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Do any of these toffs work in development?

NYT on British Tories:

Sir Nicholas Winterton … a Conservative member of Parliament for the last 39 years… decided to share his thoughts on why legislators should be allowed to travel first class to avoid exposure to the common man.

“They are a totally different type of people,” Sir Nicholas declared in a radio interview, speaking about the relative ghastliness of people in standard-class train cars.

…[I]t was a reminder yet again of how difficult it has been for the Tories to shake off a past that a fair number of them still seem to embrace.

[Popular image of Tories is as] a stuffy bastion of the elite, the mean-spirited, the entitled and the clueless.

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21 Comments

  1. Tofferella wrote:

    This is funny. I think before I worked in developing countries I’d be fuming at this statement (mere commoner that I am). But that was then and this is now.

    Now I know that things are relative. I’ve worked in some wretched places and I took taxis instead of the local-mobiles (except for the requisite adventure-ride) bc I didn’t want to sit for hours in sweltering traffice squashed up against good folk with very different hygiene habits, their goats and chickens. I’m certainly not better than them, but we’re used to different conditions. So I opted for air-conditioned taxis (not expensive by my standards). Did I look down on the hoi polloi? No – I just wanted to be comfortable is all.

    So, I no longer have the moral right to unleash my indignation at Sir Nicky bc now I understand him…even if in his country, he wants nothing to do with me.

    I mean honestly now…how many aid workers really share the living conditions of the people they are there to serve? Sure we might slum it for an afternoon, a holiday, a field visit, maybe 1-2 years tops – but it’s always temporary – for the “experience” – knowing you will eventually graduate to something much more comfortable. And isn’t that natural? Why should it be any different? Is that so wrong? I think to do anything but that would be either manufactured and inauthentic…or Saintly.

    Posted March 23, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink
  2. George wrote:

    Nicholas Winterton is gold dust for quotes.

    My personal favourite – on being accused of having slapped the bottom of a female opposition MP (in the House of Commons, at lunch, in the canteen) he responded “Can I categorically deny it? The answer is no… But do I go around pinching bottoms? Certainly not. I’m a Conservative”

    http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/top-stories/2009/11/06/tory-shame-as-sir-nicholas-winterton-slaps-a-labour-mp-s-bottom-115875-21800935/

    Posted March 23, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  3. Hannah wrote:

    I’m glad to hear that hes so willing to represent these ‘commoners’ in Parliament! Where would they be without such a selfless man who wants nothing to do with them?

    Posted March 23, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  4. One should note that the phrase “relative ghastliness” was supplied by the author of the NYT article and not used by Winterton himself.

    Posted March 23, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  5. Justin Kraus wrote:

    @ Tofferella

    Your comment reminded me of development workers who defend their need for first-class airplane tickets to attend conferences in developing countries at 5 star hotels. For those people I suggest reading a little HR International, it might drop you down a peg or two.
    Your labeling anyone who deigns to hang out with the locals as either insincere or saintly is pretty disgusting. Surely one can simply be principled, or horror of horrors, actually enjoy spending time with the people whom one is supposed to be helping?
    The point is not that you must jump in the local minibus every time you need to get across town. But you also shouldn’t treat doing so as something beneath someone of your stature. Having the attitude that taking local minibuses is something that rookies have to deal with for a couple years “for the experience” before they move onto the white land rovers (or comfortable taxis) is pretty atrocious, again, for someone who is (ostensibly?) trying to help the poor.
    Somethings are more important than air-conditioning.

    Posted March 24, 2010 at 2:42 am | Permalink
  6. Philip wrote:

    Do you mean do any Tories work in development? Or just upper class folks?

    Posted March 24, 2010 at 4:13 am | Permalink
  7. avam wrote:

    Tofferella….

    seriously? I mean, Seriously?

    dear god, who the hell do you work for?

    Re original comment – unfortunately the class-system is alive, well and, sadly, flourishing in the UK. Btw (re Shaun) the fact that he didn’t actually say ‘relative ghastliness’ is irrelevant, as that is clearly what he meant to imply.

    Posted March 24, 2010 at 7:22 am | Permalink
  8. booksquirm wrote:

    Maybe Tofferella’s my old boss. This is what I was told when I angrily relayed my shame at pulling up in front of a huge, fancy looking hotel after having been chatting with my taxi driver about the children’s charity I worked for:

    – You wanted to stay in a regular B&B with local out-of-town workers? If we put all our employees in those kind of places, the owners would raise their prices and local workers would be priced out.

    – Stay with a local colleague? You’re from head office – they’d go to huge lengths to buy in nice food and comforts for you, lengths their wages don’t cover and they’d absolutely refuse compensation for their hospitality. You would be a huge burden and it could also be divisive to the local team.

