"The Dustbin Telegraph" by Jerry Eckert

Jerry Eckert

Jerry Eckert's first career spanned 40 years working on agricultural development, income inequality and poverty in Africa and south Asia. He wrote over 150 articles and policy analyses to guide governments in South Africa, Lesotho, The Gambia, and Pakistan. Two papers won Best Published Article awards, five op-eds in the Christian Science Monitor changed America's South African policies, his monograph restructured Lesotho's agriculture. His most influential writing, however, became the first economic policies of the Mandela government. He now devotes his second career to an old love which has been waiting for him all these years—creative nonfiction writing.

The Dustbin Telegraph  

My frustration rose toward fever pitch. Five years with Ford Foundation's agricultural advisors in Pakistan rushed toward their end. I planned to head home, find a university job and let the family live in the United States for a change. Yet I had one last possible contribution to this country and a growing sense of urgency to get it done.  

My job as agricultural policy advisor sent me knocking around in some very small, remote Pakistani villages. I walked their mud-walled streets, carefully sidestepping open sewers oozing along trenches down the center. My farmer contacts offered tea in broken cups, patched with copper wire by the local potter. They showed me fields of struggling crops, pointing to wheat leaves curled by drought, yellowed from lack of nitrogen which they couldn't afford. Yet the survival hopes of their families clung to what might grow there. In humble courtyards I sat on rope beds under mosquito repellant Neem trees, and talked, or rather listened mostly, as folks from the bottom quarter of society described their lives. Some raised their voice and railed at government, believing it had failed them. A few stared at the ground, shamed by their helplessness. Many spoke with empty hopeless voices. Among them, I saw grinding rural poverty at its worst.  

Perhaps I was slow piecing these hundreds of moments into whole cloth. But finally I felt I understood the root causes of rural poverty and that I had some solutions.  

I couldn't understand why government seemed unaware of this crisis, blind to the prospect that this much poverty might bring social unrest. But stabilizing this government was not in my job description. In retrospect, maybe it should have been.  

What really bothered me was more visceral. Pakistan's rural poverty just seemed so overwhelming, so crushing to the families trapped in its iron vice. I thought, “There but for the Grace of God, go I,” and then immediately felt guilty. The guilt of the advantaged when faced with the plight of the less fortunate. Second cousin to survivor's guilt. I think this form of mild remorse drives a lot of us to careers in foreign assistance. 

My guilt demanded action. If possible, I would place this issue, both its causes and solutions, on the front burner in national policy debates. To do that I had to grab the attention of politicians. And that could only occur with solid ground truth based on real village data, the kind of numbers they couldn't ignore. I needed a survey to spotlight rural poverty. 

Ideally the Plan and Development Department (P&D) where I worked should run this study. If it was theirs, they would have to believe the results and just might act on them. P&D's active support was critical. Beyond someone simply saying they had no objection, I needed all the normal survey paraphernalia; Land Rovers, drivers, petrol, interviewers, field team leaders, a budget for meals, — in short a full-out effort mounted by the P&D. With only three months left in country, I needed it quickly.  

But, it was not going well. In fact, it was not “going” at all. One obstacle after another arose. Each roadblock came from P&D's Chief Economist, on paper the very man I advised on agricultural policy. Let me call him Aftab. Aftab never really said No, but he never said Yes either. He just strung out the process interminably. He knew that in a few weeks I would be gone and out of his hair.  

“I'd like to,” he would say, “but our interview staff are in the field, busy with other jobs.”  

“Sorry. The department's vehicles are with the Honorable Minister all week.” he said.  

Or else, “I checked. Our budget for field research this year won't cover your survey.”  

As a result, orders to launch never appeared. If I had to, I could write the report in the States, but not without the raw data, and my window before departure was closing. I believed that, if I could get it off the ground, this study might reshape Pakistan's future. My desperation mounted.  

*  

I came here in 1968 partly because my Ph.D. advisor pointed out Pakistan's phenomenal GNP growth rate.  

“Eight to ten percent per person per year,” he said with noticeable excitement. “Get over there. Get in on the ground floor. Learn how that country works. With a growth rate of nine or ten percent, development economists will soon hail this country as a major success.”   

