Where Has All The Conscience Gone?
issue 200 - October 1989
India's young idealists of the early Seventies gave up bright futures to work with the poorest. Mari Marcel Thekaekara was one of them – she finds the 'development professionals' of the Eighties with their five-star expense accounts decidedly difficult to take.
I came of age in the early Seventies. A Calcuttan. Schoolgirl dreams evaporated as we witnessed the Bangladesh war. Genocide. Then millions of refugees flooding the city. Final examinations bombed by a Naxalite1 raid. Gurudev and Gandhiji on the floor in smithereens.2 Kennedy too. I was horrified at 15.
University was a diet of John Donne, Beowulf, Chaucer, cultural festivals, Rabindra Sangeet3 Ravi Shankar, Indian classical dance, ballet, Carole King, Joan Baez, Pink Floyd, the Stones. Scripture - all of it, the Bible, Qu'ran and Gita.4 Conversations screamed around cricket and politics. The Marxists had won. Student power, Tariq Ali, debates on the irrelevance of the education system.
Then Catholic Action geared its guns. Ask not what your country can do for you. Contemporary Christmas - Christ born in a five-foot diameter sewage pipe, birthplace of countless Calcutta babies. 'Know India' project at 18. New statistics hurled at us: 70 per cent of our fellow citizens live below the poverty line. Translated this means homelessss and hunger, deprivation and death. God didn't will this. Men did. Landlords and multinationals.
Christ, why ME, Father Beckers?! Study groups and analysis. Group dynamics and leadership training. Capitalism and colonialism and neo-colonialism. Camus and Kafka. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Little Prince, Hope for the Flowers.5 If you don't devour all of them, you're illiterate. The Russian model, the Chinese Revolution, Paulo Freire6 - none of them will do. Evolve the Indian alternative.
We were the Seventies people. And the network spread. All over the country there were activists, community organizers, doctors, health workers, journalists, lawyers. People in villages. People in the mines. People in trade unions. People who were infused with a fervour which drove them on. They were determined to change the world. And unbelievably, they were convinced they could do it. Many were from middle-class city backgrounds. Scorning the establishment, they left homes and heartbroken parents. They shed jeans and cut hair to become part of the proletariat. They changed names and language to identify with the people. They lived in mud houses without electricity or water, revelling in the glory of the mission. Nothing was too difficult, no sacrifice too great. The cause was everything. They marched on, goaded by a fanaticism which made everything possible, a manic gleam in the eye.
They fought for land rights and minimum wages. They held legal aid classes and conducted adult education schools. They led processions and demonstrations, delivered babies, saved lives. Many died triumphantly. In jails, at the hands of landlords, vested interests, police, during the Emergency. They sang 'We Shall Overcome' with faith in the words, convinced that the kingdom was at hand.
Many of them got burnt out. The loneliness, the below-the-poverty-line lifestyles. Identification with the masses brought them the people's problems - tuberculosis, malnutrition, diarrhoea and dehydration. Emotional problems, breakdowns - the deprivation and hardship took their toll. Many were forced to opt out. These were the Seventies people. The establishment thought they were crazy, quixotic, unrealistic, even ridiculous.
Then came the Eighties. The Seventies people who survived were now thirtysomething. A decade and a half with its blend of idealism, fanaticism, commitment and fervour now churned out kids and families. A 20-year-old crusader who could live on rice, salt and chillies once a day had to decide whether she could foist that option on her kids. Can I opt for tuberculosis for my five-year-old daughter, even supposing my husband and I include the possibility in our life options?
Those who decided they couldn't afford children struggled on. The others reorganized their lives. They became part of the development game. Dedication remained, but tilting at windmills had to stop. So radicalism had to be watered down. Lifestyles remained simple but identification with the masses was impossible if kids had to get a decent education.
My own life is contorted with conflicting ideas, plans and decisions. My children's cousins are in the US or the UK with the best education facilities open to them. Ideology and all, can I cripple my five-year-old's creativity at the appalling government school because I opted to work in a backward area? Even if I fight to improve the school (the battle began two years ago but victory is nowhere on the horizon) my child is a child for 10 years more. Can I risk having her curse me 10 years hence because my ideology ruined her education? Therefore I compromise and send her to Calcutta with her grandmother and suffer pangs of guilt both for packing her off and for conforming to my elitist background.
Compromises and all, the Seventies network stands. But along the way most activists realized the futility of trying to struggle with no funds and impossible odds. They began to accept foreign funds - albeit condescendingly, as if they were doing the funding agency a favour. Who was a mere donor to evaluate a lifetime's struggle? At this point the agencies too were staffed by people with commitment and genuine concern for development problems. This was reflected in their relatively low salaries and simple lifestyles.
But in the Eighties the picture changed completely. Audited accounts were demanded by the Government, and funding agencies demanded a more efficient accounting for development money. Thus was ushered in the era of management in the development game. Accusations began to be levelled at the Sixties and Seventies people. They were well-meaning and full of idealism, but inefficient and unprofessional. Therefore professional 'management' people began to appear in funding agencies.
It is true that planning, professionalism and efficiency were needed. After all, why should anyone balk at accounting for public money publicly? And setting targets and measuring sticks to evaluate projects would definitely increase efficiency if done properly. However an alarming argument which crept in, and seems here to stay, was that the 'cream' (so called) in terms of personnel was going to private industry. Since development is far more important, it was argued, we should attract the cream to ourselves by offering competitive and lucrative wages. And this is where the crunch comes. Development now offers proper 'management' salaries to its staff without the attendant rat-race problems. So scores of yuppies are being drawn into the development game. Corporate yuppie culture is oozing insidiously into the development world and the old order is inexorably crumbling.
But development is not industry. There are no profits. We're dealing with people, not commodities. And when management 'perks' include business as usual at five-star restaurants on expense accounts, who's paying? Does the little old lady, the widow, the pensioner, the schoolgirl know that her precious pound is going into a 'management' meal at a five-star restaurant, the inside of which she herself could never afford in her wildest dreams?
It doesn't just look bad. It STINKS! How does anyone justify such expenditure? Where has all the conscience gone?
The second terrifying thing about the Eighties is that it's the age of the professional. Right now the development game is 'in' and everyone's jumping on the bandwagon. Together with 'efficiency and good management principles has come the crying need for experts to take charge of every field. Doctors, lawyers, media people, architects, educators - in every field the experts are crucial if there is to be professionalism. Agreed. But at what price? Theirs? I was shocked to hear that 'professionals' called in as consultants were being paid 200 rupees ($12) a day plus travel and expenses. The average government teacher is paid 200 rupees a month, without expenses. Nobody thinks there's anything warped or convoluted about the arrangement. But I do.
The committed ones will continue to come. We've carried the game pretty well until now. But the development world has to stop trying to buy people. We don't need to compete with industry. Throughout the ages people have answered the call. Let the yuppies go. And make room for real people.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara has been working for the last seven years on a project she and her husband started for tribal people in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
1. Naxalites were the guerillas of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).
2. Gurudev is a respectful name for Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. Gandhiji refers to Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi. Their reputations were in smithereens - assaulted by Naxalites and others.
3. Rabindra Sangeet is a collection of Tagore's poetry.
4. The Bhagavad Gita is the Hindu holy book.
5. A theology book by T Paulus,
6. Brazilian educationalist