People in Glass Houses (book review)

The 2020 UN General Assembly has just kicked off, marking a key highlight of the UN@75 year of celebration.
This is the perfect time to share my review of Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses, the best book about the United Nations I have ever read.

It started with a simple Tweet by writer Petina Gappah and over the summer I read Hazzard’s book based on her essays published in the New Yorker between 1964 and 1967.
Yes, you read that right: Hazzard’s book, more a collection of loosely connected short stories than ‘a novel’ as the subtitle claims, is more than 50 years old.
But what makes People in Glass Houses such a stellar literary contribution is that the poignant observations she shares through her stories are all but historical.
Her observations on the human condition of bureaucratic ordering are timeless. These profound insights that the UN is unchangeable, that it is not a lack of money or the wrong state being in charge of a committee and that the promotion of a bright middle-aged person will not lead to change are sometimes painful to read because they capture the essence of large bureaucracy that we have been told could be overcome with better IT systems, more training, visits to ‘the field’ and a new set of reforms.

Nothing in Excess

Mr Bekkus frequently misused the world ‘hopefully’. He also made a point of saying ‘locate’ instead of ‘find’, ‘utilize’ instead of ‘use’, and never lost an opportunity to indicate or communicate; and would slip in a ‘basically’ when he felt unsure of his ground (p.9).
We are literally on the first page of the book and I can see nodding heads in front of computer screens and phones, because you have also met Mr Bekkus…lots of them…
In the first chapter Nothing in Excess we also meet Olaf Jaspersen:
He had fallen in love. He had fallen in love with the Organization (Hazzard does not call the UN by its name). (…) He was still an able man, but his concept of ability had been colored by Organization requirements; he found it harder to believe in the existence of abilities that did not directly contribute to the aim of the Organization. (…) He had joined the staff because he believed sincerely, even passionately, in the importance of the Organization; that importance had latterly become indistinguishable from his own (pp.22-23).
Hazzard is a non-participant observer of the routines inside the UN’s Secretariat in New York and in that role she is never mean or moves into the role of an investigative journalist who uncovers important secrets from within the organization; she is listening to stories, talks to staff in the cafeteria and often just holds up a mirror so we can see ourselves in the organizational rituals, little cruelties and seemingly important routines that come with bureaucratizing political conditions.

The Meeting
What is fascinating about chapter three, The Meeting, is that it reminds us about a time when meetings were still something…new.
A forester and agricultural conservationist, Flinders (…) had never attended meetings until he got involved with the Organization. His profession had kept him out of offices (p.43).
But sure enough, Flinders ends up in exactly the same room where you were sitting at your last meeting in New York:
A secretary was distributing pads of white paper and stunted yellow pencils. The room was low-ceilinged, without windows, and carpeted in yellowish-green. At the end of it stood a small movie-screen and at the other a projector. At Flinders’s back, a bookcase contained a 1952 Who’s Who, and a great number of Organization documents (p.47).
Ok, the Who’s Who has been replaced with a 2005 MDG progress report, but otherwise…

The Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented
And talking about reports: In Swoboda’s Tragedy, poor Swoboda is tasked to work on DALTO’s, the Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented, annual report:

Cheerfully he pieced together the scissored paragraphs (‘Two experts in metallurgy served in Tanzania during the year under review…’ ‘Four awards were made for the study of sanitary engineering abroad…’ ‘A fruit factory was erected in Kashmir…’). Swoboda was surprised to see how the very items that had been subject of so much anxiety and dispute throughout the year appeared, when reported, to be part of a grand and faultless design to which no disharmony could ever conceivably have attached (p.81).
More than 50 years later I tweet about the latest 386-page World Bank report on corruption...

But what about the Story of Miss Sadie Graine where she finally takes up a post ‘in the field’? Surely, this is where the real work takes place, not in the meeting rooms in headquarters?
But Sadie Graine meets Achilles Pylos, the Resident Coordinator in contemporary parlance:
Progress was a draught that must be drained to the last bitter drop. (…) to the ultimate consequence of technical change, change about which, indeed, the word ‘impact’ was frequently used. More thought-but by whom? Not by Pylos. Pylos was intent on staying on top of things, not getting to the bottom of them (p.103).
Hazzard is never cruel to her characters-none of them really deserves rour scorn or pity because they are human and mostly humane as well; they are doing a job that has often been labeled a calling and that has undergone an administrative framework and many reforms to make an organization work that is unique as it is an indication of our common failure to address deep-rooted problems whose solutions often lie outside the remit of the UN.
Miss Shamsee was like a resort town in bad weather: some spark, some animation, some synthesizing glow was missing. She had been too long with the Organization (p.72).
Nobody should be first to caste a stone...
People in Glass Houses is such a timely reminder that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Neither can Organization staff afford to throw stones of being superior beings working for the ‘greater good’ out of their offices overlooking the East River, nor can we caste stones on ‘those bureaucrats’ as we venture into our own offices, complain about our own growing bureaucratic requirements and talk in the break room about Stephen being unfairly promoted or the local shopping opportunities during our next trip abroad.

I am so glad that I discovered Shirley Hazzard’s book that sits uncomfortably between the most accurate reportage from inside the UN and a vivid fictionalized satire of a bureaucratic organization that we claim is overblown and yet so familiar whenever we step into the arena of global development and politics.

Hazzard, Shirley: People in Glass Houses: A Novel. ISBN 978-0-3124-2422-0, 160pp, 20.00 USD, New York: Picador, 2004.


Popular posts from this blog

Dear white middle class British women: Please don't send used bras (or anything, really) to Africa

Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies?

Happy retirement Duncan Green!

Links & Contents I Liked 500

Artificial Intelligence (AI) & ChatGPT in development and humanitarian work-a curated collection