Can somebody please update ‘The Development Set’ by Ross Coggins?

At the UN European Headquarters in Geneva this week, while attending a conference of humanitarian aid workers from around the world, I heard two of them compare the flat-beds in business class of two international airlines.

The conversation was more than just a passing one. They were passionately discussing the relative merits of different business class seats and perks.

I almost felt like butting in and saying that Singapore Airlines – the world’s finest airline, no argument – has just created a new product that they can now lust after: personal cabin suites in the air.

Coincidentally this week, on 25 October 2007, Singapore Airlines began operating the first commercial flights of the new Airbus380 double-decker super-jumbo.

Here are two images from the airlines’s website:

From Singapore Airlines

I’m all for humanitarian aid workers being well paid, well protected and well cared for. After all, they risk life and limb for the rescue, relief and recovery of large numbers of people caught in disasters or conflicts.

Perhaps I’m being naive, but there’s something incongruent about aid workers aspiring to flat-beds and space beds in the air.

Which reminds me, it’s about time somebody updated the well known poem, The Development Set, by Ross Coggins. First published in “Adult Education and Development” September 1976, it’s now more than 30 years old — the luxuries both in the air and on the ground have evolved a bit in that time.

Graham Hancock’s book “Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business” gleefully reprinted this poem in the 1980s.

I’m no poet, but there’s a need to update this to include GPS, satellite phones, four-wheel drives, and yes, business class beds.

If you are not familiar with the original poem, here it is:

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.

New media anarchy is good for you!


“You people are too well mannered! I’ve never been to a conference where people are so properly dressed and so polite to each other!”

With these words, Neha Viswanathan made sure she had everyone’s attention. But it was not just a gimmick — she was contrasting the relatively more orderly, organised world of mainstream media (MSM) with the decidedly more anarchic world of new media — including blogs, wikis, YouTube and Second Life.

Neha, South Asia Editor of Global Voices, was speaking on a panel on ‘new media’ during the Global Symposium+5 on ‘Information for Humanitarian Action’ in Geneva this week (22 – 26 Oct 2007).

The panel topic itself showed the rapid change taking place in the humanitarian sector. As the panel premise said: “Within minutes of a disaster or conflict, the first images are seen on YouTube rather than CNN, and probably to a larger audience. YouTube, Flickr and blogging are bringing wars, disasters and their humanitarian consequences to the attention of the public, government and aid agencies more efficiently than ever. It’s now possible to keep watch on a Darfur village through satellite imagery, or take a virtual tour of a refugee camp.”

The panel was to discuss whether citizen journalism and new collaborative/ networking technologies are improving humanitarian response, and review how the humanitarian community is faring in this new environment.

My own views on this are found in another blog post: New media tsunami hits humanitarian sector – rescue operations now on!

Neha’s take was slightly different. She started reminding everyone that the new media activists were unruly and not always polite. The blogosphere is very much a contested and contentious space where arguments rage on. Not everything is moderate, balanced or ‘evidence-based’ (to use a new favourite phrase of the humanitarian community).

But in times of crisis or emergency – whether disasters or war – new media activists are increasingly the first responders. The anarchic nature actually provides them with an advantage: they are distributed, self-organising and motivated. There is no central newsroom or coordination point telling them what to do. In typical Nike style, they just do it.

As an example, she described World Wide Help, whose introduction reads: “Using the web to point help in the direction where it’s most needed”.

This blog was started by several founders and members of the SEA EAT (South East Asian Earthquake And Tsunami) blog, wiki and database, all of which gained worldwide attention at the time of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami on 26 December 2004. The group, now calling themselves The World Wide Help Group, has since remobilised to aid in other relief efforts.

Read the whole story of the SEA EAT Blog: A Candle in My Window by Peter Griffin, one of its co-founders

As Sir Arthur C Clarke has also noted, the 2004 tsunami marked a turning point in how citizen journalists and other new media activists respond to emergencies. Since then, the power of new media has been unleashed on many public interest issues and humanitarian causes. As an example, Neha cited the online campaign against street sexual harassment in India.

In Neha’s view, new media can collate authentic testimonials of those directly affected by disasters or other crises, and keep the public attention (and thereby, political interest) on emergencies beyond the first few days.

Her advice to humanitarian aid agencies: keep looking at the new media, especially blogs, to find out what people at ground zero are saying about relief and recovery work.

“Bloggers are not objective – they talk openly, and express themselves freely,” she told the largely prim and proper Geneva audience, where some participants had referred to the meeting as ‘this august gathering’!

Finally, in situations where MSM (the formerly big media!) are shut down, restrained or intimidated into not carrying out their watchdog role, it’s the new media that fills the voice. Neha described the pro-democracy struggles in Nepal in 2005 – 2006 as an example where the people power struggles continued to be reported and commented on after the autocratic king clamped down on all print and broadcast media.

Read my August 2007 blog post: The Road from Citizen Kane to Citizen Journalist