Swindler’s List

“Development is the strategy of evasion. When you can’t give people land reform, give them hybrid cows. When you can’t send children to school, try non-formal education. When you can’t provide basic health to people, talk of health insurance. Can’t give them jobs? Not to worry, just redefine the words “employment opportunities.” Don’t want to do away with using children as a form of slave labor? Never mind. Talk of “improving the conditions of child labor!” It sounds good. You can even make money out of it.”

— Palagunmi Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought; Stories from India’s Poorest Districts, (Penguin Books, 1996), p. 421

Sad, eh? There’s more. Try this poem:

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 traveler’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 “logarithmic”

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.

- Ross Coggins⁠, “The Development Set” (1976)

Dark, no doubt. Witness a new genre of dis-lit, no-gooder non-fiction, global development diatribes, and maudlin memoirs dripping with sanctimony about “a better way.” Here are a dozen catchy titles, many of which circle around to each other, as in “Customers who bought this item also bought…”

1. “The Road to Hell: Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity”

2. “The Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business” (This one, the last time I checked, was priced at $160.08, new)

3. “White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and so Little Good.”

4. “Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa”

5. “Condemned to Repeat?: The Paradox of Humanitarian Action” (This one, by the way, has an illustrated edition)

6. “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with International Aid?”

7. “Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace — or War” (This one, in hardcover, is $156.72)

8. “A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis”

9. “Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa”

10. “The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid is Not Working”

11. “Tropical Gangsters: One Man’s Experience with Development and Decadence in Deepest Africa”

12. “The Dark Side of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism”

Notice the catchy play on words, followed by the ubiquitous colon and deconstructionist phrase that spells out the heartbreaking, toxic foregone conclusions. Here are the depressing themes I’ve picked up:

— The international aid industry is comprised of a corrupt, ignominious group of control freaks who operate from outdated models, but whose sinecures are just too cushy to change

— The “noblesse oblige” attitude has changed its form, but not its basic colonial message. Give people technology so that they can buy our products.

— Money rarely goes to the people; the low overhead claims are a lie, and funds are often channeled to despots who abdicate their responsibility of providing resources for human welfare

— The impacts reported are often unsubstantiated, the methodology flawed and rarely verified, the claims inflated by orders of magnitude

— “Nation-building” and “globalism” are a language smokescreen for real motives — cheap labor and market penetration

— Go ahead — shut down child-labor sweatshops. What do you get? Trafficking and prostitution

— Top-down approach to development builds dependency and destroys capacity, culture, and community self-reliance

— The World Bank and IMF “structural adjustment” policies create, rather than reduce, poverty and lead to corrupt, sycophantic practices designed to ensure a steady money flow at the expense of bankrupting the country

— The U.N. Goals are amorphous, unattainable, and a diversion from the task of holding countries accountable for educating and

— Ask well-funded NGOs, corporate social responsibility initiatives directors, and international agencies to demonstrate they are not needed — that the project is sustainable, locally-led, and can show demonstrable impacts without more infusions of cash.

— Sure, a nation can make progress…once it pays its debt to those helping it make progress

— Well-meaning staffers are burnt out, tyrannized by the urgent, and buried under restrictions, uninformed policies, and political constraints

— There is little accountability and transparency in large-scale projects. Some efforts have been correlated with increases in war, famine, and disease, especially in sub-Saharan Africa

— Corporate disaster relief is often integrated into marketing strategies. We’re kind. Buy from us.

— Be wary of: (1) “successful pilots which claim huge impacts if only they were scaled” (2) “access to technology will address many issues that have failed in the past” (3) “economic development raises all boats” (4) “policy needs to be revamped on a global scale before one can hope for any sustainable progress.”

The truth is that pilots seeking scale are simply yet another project looking for money. Technology solutions are rarely accompanied by plans for how to pay for it, train users, and measure results. Economic development efforts can help, but fail once educational development is ignored. Global policy changes never articulate the potential disasters of a one-size-fits-all implementation and take forever.

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Musings by the Founder of Teachers Without Borders

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Fred Mednick

Fred Mednick

Founder of Teachers Without Borders | fred@twb.org

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