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 ‘ 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


About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

9 responses to “Arrogance

  • prashanthns

    Very nice and reflective post. I really wonder the same and it is quite difficult – especially so, when we ourselves are a part of the this ‘development set’. I was myself one of the “winers and diners” at the symposium which I criticised, for example. What do I do? How do I deal with this? – Do I make noise and resort to activisim? Do I instead take a pen and become a ‘pen activist’? Indeed, this is the mainstream global development we are talking about, not some fringe elements. For now, I have decided to join forces with them and continue advocating for a ‘reality check’ from within. I continue to hope for answers for I believe activism without reflection tends to become a bulldozer sometimes. 🙂

    • Shotgun Shack

      Thanks Prashanth. It is a huge dilemma isn’t it? Inside change is tough, outside too. Can you make personal choices within the mainstream to opt out in small ways or is that just placating yourself? If you step outside do you become so militant that you will just be totally ignored? It’s so conflicting. Thanks for your post that kicked off the conversation.

  • Maria

    Interesting post!!

    I don’t think there is only one good option to follow out of those 3. Perhaps the most reasonable would be to accept some bad in order to make some good. I mean, in the system. accept some of the bad.. or else you opt out. no one good answer, depends what one expects from the industry.

    Now, I think it would be good that salaries and benefits in the aid sector would remain decent. We are not into speculative finance here. But decent by Belgium standards or by Tanzania standards? hum.

    I guess you opt out when you dont get anything out of it: no personal life on a constant basis, no money, no personal security, no prospects for future, not being valued or listened as a professional, no seeing any results, on a constatn basis. Then you opt out.It has little to do with Ethics.

    Yes, we should expect some values. some. As in everything in life, there has to be coherence. no, these values do not make aid workers/agencies better or more successful. Success is not about values but about analysis and honesty at what we do. We fail becasue of that. we fail because we are lousy workers, lousy intellectuals. We fail mainly becasue the aid industry is not fit/designed to answer the structural issues producing violence and inequality and conflict, We fail becasue we want to bite more than we can chew and we dont even know where we’re biting. Yet we think we can Heal the World. Perhaps we can Make it a Better Place, but we certainly cannot Heal it.
    We fail because we think we are better than the other industries. Not because we lack values.

    Concerning the indiferrence to Suffering and the use of images regarding Suffering, this is something many times discussed. People develop a kind of shell of indiference because otherwise they would collapse. The less strong have a porous shell and in the end they get depressed, lost, unable. Then they leave the industry. But Indiference does not necessarly mean that the person does not care. Choosing to work in this industry is already a statement that we indeed do care. We care more than the ones who do not choose it. (Again, this does not make of us better persons.)

    The validity of results….well, this is supposing there are results, which is something your subconcious mind does not question 😉

    I dont think that arrogance invalidates results in any industry. The fact that you’re asking this shows that you clearly link this particular work sector with Ethics (a certian kind of ethics). This is very interesting. We live in a highly unethical word (by judeo-christian standards, that underlie the values of western “culture”, and even of self proclaimed non-religious aid agencies-ohhh yes!)

    would we be better workers if we would begin to starve, as our beneficiaries do, when starting each malnutrition treatment mission? no! that would be, in my opinion, a wrong way of considering Ethics, a paralysing way, a sick way. It would be a failure, as we could not actually work becasue we would starve.

    Should we live in huts in that IDP camp? well, one can, if that takes one’s guilt of being alive away, but one should consider what is more important in the intervention: calming your inner subconscious guilt or making sure you end your mission in one piece? which option gets you to intervention efficiency?

    then again, what is arrogance? many individuals are arrogant in this industry. Even more are cynical. Many are plain inefficient and would be fied right away of they did the same lousy jobs in the private for-profit sector.

    I think the arrogance of this industry lies in its unwillingness to question iself, which only denotes a great deal of un-professionality and insecurity over itself. The few results that are produced by some individuals inside the industry should not be invalidated by this.

    thanks for you time and attention to this too long reply!…

    • Shotgun Shack

      Thanks for your (long :-)) comment! What do you think of the idea of aid/development workers as something akin to public servants? Do ethics matter in that case? Or just ‘getting the job done’. And is process important to the outcomes/results (or lack thereof?) Do you think there is a middle ground between “starvation” and “fancy hotels?” Or a middle ground between living in a mud hut, or in a giant palace on the hill? Is there a difference between attributing this to “guilt” vs attributing it to a world view that thinks extreme poverty and extreme wealth are unjust, and that what happens to one affects us all? Agreed that this industry is arrogant and inefficient. But I’m also not a big fan of the corporate sector that encourages meaningless over-consumption and mismanages the world’s resources, including financial ones, to its own personal gain…. SgS