The Ford Foundation then offered me a trainee position in Lahore on their agricultural team, a job which also promised a unique setting for my doctoral research. My wife, our two very young children and I got on a plane and headed out. I was about to fall in love with this fascinating place. Before I left Pakistan for good, this one year tour would extend into eight resident years in country. 

Within a month of arrival, my Ford Foundation boss sent me into the villages to find out why farmers failed to adopt chemical fertilizers to go with their new Mexican wheats. If they merely replaced the old varieties with these Mexican seeds, yields doubled. But, if they fertilized them as well, yields quadrupled. Why, then, were farmers not buying fertilizers?  This anomaly seemed just the problem for a neophyte agricultural economist, the newbie on the field team. Ford assigned a car and Abdul Ghafoor, a driver with great people skills who spoke five languages. Only a couple of years later Ghafoor would become my bridge into Punjabi villages and their people that made my dissertation research possible. To him, I must have seemed like a kid in a candy store with all the questions I asked on that first trip. 

The fertilizer answers were easy. Fertilizers came mostly from foreign assistance. Seven or eight donor nations provided 10-12 types of fertilizer, each differing in color, chemical content and packaging. Some compounds were totally useless on Pakistani soils. Most Punjabi farmers could neither read nor write. Yet donors, competing with each other for sales, bombarded them with enough conflicting sales pitches to confuse everyone.  Since fertilizers cost money, even with donor subsidies, farmers simply backed away from these unfathomable foreign curiosities altogether. 

More remarkable to me, I found no one in Punjabi villages, at least not those I visited, who ever saw any of that reported 8-10 percent income growth. Could the World Bank be wrong? Nine percent annual growth will double anything in eight years. Yet, the people I met hadn't doubled their family incomes in a generation or longer. In fact, these villagers found that merely hanging on was a struggle, and getting ahead in life was a disappearing hope. I could sense their frustration, and imagine its violent results. This first village survey, my baptism into Third World reality, redirected my life. I had seen what it was like simply trying to live, much less grasp a small bit of dignity, on ten cents per person per day. Now I would attempt to do something about it. 

As I dug deeper into Punjabi culture, I noticed no one ever really starved. A centuries-old social support network kept everyone afloat, if just barely. Families bartered services for food. People worked for each other, those with some assets or a little cash hiring those who had none. For example, landless families winnowed the farmers' wheat in exchange for one-twentieth of the crop, a practice at least a thousand years old. A village minstrel made his daily rounds with a morning serenade at the doorstep of his clients, bringing them a moment of music and the blessings of Allah in return for a measure of ground wheat. The community shared its red meat, its slaughtered ox, its fatted sheep, feeding everyone equally at ceremonies sprinkled throughout the calendar. In larger villages, age-old artisan castes still diversified the local economy. Tailors, weavers, potters, blacksmiths, carpenters, flour millers, roti bakers, fishermen, and occasionally a tinker earned their living providing for families with land or a trickle of cash income from outside the village. 

Village economies and the people within them seemed tightly interwoven. I looked for points of leverage, nodes in the social cobweb where an economic pulse received by a few would ripple out more widely, creating new incomes and opportunities for others. Looking deeper I uncovered patterns that we had not been taught in graduate school. If the poor had a little money, they likely bought goods or services from their neighbors and others who were equally poor. For example, cloth woven from locally grown, brown cotton on a hand loom, a wooden plow carved from a tree stump by the village carpenter, water jugs hand thrown with local clay on a foot-powered potter's wheel, these made up the stuff of daily living. Their values stemmed almost entirely from the artisan's labor. In this way, daily needs of low income households generated local jobs for others like themselves. Also, their spending stayed mostly within their own village. Little of it leaked out to remote urban manufacturing centers, at least not right away. I reasoned that if new incomes could reach at least a few of the poor, that money would then circulate, reducing poverty more widely in the local area. My challenge was to document these pathways of money and patronage and build growth strategies around them. I didn't know it yet, but my career was about to veer off in a wholly new direction. For the next twenty years I would focus on rural labor, poverty and income inequality.  

