Cloaking, not Bleaching: the Back Story from Inside Bureaucracy

By Janis Bristol Alcorn

“… In other words, the way that bureaucracies work is by bleaching out local context and coming up with big simplifications.”   – Andrew Mathews, as quoted in his January 2013 interview with ENGAGEMENT

I would counter by positing that good bureaucracies do not bleach out local context. Instead, they create big, simplified umbrellas that cloak the complex, dynamic range of local circumstances and thereby give the staff of government bureaucracies the space to address local circumstances despite changes in political direction.   I base this assertion on twenty-five years’ experience working with USAID, and on the literature on good governance.

Dr. Alcorn at work in Kyrgyzstan

Dr. Alcorn at work in Kyrgyzstan

I came to Washington DC in 1988 to serve as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Diplomacy Fellow at the USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development).  AAAS Fellowships offer scientists an opportunity to apply their knowledge to policy development.  And, in my case, the Fellowship served as a passport to get inside the State Department building, where USAID was then housed.  Once I had my ID pass and was inside the agency, I was often asked by USAID staff why the AAA had Fellows working in USAID.  (They were confusing AAAS with the American Automobile Association, not the American Anthropological Association.)   The AAA is an all-American organization, trusted by everyone, so AAA unknowingly gave me legitimacy to listen in on the internal workings of part of this federal bureaucracy.  And thus I became a “participant observer” inside USAID for two years, learning the language (acronyms) and customs during the first six months, and then becoming an active member of this society.

At the outset, AAAS sent us new Fellows to an intensive three weeks of in-depth orientations and briefings on the institutions that comprise Washington—from Congress to NASA, from the White House to the State Department, from the Pentagon to the Smithsonian.  One briefing stands out in my mind.   The presenter showed us a graph. On one axis was the level of knowledge about a topic, and on the other axis was the level of political attention given to the topic.   These variables were inversely related. The more that is known about a topic, the less political attention it gets.

I was given a position as Advisor to the Bureau for Asia and the Near East, in the office of Energy and Natural Resources.   My first assignment was managing an infamous reforestation project in Nepal—created by a Congressional earmark to ship poplar saplings from a constituent’s nursery in Oregon. Nepal has high levels of poverty, not to mention its own native poplars, so saplings weren’t high on the Nepali list for foreign aid.    My immediate supervisor, a social forester, advised me not to talk too much about this project.  Nepal simply was not a priority country.  He also pointed out that 80% of US foreign aid was in the form of “economic support funds”—checks written to Egypt and Israel—so Nepal was actually near the bottom of the remaining 20% of the budget described as “development assistance.”

Nevertheless, as an actor within this bureaucracy, my supervisor did his best to leverage the reforestation project into something that did more than airlift poplars from Oregon. He worked around the edges to provide assistance that was appreciated in Nepal—and then he threw away all the records of the project when he was transferred to another assignment.  When I saw him dumping out the files, I asked him whether we didn’t need to keep records of what had been done.  He said no, that it was better for the agency not to keep such records.   And thus I learned how dedicated people inside a bureaucracy can use those big, simplified umbrellas to fulfill a professional mission and address local concerns, even when the paperwork and politics push in a different direction.

I entered USAID during the transition from President Reagan to President George H.W. Bush.  There was a flurry of activity creating documents for “transition teams.” In effect, those documents served as ideologically-aligned, simplified umbrellas that shielded the professional, non-ideological work of the agency.   Again, these big simplifications did not bleach out local complexities, but rather covered for them.  During the transition, I discovered that agencies like USAID are run by political appointees, and I watched as President Bush inserted his people from the top down to the level of office director.   Our new office director met individually with each of his sixty-two person staff.  When he met me, the “AAA representative,” he said he was pleased that American business had a representative interested in “environment” inside USAID. Then he said that I needed to understand one thing: USAID was to do nothing to stop pollution. In fact, he continued, we should encourage it because US companies have the “predominant capability” in technologies for cleaning up pollution.

Over the first year, this appointee made it his personal agenda to remove biodiversity conservation from USAID’s mission by adding a “screen” that would stop all biodiversity-related activities and projects.  He believed that biodiversity was a fad whose time had passed, and he wanted to test the political power behind it.  Instead, he ended up being removed from his post because a memo promoting his anti-biodiversity plan was leaked. His memo shamed the administration and strengthened the political power of biodiversity conservation.  At his going-away party, we gave him a piece of window screen with paper cutouts of birds and rabbits taped to it along with a card that read, “We wanted you to have this screen, through which birds and bunnies cannot get.”  He laughed.

