For anyone interested in learning what development work overseas entails and what work is like, there may be no better introduction than Robert Gurevich’s novel, The Razor’s Edge. Thinly modeled on his own experiences in Africa, with his protagonist, writing in the first person, caught between the US Government’s Agency for International Development (USAID) and non-governmental organization work, primarily in basic education for kids. The book follows the adventures of a westerner hired to lead an NGO’s (KAP) education program of schools, collaborating with parent-teacher associations, and building on models that have worked.
One reviewer on Amazon agrees: “Any development worker contemplating taking a senior foreign posting, especially with an NGO, on a government-funded education project could benefit from reading this book.” The 2002 story is an easy read at 298 pages, with the subtitle “Embezzlement, Corruption and Development in Ethiopia, a Novel”.
He starts the book as the new project director of a USAID-overseen project supporting 2,500 primary schools in Ethiopia. The journey of the protagonist has formed experiences at each stage of his project work, from being proposed to USAID through to meeting staff, implementation, accounting, responding to evaluations of his program, and controversies that have arisen over the years which include observing staff turnover and allegations of fraud. The author repeatedly debates how to interact with USAID – the main funder — regarding his choices, presentations, and reporting USAID is likely to accept or reject. Though budgets are not discussed, key realities of development programs are milestones, timelines, and scaling.
Hunger and malnutrition enter the plot when there is a poor harvest, to which the NGO and their donors respond with school feeding. School feeding has been a large part of aid programming for decades, particularly as an incentive for girls to attend school. Late in the book, Ethiopia suffers a drought, for which USAID provides new resources to KAP (“a large emergency grant”) to support school feeding programs to encourage children to continue attending school, help them have the strength to travel to school and nutrition to help pay attention and learn in the classroom. The protagonist observes USAID efficiently sought to “utilize an already existing project for addressing this emergency quickly.
In the telling, hot, cooked meals (i.e., “wet food”) were provided. “With wet food, we know for sure that the food is consumed by the child and not taken by an older family member at home. By eating the meal at school , this makes all the children continue to attend.”
Other insights about the challenges of aid work appear in each chapter, such as “the major problem has been the use of cash payments to schools, along with lax scrutiny. I am recommending each beneficiary school be required to open an account with the nearest bank, credit union… into which project funds can be deposited.”
Two choices families face are: “For children to continue their schooling beyond the four grades offered in the village school, they would need to move to a town with a primary school offering eight grades, and, later, a secondary school. These children would need to live with someone.” or “Parents need the labor of children during certain times of year, keeping them out of school at these times. But when the children fall behind their classmates, they become embarrassed and drop out.”
The author is an anthropologist, specializing in education, working in consultancies for USAID and the Peace Corps, Chairman and Member of the Board of Directors for the USAID-funded Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program. Among other technical achievements, in 2015 he evaluated the USG’s education portfolio in Yemen.
In his way, Gurevich pays homage to the 1944 novel of the same name by Somerset Maugham where the protagonist, also, travels far and wide seeking to discover transcendent liberation from human suffering. It took its title from the ancient Upanishads verse “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus, the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”