Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Lords of Poverty

A friend of mine who has even less hair than I do - and who drives a insanely expensive bicycle around the National Capital Area countryside - often relays posts from a wickedly funny man - Dr. Alden Kurtz.

Dr. Kurtz runs the global development organisation Hand Relief International. They describe themselves on their site as: "a cutting-edge humanitarian organization fully committed to saving lives everywhere the donor penny is available"

If you haven't twigged on by now that this guy is as fake as they come... then you may have a great future in the 'development industry.'

"Kurtz" - whoevever he/she is clearly knows his stuff. Even the name has undertones - think the original 'Kurtz' from Joseph Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness" and of course the 'Kurtz' in Apocalpse Now.

But what sets him/her apart is the blatant cynicism wrapped up in sugar-coated development-jargon-smothered 'insights.' The barbed comments are so shockingly close to the whole wooly web of words that the "humanitarian industry" cloaks itself with - that you have keep pinching yourself to remember that the person is spinning fiction. He/she has clearly been / or is at the hub of one or more of the big players in the global development circus - and so knows his/her stuff. The fiction is probably more likely at least 'faction' - if not 'fact' gift-wrapped in dripping sarcasm.

The good Dr. even shows up on other people's websites and makes comments - like this one - while staying in character.

Thankfully this inspired person is not alone. We have the joy of the marvellously faux site for a group calling itself the International Network for Enabling Poverty Development - which yields a delcious acronym: INEPD. Do click on to their site - it is top notch for concocting a potent mix of the real and the surreal - just like so many who are out there asking for funds for their work.

All of this has been said before. By Graham Hancock in his searing book The Lords of Poverty. Besides being an insiders tattle-tale book about just how bizarre the international aid community can be (told with a little too much spleen at times if I can remember rightly), our friend Hancock chooses to preface it with 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 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.

- Ross Coggins

Now a little bit about my own small journey into the 'charitable sector.'

I remember showing up for my first classes in International Health at my MPH programme at teh Yale School of Public Health. The professor was a very senior and seemingly avuncular fellow who had more consultancies under his belt with WHO and other such high-level agencies that you could swing a cat at.

The class was deeply disappointing to me.

I cannot remember hearing a single positive statement about development. About change. Not one. All I heard was negative running-down of what seemed to be any possible public health interventions. I almost packed up and went home after that particular class. The question that was forming in me was "why are you telling us this - if this has been your bread and butter all these years?"

Once I was done with that class, I learned to avoid that particular prof like the plague. And I sub-consciously stepped away from anything that dealt with macro-level policy-kind of interventions.

I was saved by the genial and truly kind figure of Dr. Jekel. Yes - that is his real name. It sounds a lot like 'Dr. Jekyl' - but is Dr. James F. Jekel to be precise. And what a blessing he was. A warm and honest man - Dr. Jekel loved people and was involved in setting up and monitoring programmes in various places around the world - and seeing real results take place - besides conducting reams of studies of issues like teen pregnancies in the 3 decades of professional work at Yale and writing a widely used text on Epidemiology.

The other thing that has kept me going has been to see the fruits of people who have invested themselves in others. Many of them have done so because of their faith in Christ - and desire to serve Him by serving others. They have often been considered unfashionable at best, with further opinions starting at 'narrow-minded' and proceeding downwards. But what these usually unsung heroes (and heroines) have showed me is that it is possible to take a cold hard look at the brokenness and deception of humanity - and still do good work. That there is real hope available - though many times the hoped for results do not show up as quickly (and certainly not as easily) as we hope. Some of these heroes are doing things that only eternity will be able to recount.

Despite the crass misuse of development by so many - we still believe that change is possible. And that's part of the reason why we do what we do at Jeevan Sahara. Many times we hardly see anything 'dramatic' - but we know that we are in this for the long haul. Just like God in His mercy continues to do his work of transformation in our own lives.

1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to make a comment about Inepd and the story. I followed the story on twitter(they had a number of characters tweeting) and found it amusing but then it went over the line when it killed two fictious aidworkers and started impersonating Alex de Waal.

    I also made a few comments about the drama and checked the website after your blog post and found my tweets shown up in a reproduction of the twitter stream. The people behind this site really tried as hard as they could to piss off their audience. Maybe good fun but with a pretty dark side.