Working Internationally

Part of the price of doing international work for the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) is the occasional requirement to give a presentation about what I’ve been doing.  This year I’ve been asked to:  talk about the skills I’ve gained while working in local government that are useful in doing international projects; give a description of the different assignments I’ve had; discuss how to manage assignments while still working as a city manager; explain the challenges I faced in providing technical assistance; and summarize the lessons I’ve learned about working internationally.  I’m supposed to do all of this in about 30 minutes.

I think the most important skill I’ve learned over more than 30 years in local government work is keeping a positive attitude.  I have seen many people become disabled by frustration or anger, while others who faced similar challenges treated them as opportunities.  Whatever success I’ve enjoyed doing, international development work is the product of maintaining a belief that I could do something to make bad situations better.  I have had that skill tested in places like Iraq and Ethiopia, where hope was a precious and fragile commodity.  I have faced some difficult challenges as a city manager, but I have never seen an Oregon community confronting the problems cities in developing nations are up against every day.

My assignments have usually involved helping to address basic service delivery and/or economic development.  I have worked with communities in Africa and Southeast Asia where less than 20 percent of the population had access to potable water or a sanitary sewer system.  Solid waste disposal is an equally vexing problem in the developing world, where you often see waste in endless variety strewn about communities.  My most satisfying project was finding the money to build a road to a small village in Iraq that was isolated by a sea of mud during the winter.

Accumulating vacation time and , in one case, taking a six-month leave of absence, have allowed me to take on assignments while retaining my job as an Oregon city manager.  I have been fortunate throughout my career to work with capable people who were willing to take on some additional responsibilities while I was gone.  The advent of electronic communication has also helped and even allowed me to respond to a citizen complaint about snowplowing in La Grande while sitting at a desk in Kerbala, Iraq.  I think the experience I’ve gained from doing international work has made me a better city manager, or at least someone who understands a broader range of problems.

Physical safety has been a concern while working in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but I think the biggest challenge to my effectiveness is the frustration caused by things like corruption, bureaucracy, apathy, and ignorance.  The only antidote I’ve found is to find a way to be of service, even if that service is unrelated to the stated goals of the assignment.  I think I have been able to make assignments successful on more than one occasion by adapting to circumstances on the ground and finding a way to be useful.

The greatest lesson from all of this is the development of a deep conviction that people around the world, particularly children, share so much in common that there should always be hope that we can learn to resolve our differences peacefully.  Our responsibility is to nurture that hope to the point where it will grow into a worldwide reality.