30 August 2018

The Development Set and its role in perpetuating poverty

‘Although we move with the better classes, our thoughts are always with the masses.’ (Ross Coggins, 1976)

In 1976, an exasperated development worker, Ross Coggins, attending his umpteenth futile meeting to discuss poverty in a fine hotel, penned a poem entitled ‘The Development Set‘. Several years later I joined a leading charity, dutifully following their extensive orientation courses and briefings, talking theory ad nauseum. I cannot stress enough how the opening lines of Coggins’ poem resonated with me:

‘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!’

This piece is about, not to mince words, a strange complicity in the failure to grapple with poverty that continues to bedevil the ‘development set’ – those of us with comfortable jobs in development agencies, foundations and other funding bodies. An unconscious cognitive dissonance prevails: our missions dictate that we should be overcoming global challenges, but if we actually did manage that impossible feat, then we’d suddenly be out of a job.

In October last year I wrote a blog review of Barry Knight’s book ‘Rethinking Poverty‘. In it, I mentioned that I was vaguely dissatisfied that the book assumes that we are all eager potential conscripts in the fight against poverty. I put it like this:

While I understand the need for an implicit assumption that all the readers of the book are ‘enlistable’ in the fight for a good society, I suspect that one of the difficulties with the new paradigm being suggested is that it ultimately contests vested interests, and that there is not enough about that – a tangible shifting of power – in the book … But I had to remind myself that this is a book written to enlist, galvanise and rally – intended to spark debate around fundamental questions – and it is not meant to chastise or rebuke.

I have waited to see if others would comment on this discernible reluctance to discuss the fact that much of what we do seems to imply that we have accommodated ourselves to a prolonged status quo accompanied by minor improvements and small islands of success. I was pleased to see that this is something Barry himself is grappling with, in his blog ‘“How Do We Solve Poverty if All Your Jobs Depend On It?” Barry Knight Goes On A Poverty Safari’. In this piece, albeit focused only on England, Barry makes astute suggestions for how to seriously confront this collusion. In what follows, I focus on the role of the aforementioned global development set in this scenario.

A drip drip approach to unfairness and inequality

Let’s get intentionality out of the way first. The vast majority of foundation staff and development workers are very well intentioned, and the cognitive dissonance I mention above is not some conspiracy or bad faith. For whatever reason (institutional structures and rigidity, lack of imagination or freedom, an unfortunate ‘business as usual’ mindset, etc), too many of those working on poverty continue to employ a ‘drip drip’ approach to unfairness and inequality. Our tools and mechanisms, our very development jargon, make it acceptable (even laudable) to continue ‘giving just enough’ to keep people and institutions alive, but not enough to allow them to thrive. As Darren McGarvey, better known as the rapper Loki, points out in his book ‘Poverty Safari’, referenced in Barry’s blog above:

Truth be told, much of the work carried out in deprived communities is as much about the aims and objectives of the organisations facilitating it as it is about local needs. And notably, the aim is rarely to encourage self-sufficiency. Rather the opposite, each engagement and intervention creating more dependency on outside resources and expertise, perpetuating the role of the sector as opposed to gradually reducing it.

I couldn’t agree more. The work that is being done on poverty is piecemeal, disconnected, idiosyncratic and ultimately based on a paradigm that pretends that we are succeeding in pushing back poverty ‘just enough’, ‘just in time’, and in sufficient pockets that it makes a difference. The literature is full of examples of celebrations of success: touting ‘impact’ over particular problems with laughable hyperbole, and over-simplifying what it would really take to change the status quo. This is perhaps the greatest sin, the tendency to oversimplify and make trite what is truly complex. One only has to watch the advertisements for child sponsorship (alas, still ever-present) for this to become clear: we are promised that for the same price as a daily cup of coffee we, too, can make a difference in a child’s life. But how substantial or durable is that difference, and shouldn’t we be thinking bigger (not to mention more creatively) about how funds may be better allocated? Certainly, staff that work for child sponsorship organisations seem to be uncomfortable with the claims being made so glibly.

Whose needs are we meeting?

