QA with novelist James Joughin

James Joughin’s debut comic novel In a Sorry State, published in 2014 by Banange Press, is about the fast and furious world of development experts.


What motivated you to write the novel In a Sorry State?

There are a million intellectual critiques of the development “industry” and I didn’t want to attempt another. And the whole subject is so complex and opaque.

I thought the only way to address it was through laughter but that laughter is inevitably bitter because there have been so many disappointments. This explains “the darkness” that some have complained about in the novel.

Would I be wrong to conclude that this novel represents the wrongdoings of donor-driven development projects in the third world?

Sure. The interesting thing is that the real people in the donor world are not bad people, far from it. The fact that they are trying to do “good” is what makes it so fascinating and such good material for comedy.

The NADS project, as it is described in the novel, is true in its fundamentals. It was a good project that got hijacked and no one did anything about it. All the people involved are now far away, in more senior jobs, safe from any enquiries, and if you could talk to them they would be philosophical. It’s in no one’s interest to look back and account for the money and time.

Can one really fly into a developing country for a few weeks and make a well-informed development programme?

No you can’t!  In a Sorry State is a story. It’s not meant to be a polemic exactly. 

Often a bigger portion of donor aid is spent on huge salaries and allowances for the development experts, other privileges like housing, four-wheel cars and fuel. Is this fair?

They will say, it’s a job market and they won’t do it unless they are “looked after” properly. Hopefully, the level of remuneration is related to the commitment and quality of the work, but by no means is this always true. 

Do you envision a time when the Third World will take full control of their development processes?

They are in charge now, although maybe not fully. The talent is there to do it though. The problem has something to do with political processes.

Western citizens like to think they are “ahead” because they have had longer to get their institutions and the development processes up and running. Which may have some truth in it but we are all walking on thin ice. Just look at Greece.