Fund’s thumbs up, where is the budget going to get what it needs? For many ‘powerful’ people or those who think their status matters, that’s a sobering reality. It rarely gets to the point of ‘your money, your rules’, but it’s often about ‘our money, our rules’ 🙂

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #7: May I take your order?

International travel and food can be a volatile mixture of both pleasures and pain. Whenever, I hear those “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?” questions, I usually start to giggle hysterically and that my family are quickly pulling the straitjacket out of the cupboard. So, let’s go over a few highlights and lowlights, just from the world of work. I think when I travel for pleasure, it’s open season; work settings ought to be safer. Hmm, maybe.

When you’re presented with sheep’s eyeballs, do you turn the pupils away before you bite? Azerbaijan is Turkey’s cousin and has some of my favourite food. But, traditions are different. When the host of the banquet wants to show his appreciation for the work the IMF team did, he offers the mission chief the first pair of sheep’s eyeballs. But, the crafty manager, has a solution ready: “Dennis, why don’t you do the honours?” To quote Basil Fawlty: “You bastard!”

Swallow, gulp, swallow, slurp vodka, swallow…Belch! You have to show your appreciation of the delicacy.

Staying with Azerbaijan, but the other end of the tasty scale, though an oddity for most, something I grew to love: Beluga caviar (sturgeon roe), raised plentifully in the Caspian Sea.

The Azeris loved to give the mission members several jars at the end of work; some had no interest, so I was a willing taker of surplus. I often stopped in London on my way home to stay with my wife’s uncle, who was a High Commissioner at the time. He and his wife supplied Champagne to go with my ‘rent’ payment. Bliss! Admittedly, it’s really preferred with ice-chilled vodka, which was how I’d consume it in-country.

I already mentioned Matoke, as a speciality of Uganda. All I’ll add is that I was told it was reasons for automatic divorce if a wife could not make it well. Go, research it, if you disbelieve me. 🙂

Early visits to former Soviet Union countries brought a level of culinary shock that’s hard to explain. One of my early points of confusion was seeing people lining up, but not knowing for what; it turned out to be for bread (хлеб (chleb), in Russian) and no one knew how much was available, just that some would be. But in the early days, scarcity was the norm.

Russia, mid-1990s: We were in the food ‘Gulag’. So, it was common to have this exchange in a Moscow restaurant (excuse the attempted Russian accent; I could write it in cyrrilic, but 🙂 ):

“Vot would you like?” the waiter asked. I checked the menu, and ordered chicken. “No chicken.” I checked again, and saw ‘meat’, so ordered that. “No meat.” I’m patient, but… I asked what was available. “Potatoes and cabbage.” My eyes met his and rolled a lot. Those ingredients would be alright in borscht, but just alone on a plate? McDonald’s hadn’t yet opened. Time to get up and leave, with a smile. Socialism’s equality of opportunity is fine, if you must want the opportunity offered.

But, I’m a sucker for street food, and Africa hit the spot best, including Casablanca, Morocco, where I often took stopovers en route to Mauritania.

Or ‘fry fry’ in Freetown, Sierra Leone:

I love Asian food from the whole region, but never worked on the continent. The best I got was, oddly, a Korean restaurant in Conakry, Guinea, where we often went on Sunday evenings, for their mixed offering of Vietnamese food and Korean BBQ. Our daughter was less than 3 but that’s where she learned to use chopsticks 🙂

What about drink? What about it? Most countries have their local beers and I’m glad to try any. Having spent so many formative years in England, and enjoying dark, warmer beer, with little fizziness, I’d learned that most of the world like lager or Pilsner beers, with fizz. The best compromises were the dark beers of Germany and the fruit beers of Belgium. But, if I’m pushed, my favourite Pilsner, from work settings was Czech Budweiser.

Drinking it or wine while dining in a restaurant that’s in a cave in Prague—Svatá Klára? Magical.

