Beyond Borders

23 Jul

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.

* * *

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.

6 Responses to “Beyond Borders”

  1. Deb 23 July, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    Good question? Why are we not bringing more ideas from Africa and Asia here? Maybe it has something to do with the growing education deficit here in the U.S., or more likely our continued arrogance. In any case, there are those who are open to ideas from other areas of the globe, and I guess time will tell who leads the next era of innovation. My guess is that it will not be U.S.

  2. Linda (@meowtree) 24 July, 2010 at 2:33 am #

    Just quickly – without much thought here so maybe I’m wrong🙂. I can see a few sides to this. One – in the cases where the the local educated elites in certain countries aren’t working on designs to improve their own BOP, why not? Two – will the ‘interference’ from the outside spur local elites to get their sh*t together and take control and do for their own? In many cases, no, because local elites benefit from the power imbalances. Three – what are the historical, economic reasons and global power imbalances that encourage local people and communities think that something that comes from the US or Europe is better than something that is local, (or that make the ‘fake Chinese’ products widely available but widely disdained for being inferior – eg “be careful if you buy that Chinese one because it will just break the next day”) and what are the pressures that people feel to accept the ‘goodwill’ and innovations that come from the outside because they are brought in by white people/people from the ‘North’?

  3. Ian 24 July, 2010 at 8:17 pm #

    J – while I agree with most of what you wrote here, I take a few important points from Nussbaum’s discussion:

    1. Lots of people can think that they have great design ideas which will improve the world, but some will work and some won’t. Designers in the private sector will get feedback based on whether people actually buy their products – but bright ideas for aid/development can get funding and promotion without them actually meeting the needs of customers (yes you’ve heard this from me before).

    2. It’s obviously harder to design for people who are far away and with which you have little in common – even if your basic idea is good, simply because you understand less about the problem you’re trying to address from the perspective of the person that is experiencing it.

    3. Cultural norms and local tastes as well as prejudices also affect how well people accept ideas from other places, however good or useful they might be. “Behaviour change” is often the largest barrier to introducing development ideas – even those clearly known to work.

    Of course good ideas can come from any place – but the points above clearly affect the possibilities to transfer an idea from one place to another successfully. I think it’s important to bear these in mind when creating new development interventions or innovations. Similarly these help explain why good ideas from the South aren’t better disseminated – these face even more challenges in having less means to be disseminated or promoted, and they have to face greater barriers in people’s unwillingness to accept them.

    Basically we need to remember that our good ideas are not always good, and even our good ideas will not always be recognized or welcomed.

  4. terence 24 July, 2010 at 11:32 pm #

    Good question? Why are we not bringing more ideas from Africa and Asia here?

    It is a good question but…

    I can’t speak for the US; however were the question to be applied to New Zealand, I’d say the answer runs something like this:

    1. The institutional environment is different.
    and
    2. The economic environment is different.

    This isn’t to say there’s nothing to learn. But just that the context of a reasonably well functioning developed country and that of a typical developing country is different enough for me to think transferability isn’t going to be great.

    Having said that, I completely agree with:

    And more to point for aid work, a good idea is a good idea… no matter where on the planet it comes from.

    i.e. I’m definitely open minded on the matter.

  5. Erin 25 July, 2010 at 11:48 pm #

    Hi – I love your blog, but this surprised me:

    And more to point for aid work, a good idea is a good idea… no matter where on the planet it comes from.

    Isn’t the question here who gets to determine what a “good” idea is? Western/Northern designers – of both buildings and aid programs – are those with the power (monetary and media support) to determine what ideas actually count as “good,” and “good” often turns into “exportable on a massive scale” without any consideration of what might be good for a particular place.

  6. Dave Algoso 26 July, 2010 at 12:55 am #

    J, I totally agree that “imperialism” gets thrown around way too much. It’s just not a useful way to think about something like product design. However, the question of whether people will reject ideas from the outside *simply because they’re from the outside* is a minor concern. You’re right, most people are fine with outside ideas.

    To me, the more interesting concern is how/when outside ideas actually are good ideas for the context. Ian’s points 2 & 3 and Terence’s points are valid here. There’s so much nuance in any context (institutional/economic environment, cultural norms, etc) that designers who are farther away will have a hard time grasping it. Needs assessments, market research, etc will try to fill in that nuance, but they can never get at the implicit knowledge that we gain from growing up in a community.

    Btw, I think your closing analogy actually undermines your point. “Good music is good music” — sure, but recognizing that it’s good doesn’t mean any particular person actually wants to hear it. Same with design ideas. The idea might be good, but if people don’t want it, then it’s not gonna get played. Imagine if you tasked Toby Keith with writing a song that would appeal to rural Kenyan farmers. It’s not that it’s impossible, just that it’s a lot less likely.

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