I have to be honest and admit that I thought this article by Bruce Nussbaum was not just supremely boring, but also, well, tepid.
(Apparently, though, the article “started a firestorm” of online discussion. For those who struggle with insomnia, here’s a digest of that online discussion.)
To me, “imperialism” connotes Alexander the Great conquering lands far and near. And in that context, complaints that something called a “Hippo Roller” could in some way be evidence of a “new imperialism” is a bit of an eye-roller. On the other hand, the rhetorical question, “Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?” seems an overly obvious, “duh.”
The world is getting smaller. Mass media, ubiquitous internet and cell phones, Travelocity and Lonely Planet are in their own ways pushing us all up against each other, in some cases literally, like never before. Obviously there are countries and nations, and everyone has to be a citizen somewhere, and very often citizenship shapes sympathies and maybe even worldview. Obviously local community cohesion and culture and ethnicity and language are immensely important, and obviously they should not be meddled with wantonly.
But no culture, no community, no language is static. Change happens, for better or for worse, whether we like it or not. Just as destructive change should not be wantonly wrought from outside, neither should change from outside be rejected purely on the basis of the fact that it is from outside.
I say this equally to my own fellow Americans. Nussbaum ends his article with the question, “why are we only doing humanitarian design in Asia and Africa and not Native American reservations or rural areas, where standards of education, water and health match the very worst overseas?” But in my opinion a more enlightened question would be why we are not bringing more ideas from Asia and Africa here.
I’ve already written that if my community was ever to be a disaster zone and I a disaster survivor, I’d sleep much better at night knowing that my disaster response colleagues in Indonesia were on the case. Maybe we need Asian or African-led community development programs in North American and Europe as well.
As global citizens we need to learn to find comfortable middle ground between imperialism and provincialism.
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A few weeks ago in Washington D.C. I was catching up with an acquaintance of many years. At one point in the conversation he mentioned having recently attended the concert of a famous American country music singer – an admission for which his girlfriend, there with us, proceeded to mock him. He just shrugged, “hey, good music is good music…”
While I don’t plan to go to any country concerts myself, I have to agree: Good music is good music. And more to point for aid work, a good idea is a good idea… no matter where on the planet it comes from.