Aftab, however, seemed determined that this study would never take place. Every day or two, I pitched up in his office asking if the previous obstacle had been removed. Each time something new arose. Each time he smiled in his slightly patronizing way. It became obvious that no foreigner would ever achieve anything of merit on Aftab's turf. 

My office mate at the time was Jiri Prazak, an economist who had fled Czechoslovakia, made his way to the U.S., got his green card and now worked for the United Nations Development Program. Jiri and Jerry, the two ex-pats advising the P&D Department, Government of West Pakistan. We shared an office full of clunky colonial furniture, an overhead fan, cheap metal ashtrays and a peon right outside the door who brought us essentials such as pins, paper, ink for the ink wells, and tea. Just holler at the door, in true colonial fashion, Doh Chai Lao, and with much clattering of chipped porcelain cups and metalware, two cups of thick black tea arrived. Milk was available but you had to spoon out the flies. He bowed slightly and called us Sahib, his existence justified.

One morning I vented my frustration on Jiri. I felt powerless. I couldn't bypass Aftab and go straight to the Director General without Aftab finding out and throwing me out on my ear. Getting fired now, just four weeks before departure, would embarrass a lot of people. Jiri was quiet for a moment. Then he offered a small story. 

“Back in Czechoslovakia, the secret police would go through our waste baskets at night to see if any of our trash was subversive.” 

“Really?” I asked, surprise in my voice. I should have guessed, having once been in the intelligence game. But my “spying” took place in Dayton, Ohio, guessing at Russia's weapons capabilities using high-tech satellite intercepts, photographs of giant rockets parading through Red Square on May Day, and recorded heartbeats of Soviet cosmonauts in orbit. It had never occurred to me there could be intelligence value in something as mundane as office trash. 

“Yes,” he answered. “We sometimes sent messages to the top guys this way without going through all the tiny minds in the middle. We drafted notes that we wanted them to read and then dropped them in the dustbin. In the morning, they would know.” 

I sat pondering this new insight for a few minutes. Then I took a pad of yellow lined paper and scribbled out a letter to my Ford Foundation boss. The draft detailed the importance of the proposed survey, and then clearly itemized every blockage Aftab had thrown in the way. The letter closed with an apology. I was, I wrote, so close to being able to offer something unique, something really important, but now it seemed too late. Sadly, I must leave for home with the job unfinished.  

This draft spread over three pages, hand written as if in a hurry, with scratch-outs, word changes, a note or two in the margin. It looked very much like a first draft. Then, after Jiri went home, I crumpled my draft into paper balls and threw them in the dustbin. I was out of options. If this didn't work, then the driving forces behind jobs and incomes for the rural poor would never be documented, at least not by me. My last big effort, the culmination of five years learning of, and loving village life, would fail. 

That was Friday. I arrived at work on Monday to find the Director General's peon standing outside my door chatting with my guy. In the tone of an executive suggestion I was “invited” to come straight away to the DG's office, which contained even bigger clunky colonial furniture, the same cheap metal ashtrays and, rank hath its privileges, a real air conditioner. The DG was all smiles. 

“Chai Lao,” he sang out, and his man bustled off for tea, the good stuff, probably Earl Grey, with milk, without flies, served in fine china. 

“Won't you have a seat, Dr. Eckert?  Tell me how your rural labor survey is going.” 

Talk about cutting to the chase. I stood there, flabbergasted. Jiri had called it, spot on. They read through your trash, even here in Lahore, in an office as nonstrategic as a provincial P&D Department.  

Since I had nothing to lose, I unloaded the whole sad tale on the DG. For about 20 minutes he listened and asked understanding questions. I got the sense that he already knew the answers. He then tapped his buzzer summoning his peon back into the room. 

“Bring in the Major,” he ordered. 

In 30 seconds, a smartly dressed, middle-aged man with an erect bearing and a tightly clipped mustache joined us. He had been standing close by, waiting for this summons.  

“This is Major Chaudhry of the Pakistan Army.” 

“Retired,” corrected the Major. They were obviously friendly colleagues. 