Dr. Alcorn at work in Bolivia

Dr. Alcorn at work in Bolivia

After my Fellowship ended in 1990, I had learned the language and culture well enough to be recommended for a new position in a USAID project.   During the 11 years I worked on that project, I again came to appreciate how those big simplified umbrellas can provide cover for dedicated agency staff and local context.   One case stands out.  Our project was able to work with black-listed NGOs in Indonesia because Jakarta had signed an agreement with Washington exempting USAID-funded projects from review against the Suharto government’s black list.  Nonetheless, the project needed its $12 million budget authorized by Congress, and USAID staff knew there were powers who would not want our project authorized.  In the mid-1990s, the paperwork for our project was placed in a stack under a simple cover sheet, which listed a different project instead of the Indonesia project.  No one in Congress looked under the cover sheet to see the details, and Congressional authorization was given on the basis of the umbrella cover memo.  After authorization, Congressional anger was impotent.

Several years later, that multi-million dollar project gave a $15,000 grant to a small NGO. This small NGO was inviting organizations from across Indonesia to a workshop in a village whose river was being heavily polluted by an American mining operation. Women in the village claimed that the pollution was damaging their vaginas because they had to stand in the polluted river to wash clothes and bathe.   Just before the workshop was to occur, the US Ambassador made a phone call directly to the NGO’s staff and instructed them to cancel it. It was inappropriate for an Ambassador to intervene in this way, and we took action to prevent it from becoming a precedent that could limit all future work.  Armed with staff knowledge of Congressional schedules, our allies were able to meet with concerned Members of Congress in both parties and build support for the workshop. But even this was not enough.  Higher levels of power were mobilized by the mining interests.  Only after an ally convinced Vice President Al Gore to step in did the mining interests back down and the workshop proceed.

None of this would have been possible without the big, simplified umbrellas of bureaucracy.  Without the opportunities I have had to be a participant observer within bureaucracies that use these umbrellas, I would not have understood how to play on the insiders’ team.  When our Indonesia project ended, a senior USAID official said to me, “this was the best project USAID ever did in my entire career … and it will never do another one like it.”  The project’s legacy continues more than a decade after it ended in 2001, in the good relations and capacity built among over 150 NGOs and the birth of the indigenous peoples’ federation of Indonesia. The project illustrates, with apologies to James Scott, how career staff in this bureaucracy made judicious and effective use of the “umbrellas of the weak” to achieve positive outcomes despite political obstacles.

March at the founding of the indigenous federation in Indonesia.

March at the founding of the indigenous federation in Indonesia.

Please see the related references below, including Judith Tendler’s classic book on how giving bureaucrats the freedom to make decisions contributes to good governance and good government.

Janis Bristol Alcorn holds a doctorate in botany and anthropology from the University of Texas and has served as President of the Anthropology & Environment Society.  She currently works as the Deputy Director for Social and Environmental Soundness in a USAID-funded project based in Washington, DC.  From 1988-1990, she was an AAAS Fellow in USAID.  From 1991-2001, she was the Asia Director for the Biodiversity Support Program at WWF.  Since 2002, Dr. Alcorn has worked as a consultant for private foundations, NGOs, and USAID projects.  Her current engagements also include serving as Chair of the Theme on Governance, Equity, and Rights with the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic, and Social Policy and as Adjunct Professor in the University of Manitoba’s Natural Resources Institute. 

Related references:

Alcorn, J.B., John Bamba, Stefanus Masiun, Ita Natalia, and Antoinette Royo (2003)  Keeping ecological resilience afloat in cross-scale turbulence:  An Indigenous social movement navigates change in Indonesia. Pages 299-327 in C.Folkes, F.Berkes & J.Colding, eds, Navigating Nature’s Dynamics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,UK.

Tendler, Judith (1997) Good Government in the Tropics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tendler identifies five central themes connecting the successes she identifies:

(1) Government workers demonstrated an unusual dedication to their jobs. (2) The government made efforts to instill a sense of mission in the workers. (3) Workers were more flexible and responded to the perceived demands of the clients. (4) Both workmanship pride and increased community pressures limited corruption and malfeasance. (5) A three way dynamic between the state government (central government), local government and civil society did not fit the stereotypical roles in terms of building civil society.

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