      • maria

        hi shotgun,
        to answer your questions:
        aid workers operate in the private sector, so they are not civil servants right? although when funded by government agecies, one could wonder where does the private end and the public begin. I alwys say they are more para-governmental than non-governmental. but I dont really know what you mean by this question. Ethics matter in every kind of job I guess. But they are not a factor of quality aand/or efficiency, in my opinion. Arms and drug dealers are highly effective.
        Processes are important in any job, in this industry as well. I guess this one has the moral imperative of questioning itself and its processes. yes there is a middle ground between luxury hotels and huts. personally I was in the middle ground in my missions. I did not work for the UN, nor was I not a private consultant whose mission is funded by the EU. I lived with my colleagues in communal houses where security could be more or less guaranteed with walls, basically. we had no runnong water or electricity sometimes. food was extremely basic, as accomodation (rooms where simple cells, sometimes shared). we had no toilets half of the time, but latrines. I dont know how is this in your scale between luury and mud huts? I guess its middle ground. I worked for international european non religious ngos, partially funded by the EU donor, partially private and partially by national cooperation agencies. In some places like PaP there are giant palaces in the hills, but this is basically becasue this town is 99% hills and because much of the real estate has literally collapsed (so, security, not luxury). Ample rooms do not mean quality of life, it just means a bigger jail, in this particular case. I think this world is unfair indeed. Im workign on my guilt. I dont think working with extreme suffering leaves balnced minded people without scars. Some levels of protection are needed, like in professions such as oncologists, psychiatrists, or doctors in general. Should be the same in the aid industry professions. its no indifference, it’s gettign the right distance to your subject of work so that you can keep sane and continue delivering quality work. Not fan of the corporate you describe either. Now, charity will not, as J magistrally said in one of his posts that marked me like fire when I first started follwoing him: aid will not fix anything. I thus choose to adopt the practical perspective: the world is unfair and complex. I want to change it? I thus try to understand it. it happens economical aspects take a big part in its (un)balance. and “charity” is embedded in the economical, even if we might not like that. we manage’s someone else’s money. So let’s know the economical aspects, let’s try to change them, to use them creatively. goods/services have a cost and a value. The environment resources are not forever. Lets think of ways. to produce differently, to relate differently to the environment. Charity does not do that.

        I know the economical is not the only aspect, but it is crucial to address it. the truth is, charities do not produce wealth nor do they address the root problems of structural violence leading to poverty, conflicts, etc. So they will not create wealth for poor people or stop conflicts. I donI don’t ask them to do so becasue I know their scope.

        But let’s face it so we stop thinking we are going to save the world. If you have cancer you don’t need aspirin. We can deliver clean water to a village, but this does not mean we are doing “evelopment” (have come to hate that term). We are relieving suffering the exact way an aspirin does. And until we address the porblem of, not roots but at least, sustainability, we will fail to ourselves, to our donors, and to our “beneficiaries”.

        The aid industry is fuelled by the personal gain of many people at many, just as any other industry. The difference is that this one does not produce any weatlh and hides from any auto critical analysis behind the confortable walls of Ethics and social “reward” (I’s always nicer at a diner to say you’re a surgeon working to heal war wounds than an engineer in the mean polluting/human-rights violating mining industry or an arms seller)


  • giantpanda

    I know what I needed to do… I do think there is something to be learned of breaking out of “big aid”, I know I am already learning heaps even a couple of months gone. But who knows what will become of me!

  • giantpanda

    Your post also reminded me of this I wrote this on my last work trip to Mozambique. Arrogance is not limited to aid by any stretch

  • How Matters (@intldogooder)

    I remember reading the Coggins poem taped to my advisor’s door in graduate school, and then having it read to our group of fellows as we entered the industry at the start of our first jobs. I swore it would never be me. How to succeed at that? Perhaps it’s to never let options 2 & 3 lose their appeal.

  • J.

    It is a, or rather THE classic dilemma for the professional humanitarian or development worker. We earn our living because someone else, somewhere else suffers. How well is the right amount of well do to while doing good? How much doing well do we intentionally leave on the table purely as a matter of principle (even though leaving it will not result in more or better aid to ‘the poor’)? How much do we intentionally sacrifice without being sacrificial?

    And perhaps the most difficult for me: how to make these decisions for myself, put the lines where I think they should be, recognizing that there are no clear-cut answers and that everyone makes their own decisions as best they can… yet not judge fellow aid workers who have made the decision differently?

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