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A parable of international development from Dave Eggers

In 12 days, there will be a parade to celebrate a road unifying two regions of a country torn apart by a decades-long civil war. That is, if two contractors are able to construct the road in time.

That's the premise of Dave Eggers' new novel The Parade, a slim meditation on the difficulties of global development and aid work. The story follows two men — we know them only as Four and Nine — who work for a faceless corporation, tasked with paving this highway while making as few waves as possible.

Nine is the advance scout, sent to clear the path, while Four operates the machine that actually paves the road. But they don't exactly approach the job the same way.

"The two guys have very different ideas about what their work is and why they're there," Eggers says in an interview. "One of them [Four] just wants to do the work and leave and go home, and the other [Nine] sort of wants to immerse himself in the local culture. And both positions are sort of inherently fraught just by their presence in this country."

Interview Highlights

On the contrast between Nine and Four

Nine is on a vacation, almost. He's an adventurer. He thinks: Oh, I'm going to soak all this up, and I'm going to meet everyone I can, and be helpful where I can, and I'm going to indulge the local culture and food. ... But everywhere he goes, he sort of sows chaos, and even though he thinks he's doing the right thing by engaging. But Four has been in many similar situations, and is a veteran of this work. And so he just says: Our job is to do the work, touch as few lives as possible in that way, engage as little as possible, and get out. ... Those are the rules from the company. And so he's very rigid, you know, and very businesslike. And the work of Nine just drives him absolutely insane.

And so the tension between the two of them is sort of, I think, supposed to be symbolic of how a lot of people — whether it's working with NGOs, or contractors, or even military — work abroad. But ultimately, it's not really about either one of these guys. And the legacy that they leave behind is definitely fraught.

On the episode where Four sees a local boy blocking the road

The work that Nine is supposed to be doing is making sure that there aren't 7- or 8-year-old boys standing in the middle of the road. But Nine has disappeared again. And there is this boy standing in the middle of the road. Four honks and flashes the lights and everything, but the boy doesn't move. And ultimately, he has to shut the machine down, which is its own issue, and jeopardizing the day's work. And he has to go out and think about: Where does this boy belong? His parents aren't anywhere near, and there's no family, there's nothing. And for the first time in his career, he has to actually touch a local citizen — this boy — and carry him to where he thinks he's supposed to be. But of course, they start entering a forest, which is heavily mined. And he thinks, like: Well, here I am, I think I'm helping, but I'm walking this boy into a mined forest. It struck me how insanely complicated sometimes it is to engage.

On talking to contractors who work in foreign countries

Eggers: I have a lot of friends, actually, that work abroad and have to sort of go in, and try to figure out the way that business is done there, and get a contract, and do that work, and then leave. And they're almost invariably very cavalier about it. It's always a bit of an adventure, and this wild story they can tell. And they come back without really having gained a whole lot of insight into the larger context of their work. And so it's always been just interesting to me when this expertise is sort of dropped in, and all these people are dropped in, and build something that might last centuries, or might change drastically the lives of hundreds or thousands or millions of people, and then the people that built these things are gone.

Martin: Or it might make life worse? Like, did any of these people return and realize that the thing that they built, the thing that they went in to do, actually didn't improve things for the local population — that it did have an adverse effect?

Eggers: Yeah, and you know, it's — in this case, Four and Nine are being used. They are tools. And the design is not apparent to them, but they are pawns in it, as are the local population. But none of this is visible when they go in. And I wanted to be kind of unclear whether or not Four knows. Has he done this many times, and he knows the risks, and he knows the possible implications; but for him, it's a job, and it's not for him to guess at what the larger outcomes will be, and the consequences of his work. And I think that, you know, that has to be the position of the vast majority of contractors, and the vast majority of these situations, is that that they can't guess at, and they can't overthink, or even think too much about what will come of their work. Because for them, maybe it would just be a rabbit hole that they'd never emerge from. And ultimately they have to fix a pipeline, or build one, and then go back home. And how that turns out is not their concern.

Sydney Harper and Eric McDaniel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.