I dreamed last night that I was at a conference, presenting on a project. During the questions session, a woman stood up and recited a cryptic poem. The room waited for the punch line.
Here’s my point, the woman said, walking to the front of the room and writing on a chalkboard that had somehow appeared behind me. The arrogance of your approach cancels out the validity of your results. I was mortified.
Opening my email after waking from the dream, I found the continuation of a conversation I’d been having with N. Earlier in the month he had sent over a link to a blog post that included a reference to Ross Coggins’ poem The Development Set.
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.
Read the whole poem if you haven’t yet. Realize it’s written in 1976, ask if anything has changed, and feel yourself get uncomfortable.
The poem is referred to in Prashanth Nuggehalli Srinivas‘ post* titled And then the dessert arrived: global health dichotomies, where Srinivas reflects on the official dinner at the First Global Symposium on Health Systems Research organized at the Montreux Casino. The post made the rounds earlier this year.
“A photo of the dying TB patient formed the background for 20 minutes of a talk on “Why Health Systems Fail” by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer, to an audience obviously more interested in the wining and dining and, of course, the party that followed.”
N. and I wondered in our email exchange if it is possible to opt out of these kinds of fancy conferences yet still remain in this line of work. Is there a middle ground? Or do you have to 1) swallow the dichotomies without flinching if you want to work in ‘development;’ 2) fully opt out of the system and create something new based on different values or 3) just get out of ‘development’ entirely and do something totally different? A classic dilemma on whether you can make change from within or without or even at all. Obviously it applies to many other fields aside from development work.
Is it important for personal and professional spheres to be consistent in the field of development work? N. notes “We typically excuse discrepancies in the US, well-paid aid “CEOs”, personally wasteful environment advocates, etc not seeing the former as appropriate domain for evaluating someone. But that’s silly, of course they are inevitably related.”
Was the woman in my dream right? Does the arrogance of the approach cancel out the validity of the results? At what point do you opt out entirely? Should you expect someone working in ‘development’ to hold a certain set of values and does that make their work more valid and successful in the long term? Or do the short-term results of ‘development projects’ make the processes and means of getting there unimportant?
What would happen if ‘austerity measures’ and ‘cutbacks’ were applied at the top? (er, hello #occupydevelopment?)
*Original article written along with Meena Daivadanam, Kristof Decoster and Asmat Malik appeared on Health Affairs Blog on February 9, 2011