    – The price of the room? About eight bucks a night. It’s a global chain, we use them everywhere and the volume of year-round business we can provide means they can give us a very low price. Local people don’t use it but they do get jobs there.

    – And. Your wages are paid by grants and donations. If you’re too exhausted to focus after a night of chasing bed bugs then we’ve wasted money on you that could’ve been spent on other things.

    – Feel guilty? Work harder till you feel you’ve earned it.

    I would love to find better answers than the ones he gave me but I haven’t yet. Trying to do the right thing doesn’t always look good, in the same way that some development work that looks good can be very bad. Tory MPs… whole other matter.

    Posted March 24, 2010 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  9. Justin Kraus wrote:

    @booksquirm

    You don’t have to try very hard to see that these rationales are all really merely rationalizations.

    1. Its simply not true. It is very unlikely that your individual NGO, no matter how big, has that kind of influence on the local market for beds (now real estate is an entirely different matter, we all know the problems there which only makes your boss a hypocrite or at least very selectively conscientious, i.e. he/she cares about artificial inflation when it means he/she/you can stay at a 5 star hotel, but not when it comes to finding a nice place for the NGO’s headquarters.)
    2. They wouldn’t refuse compensation. Simply add it to their next month’s pay check. And divisive to the team? Maybe if your an a*hole (which you certainly don’t sound like), otherwise I would think spending time with colleagues would have the opposite effect.
    3. Jobs are great, but if your development budget is going to an air-con room, there are probably more effective ways to spend it which will also create jobs.
    4. Bed bugs? Toughen up buddy, or take it as a learning experience (and don’t tell me you don’t need them, we all do.)
    5. If you feel guilty, thats a good thing and although working hard is also good, if you ever come to think you deserve your air-con room and stop feeling guilty, I’d suggest you walk out of your hotel room and take a look at the child who has been trying to sell phone credit on the street all day and is now sleeping in a malaria infested cardboard box, because they also deserve an air-con, but they gonna get, right?

    Posted March 24, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  10. Matt Richmond wrote:

    How many people here live on $1 a day when they are doing their work abroad?

    How about when you are back home?

    If someone is doing work that helps people in a real way, them spending $8 on a hotel doesn’t bother me. How much do you spend on your mortgage/rent/nice dinners/playstations while at home that you could be putting toward development projects? $100 is another story of course, but until the rest of you remove all possible excesses from your lifestyles…

    Please, step down from your high horses; you look just as bad as the people you’re criticizing.

    Posted March 24, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink
  11. Tofferella wrote:

    Ack! Justin, Avam, relax!

    I didn’t say anything about “hanging out with locals” – so please don’t infer something unfairly like that. I only brought up sharing *living conditions*, in particular, modes of transportation – in relation to the Winterton article.

    Because the Winterton article is so obviously heinous, our knee-jerk reaction is to be appalled that he sees ‘commoners’ as being the mass of the great unwashed. Presumably most of us here are not part of the British upper crust so it’s insulting to think that he’s talking about us and we’re all a bunch of pretty decent folk and if we can put up with regular trains – why can’t he? His attitude is a caricature and almost satirical except he means it.

    Now, before I fully gave in to my impulse to hate the man, I took out my mirror to see if I might be guilty in any way of doing the same thing….so I recalled that me and the vast majority of people working in places where we are involuntarily cast into the role of the “upper crust by default” probably have pretty much parallel preferences as Winterton, when it comes to modes of travel.

    For me, it has nothing at all to do with my perceived stature (I’m a regular person) – just comfort levels that one is used to. So I can’t be too judgemental of Winterton it turns out, bc comfort is relative. And unless you are an ascetic, you likely opt for comfort over discomfort if the option is provided (the child in the cardboard box would opt for comfort too if it were available to him). So I can’t send Winterton to the guillotine, even if his attitude rubs off as odious.

    Comfort is not the same as excessive luxury. I would hardly call a first class train ticket in India a luxury, nor an AC taxi. It’s also inexpensive for a Westerner and a quite reasonable expectation since the option exists. Maybe this is how Winterton feels analogously in Britain.

    As for the “people we’re trying to help”,
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/19/world/asia/19india.html

    PS. On principle, I have declined business-class air tickets.

    Posted March 24, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  12. Justin Kraus wrote:

    @Tofferella, Matt, Booksquirm

    Last post, as I’ve already talked too much.

