The workshop worship

Mbabane, Swaziland | 12 Feb 2014
Bill Snaddon

“If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop.”

These are the melodramatic words of late English novelist Kingsley Amis, from his 1978 satirical novel Jake’s Thing.

I haven’t read the novel, but that won’t stop me trying to look smart by quoting a dead author.

That’s what Google is for – finding quotes on the Internet so one can appear smarter than one is.

And, to touch on the subject of this column, Google is great when preparing for a workshop: it has all the material.

But seriously, there’s nothing quite like finding quotes from dead authors you’ve never heard of and then quoting them to friends. Unless, of course, one of your friends can see through your false intelligence and asks: “Oh, I see, Bill, so you like Kingsley Amis’ novels… which other books of his do you like?”

“Oh, umm, well, you know, agh, all of his books are good.”

Anyhow, back to the task at hand. Workshop. Not so much the actual thing – that funny beast with white tablecloths and mints, over-paid consultants and over-friendly facilitators – but the word itself.

Presumably Amis was referring to the Second World War (1939-1945) when he said, “since the war”. But, since I haven’t read the novel, I can only hazard a guess at why he placed “workshop” in his firing line.

Amis’ distaste for the word Workshop seemingly comes from a fellow who was sensitive to jargon: sensitive to the overuse of certain words and sensitive the ever-changing fashions of the English language.

Amis was ahead of the curve. He must have seen “workshop” coming into fashion in the late ‘70s. But unlike flared jeans and ill-fitting brown shirts, workshop remains in-fashion.

Today, in 2014, workshop – the word – has reached levels of dizzying heights. The Kilimanjaro of words.

Why is this?

Perhaps it could be that behind the word – sitting there, smiling away with a big U.S. dollar grin or Euro gaze – is a big pile of aid and development money.

Climate change, similarly, is also popular for similar reasons. That is, it’s not only popular because it poses a threat to our planet, but because the United Nations is throwing lots of money at it. This seems fair enough. If climate change could help me out of poverty then By God I’m going to do everything in my power to support this urgent threat. Much like how men of questionable character might support women’s rights.

It may also be because workshops are a wonderful way of appearing to do work, without actually achieving anything.

This is not a “developing world” phenomenon. It happens all over. If anything, the workshop mentality – “working without working” – has likely been imported over the years by well-meaning aid workers such as myself.

There’s a perverse logic at play here. The workshop mentality allows (some) aid organisations to remain in the position of power. It keeps the “recipient countries” (otherwise known as poor or developing countries) dependent upon this “workshop aid”. Because if nothing is achieved in the first or second or third workshop, then there’s a need for a fifth, sixth and seventh workshop. The “aid trap” viewed through the eyes of endless workshops.

Anyhow, enough of that before I incriminate myself further. And it must be said that there is plenty of good aid as well. Just Google it.

This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland

#9_The workshop worship_12 Feb 2014


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