But, without my business travels would I have known how much vodka I can drink and still walk straight and take good notes? What is the maximum number of toasts at a dinner? Would I have learned about the quality of Georgian brandy? Where would I have learned about Chibuku shake-shake? Would I have learned that Estonia’s Vana Tallinn is made from a base of Jamaican rum? Why does Latvia’s Riga Balsam taste so much like Ferrol Compound and are the medical benefits similar? I’

But, food is truly joyous with good company. I’ll never forget how my staff in Guinea greeted us on our reconnaissance and my assignment visits–with home-prepared dinners to carry through a few days. A better welcome has never been had.

In Guinea, we were good friends with the Japanese ambassador and his wife; their chef was excellently and scoured the fish markets daily for the best catches. Any invitation to dine at their residence was an automatic yes. His wife loved the traditional tea ceremony; so did we. Sushi was to die for. They were part of a group of 8 which we formed for tennis on Sunday mornings. The group was completed by a French couple and the British ambassador, our immediate neighbour. The French couple’s kids would babysit Rhian while we played. After, was potluck brunch at our house. Each brought something: pastries and sushi were constants. Brunch had no end time and often went past noon. That’s when my wife started the tradition of watching tennis grand slams with friends food and drink.

Finally, dining with ‘important’ people in informal settings is often the mark of good relationships.

  • Guyana’s president enjoying good curry while discussing budgets in his garden.
  • Discussing program issues with Estonia’s finance minister in a sauna with beer, pickled herrings and peanuts.
  • Saturday lunch at home, under the gazebo, with the French ambassador while she rocked our toddler on her knees.
  • Spending a evening sitting on the floor having dinner with Mauritania’s central bank governor, with jazz playing in the background.

The details of the meetings? Not important now. The memories? Timeless.

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #5: Back to Africa, again

Africa is a massive continent and its countries have incredible variations.

I’m really pleased that my first visit to Africa wasn’t as an IMF staff member; it pays to see things from a different perspective. Having said that, I’d gone to the continent first as a staff member of the Bank of England, as a footballer, mainly, during an international 40th anniversary celebration of Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) in the mid-1980s. Its highlight was playing the top two teams in the country, Silver Strikers (sponsored by the RBM, which had started as a social club for central bank staff) in the ‘Silver stadium‘ in Lilongwe, with a crowd of about 20,000 and live radio broadcast. Nothing like hearing your name over the loudspeaker: “Dennis Jones…on the ball…” 🙂 We also played the many-times national champions, Bata (now ‘Big’) Bullets in Blantyre, the other main city.

What was incredible about these matches was our opponents included several national team players, some of whom had trained in Brazil. They were shocked that our team had players in or over their late-20s; for them, retirement by 24 was normal. It was also an exhausting experience to play football at altitude, both dealing with a ball that flew so fast and far, and sucking on thin air. Lilongwe is on a plateau, 1,050 metres (3,440 ft) above sea level. Blantyre lies at an elevation 1,039 metres (3,409 feet).

Three things were extraordinary about Malawi, still under the iron-fist autocratic rule of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda. First, was the conservative dress code, notably, the policy that women were expected to dress “modestly”, that is no bare shoulders, and legs covered to below the knee, Second, was the creation (in 1981) of Kamuzu Academy, a private boarding school that was founded by, and named after, Banda, and described by its proponents as “The Eton of Africa”. Third, was Chibuku shake-shake, a beer made from sorghum grain, about which I’ve written before.

But, Fund work sent me to the continent many times.

My first mission was to Kampala, Uganda, doing technical assistance on international reserves, for the Statistics Department, about which I’ve already shared some stories. But, it was where I discovered the ‘double’ massage: two masseuses working the body at once 😳I’d wanted an hour but only a 1/2 hour slot was available, so…Undoubtedly, the best massage ever 👍🏾🤔

I also played squash for the first time on a court with no roof, at the residence of the World Bank country manager. In those days, I travelled with my squash racket like people travel with a tennis racket.

