Ulterior Motives: Part 2

This is from my column for the University of Bath’s student paper, a lighthearted look at my placement job. Find Part 1 here.

The commonwealth lecture is an annual event. Starting in 1997, a laudable and impressive speaker has been invited to address a crowd for 50 minutes or so on the chosen theme of the year. Amartya Sen was the first speaker and, for the most part, other older, male economists and political theorists have followed. This year the speaker was the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, whose youth and field of expertise is comparatively alternative. Her speech, while familiar to fans like myself, was intelligent, erudite and commandingly delivered – it is well worth a watch.

In Part 1, I explored how another writer, Philip Roth, had succeeded in engendering in me a deeper interest in polio, vaccination and epidemics than countless news reports or worthy academic papers. With the former particularly I believe there is an image problem. There is a brilliant piece of instructional writing by Gary Provost (quoted in Roy Peter Clark’s ‘Writing Tools’) that illustrates well a basic tenet of grabbing your audience’s attention.

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

News coverage can be extremely one note, particularly when it comes to ‘world news’ or development based stories. There is a degree to which wider cultural reasons are responsible for this – see ‘aid as entertainment’ on Aidspeak for more – but there is also an economic schema from within journalism: pushing unorthodox views and opinions does not sell; just look at the Daily Mail. These are the dying days of print news publications, now, more than ever, it is the commercial arm that exerts the greatest influence on those publications struggling to retain their positions.

Tales From The Hood once described the world of development as being based on a menage a trois (the original post is password protected, for some reason, but here’s another post focused on a sex based analogy of aid – the orgy): development agencies, donors and beneficiaries. The media is important – albeit for different reasons – to all three of those groups. As such, it exerts and influence on the relationship between them. Unfortunately, as it sees no way of monetising it’s involvement, it’s position of influence is poisonous*. The outlook is one of middle-of-the-road, conservative conventionality. That does not bode well for an industry like development: one that is often reactive and, by necessity, looking to adapt and improvise almost all the time.

What’s worse is that, if such papers represent the ‘prevailing mood’ of a nation, there is a degree of societal pressure placed on relevant decision makers to conform with these rather dull interpretations of the world of development. While highly influential papers like the mail continues to support columnists and editorial lines that publicly maul aid and aid agencies for being wasteful, donors are placed in a tricky situation. If I were in there shoes I would, by and large, be very much better disposed to safe, dependable projects – i.e ones that are unlikely to scandalise a seemingly hostile public.

The menage a trois is not as exciting as it sounds. Like going to the same great bar night after night, getting caught in a stifling coterie of people mostly interested in development, however forward thinking, can only do so much good.

Alanna Shaikh, the queen bee of the development blogosphere, posed a question a while back that has been niggling me ever since:

Where are all the interesting development thinkers?

I don’t know where they are or who they might be – and I’m sure they are out there – but I do want to suggest that the reason they’re so hidden is the insular, holier-than-thou and, sadly, sometimes condescending world of development workers is one that attracts only one type of person. Even more sadly, this seems to be a strange source of embattled pride. Don’t get me wrong – these are great people doing hard work and they are entitled to be annoyed by half-assed pretenders trying and failing to join in with them. It’s just, sometimes, it’s a sort of homogeneous club that turns away the kind of people that could help them to improve.

*the Daily Wail and its ilk are not the only voices in journalism. They are, however, extremely influential and, as it has grown so exuberantly while many of its competitors have floundered or perished, is as good a model as any for the future of the industry.


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