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Social Protection through the Looking Glass: Lewis Carroll’s parable for the unwary


What can a 19th Century work of literary nonsense teach us about global social protection debates? To mark April Fools’ Day, our guest blogger Nicholas Freeland suggests that Lewis Carroll’s work The Walrus and the Carpenter can tell us more more about prevailing dogmas in the sector than you might imagine!

Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was a master of the art of literary nonsense. His major works include Alice in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass. One of the highlights of the latter work is a splendid poem, recounted to Alice by the tubby twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee, called The Walrus and the Carpenter. The poem tells the story of the two eponymous characters walking along a beach, finding a bed of oysters and persuading the younger oysters to follow them. It ends with the Walrus and the Carpenter eating all the oysters!

Critics have struggled to understand the deeper meaning of the poem ever since it was published in 1871. Many explanations have been offered. Some have suggested that the Carpenter is a caricature of Jesus Christ and the Walrus a caricature of Peter (or Buddha in another version), with the oysters as their disciples. Others have argued that the narrative is a critique of colonialisation, with the two protagonists representing the Empire and the oysters its colonies. Even J.B. Priestley has weighed into the debate, suggesting that the Walrus and the Carpenter were instead archetypes of two different types of British politician.

But I would like to suggest a new thesis: that it is an allegory of today’s social protection debates. On this basis, the Walrus and the Carpenter are the World Bank and the IMF respectively, the beach signifies the problem of global poverty, and the oysters represent national initiatives towards inclusive social protection. Let’s look at this in detail through some key verses. After three stanzas of scene-setting, we are introduced to the main characters:

“The Walrus and the Carpenter

Were walking close at hand;

They wept like anything to see

Such quantities of sand:

If this were only cleared away,’

They said, it would be grand!”

Here we see the two institutions surveying the extent of the problem of global poverty and wishing that it could be reduced. Presumably the Walrus has been used to denote the World Bank because of the consonance between their initial syllables; the Carpenter (i.e. a wood-worker) is clearly linked to the fact that the IMF was created at Bretton Woods (and the two organisations indeed continue to be known as the Bretton Woods Institutions).

Next, having expressed their desire to reduce poverty, we come to a crucial stanza where they opine how this might be achieved:

“If seven maids with seven mops

Swept it for half a year,

Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,

That they could get it clear?’

I doubt it,’ said the Carpenter,

And shed a bitter tear.”

Immediately, the two institutions present a possible – but in reality, totally inappropriate – social protection solution to reducing the extent of global poverty. Interestingly, their default reaction, just as it is today, is towards a public works approach. And, as in many modern-day instances (think Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe), the proposed works are far from productive: using unsuitable tools (in this case mops) to sweep sand on a beach. Even more damaging (and again as is often the case today), they propose that it should be women who undertake this back-breaking work, thereby adding to their domestic burdens, and jeopardising the health and education of their children. The significance of the number of maids – seven – is presumably a reference to the seven key features of the blueprint World Bank approach to social protection, involving as it does a mix of: (i) poverty-targeting, (ii) an anti-social registry, (iii) proxy means testing, (iv) conditionality, (v) public works (vi) graduation, and (vii) an exit strategy.

“O Oysters, come and walk with us!’

The Walrus did beseech.

A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,

Along the briny beach:

We cannot do with more than four,

To give a hand to each.”

In this next verse, the World Bank issues its enticing lure to the “oysters”, in other words to developing country governments wanting to invest in social protection: accept our package, and in exchange there will be cheap loans a-plenty and we will be there to lend a hand to each of you in designing your social protection system (in just the fashion we want it)!

“The eldest Oyster looked at him,

But never a word he said:

The eldest Oyster winked his eye,

And shook his heavy head —

Meaning to say he did not choose

To leave the oyster-bed.”

In this, my favourite stanza, the wise old oyster resists the siren call of the Bretton Woods package. He knows that, given time, the nascent national solution focused on inclusive lifecycle schemes is a better option: it will generate popular appeal, political energy and fiscal space, and it might – like an oyster – even create a domestic pearl that will endure for the long haul. Think of these prudent sages as countries such as Lesotho, Nepal, Mongolia.

“But four young Oysters hurried up,

All eager for the treat:

Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,

Their shoes were clean and neat —

And this was odd, because, you know,

They hadn’t any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,

And yet another four;

And thick and fast they came at last,

And more, and more, and more —

All hopping through the frothy waves,

And scrambling to the shore.”

In contrast to the wise old sages, we see in these next two verses that many countries cannot resist the temptation of the Bretton Woods package: think Malawi, Liberia, Mali, Zimbabwe in Africa and Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines in Asia (since they should come in groups of four). They are “all eager for the treat”, and have no idea what is in store for them…

These ingenues unwittingly walk a mile along the beach with the predators, and sit down on a “rock, conveniently low”.

“The time has come,’ the Walrus said,

To talk of many things:

Of loans — and shocks — and safety nets

Of conditions — and of strings —

Why PMT is worth a shot

And whether pigs have wings.”

Okay, I admit that I have made some minor adaptations to this particular verse, to contextualise it and bring it up to date. The original is concerned with typically nineteenth-century social issues, “of shoes – and ships – and sealing wax – of cabbages – and kings”. But, whilst the overall attitude of the Bretton Woods Institutions remains firmly embedded in the nineteenth-century worldview of poor relief and workfare, the terms of the debate have inevitably evolved over time. So I have tried to reflect some of the contemporary obsessions of the World Bank in today’s social protection debate, while remaining true to the spirit of the Carrollian original.

The protagonists duly have their “chat”; then, a few stanzas later, we move to the grisly denouement:

“I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:

I deeply sympathise.’

With sobs and tears he sorted out

Those of the largest size,

Holding his pocket-handkerchief

Before his streaming eyes.

O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,

You’ve had a pleasant run!

Shall we be trotting home again?’

But answer came there none —

And this was scarcely odd, because

They’d eaten every one.”

Nicholas studied English at Cambridge (unlike Lewis Carroll who read Mathematics at Oxford), and has since pursued a career as an independent consultant in food security, poverty reduction and social protection
Nicholas studied English at Cambridge (unlike Lewis Carroll who read Mathematics at Oxford), and has since pursued a career as an independent consultant in food security, poverty reduction and social protection

After their talk, the hypocritical Walrus sorts the oysters by size and devours them, all the while crying crocodile tears (to mix my animal metaphors!). At the end of the process, the only survivors are the World Bank and the IMF themselves, and no sustainable national social protection systems remain for those countries who chose to follow their advice: just like in real life!

So, as the moral of this disturbing fable for today’s social protection debates, I borrow the warning from another presumed characterisation of the World Bank and the IMF in Through the Looking Glass: Beware the Jabberwock, my son, … and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!







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