Madagascar was my next place to visit for Fund work, negotiating a Poverty Reduction and Growth program; my responsibilities were for the balance of payments and external debt (I was working in the Fund’s Policy Development and Review Department (PDR), which developed and oversaw the application of Fund policies, including reviewing mission briefings and staff documents at HQ, and on missions being a mix of ‘internal audit’, ‘policy integrity’, expertise on all things general policy, and working on the external accounts). It’s an odd situation to be part of mission teams, but not working to the dictates of the country department, but being ‘above’ them in many ways, representing the institution. My love (not) of doing debt sustainability analyses began there 😦

Madagascar is an island, to the east of the continental land mass and its population has ethnic traits from across the Indian Ocean. It’s the source of most of the world’s vanilla—originally from the Americas and now the 2nd most expensive spice in the world (after saffron). It’s losing its forests at an alarming rate—1-2% a year, and up to 90% of forests are burned each year. It has some of the world’s rarest and most-threatened species of animals and plant life. I was thrilled to see lemurs in the wild.

It’s where I had to work in French for the first time and in a country with long family names, the longest recorded being Andrianampoinimerinatompokoindrindra, you can imagine note-taking wasn’t a breeze. Its capital, Antananarivo, is referred to as ‘Tana. My notes were filled with ‘FM A said’ etc, ie finance minister [name]. It’s another elevated capital, and sits at 1,280 menters (4,199 ft) above sea level in the centre of the island. When I worked there, Marc Ravalomanana, a Malagasy entrepreneur and politician was president of Madagascar, having won election in 2002.

Mauritania always sticks in my mind because of Saharan sand in Nouakchott and because desert life is so different from anything else. For example, at the weekend, residents of Nouakchott prefer to head into the desert instead of to the beach. Pitching a tent and cooking lamb (méchoui) under the open sky, and in relative solitude.

Its ethnic mix is mainly Moors, originating from the north, and black Africans. originating from the south.

It’s a country where slavery was only outlawed in 1981, but is practised nationwide.

My missions there were negotiating a Poverty Reduction and Growth program, and I was again Mr. Balance of Payments and Debt. It’s where I was on 9/11/2001. I was recently kicking the French by now, and its use as one of my working languages was now well-established.

It was where I first saw a parallel exchange rate market working, live and large, in the streets and shops with rates calculated rapidly on calculators and money exchanged in huge volumes.

It’s where I experienced my first sandstorms and happened to be out running with my colleague to and from the airport one morning, and we had to navigate by sound and our voices. It‘s where I first saw women openly vilified for running and chastised for their wearing athletic gear, even long pants and long sleeves.

Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya was president during my mission (having held office since 1984).

Guinea will feature more in its own right, because of my living there for nearly 4 years as the IMF’s resident representative. Sierra Leone will also feature apart as I had dual responsibilities as resident representative there, though non-resident. Travel between these neighbouring countries was not easy, and complicated because vehicles drive on the right in Guinea and on the left in Sierra Leone, and crossing the borders was always fun for the first 10 minutes.

Angola’s capital Luanda, has long had the reputation of being the most expensive city in the world. Coming out of the chaos of civil war in the mid-1970s and discovering oil, shortages and expatriates with high incomes made for a spiralling of costs, most notably for rental accommodation. Oil wealth does odd things to property values. I knew no Portuguese, and fortunately could work in English. I was on only one mission to Luanda (again, for PDR), not long after the end of my res rep assignment in late-2006. The odd thing about it was the authorities did not want a mission at that time and were not at all interested in borrowing from the Fund, but, we went through our hoops and loops. Though Fund thoughts were on a post-oil future, oil revenues were still gushing. So, it goes, sometimes, when economics and politics are at loggerheads.