The McGarvey quote also surfaces another aspect of poverty work that warrants scrutiny, in his observation that local needs are often not taken seriously. Indeed, despite the work of people like Robert Chambers (‘Putting the Last First’), organisations have become masters at packaging their interventions to make them look like people have asked for precisely the support they happen to offer – as Andrew Milner points out in his recent article ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’, which laments the ever-widening gap between foundations and the people they claim to serve: ‘Most of us are not poor, but we write and talk about poverty … When we invite them [people living in poverty] to our gatherings, we either yammer at them uncritically or give them ten minutes on the microphone, applaud effusively … then go back to talking to each other.’ Which leads me to wonder: is the development set guilty of having a need to feel needed (indispensable even)? Along with the assumption that people need and want our help, this is a dangerous cocktail, fuelling the complicity that is the subject of this piece.

Who is there to check against such behaviour? Infrastructure organisations that measure efficacy and consultants hired to understand impact are dependent on paycheques from the same organisations that they are there to ‘critique’. Is there much potential for honesty or a reality check there? As chief executive of an association of foundations dependent on income from its members, I know this dance all too well – and the answer is too often no! And the complicity is perpetuated.

From our comfortable offices and cushy hotel board rooms, we run a constant risk of losing sight of the end goal, becoming too wrapped up only on the supply side of this. We’re all guilty; I don’t claim to be exempt. One of the most cringe-worthy moments of my career would likely be the conference my organisation put together entitled ‘Fighting Poverty, Creating Opportunities’… in one of Rome’s most elite and expensive hotels. Harkening back to Coggins: ‘We discuss malnutrition over steaks, and plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.’

Grappling with complicity and dissonance

To wrap up on a more constructive note, I believe that there are interconnected steps the development set must take to overcome our complicity, and ‘work ourselves out of a job’ (a sentiment I hear too much at conferences, but rarely believe – a scepticism clearly shared by McGarvey, who poses the question in his book: ‘How do we solve poverty if all your jobs depend on it?’).

  1. Recognizing that small isn’t always beautiful. Foundations in particular love to polish and perfect their cherished but limited interventions,expressing great satisfaction about the accomplishments of wonderful projects that may bandage symptoms only temporarily and are at such a small scale that they are really not significantly meaningful. It’s this assumption of significant or durable effects that helps many to sleep at night. But what if everything didn’t have to be so perfect, and foundations were prepared to give up some control and embrace the chaos and messiness of working on a larger scale? In my opinion, the word ‘impact’, especially for little project ‘gems’ that use more funding for evaluation and monitoring than for reaching people, is used far too glibly, and without common standards around scale, time or depth. Barry admittedly does not advocate a ‘small is beautiful’ approach but his examples of community-based, participatory, bottom-up approaches demonstrate agnosticism over the size of projects. I think that a critical attitude to size will lead to perhaps fewer shiny small projects and more larger and more substantial ones with greater impact that cannot be ‘owned’ (and taken credit for) by any one player.


  1. Getting serious about collaboration.This implies that development agencies and foundations, which are so good at making their own interventions or programmes work, will need to relinquish ‘ownership’ of the perfect intervention and instead search out other players and stakeholders that could be complementary for a pooled, albeit more unwieldy, shared intervention. Thus forcing a radical departure from the piecemeal ‘drip drip’ approach, and finally, actually perhaps ‘scaling up’ anti-poverty approaches collectively. Then we might really be able to speak with confidence about notable ‘impact’ without resort to magnifying glasses.


  1. Holding governments to account. This brings us to the greatest challenge, which is probably the most tricky to get right and also the most important.In the current state of play, with the withdrawal of the welfare state, governments are beholden to have to look to civil society to help. Currently, many institutions working on poverty cooperate implicitly with governments – though I suspect that we are too often ready to accept any form of partnership with government bodies, no matter how diluted or weak, that we can get. However, if the development set really came together and demanded a more formal, contractual relationship with government that explicitly outlined ‘If we’re putting private money in, we expect X from government’, my guess is that we might actually begin to make some collective progress on these issues. Institutions that are small, have weak budgets, and are ultimately dependent on larger governmental resources to achieve scale will have to learn to negotiate, bargain, cajole, plead, engage and convince governments in more forceful ways than they have done hitherto. It should be said, moreover, that to think that this battle can be fought without government being central is simply not realistic.

While I see potential avenues for change, a part of me worries that there are just too many conscious and unconscious vested interests in the development and philanthropic sectors for real change to poverty and inequality to happen. And though I’ve criticised it, I do admire Barry’s attempt, through his book, to enlist us in the fight for a good society. I just can’t stop the final lines of the Coggins poem, 40 plus years from when they were written, dancing through my head:

‘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.’

 This post was originally published on the excellent ‘Rethinking Poverty’ blog. Gerry would like to thank Wendy Richardson for her contributions to this article.