Stephan is a mild-mannered, wiry Frenchman with shortly cropped iron-gray hair and boundless energy. A career army officer and diver, later he moved over to the Gendarmerie (French National Police) where he served as a Captain. Below the calm exterior, his blue-gray eyes belie a determination accustomed to confident command and control. Always looking constructive ways to burn off some energy, Stephan started a charitable organization that bought a sailboat in order to give under-privileged children opportunities to experience new adventures. It was during his tenure with the Gendarmerie that he made his first voyage to Vietnam. The love affair was quickly established. Stephan increased his charitable zeal with renewed gusto. He organized fund-raisers back at home and made multiple trips to Vietnam providing medical supplies to hospitals and clinics. His eyes shone especially bright as he described poor village schools, and the delight of children as he provided them with books, paper, pencils and such. Obviously, the man has a soft spot for the poor and needy.
After retiring from the military, Stephan went to China and began learning the ropes of the Chinese antique business. Over the next few years, he imported furniture and decorative objects – from tiny vases to massive gates – and sold them in antique shows around the country. On one of his many trips around the world, he met the chairman of a group running an elite school in Madagascar. This boarding school takes many of the best and brightest children from around the island nation in hopes of preparing them to be future leaders with the skills necessary to lift the country out of intense and pervasive poverty. Stephan was hired to lead the school and provide the students with adventurous activities on weekends and holidays. His lovely wife, a school teacher, was also hired to work in the school. While the job didn't work out (unfulfilled contract terms on the part of the educational organization), Stephan recognized the great opportunities, and the great needs, in this island paradise. Of course, he fell in love with the people, especially the children. He is still there making contacts and working for economic development. He is trying to teach the people the skills necessary to be competetive in today's global economy. He also had some acerbic comments on the dealings of the United Nations on the Island.
UNESCO and UNICEF have a significant presence in Madagascar in an attempt to alleviate the poverty and human suffering. The UN websites give glowing accounts of small successes – a new well at a school and new educational initiatives – while highlighting the continued plight and suffering of the people. Lest we forget, the organizations are working tirelessly to address the problems. Stephan tells slightly different tale. He described to me a UN project to construct a new school. The “school” turned out to be little more than a rustic, open-air shelter with benches and a chalkboard. The local workers were payed a pittance to build the structure out of simple materials. Meanwhile, UN officials and local politicians through lavish parties (costing much more than the school itself) to celebrate the accomplishment. Far from being an isolated incident, Stephan says that this is the norm. The UN spends extravagantly on junkets and political “events” while occasionally allocating a little on a “project” to help those really in need. He told of one local worker, happy to have a “good” job, yet unable to provide more than a one room cardboard hut for her extended family. The disgust in Stephan's voice, as he recounted the story, was startling. The system is designed, he says, to maintain a steady flow of donations and protect the personal fiefdoms of both the local politicians and the UN bureaucrats.
Sad to say, yet another example of the failure socialist programs to alleviate real human tragedy. You would think that after having witnessed decades of the abuses of power by supposedly well-meaning socialists in Eastern Europe and China, we would wake up to the fact that any system based on these failed (read false) principles cannot successfully lift humanity out of poverty and servitude. Yet we continue to rush headlong into the gaping hole, sacrificing our liberties in the name comfort and safety. In the words of Richard Stallman, the creator of the GNU licensing system for free software, "If you won't accept an inconvenience to save your freedom, you're headed for the gutter." Transparency in government, individual liberty and personal responsibility lead to wealth and freedom. There are ample illustrations of where the alternatives lead. Unless something changes quickly, better put on your golashes.