Dev in paradise

A decade ago, I was a fan of buffoonish crime drama, Death in Paradise, set on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie. Initially, there was something quite quaint about a stiff-upper-lip British detective being dispatched to a paradise island to investigate a murder. The detective in question was played by actor Ben Miller, and so his character was easily embraced with affection. But, in truth, it was a show that should have died a death long ago.

A decade on, it is a show that truly grates with me. Not especially because the homicide rate on that tiny island is truly eye-watering — allowances, I suppose, have to be made for a drama with the word “death” in its title. No, it’s the complete lack of cultural awareness of the programme makers which annoys me so. Death in Paradise is really a show about a world where the local qualified workforce is constantly passed over for promotion, in favour of a white male detective from across the Atlantic ocean. That may have been the way of the world in the 1950s, but is it really the picture Britain’s state broadcaster wishes to paint in the 2020s?

These thoughts sprang to mind this morning, while glancing at my LinkedIn feed. Though I work in a completely different kind of development these days, I still follow my alma mater and those working in the field of international development with keen interest. Viewing job opportunities this morning, I recalled why I abandoned pursuing a career in that field towards the end of my first degree: I did not want to be that expert coming from outside, depriving local experts of opportunities.

It is possible, of course, that I imbibed too much post-colonial discourse during my studies, taking to heart too much Amartya Sen, Frantz Fanon, Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak. It’s true that for a while I was passionate about rural development in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. One of the best essays I ever wrote was on water pollution in the River Ganges, in which I reviewed a mountain of data published by Indian environmental scientists. Perhaps I might have pursued a career in that field had a visiting lecturer not told us, “Look, we don’t need people with degrees in Development Studies; we need engineers, doctors, teachers.”

I took her advice hard — and to heart — and changed course completely after that. I don’t know that I was wrong to do so, however. I am glad that my old Somali friend is Project Director for a leading development charity working in the field. I’m glad that my old Kenyan friend took up a senior post in Nairobi. I’m glad that all those I knew, who had a longterm vision back then, have found success in their respective fields — that they did not have to play second fiddle to the equivalent of DCI Humphrey Goodman from Death in Paradise.

International development, I came to see even back then, was very much tied to histories of imperialism, of outside forces, institutions and individual perpetuating outdated power structures which favoured not local beneficiaries, but outside interests. While I set out to study development because I had romantic visions of subsistence farming and quaint rural lifestyles, I quickly came to realise that I was more likely to become part of the problem than the solution.

While working in a completely different field today, through good fortune and happenstance, I got my part-time subsistence lifestyle in the end. My wife and I have planted seeds and put down roots, in anticipation of a time once the kids have completed their education, when we may be able to live off our land. Some of what I learnt some twenty-five years ago will be of benefit then, as we seek to protect our water supplies and guard our soil against erosion. But at that time, we will not live as colonial overlords, but as villagers amongst friends, relatives and neighbours.

Death in Paradise grates with me because it is as if to say: there is nobody on that paradise island capable of filling that post. Only a sub-standard detective from London will do. He may be the least qualified detective back home, disliked by his superiors, but he is the top man for the job in Saint Marie, so let’s not invest in the continuing professional development of those already in post. If I was the writer or director of that popular but formulaic detective drama, I would have promoted Danny John-Jules to lead role by now. Surely in eleven years, it would have come up in his annual appraisal at least once.

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