    First I am not saying that you and other development workers should give up all your air-con taxis and hotel rooms and live on a $1 a day while working in developing countries. Talk of such extremes is unhelpful and absurd. So too is demonizing Mr. Winterton. Doing so only repeats his mistake by putting ourselves, instead of him, on a pedastel. You are right to be cautious and self-reflective in this regard.
    However the other extreme of first-class flights, fancy hotels, and new land rovers is equally absurd (kudos for turning the flight down, but why was it even offered?). There is a middle ground. Furthermore attempts to justify one’s vastly superior financial status always end up making one look callous. So with all due respect (really), just don’t do it. Accept that you are in an ethically dubious position because of your vast (relative) wealth without grasping for rationalizations (I must be “comfortable”, its “involuntary” or see—-comments) to calm your guilt. Such rationalizations are not only flimsy but dangerous. And this is why I tend to get on my soap-box on this issue. When we assuage our guilt through rationalizations we start divorcing ourselves ever so slightly from moral reality. If you go to South Africa and speak to some (though of course not all) white Africans you will often hear that they feel no personal guilt or responsibility for the economically disadvantaged position of much of the black population with whom they are in constant contact. Nor do they feel any need to address this disparity personally. Whereas most development workers (like you and booksquirm) are initially instinctually repulsed and then build up rationalizations against those feelings, many white Africans have had generations to become accustomed to the disparity, and tragically have become truly comfortable with it.
    In much reduced form I am afraid this is also happening in the development community. Although our raison de entre is to reduce such disparities, our actions bely an attitude that is increasingly, if not comfortable, then at least accepting of very marginal improvements on the status quo (we love to have learning experiences and develop “best practices”) and frankly shows a lack of seriousness. The unjustifiable frills we give ourselves (which we try to justify) are a sign of this. How can we honestly hold out our hands for more funding when we engage in such practices? And why do we allow our guilt to be so easily assuaged by referring to such flimsy rationalizations? Finally caricaturing people who raise these concerns as either hypocrites or saints simply sidesteps the issue. Its time we start confronting it.

    Posted March 24, 2010 at 8:54 pm | Permalink
  13. booksquirm wrote:

    Hi Justin,

    I did say I would love to find better answers than the ones my boss gave me. I wouldn’t have bothered with the typing if I didn’t believe better answers existed. Most of what you say makes sense to me, though I reserve a question mark over staying with local colleagues. I’ve discussed this with many people over the years and it seems to vary a lot from place to place.

    That’s not why I’m back though. It’s just a small, personal clarification. I became so uncomfortable with and unaccepting of the kind of thing you describe and more that I left the development industry. I did some more study on how the industry works and set myself up independently so that I’d only work with people trying to make serious changes. Many of the new entrants appear to be copying the tired old models, which is a problem for the many development workers who want to work differently (and it’s why I follow this blog – because it airs and challenges so much.)

    Posted March 25, 2010 at 6:58 am | Permalink
  14. avam wrote:

    Re: Tofferella & Matt Richmond.

    Justin Krause has made some extremely salient points – and I agree with him.

    As a response to Tofferella, I would just like to say that what I objected to was that while you might be appalled at the original comments by Winterton, you used his thoughts to – as you say- reflect on your own standards, which you also assume is reflective of how other development workers/aid workers etc., feel

    You state that “So, I no longer have the moral right to unleash my indignation at Sir Nicky bc now I understand him…even if in his country, he wants nothing to do with me.” I would respond with: really? What part of his comment did you ‘understand’? He wasn’t making a comment that he at a very simple level ‘just’ preferred more comfortable surroundings (the UK is not that badly off!) he was very blatently making a comment about the level at which he sees other people as better or worse than him. I think if any person voices comments like that (which, let me tell you are not only voiced by the elder generation – and which also, in a very real way neagtivly affect many people living in the UK) than you Should be incensed. Ignoring it as a one-off comment is just apathy dressed up as nonchalance.

    Secondly – you make a point that “I didn’t want to sit for hours in sweltering traffice squashed up against good folk with very different hygiene habits, their goats and chickens. I’m certainly not better than them, but we’re used to different conditions.” Ok. well – here’s a newsflash, if you were uncomfortable, chances are they were as well – prob More so if they are unwell (more likely the poorer someone is, less access to services etc etc), have small kids, pregnant etc. These last two points are hard enough when travelling in developed countries, let alone in poor or “wretched” conditions. People are people the world over, being poor doesn’t make you more noble, or intrinsically tougher…it just makes you less able to live with more choices – as you have. The irony is that as someone Not having to live in “uncomfortable” conditions as a norm you would be better placed to endure them then those who have no choice in the long term. I have yet to meet anyone who Likes or indeed ever really gets used to poor/adverse conditions – regardless of their “outward appearance” or that they live there/grew up there.

    Posted March 25, 2010 at 7:02 am | Permalink
  15. avam wrote:

    Point 3 “how many aid workers really share the living conditions of the people they are there to serve? Sure we might slum it for an afternoon, a holiday, a field visit, maybe 1-2 years tops – but it’s always temporary – for the “experience” – knowing you will eventually graduate to something much more comfortable. And isn’t that natural? Why should it be any different? Is that so wrong? I think to do anything but that would be either manufactured and inauthentic…or Saintly.”