South Africa was a transit point for the mission to Angola and also some regional meetings. I stayed in Johannesburg and had the chance to visit Cape Town, see Table Top Mountain and penguins at the Cape of Good Hope. I also got to see what a plane load of off-duty oil sector workers looks like on a long-distance flight from there to London. If you cannot take the liquor bought in duty-free onto the flight, what else to do but drink it before getting on the plane. To say the sight and sound of jolly, drunken British oil riggers for over 8 hours is not my idea of fun is an understatement!

Libya holds a special place as we visited soon after the embargo on US travel was lifted (February 2004). I met ‘Brother Leader’, Colonel Ghadaffi, who spoke to a conference of African central bank governors. Rhian was just 6 months old and she (one of the first Americans to visit) and Therese came along for the junket.

We had to fly from Conakry to London to Tripoli. On arrival, we were met at the plane door by Libyan officials and whisked through security to a VIP lounge. We waited there while other people arrived, some I recognized as governors. When the ‘group’ was complete, we were ushered out to a fleet of black Mercedes outside the airport arrivals. We got into the back of our car and greeted our driver. I don’t speak Arabic, so I used English and French. Then, off we sped, and I mean sped. Motorcycle outriders cleared our route as we hurtled along at 140 km an hour into Tripoli 😳‘This is new’ was the expression on our faces; Rhian was blissfully ignorant. We pulled up at a glitzy 5-star hotel that was the conference venue,checked in and went to our palatial room. Not bad!

Libya is strictly Muslim, and though Guinea is predominantly Muslim, Islam is practised there with a lighter touch, eg its main domestic business is beer making 🤔😳🍺 It took some getting used to having fake gin and tonic. More than any of the other Muslim countries, I’ve visited, with maybe the exception of Mauritania, Libya is incredibly chauvinistic, and my wife couldn’t stop marvelling at men alone sitting at tables of coffee shops, and women, alone, seen in markets and stores.

But, as trips went, the visit was on a different plane for splendor and history and political enigma. My baby daughter became a star and featured in lots of pictures being passed around by central bank governors 🙂 I suspect she recalls nothing about visiting the old Roman city of Leptis Magna.

Morocco was never a work location, but a favourite stopover en route to/from Mauritania, because a Tunisian colleague and I loved the food and feel of Casablanca. No Bogart-like experiences with Lauren Bacall. I discovered the literally moorish delights of pastillia. 

To offset that, I have fond memories of being steamed and massaged in a hammam.

Sénégal was also not a work location but Dakar was a transit point for Guinea and South Africa. We took a vacation there from Guinea, made better because the Fund rep there was a good friend and a Guinean, Ousmane Doré, who later was Guinea’s finance and planning minister (2007), and whose residence became our ‘hotel’.

In Sénégal, we visited Goree Island (Île de Gorée) the site from where slaves were shipped across the Atlantic during the 15th-19th centuries —a hard emotional visit as tourists. 😩

No two countries the same or remotely similar.

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #2-It’s 9/11/2001

Although I know that many people will immediately run to recollect how they dealt with the tragedy of the bombing of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, on September 11, 2001, it’s always a strange day for me to remember.

I was working in Nouackchott, Mauritania, at the time, and had just ended morning meetings and heading to lunch with members of the IMF team, negotiating the fourth review of the program supported under the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) and the main parameters of the 2002 budget.

Nouackchott, street scene: familiar indigo boubous (Image courtesy of RobertHarding.com)

Mauritania is on the edge of the Sahara Desert and dealing with sand is an integral part of living there. It’s flat and when sand storms blow it’s about what you can touch not what you can see. Sand in everything is standard, and my suitcases after trips there were always full of sand grains, even though my hotel room had sealed windows.

As we entered the restaurant (one of our regulars, whose name escapes me), we say the TV tuned to CNN and all eyes and faces turned to it. We were by the door and couldn’t hear the commentary, but we all took it that this was an action film being shown as we saw images of smoke tailing up into the sky.

World Trade Center after planes crashed into it on September 11, 2001

No way in our imaginations could we have understood this to be real—an apocalyptic scene from the USA.