“Major Chaudhry will organize all the resources for your survey. He will also command the field workers. You two must work together so that this is a first class project. How soon can you start?”  After three months of growing frustration, I sat there, stunned. Not only did the DG know my problem before I came to work that Monday, he had already solved it. Here sat a man who put Pakistan first, above any personal agendas. I wanted to salute, but it didn't seem right. 

The Major and I went straight to my office, ordered more chai, and sat down to plot logistics. My tea guy appeared much more obsequious with the Major present. He even found some biscuits to go with the tea. When he got home that night, I'll bet he told his whole family about his big day. Then I went home and worked through the night to define the survey, choose who should be interviewed, and frame the questions. Distinct questionnaires emerged for small, medium and large farmers, for landless laborers and for village artisans. Next morning, Ford Foundation mimeographed the hundreds of copies we needed in the field. 

Major Chaudhry hit the highway at 0500 hours on Wednesday with three Land Rovers full of interviewers and a supply vehicle hauling enough food and bedding to survive the Sahara. I caught up with them twice a week in remote rest houses for progress reports and to handle questions that arose. They crisscrossed the Punjab, interviewing 200 villagers from five walks of life in two weeks. When the field work ended I had one week left in country. 

Then the Director General pitched a curve. He insisted that the questionnaires be given to him personally. I thought Aftab might get his hands on them and lock them in some mildewed closet where hungry rodents would be the only beneficiaries. I badly wanted my own set for analysis. However, no one in 1971 Lahore had a photocopy machine. Switching to Plan B, Ford Foundation ran their mimeograph again for 200 more blank questionnaires. Then we reached back 100 years to a technology from Rudyard Kipling's era. We sent a driver into the bowels of old Lahore where scribes still sat cross-legged on the sidewalk offering their services as stenographers. The driver returned with five scribes, young men uncomfortable speaking English but able to copy English accurately. Manually they duplicated a second set of questionnaires in one six-hour day. 

Not trusting the Pakistani post, nor Aftab's possible friends in the postal service, I carried the duplicates on the plane to the U.S. in my lap. Once in the United States, those surveys became raw data in computer files, and then central tendencies, standard deviations, trend lines, outliers and all the arcane things that delight economists. 

Six months later I returned to Pakistan, family and all again, for a three year assignment employed by Colorado State University. I hand delivered 200 copies of my report, “Rural Labor in Punjab: Analysis and Policy Implications,” to the Director General. He took them directly to the Governor of Punjab and to the provincial cabinet. I had finished my Ford Foundation job and now turned toward my new assignment.  

A year later, to my surprise, Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto's Special Assistant for Agriculture summoned me to Islamabad to lead a handpicked task force charged with writing a new rural employment strategy for Pakistan. They confined us to a high rise government office with sleeping quarters, fed us box lunches and told us we could come out when we produced a strategy that would pass Parliament. It took two days, but the National Cabinet adopted our results as policy. Slowly the country was awakening to their poverty crisis. And policies began to emerge that drew on the labor market as part of the solution.  Fifteen years later, the keynote speaker at the International Agricultural Economics Association conference in New Delhi cited the Punjab rural labor study as the best of its kind ever done. I never did see Aftab again. I heard he was sent abroad “for additional training” and then took a high profile job with the World Bank.

All because of three crumpled pieces of yellow tablet thrown into a colonial dustbin in Lahore in 1971.  

*

Epilogue Looking back from 40 years down the road, I am appalled and greatly saddened. Either Pakistan did not act soon enough or took action but without serious commitment. Or maybe they never really saw the poverty and inequality amongst them, nor sensed its explosive potential.  Maybe my theory was wrong. Whatever the cause, Pakistan today, that country I once loved, is a developmental basket case, playing with nuclear weapons. It has evolved into a country in which political opponents are assassinated and ex-presidents executed for their crimes.  The military and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency run the settled parts and the Taliban controls the rest. The sons and grandsons of my farmer friends carry AK-47s over their shoulders when plowing their fields or walking to market. And they probably still haven't doubled their family's incomes in any real sense. But all that is another story for another time.