How To Contribute to a Better World
By John D. Montgomery
Professor Emeritus of the Harvard University

I was sitting on a tree stump in the Sahel of West Africa, on the edge of a town walled with a high clay/mud fence, along with five or six old men of the village, each on a stump of his own. The town itself was almost empty - the women and children had already gone with the young men on their annual migration to allow their cattle to graze. We had no fixed agenda, but were discussing their life styles, considering recent changes in their lives, and thinking about future prospects.

Changes over a single generation were astounding: the village itself, with its hand-polished clay houses and waist-high fences, was the same, as was the seasonal departure of the younger population to water and feed their precious animals; but a generation ago almost no one in the village had any clothes, there was little commerce apart from cattle exchanges, and when there was a little moisture in the ground during the summer they walked a mile or so to their fields and cultivated just enough grain to sustain life. Now they worked the same fields, but did not own them, and each carried in his overalls a blue identity card, lightly annotated to show where their fields were and how much they were paid. Our conversation was easy and continuous, as if we were old friends and I was not just a passer-by gathering information. To keep the talk light, I delicately asked if there was rich man in the village; they laughed heartily and all pointed to one man who looked no more fashionable or prosperous than the others. It turned out that all of them had gone on the annual pilgrimages with their cattle in search of green pastures, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Now they were too old to make the journey, but remained in the village until the others returned. I learned that each year the journey was longer because farmers were taking over the tillable land, and open country was becoming scarce.

I was trying to conceive of ways of enriching and simplifying their lives, when suddenly the quiet desert-like stillness was interrupted by the roar of motorcycles and the appearance of what turned out to be half-dozen of the teen-aged youth of the village who had decided not to join the pilgrimage but to seek work in a nearby city.

They were welcomed back by their elders, and I joined in with the fun, while at the same time beginning to think of a development scheme I had heard about before I had left the capital city. It involved drilling for water for farming, making new arrangements for slaughtering and selling the cattle, and establishing land-use systems that would protect investments. It would not eliminate the annual migration but would shorten distances and open new employment and investment opportunities.

When I returned to the national capital, I met with groups from the Ministry of Agriculture and other specialists from the national government, to work out the details of the plans and design a program that would appeal to international aid donors. Of course I could not speak for either the donors or the host government, but I could speak with both.

This was not my first opportunity to contribute to development. I had already worked on rural and agrarian problems in South and Southeast Asia, training systems in Africa, university planning in the Middle East, and community development projects in Latin America, all while I was primarily a full-time professor of international development ready to interrupt teaching to carry out short assignments during vacations and between semesters.

It had all started unexpectedly, near the end of four years that I had spent as a draftee in the US Army. Military service rarely offers opportunities to contribute to a better world, but as everywhere, there are exceptions. My summons to duty came just a few days after I had completed studies for a Masters degree in municipal administration; of course my military assignments thereafter had no connection with that specialty, and as the lowest-ranking private soldier I was trained, and trained again, in such subjects as close-order drill, map reading, the training of even newer soldiers (including a battalion of illiterates) and the care and firing of various kinds of guns. I never became an expert in any of those subjects, but I was good enough to apply successfully for Officer Training School, after which I was assigned to a military government company, with the expectation of participating in the occupation of Germany or Japan (the war was nearly over, but of course we did not know that). In a few months, after language training, I was sent to Japan, eventually winding up with an office in the seaport of Kure, an hour or so from Hiroshima.

I had just got settled when a letter came from the mayor of Hiroshima, inviting the Occupation Forces to designate an advisor to the City Reconstruction Planning Commission. For once, it seemed like an assignment for which I was qualified, and I nominated myself for the honor. I realized that Hiroshima's planners would know more than I about the planning process, to say nothing about Hiroshima's needs; but in spite of my ignorance I was sure that my participation would be a symbolic benefit. The hostility of war had been officially quelled, but it still survived emotionally as an obstacle to cooperation. Americans had not forgotten Pearl Harbor and its bloody aftermath, and there were many Japanese for whom the war and its sacrifices still dominated their lives.

I was soon to discover that Gen Macarthur's headquarters in Tokyo was not at all sympathetic to our plans, and for its part the Imperial Japanese Government decided it could do nothing special for Hiroshima unless it was also prepared to offer similar assistance to other devastated cities. Thus there were no official resources on which I could draw on behalf of the City and little I could do to help except attend the meetings of the board, offer a few suggestions, comment on those of others, study and think about the ruins, make frequent tours of the city, and consider the history of other reconstructed cities. I did, however, establish some lasting friendships in the process, and, greatly to my surprise, discover that the cooperative gesture had become an international event. Newspapers covered the collaboration as something of a token of peace; the most famous American book about Hiroshima mentioned it; and even the Japanese newspapers referred to it. I was able to contribute little or nothing substantial to the planning, but the city itself began to attract sympathetic notice from abroad, and I gained a new insight into my own future.