Then, we began to hear the commentary coming over the screen, in English—sounding odd, in a French-speaking country, and I don’t know how many understood the words spoken. As we stood watching and the realisation hit home, people started to reach for mobile phones and start calling home. It was hearing the distressed voices of loved ones talking about what they had seen and were going to do to get home or get children from school and reassess. My current wife and I weren’t yet married, and she was having to negotiate in the city that is the governmental epicentre, Washington DC. I’ve heard stories of the frantic drive from the Fund to school to pick up her daughter and get home, but it’s not a reality that I can touch. That’s how disasters are, second-hand.

Many things hit home, immediately, in Mauritania, the first of which was that the attack was by a group of radical Muslims, and there we were in the capital of a Muslim country. I remember voices from the restaurant saying things like “This is not Islam!” as the shock registered with local people.

We ended the mission and headed back to Washington and the first taste of what modern air travel was going to be for years afterwards, as we navigated new security measures as we transited Paris and then arrived in Washington. I can’t remember the details of the scrutiny but I had the ‘memories’ scarred onto my life for years to come as my UN laisser-passer carried stamps from a Muslim country. I was to be often taken aside for ‘special screening’ on many of my departures from Washington DC, and it took some strong letters to the Department of Homeland Security to get the ‘red flags’ removed from my profile, after the ‘random’ checks for almost every departure got to be too much.

Fundamentally different viewpoints: a look back at an international career #1

Just taking a little detour from focusing solely on #COVID19Chronicles to clear my mind of some other things I want to explore.

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My good friend and former IMF colleague, Wayne Camard (@WayneCamard), posted a story on Facebook, recently, about some memorable moments in his life as an IMF economist. Like him, I’ve had people suggest I write a book about my experiences; still resisting. But, I may do a series of recollections, as a start.

I remember a story about Wayne, in Riga, Latvia, after a lunch with officials and a lot of vodka with the many toasts. I’m not going to tell the best part, but let’s leave it that it involved a van ride back to the hotel and Wayne did not make the afternoon meetings. 🙂 He has no recollection of the events, he told me (I’ve since reminded him of the details, in private); for me, they’re vivid, and my wife, also once an IMF economist has heard the story many times. Wayne is still held in high public regard, so let me not put that in jeopardy with any tell-all reports 🙂

But, of my past, what stands out? Two little tales, for starters, far apart in time and in terms of what happened.

I told a friend last week about my first trip to Uganda, in 1992, and being met at the airport by a man from the central bank, who asked me if I “had seen a white man on the plane?” I said no. He was perplexed and then said the man was coming from Washington DC, the IMF. I asked him if the man’s name was Mr. Jones. “Yes! That’s it!” Well, I let him have his few seconds of pause and then offered my hand and said “Here I am!” His ‘oh my gosh!’ expression was priceless.

I spent two weeks in Kampala, working mainly at the central bank trying to identify their foreign reserves—they thought they had a lot more foreign assets than was the case. It still had many signs of its civil war-torn past (1980-86), eg broken traffic lights. I loved the sense of familiarity of the place, with clear echoes of Jamaica, though food was markedly different. I discovered matoke (plantain and beef stew), the national dish. I also discovered the cost of telephone piracy when my hotel phone bill after a couple of nights was over US$1000: the phone company was recouping losses from years of piracy 😦

At the other extreme, was my time as resident representative in the Republic of Guinea, 2003-7. During 2005, my father came to visit and we did a bit of touring to the Fouta Djallon, without Therese, where we climbed Mount Nimba (a mountain made of iron ore) in my Toyota Land Cruiser and my father climbed down a steep rope ladder in the hills. My father had the time of his life, and my daughter, Rhian, then about 18 months, was a good traveller, though sometime in a stroller.