    Agggh!! Where to begin? First off, as JKrause rightly poinnts out there are middle grounds here – it’s not all one or the other (pauper or prince) and secondly, yes, I have spent long periods of time (and enjoying various aspects of it) in many different conditions. Sometimes in tents, on the back of trucks, and in nice hotels. To be honest the living conditions have always been so dependent on the place in question and the work being undertaken (e.g. fieldwork vs rapid response aid work) and each had their pros and cons. I don’t know – perhaps coming from an anthropology background, perhaps being female, perhaps growing up in the Middle east – perhaps, all these play a part – but, for whatever reason I simply don’t get the way you view working in development. It seems from your posts that you only endure it.

    (pps – as for the NYTimes article – no these are not people “we’re trying to help”. India has always had rich farmers/landowners that oversee the smaller shared farms. Indeed the most ‘help’/biggest push came largely via the crop/seed development during the green reveolution of the 1970s…a few years back now wouldn’t you say? Moreover, the very fact that ‘poor’ farmers (again there are various levels of poverty as well) so want to spend money on lavish cars etc only further undermines your first comment that those who are “used to different conditions.” Hmm, if they’re so “used” to it, why do they want to try something more confortable?

    (excuse the long posts! They seem quick short when I’m typing them…!?)

    Posted March 25, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink
  16. avam wrote:

    pps – pls excuse any mistakes in posts above – e.g. it just makes you less able to live with more choices…I meant, of course, that poverty “makes you less able to have choices” – typing fast while doing other work…serves me right ;)

    Posted March 25, 2010 at 7:11 am | Permalink
  17. William Easterly wrote:

    Thanks to all for this insightful discussion on aid worker accomodations. I both enjoyed and was horrified by flying as a 27-year-old entry-level economist at the World Bank up in First Class, drinking port with all the toffs. The World Bank later downgraded their flying policies to Business Class.

    Posted March 25, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink
  18. Rati Tripathi wrote:

    It is a rare pleasure to see a development professional of any nationality and any age equally at ease in a village/town/city, a bus/bike/rickshaw/taxi/car/train/plane, a floor/hut/room/house/hotel, in city lingo/rural slang/local dialect of the same (mother) tongue.

    Posted March 25, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  19. Raphael wrote:

    Justin, Avam et al, why not the same moral indignation regarding different living standards between the poor and rich ANYWHERE? If we follow your ethics (which I mostly agree with), then we should ALL refuse excessive comfort WHEREVER we are. Why only the aid worker in a developing country? Why not me giving up my house/apartment in a nice neighborhood and living more cheaply? Never/seldom eating at a nice restaurant wherever I am? Giving all my “extra” earnings beyond a subsistence level to others that need it more than me? (Getting to Peter Singer territory here.)

    Honestly, I do believe it is ethically indefensible to have wealth beyond a basic level of comfort when others are dying of easily preventable diseases. Do I do much about it other than the work I do? Not really. I can certainly do a LOT more. We all could, right?

    P.S. I am certainly not defending Winterton. I think we’ve moved on to a more interesting general point beyond his comments.

    Posted March 25, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  20. Stephen Jones wrote:

    What is not noted is that there is often no choice between five star hotels and near hovels in many developing countries.

    There isn’t a two or three star hotel with conferencing facilities.

    Posted March 25, 2010 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  21. avam wrote:

    Raphael – my posts were not meant to be a blanket statement about poor/rich living standards (although, yes – I would say for the most part I am pretty annoyed when anyone is denied basic living standards or some ease of comfort when travelling etc….and that includes in the west. Some of the worst – and I mean absolutely utterly horrifying – living conditions I have ever seen were in a tower block in the east end of London…..the communal hallways were so beyond comprehension, you would have been almost better off living outside. And, no, I’m not joking.)

    My comments were really to point out the problems I had with tofferella’s general attitude towards how “the other half live”. No, of course I’m not adverse to comfort (is anyone with any sense?) – nor was I in any way trying to say that it is somehow more Noble to live in poverty, or to be uncomfortable (re living conditions) simply because you should be. My issue was more to do with the fact that Everyone wants to be comfortable, and to go into a situation assuming that “other” people are somehow used to worse conditions is a non-starter (and it is always ‘Other’ people, implied as somehow fundamentally different from ‘Us’ that seems to define much of development-speak…..a not unsubtle re-working of the “noble savage”…..which, as I’m sure we all agree was then, and still is, a load of nonsense to put it politely).

    My point was really that IF you truly believe that as a dev worker you are somehow entitled to better living standards because you are “used” to comfort, while others aren’t – then, in my humble opinion, you are in the wrong field.

    Posted March 25, 2010 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

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