When most of us refer to the “developing world” we are talking about technological, economic, and political progress along a particular spectrum (e.g. towards an economic model based on continual growth) and, more to the point here, implicitly expressing a model of change that flows in only one direction. The model is that countries are now in a given state and they can progress to a more advanced state. We typically think of education in the same terms. Now this seems clearly problematic for a number of reasons. The one I’ve been thinking about is the directionality: who is developing towards what? I’m particularly excited about the ways in which knowledge - i.e. development - flows the other direction, from less to more industrialized places.
In particular, I have a theory that much of the accumulated knowledge and expertise in the global South will become increasingly relevant to the North as we stretch our planet’s carrying capacity in the years to come.
I first thought of this in context of tool innovation and technological regression. Manual sewing machines, bicycle-powered knife sharpeners (and other machines), the sorts of amazing resource-conserving repurposing wonderfully collected on Afrigadget. It will make more and more sense in the North, if electricity becomes more expensive and harder to come by, to use people-powered tools. It’s the other side of “energy independence,” where we find ways to get by with less rather than coming up with increasingly-fancy ways of providing the same amount we use now.
More recently, I’ve starting wondering in what ways behavior - basic coping skills - might develop “here” by learning from “there.” In India, for example, blackouts are relatively common and one can presume that people have developed ways of coping with them, of accepting them into the flow of day-to-day life. What are those mechanisms? If Oakland starts having regular blackouts, how might I learn what folks in other parts of the world know about what to do? Not just right now - light a candle, leave the fridge closed, etc - but how to plan, in an everyday manner, for the certainty that the power will go out. And I can think of other examples, such as changing our cultural relationship to garbage.
I’m not saying we should be happy for regular blackouts and overcrowding - I have no desire to roll back many of the world’s technological and social advances - just that if we are going to survive what may well be an extremely difficult future, we need to find knowledge wherever it resides.
There seems to be a zeitgeist in support of world-changing enterprises that sustain themselves by making money. I just wanted to point out that there is a huge difference between using entrepreneurial approaches to change the world and using social-benefit enterprises to make money. This is not just semantics; although it’s certainly possible to do both, I believe that the underlying motivation will always impact the outcome. For example, if your goal is ultimately to make money, your target audience is likely to creep up the pyramid, no matter your good intentions. The other thing I see lurking beneath messages like this one…
… is the idea that we can have our cake and let others eat theirs, too. This is an approach that is generally defensive of the world’s current allocation of wealth. If you believe in infinite growth, then I guess that’s fine. But I’m pretty sure the pie needs to get redistributed pretty radically if we really want to, for example, end poverty.