On our way back from Labe, fighting had broken out between students and government troops, and we made a hasty exit to the sound of gunfire in the town centre. We met road blocks and traffic detours on the way back to Conakry. I got a call from my good friend in the French military that diplomatic staff could head to the evacuation rendezvous point at the French embassy, if desired. He gave me a rundown of happenings in the capital. As we came to the city limit (Kilomètre 36), we passed easily but soon met boulders in the road and could see tyres or debris burning in the distance. My driver lived that side of the city and I asked him if he wanted to head home; he said no, as his son would go our our house and meet him on a motor bike. I then asked our nanny (who is still with us as a housekeeper in Jamaica) if she wanted to get off and head home; she did. As we went on, with no idea if we would get by without incident . At one point, when some students approached our car, but with no threat, my father piped up “This has been a great trip!” No kidding, Dad! We got home safely and retold our stories to my wife and put the baby to bed and had a good drink.

I struggle to find anything about such activities in my employment contract. But, I have plenty of reasons to say I really had the time of my life in Guinea.

Explaining government (economic) policies is too important to be left to government: EPOC, EGC & CaPRI show why

I was struck by an Editorial in The Gleaner on May 23, ‘Good Initiative, Mr Duncan, But …‘ noting (my emphasis) that Keith Duncan, co-chair of the Economic Policy Oversight Committee ‘has taken his show on the road. He is on an education exercise, going into communities, attempting to break down the seemingly arcane ideas of finance into the language of the people and show the relationship between achieving the IMF targets and people’s live.

The Editorial noted that many more Jamaicans that would have been the case otherwise will have a better understanding of the targets the government is committed to achieve under the IMF programme. That should make for better buy-in from the nation.

But, the Editorial saw ‘a risk, should he not be careful, of the blurring of the lines between the committee’s job of monitoring performance, based on the empirical analysis of a specific set of data, and the responsibility of political leaders to enunciate policy and explain to constituents the basis on which competing priorities are resolved.’ Further, the Editorial argued ‘Mr Duncan should be wary of being perceived as usurping the role of Government. We are quite happy with policing the implementation of the programme, rather than being drawn into social engineering.’

My view is this perceived risk is that it is not that great. Many agencies and commentators can and will attempt to help others understand what government is doing, and their stipulated roles are usually kept fully in view. If there are issues in certain interpretations, part of a good democracy would be that government can express its displeasure, if it amounts to that, or conversely express its thanks because sometimes others are better at the process of explaining policies. In fact, that’s one of the key features of a free press/media. Also, government’s explanations of what it is purporting to do can often be self-serving, not least because politicians like to give the best impression of what they do, seeking to extract credit and minimize blame.

Today, I spoke on this topic on Facebook live. You can watch the video here: https://www.facebook.com/dennisjonesasiseeit/posts/1386788341414056

During the talk, I drew attention to the other recent attempts to explain better parts of government economic policies, as undertaken by the Economic Growth Council through its public forums, and the think tank, Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), with its recent public forums (on the 2017-18 Budget and this week on ‘Strenthening Integrity through Innovation’). All of these events try to draw the public more closely ‘into the tent’ and be part of the dialogues that are going on.

My view mirrors that expressed by educator and advocate Carol Narcisse:

“The economic programme is not going to be successful if we the people don’t understand it, don’t participate in it, don’t think it is a good thing, don’t see how it is going to benefit us, and if we don’t have an equitable way in which to both participate and benefit from the results of it.”

I would agree, also, with the complementary view she expressed: ‘EPOC going ‘On the Corner’ is an example of participatory democracy and is an extension of its responsibility to provide oversight.’

Credit to The Gleaner, who introduced the ‘On the Corner’ series, in the lead-up to the 2007 general election. A cynic might wonder if The Gleaner Editorial was not being somewhat disingenuous, in that the role of explaining policies and many other elements of government is often a function well performed by the media, and The Gleaner might really be seen as trying to protect a little of its own turf. But, surely, they wouldn’t be doing that, now, would they? Would they? 🙂