An interview with Daniel Levin, author of “Nothing But A Circus”
by Abhisvara Sinha | May 22, 2017
When you read a non fiction book featuring a long line of dubious characters, hilariously ignorant and incompetent, yet holding vital positions of power all the same–quite like the characters in a political satire like HBO’s VEEP–you know that the man behind it all would make for a fascinating interview. An intellectual, a negotiator, and now, an author–Daniel Levin is indeed a multifaceted man with much more to tell than his writing reveals.
I recently sat down with Daniel to discuss his latest venture: Nothing but a Circus, a novel chronicling Daniel’s many years of interactions with governments, politicians and development institutions around the world, from the awe-inspiring to the absurd and the appalling. “I found that across years of my work I had many repeated experiences that were axiomatic of how people behave when in power, whether it was manipulation, deceit, greed or sometimes kindness depending on who you’re dealing with.” Regardless of their varied characters, Daniel simply remarks, “similar people are attracted to power. Some because they are hardwired that way and others because of their environment.”
Perhaps what I found most enjoyable about Nothing But a Circus is that it gives the reader real insight into these dubious characters. Levin’s first person narrative allows us to feel like a bystander looking in on the otherwise back-door dealings and implicit agreements that drive action in the realm of politics. Daniel asserts that this was an entirely intentional decision. “I wanted to dedicate each chapter to a different element of power I had seen throughout my work. But, I didn’t want to write about my experiences in a preachy or academic manner, I wanted it to be accessible so people could really understand the takeaways I was trying to highlight.”
To his credit, Daniel achieves his intention in Nothing But a Circus, as it is unscrupulous in its critique of both the development industry as well as its leading figures. “The people I’ve met provided enough entertaining material for the book”, Daniel jokes.
In fact, Daniel even admits that he was, at one point, part of this line of characters. In the fourth chapter of his book, ‘Luanda Lessons’, Daniel recounts a visit to Angola where he brazenly delivered a lecture on price setting mechanisms to an audience that was, unknowing to him, already skilled in this art thanks to their experience with exchanges on the highly complex Angolan black market: “It was a really enlightening and, frankly speaking, humbling moment for me”, Daniel sheepishly explains. “I went there to teach them and found that the people there could have really taught me a thing or two. I realised at that moment I wasn’t so different from the guy from the World Bank [who gave his financial literacy lectures in English to an audience that predominantly spoke Portuguese].” Having thought back to the countless NGOs and aid organisations I’ve seen ‘marvelled’ by the intelligence and skills of those supposedly ‘needy’ people they aim to help in India, I get a sense that many organisations and development thinkers have a similar humbling realisation at sometime in their career. I don’t know whether to laugh or feel a tinge of sympathy for Daniel, so I do both. With a small smile Daniel remarks, “You can be really wrong and nevertheless be convinced of the virtue of what you’re doing.”
As an accomplished professional by this stage in his career, I imagine the experience must have been quite a slap in the face for Daniel. He admits whilst it was embarrassing, it was important an experience all the same, as it catapulted him into reassessing and remodelling his own approach to development. “There are two central problems with the development industry. The best of the initiatives are wasteful because they spend lots of money on diagnostics and produce reports which we call ‘successful’ initiatives. But no one asks: ‘What about actually implementing this?’ With the ones that actually get recommended and funded, often they have nothing to do with the country’s needs. Not only is there a disconnect between the diagnostics and formulating policy, but also the initiative often starts from what best suits the expertise of the leading figure.” Daniel goes on to substantiate this claim with an example from an IMF (International Monetary Fund) program aimed at developing capital markets in the emerging market using an asset backed market approach. Daniel looks at me and asks, “Why do you think they chose this approach?” He laughs cynically and answers the question himself: “The particular individual responsible for the project worked in asset backed security in his last position.” As appalled as I am, I’m also taken in by the very harsh reality of it all. That the development institutions who are the so-called ‘change-makers’ of the world can be, and are, as fraudulent as Daniel describes seems uncomfortably plausible.
When I ask Daniel how he thinks development work should be approached, he’s quick to respond. “Development requires context based solutions. You cannot just export solutions, you need to establish a platform of best practice based on an assessment of what has and has not worked. Once the platform is there, you have to let go. Yes, painful mistakes are made but they shape experience and countries learn, just as ours have done too. Who am I to go to Zambia and tell them what they should do?”
Whilst funny to read about, I imagine the characters in Daniel’s book are less funny to work with in real life. Daniel recounts stories of his diplomatic negotiation work and admits that his greatest struggle is actually in getting people with authority to do right by their people. “The stories in the book itself are reflective of my experience with authority figures. People stop hearing the opinion of others when they reach that level of superiority so you always have to get in early to make your point heard.” Daniel comments with a chuckle, “the easiest—and most effective—people to work with are actually at the bottom level. Outside the spotlight of media coverage, they have no interest in the glitz and the glamour, they are simply dedicated and motivated for the cause.”
Having written a book bridled with scepticism about both the field of politics and those who inhabit it, Daniel’s continued dedication to his work is nevertheless unshaken. I feel it begs the somewhat obvious yet pertinent question of what keeps him so motivated? Daniel breaks into a wide smile and answers, much to my surprise: “The people. Even in all those stories that I’ve written, in every single one there are incredible people with who I’ve built relationships with for life. Even the small successes which appear amidst the many setbacks are extremely rewarding. Connecting and affecting the life of even one person is incredibly gratifying and meaningful. Those moments more than offset all the disappointments I could ever write about.”
Daniel’s parting words are, to me, a comforting reminder of the purpose of politics. As an avid politics follower myself, I find we often get lost amidst the talk of world renown agencies, political elites, state actors. Ultimately, as Daniel reaffirms, politics is about people and relationships. The more we distance ourselves from the average person, the further we are from affecting the reality of their lives. Nothing But a Circus thus stands as a sobering and comical reminder of the need to return to the original purpose of politics: a tool to effect change for the masses.
Photo credit: flickr