Translating Romantic Ideals into Events to Serve People

Most of the experiences I count as successes during my career as a city manager began as romantic ideas.  Before anyone starts to make salacious assumptions about what constitutes “romantic,” the following definition from Webster’s explains the word as follows:  “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious or idealized.”  I can even find these attributes in our new wastewater treatment plant or while helping someone when a rat finds its way into her toilet.  All of this may explain why I have always jumped at the opportunity to do work in other parts of the world.  During the past 20 years, I’ve been fortunate to work in rural Japan, Indonesia, Iraq, Croatia, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Ethiopia.  The assignments ranged from a few days presenting at a conference for ICMA in Pakistan to seven months in Iraq.

International development work is, to me, both a selfish pursuit and a chance to do something positive for people in need.  I enjoy travel and the opportunity to see how people in different places live.  These experiences are even more gratifying if I know that through my efforts I can help solve a problem or make people’s lives a little better.

Anyone who has ever lived in a house where the pipes froze or the pump in the well went bad knows how difficult it is to live without easy access to water.  I have experienced both situations and, as a city manager, have believed throughout my adult life that I fully understood the critical role of water in our lives.  During my first week in Iraq, I visited a village where the only source of water was a polluted irrigation canal.  Village women and children scooped the water into various sized containers; carried it to the village; boiled it; strained it; and finally had something their families could safely drink.  People were literally spending hours to do what we can do in our own homes in a matter of minutes.  I had no real appreciation for the plight of the majority of people in the world who live without home access to potable water until I was able to see it firsthand.  Our team was able to work with village leaders to bring in a portable purification plant and deliver potable water to taps throughout the village.  The selfish parts of this experience were the good feelings of being able to help and the personal understanding I would otherwise never have obtained.

My experience in Ethiopia last year helped me see the effects of rapid urbanization in a rural area and directed my attention to the often painful transition from subsistence agriculture to a different economic base.  Reading about how a village is affected by government policies is a much different understanding than what is gained by talking with people and seeing their situation firsthand.  I have also learned the frustrations of trying to change things for the better in almost every assignment I’ve undertaken for ICMA.

A wealthy friend of mine told me a few years ago I was the most widely traveled poor person he had ever met.  I don’t believe I am poor by any standard, but I have been blessed with opportunities to pursue ideals important to me without having to amass a personal fortune.  I am most grateful for those chances and for the good work ICMA is doing worldwide to promote local capacity building.