Having spent a third of his life working for Bulgaria
Effectively, it's Saddam Hussein's fault that Matt Brown ended up in Bulgaria. Fresh out of university, Matt was serving as a volunteer in the US Peace Corps in Pakistan when Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991 prompted American military action in the Persian Gulf. Peace Corps withdrew from Pakistan and several other predominantly Muslim countries, fearing possible reprisals against Americans. Matt had married a fellow volunteer in Pakistan and after considering several possibilities for a new placement, they decided on Bulgaria. The young marriage didn't last, but Matt's long-term relationship with Bulgaria did. Sounds familiar?
Matt's fellow New Yorker, comedian Woody Allen, once said that a relationship is like a shark – it has to constantly move forward. From teaching English in Stara Zagora, to leading a US funded project that benefited thousands, to creating a new Bulgaria-based NGO, Matt has certainly kept moving. Along the way, he's mastered the language so well that he's often taken for a native.
"We were very exotic," recalls Matt, speaking as part of the first group of Peace Corps volunteers to work in Bulgaria. "People would stop and stare and point at us. There were still lots of people who'd never seen Western foreigners. In our respective towns, we were all celebrities and curiosities." While Bulgaria had a different development context from Pakistan, it was still a bit rough for young Americans not used to washing their clothes by hand, making do without running water or devising ways to heat frigid Socialist-style apartments. Matt also joined his fellow Stara Zagorans in queuing up early for a loaf of bread and boiling milk, sold in plastic bags. In the school where he taught, he observed that authoritarianism was still alive and well. "There was tremendous control by the director and fear from teachers not to step out of line." Matt's role there was to help students organise a chorus and student newspaper.
After his two-year Peace Corps service, Matt happened to hear that the American College in Sofia was starting up and needed teachers. The school hired him to teach English as a foreign language. He later added courses on musical theatre and Latin. The work at the American College was dynamic and satisfying, and Matt enjoyed being part of an educational experiment. Still, he found he missed some aspects of small-city life. "In Stara Zagora, a day when I wasn't invited to someone's house was a strange occurrence. Typically, I was offered coffee and Coke," Matt recalls. "Sofia in 1994 was bleak and dark. Overall, not a very pleasant place."
After two years he decided to shift gears and pursue a master's degree in intercultural management and training in the United States. He expected to have some sort of international career, but not to come back to Bulgaria. His absence lasted four years. After graduate school he spent two years in Skopje, in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, with the American NGO World Learning, implementing a US government-funded training project. Skopje was "quiet, peaceful, very family-oriented place. In comparison with Bulgaria, it was hard to be a single person."
When a position opened with World Learning in Sofia, Matt jumped at the opportunity, not so much because it was in Bulgaria but because he was ready to move on. Initially the job involved helping field offices in the region organise study tours to the United States and Europe. Later, he became the World Learning country director for Bulgaria, responsible for implementing the Participant Training Program of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The position gave him a unique perspective on reforms happening in the Bulgarian economy, politics, and society, from anti-corruption work to community development. "It was always a unique project; we supported almost everything else going on at USAID. Our job was to help each project with the training element." This involved organising educational trips for Bulgarian government officials, NGO leaders, journalists and other professionals to western countries, but evolved to include seminars and conferences within Bulgaria as well. "Probably the overwhelming value was exposure – to see other models and to interact with people who were doing something in a different way," Matt says. "Seeing something outside of Bulgaria was a dream come true for many people we sent."
"In many ways, Bulgaria has been a country of closed circles," Matt observes. "Negative attitudes keep getting recycled. Any chance to step out brings new energy into the mix. The most important thing was awareness that things could be thought about in a different way." As a result of the program, parliamentarians came back and drafted new legislation; businesspeople made changes to their business that catapulted them to success and NGO activists learned how to channel discontent into effective lobbying.
The $18,0000 training program closed in July 2007 after 14 years in Bulgaria. During that time, Matt's team organised training for more than 3,000 Bulgarians. The phasing out of United States development assistance to Bulgaria struck Matt as an opportunity to try to channel his expertise in a different form. "People were saying there was still a huge need; there was a lot of good will, interest, and partnership."
He and some of his colleagues established the Bulgarian Centre for Development and Training (BCDT). The NGO has focused primarily on training English teachers, promoting Bulgarian volunteerism, and pursuing issues related to Roma and disadvantaged communities.
Relations between the Gypsy minority and other Bulgarians is an issue Matt has found himself increasingly drawn to over the years. "In the early years, to an extent, I adopted the predominant Bulgarian attitude to the Gypsies. I had some negative experiences. In my master's program, one of the topics I explored was race, ethnicity and systematic disadvantage. The lens I looked through changed."
Learning Bulgarian was something Matt made a priority from the beginning. He enjoys being able to conduct all his own communications with no filtering. "But I think foreigners would be surprised to know there are a lot of challenges that aren't solved by speaking Bulgarian. It doesn't help get through the bureaucracy. It doesn't help get better service. In fact, sometimes Bulgarians don't treat each other well." In terms of getting business done in Bulgaria, there are things he still finds frustrating. "You can always count on something being more complicated than it has to be." He finds the need to be constantly on the alert: "Every time you do something new in Bulgaria, you have to become an expert on that topic. You have to double, triple check everything, and consult with friends and experts." He admires the ability of Bulgarians to separate work and play. They leave their work in the office for the most part. They enjoy parts of their lives even when they have difficult problems. They can compartmentalise better than many Americans."
While impressed by how far Bulgaria has come since he first arrived, Matt continues to see room for improvement. "There is still a huge tendency to think that people can do only what is explicitly allowed by law," he notes, contrasting this with the view that one's actions should be free except when explicitly forbidden. Customer service is an area where he acknowledges improvement, but adds that "it shouldn't be a mark of success that a customer walks out without having a fight."
Non-smoking signs, seat belts, and street lighting are a few of the material changes that have transformed Bulgaria in Matt's time here, as well as more intangible indicators of progress.
"The other day I got an email from a government employee with his direct phone number, telling me to call if there were any problems!" Matt marvels. "Ten years ago, it was almost impossible to make direct contact with a government employee."
A self-confessed perfectionist who can't get the workaholic tendencies of Manhattan out of his blood, Matt is usually found at the office or in meetings with his vast network of contacts, discussing new projects. In his coveted down time he enjoys the comforts of present-day life in Bulgaria: gastronomic variety in Sofia's restaurants, squash games with friends, and venturing onto what Americas call blue highways, the lesser trafficked roads that lead to some of Bulgaria's untouched treasures. His recent discovery: a combined hotel and cheese-making factory deep in the Rhodope. What else does he appreciate about Bulgaria? One might describe it as the rather more relaxed dress code for women, compared to Pakistan where it was rare to glimpse a woman's face or hair.
In the course of the conversation, Matt has polished off a whole plate of cookies. His obviously rapid metabolism must be a result of his rather manic pace, which extends to teaching an English class at seven in the morning. Matt concludes our chat with a phrase he admits to using often: "I gotta go…Haide, ciao!"