Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lessons Learned about U.S. While in Panama

Our ostensible purpose in traveling with MBA students abroad is to give them the opportunity to understand business conditions in another part of the world and to encourage them to develop the perspectives and skills useful in doing trade in a non-U.S. setting. Most are already experienced travelers and speak several languages among them. We are fortunate in having four students fluent in Spanish on the trip although none are native speakers.

But even experienced travelers have much to gain by meeting people in their own settings and asking them about their world and how it operates.

Perhaps less obviously we learn who we are when we discover who others are. We learn about the U.S. when we are immersed in a non-U.S. country. Those things that we take for granted are put in relief when we don’t see them.

At dinner last night, at Casa de Marisco, a wonderful seafood restaurant, I asked the students who were with Wil Agatstein and I what they were learning about their own country while in Panama.

Here’s some of what we talked about.

  • They learned, as expected, that petty corruption is rampant in dealings with government officials in Panama and business people are very open in discussing it. Panamanian business elites believe government corruption is an impediment to development. The students have been surprised to be asked in return about our corruption. The U.S. is seen as an equally corrupt society by Panamanians and we have been asked about Bernie Madoff, AIG bonuses, the former Illinois governor, and the elite corruption of powerful business and political officials.
  • The U.S. ran the Canal Zone as a strategic military asset for almost 100 years with little concern for the welfare of the Panamanian society. Panama has among the largest differences in wealth between the rich and poor in the world. Under Panamanian control the very professionally run Panama Canal Authority is producing billions of dollars for the local society, but more importantly is being used to teach management skills, environmental science, and engineering to the citizens. Why did the U.S. not take the opportunity to support its own interests in the Canal Zone while contributing to the local population in meaningful ways?
  • The U.S. is complicated and bureaucratic in comparison to Panama. Personal connections – with and without bribes attached – is a quick way to get things done. One phone call lead to a quick chain of connections that allowed us to literally walk on the Canal locks. The official procedure would have taken weeks. A Panamanian corporate lawyer who works regularly with the global legal community said that “Americans like to complicate things, but then again they get paid by the hour.” In comparison the lawyers of other companies are more direct, less concerned with interpretation and more concerned with outcome for clients.
  • Americans are too busy. We have all been astounded by the amount of time that important people have given to us, just to make sure we understand what we are seeing. They have clearly enjoyed the interaction with us, too. At dinner the table was ours for the evening. As one student said, “If this had been the U.S. the waiter would have invited us to sit at the bar and enjoy a free dessert if we would leave the table.”
  • We do not use very much color. Houses and clothes are much more colorful here in comparison to the dominance of beige, grey and taupe in U.S. public life.

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