As for Hiroshima itself, the rebuilding process was already taking place. Thousands of refugees were returning home, at first to wander listlessly among the ruins of their former houses, and then to begin to start small-scale businesses. Rickety shops began to appear around the railroad station and other common places; the streetcars had courageously continued to operate; and exchanges of land and other properties began. Not much was being built along the perhaps grandiose plans we had been hatching, but there were obviously signs of progress. The inner strength of those who had suffered the most spectacularly from the war asserted itself, and initiated a momentum of reconstruction that was to produce today's vibrant city.

But now, in a rather specialized way, I had become famous. Even as I returned to America to complete my graduate studies at Harvard, I found myself consulted in matters of reconstruction and development. The invitations ran from a two-year tour in Viet Nam to exploration of regional prospects in southern Africa.

At first my international ventures had an academic flavor: for example, I was invited to help establish a graduate teaching curriculum for the newly-created National Institute of Administration in Viet Nam, working with local experts as I had in Hiroshima. This project, innocent as it might seem, was an implied criticism of the educational enterprise the French had established in Viet Nam. It was a rejection of the legalistic abstractions that prevailed in the French system of training for the public service. Its aim was to develop specialized administrative knowledge from Vietnamese administrative experience; I planned to enlist Vietnamese scholars in a research seminar that would carry out field trips to develop case studies of contemporary policies and practices. We would start in the rural areas to which graduates of the program were to be assigned, even hoping that our findings might have positive consequences for contemporary policies.

The use of case studies was an American approach, which the French-trained Vietnamese administrators distrusted, both intellectually and bureaucratically. Suspicion of administrative and political innovations like those advanced at the NIA also permeated the enemy's consciousness. The most dramatic expression of this distrust was the Viet Cong (Communist) practice of assassinating newly assigned graduates of the Institute soon after they arrived at their posts. The resulting lack of security was confirmed when the central government in Saigon declared some provinces "off limits" to research activities following the casualty reports. Even so, the seminar did succeed in publishing a textbook, Cases in Vietnamese Administration, which was used for instruction at NIA and elsewhere. But the experience was a reminder that being an agent of change often means arousing personal or professional hostility.

Some experiences in Viet Nam made their way into several of my academic articles on development administration, and it was not long before opportunities to work in different aspects of international development appeared. Most of them involved work in substantive areas such as land reform, public health, regional cooperation, and bureaucratic reorganization, and for the next thirty years I worked on a variety of projects (sometimes in fields I had to study myself in order to participate) in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. Most of my work concerned rural areas, and although a city boy myself, I became known as an agriculturalist and rural and community development specialist. In later years, my secretary counted 80 countries in which I had worked. (She must have gratuitously added some countries where I didn't do much.)

Because much of the research I undertook in rendering these services involved "impact analysis" (the effects of developmental change on the affected population), I often relied on various methodologies of survey technology. Although polls were becoming commonplace even in undeveloped countries, my work differed from them because they dealt with experience rather than opinions, and because they usually reached rural rather than urban populations. Nearly all of them concerned issues central to their well-being rather than abstractions of politics and commerce that were the province of foreign aid technicians. Many quite unusual opportunities were coming my way.

It was a life-enriching experience that was to improve both my teaching (because of its relevance to current experience of neglected populations) and my practice in development assistance (because of the range of programs and policies with which I was becoming familiar). Several of my students were to become ministers and even heads of state, whose presence in my classes provided reinforcement to my own teaching. But this particular mixture of teaching and practice had to come to an end. In 1987 I retired from teaching at Harvard, acting under the University's old, now repudiated, definition of superannuation.

But at this point another great but unexpected opportunity arose. I was approached by SGI on behalf of its newly established Soka University of America, which was just being organized in California, and was about to inaugurate a Pacific Basin Research Center. For ten years thereafter I served as its director, which enabled me to conduct seminars and arrange field studies throughout the region. My plan was to study the experience of policies by which people all over the world sought to improve their lives. In my academic work I had always defined "policy" as "the vision of a better world, and the things people do to bring it about." Under those terms I was to initiate studies in human rights, social capital, globalization and responses to its challenge to sovereignty. In the process, PBRC was able to gather together nearly 100 scholars throughout the world and publish their work.

The editor of this web site asked me to write this paper on the basis of my personal life, assuming that my 86 years were crowded with experiences that would serve as models for its readers. Unfortunately, my life is no model for others, except to remind others that if the opportunity to contribute to a better world does not appear, the next best thing is to study and prepare for it. I was to follow Abraham Lincoln's advice to himself: "I will study and prepare myself, and some day when my opportunity comes I'll be ready."