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Let’s Talk About Donkeys Instead

In the "Cult of Escapism": Let’s Talk About Donkeys Instead

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Let’s Talk About Donkeys Instead

(From September 30th)

Four hours after the alleged start time, the participants are still debating whether or not to start the meeting. Arguments are stated, restated, recycled and then stated again. There’s another vote and another clear decision is made, until further arguing muddies its finality and the debating resumes. My service has been an active study in dysfunctional, unproductive meetings, but I've never been to one this bad.

To better understand this thrilling topic, let’s look at a typical Panamanian country meeting:

(Note: This could be a meeting for a cooperative, town hall, or any other organization).
Many groups have been trained to use an agenda, which is written on something – be it a large piece of paper, a whiteboard or the side of a donkey. This is followed as closely as a third grader reading the New England Journal of Medicine.

The first points always include a prayer, which goes something like this:
(Everyone stands)
- Person 1: “Who would like to lead the prayer?”
(Two minutes of awkward, standing silence)
- Person 1: “Ok, that was good.”

Which brings us straight to the purpose of the meeting. Many groups arrive at the purpose of the meeting, address it for a full six or seven minutes, then tangent indefinitely. And by indefinitely I mean that I left a meeting four months ago that may still be happening. Indefinitely in that it’s not uncommon for participants to show up to an 8am meeting with flashlights.

This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes groups talk, concisely, about the proposed topics, moving through each with practiced efficiency, eventually arriving at a famous part of the agenda titled, “Other Matters,” at which point they will tangent indefinitely. Ok, so maybe it does always happen.

So what do they talk about, if not the actual proposed topic? I can’t even tell you. Let’s say the purposes are to talk about the cooperative’s cattle project and financial health. The one thing I can guarantee is that we will hear very little about the cattle project and nothing about the financial health. We will, however, hear about how one member’s neighbor did not pay him enough for a donkey, or another’s theory on why crops are poor this year (this theory will also never involve biology, ecology, or any other actual science). Each member will take turns standing up, saying “Good morning/afternoon” to everyone present and then rambling for at least twenty minutes and up to twenty days. Some don’t stop until their vocal chords burst and they collapse from exhaustion. At which point, the other members load him on to a donkey and it carries him to his home in the mountains.

The meeting I attended today was a Comarca (indigenous autonomous region) congressional meeting. The Director of Peace Corps Panama (my boss’s boss) and a few other staff members were attending to renew our formal relationship with the Comarca. Which meant we needed 15 minutes for our little speech and some Q&A time. Four hours after the congress voted to start the meeting, they were still debating whether or not to start the meeting (they didn’t have a majority present). The arguments were basically:

“There’s no point in starting without the majority present because all decisions would be moot anyway.”
“Fuck those people that didn’t show up, let’s start without them.”

For four hours.

A member eventually approached us and admitted they probably wouldn’t even get to us today. So the staff traveled the eight hours back to Panama City, promising to come back next time.

As frustrating as it was, the Director made a good point – this is democracy in action and at least they’re taking the process seriously. That’s fine, but can’t they do it faster? Or at least install air-conditioning and hand out cold lemonade?

Maybe when it comes to meetings, I should consider a more authoritative approach. I’m thinking Dr. Evil dumping board members into a pit of fire. Or tazing people that get off topic. Or maybe streamlining by asking only yes or no questions the entire meeting. Somehow, we need more efficient meetings.

Cause really, I’m tired of hearing about people’s donkeys.


At October 11, 2011 at 3:45 PM , Blogger Anya said...

Hey Jack, just wanted to tell you how much I'm enjoying your blog. I'm an RPCV (China) and your writing is taking me back. In China it was the karaoke that was endless, not the town meetings. And bats were considered good luck. But otherwise, many similarities. Thanks for your posts and best of luck with the rest of your service!


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