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.

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

12 thoughts on “Can somebody please update ‘The Development Set’ by Ross Coggins?”

  1. Come on, Nalaka: every hard working humanitarian worker deserves a few creature comforts, and business class travel is no big deal these days. A little bird tells me that you often travel business class yourself! And we don’t grudge it.

  2. Somebody – I think it might have been Jonathon Porritt – once said that all the development people running around the world telling the poor how to change their lives should be recalled and retrained to tell the rich how to change theirs. It’s the rich, after all – with their endless demands for more and more luxury (the ‘personal cabin suites in the air’ for instance) – who are using up far more of the earth’s resources than the poor and causing most of the major environmental destruction on the planet: the rape of the hardwood forests, the global-warming atmospheric pollution etc. We all know that old story that we’ll need three more earth-sized planets to plunder if we want everyone to like the average American….. But who among us will be the first to say enough!

    Mind you, as Coggins says in his poem, the Development-Set themselves do a pretty good job of adding to our environment woes with their year-round jetting from one conference to another, staying in luxury hotels and lamenting on the sad state of the planet as they tuck into five-star meals that would probably feed a small peasant village for a week. Thirty years on and the absurdity of it all still hasn’t struck them – or maybe it has and (as Coggins perceived), with their bums stuck nicely in the butter, they just don’t care.

    1. Hi Ross Coggins,

      Can I use the poem “the development set” for printing in my book on how globalisation is affecting Nepal? Does anybody here know how I can contact Ross (his post is 7 months old). Of course I would mention your name!

    2. I found you! I have been reading your poem since my time at ISS The Hague and i must confess that i join the set in 1977 at a minor league, the technical assitance expert that works for a couple of years at a country and from time to time goes to a local conference, anyway, the important thing is the poem brings a little bit of solace to me and hope. Why i don’t know. Thank you Ross!

  3. Wow-Ross Coggins, great to hear from you! Your poem was glued to the office door of Professor David Seddon at the School of Development Studies at UEA (the first such schol of developemnt in the UK)…What are you doing now? Am about to teach a 10 week course on Development Studies at Ruskin College please do get in tocuh with me.

  4. clearing out paper I have just found my copy of “The Development Set” circulated through Oxfam headquarters June 1975

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