I remember first reading this poem as I was waiting for an appointment with my advisor in graduate school. It was taped to his door. The second time, it was read to a group of us at our fellowship orientation as we officially entered the corporate aid world.
I also remember both instances to be extremely disappointing.
As I discussed how-matters.org’s “Poetry Pause” with someone recently, they reminded me of the poem and encouraged me to share it, given that probably new or young aid workers hadn’t seen it. I look forward to hearing their reactions.
Owen Barder shared the 1976 (!) poem on his blog back in 2008, making a pledge “not to travel around the world telling poor countries what they should do and how they should change“, but instead “try to persuade rich countries to change the policies and behaviours that make it difficult for the world’s poor to share that prosperity.”
Considering that so many “intelligent,” “deep and sensible” aid workers can probably still recognize themselves and their day-to-day work in the words of Coggins’ poem, I think that Owen’s pledge remains one for us all to consider…
The Development Set
by Ross Coggins
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.
From “Adult Education and Development” September 1976