A nugget for development & NGO types


Since then I have slept in a number of Salvation Army shelters, and found that, though the different houses vary a little, this semi-military discipline is the same in all of them. They are certainly cheap, but they are too like workhouses for my taste. In some of them there is even a compulsory religious service once or twice a week, which the lodgers must attend or leave the house. The fact is that the Salvation Army are so in the habit of thinking themselves a charitable body that they cannot even run a lodging-house without making it stink of charity.

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933.

Update. The Orwell quote was posted on 20 February, but today (21st) I was pointed to another quite remarkable piece of writing from even longer ago, this time from Oscar Wilde.  It resonates with some of what I’ve been thinking recently, about activism on HIV and rebelliousness.


The virtues of the poor may be readily admitted, and are much to be regretted. We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it. As for being discontented, a man who would not be discontented with such surroundings and such a low mode of life would be a perfect brute. Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion. Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal. He should decline to live like that, and should either steal or go on the rates, which is considered by many to be a form of stealing. As for begging, it is safer to beg than to take, but it is finer to take than to beg. No; a poor man who is ungrateful, unthrifty, discontented, and rebellious is probably a real personality, and has much in him. He is at any rate a healthy protest. As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, of course, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy and sold their birthright for very bad pottage. They must also be extraordinarily stupid. I can quite understand a man accepting laws that protect private property, and admit of its accumulation, as long as he himself is able under these conditions to realise some form of beautiful and intellectual life. But it is almost incredible to me how a man whose life is marred and made hideous by such laws can possibly acquiesce in their continuance.

The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.


Oscar Wilde, The soul of man under socialism, 1891.



Take me to your leader



In Carl Sagan’s Contact, an alien civilisation discovers Earth, and sends a blueprint for a machine that will transport just five earthlings to another world.  To build the machine, humans have to develop entire new industries and technologies. Once the construction is complete, the human race has to decide which five people can represent them – a delicate exercise that balances the interests of financial clout, geopolitical representation and gender. 


The world of national and global responses to AIDS often acts a bit like an alien, in its attempts to make good on the principle of actively involving communities and people who are affected in the response.  The reason this principle is so embedded is that those communities spent years being the only ones doing anything about the epidemic, and kicking doors down to get politicians and donors to do something about it.  They had strength in numbers, and millions owe their lives to them. (And I’d estimate that tens if not hundreds of thousands of people, including me, owe their jobs to them).

As the principle has become central to the response to AIDS, the various movers and shakers have looked for ways to enshrine it in policy, to systematize it.  Local, provincial, national AIDS coordination committees are all supposed to have community members on them.  Donors like the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria want to know that various categories of people affected have played a role in designing any projects they fund.  Governments and international advisors, have created space, often because they know that’s where the smart money is.

But the thing is, it’s so damn hard for those who are in charge to make this work – given their assumptions, that is.  As one senior government official said to me last year, “we’re happy to involve the [insert category of marginalized population here], but they need to pick the right representative”.  The right representative.  Right presumably meaning those who will stay broadly on-message, and who understand the ins and outs of epidemiology, evidence-based policy making and global financing.  Good luck with that. 

There is also an expectation that whoever the representatives are, they should represent and reflect the views of their communities.  But these aren’t homogenous communities.  Often their main shared characteristic in common is being HIV-positive or selling sex for a living, or something along those lines.  While people within these categories may well have shared experiences, this doesn’t mean they all want the same things or that they cope in the same way.  People within them often fundamentally disagree with each other in many ways.  The structured, formalised systems for community involvement that are increasingly the norm do have some value, but they cannot resolve conflict or create compliance.  Another UN official once told me she had arranged over 20 meetings with sex workers to “try and get them on common ground”.  I would have thought that after 2 or 3 meetings she might have realised she was doing something wrong.

Just like the aliens who may one day come and ask to be taken to our leader, the handful of national policy makers who insist on being accountable to just one or two interlocutors when they are supposed to meet the needs of thousands, are living on another planet.