Once upon a time, I wondered why I had such trouble fitting in with all the hard-working people from the development sector, despite hanging out in many of the same impoverished countries. Through many critical explorations, the answer became clear: I spend far too much time in slums, getting sick after long days of hands-on disaster relief, or just being naive about how to make a good world.
A more elegant, and damning answer comes from a poem forwarded by Sonesh and written in 1976 by Ross Coggins. How little has changed in 34 years!
The Development Set
‘Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet
I’m off to join the Development Set;
My bags are packed, and I’ve had all my shots
I have traveller’s checks and pills for the trots!
The Development Set is bright and noble
Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
Although we move with the better classes
Our thoughts are always with the masses.
In Sheraton Hotels in scattered nations
We damn multi-national corporations;
injustice seems easy to protest
In such seething hotbeds of social rest.
We discuss malnutrition over steaks
And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
Whether Asian floods or African drought,
We face each issue with open mouth.
We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
Raises difficulties for every solution –
Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
By showing the need for another meeting.
The language of the Development Set
Stretches the English alphabet;
We use swell words like “epigenetic”
“Micro”, “macro”, and “logarithmetic”
It pleasures us to be esoteric –
It’s so intellectually atmospheric!
And although establishments may be unmoved,
Our vocabularies are much improved.
When the talk gets deep and you’re feeling numb,
You can keep your shame to a minimum:
To show that you, too, are intelligent
Smugly ask, “Is it really development?”
Or say, “That’s fine in practice, but don’t you see:
It doesn’t work out in theory!”
A few may find this incomprehensible,
But most will admire you as deep and sensible.
Development set homes are extremely chic,
Full of carvings, curios, and draped with batik.
Eye-level photographs subtly assure
That your host is at home with the great and the poor.
Enough of these verses – on with the mission!
Our task is as broad as the human condition!
Just pray god the biblical promise is true:
The poor ye shall always have with you.’
Though I am certainly a misfit among the development set, no amount of dirt under my nails or parasites in my gut make me much better at the apparent level. Visa stamps fill my passport nearly to the end, and I am guilty of outlandish dichotomies likes proposing to my wife in luxurious Rome before jetting off to the hinterlands of rural Orissa. A casual observer (or one prone to prevarication) might comment that there was equal probability of my presence around Los Angeles or San Francisco on any given weekend, if I was not already off on some jaunt to Washington DC, NYC, or Seattle.
The main difference between me and the development set lies at the level of intention: I have earnestly sought to understand the mess that I was born into and contribute to daily while making concentrated efforts at freeing myself and others. As Ragu once pointed out, the journey to the land of virtues seems to inevitably traverse through the labyrinth of vices. I confess to not having come very far, with more road ahead than behind, but I will not give up until I am free.
Those curious about the insightful and satirical Ross Coggins should also read his fabulous piece on gun control featuring luminaries no less than Moses and the Founding Fathers!