Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Seeking Out Narrators

Puneet Goenka

Imagine a world in which everything that anyone outside the U.S. knew about the U.S. came from the news.  The country would struggle to garner respect and admiration for itself.  The only thing people would hear about is the string of senseless gun shootings, racial attacks, and Donald Trump’s media escapades around his presidential campaign – making it impossible for a non-U.S. resident to form a positive opinion about the country.

But thankfully, the U.S. is able to export so much more to the world than its domestic news.  It has a brigade of artists and musicians whose songs are played on radio stations around the world.  It has a bearded man to sell greasy chunks of fried chicken in red fast-food outlets.  It has citizens working in organizations such as Peace Corps and USAID to dispel myths and misconceptions about American life and culture.  It has the imagination and skill to recreate dinosaurs on the big-screen and enthrall audiences from Adelaide to Anaheim and beyond.  The U.S. (and several other countries) through its own efforts and that of others is able to spin multiple narratives about its country, culture, and its people.

Why then are several developing countries stuck with a single, often negative, narrative – that of being undeveloped and poor.  Either they really have a single narrative to offer the world, or there is a severe lack of narrators.  In my experience working in three countries over the summer, I have found the latter to be true.

On my last weekend in Uganda, I made a quick trip to Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda.  As an undergraduate student I raised funds for an organization that provided life-saving HIV drugs to Rwandan clinics without knowing anything else about the country.  The only thing I had known about Rwanda was that its population struggled with HIV/AIDS, and that they were largely poor.  That was the narrative that stayed with me all these years in the absence of any other news or information about Rwanda from personal discussions or from the consumption of traditional and social media.

Kigali has to be one of the cleanest, and most organized cities in the developing world.  I looked hard but wasn’t able to find much garbage on the streets or other public spaces, roads and related infrastructure were top-notch, and there was a general civic sense in following traffic rules and road signs.  How does Kigali achieve this?  Partly through a Government mandated community service program that requires all citizens to partake in community building activities once a month.  On probing further as to why this program came about I learnt that it was established as a peace building endeavor after the horrific 1994 genocide that killed millions of people from a particular ethnic group in Rwanda.

In his 2009 TED talk, Shashi Tharoor, former Indian Member of Parliament and senior UN official talked about the importance and impact of countries generating soft power, a way of attracting people to a country by its culture, political beliefs, and foreign policies.  He goes on to argue that McDonalds may have done more to improve U.S. soft power than any formal policy or activity.  In recent months, India’s Prime Minister has rolled out one campaign after the other.  ‘Make in India’ brands India as a manufacturing powerhouse, ‘Swacch Bharat’ (Clean India) aims at bringing basic cleanliness and hygiene to the forefront of Indian consciousness, while the more recent ‘World Yoga Day’ was an endorsement by the United Nations of the significance of Yoga and by extension, of India, the country of its origin. 

These campaigns can, and should, be viewed with caution.  Unless backed by the right guidelines and adequate resources, they could end up being PR campaigns that benefit the Prime Minister’s next election campaign more than it benefits the country.  However, I also realize the potential upside of this if things do move in the right direction – more so after my experiences this summer.  It gives India the opportunity to develop additional narratives for itself and its people, strengthening its soft power.

Having a dominant negative narrative define a country and its people is detrimental.  It warps public perceptions, impacts business and tourism, influences policy and Government more than it should, and leaves us all with somewhat silly and misguided biases.  Johannesburg’s single dominant narrative of being crime-ridden for example warped my own thoughts and actions a few months ago.

While driving to a performing arts show with a friend, she swerved the car to avoid hitting a man who was laying on the street.  He was delirious and was asking for help.  He could also have been drunk, or putting on a show to get people to step outside of the car while giving him easy access to their valuables, or maybe have an accomplice drive away with the car.  In that split second of decision making I was shamefully unsure of how to react – stop and help someone that may have been hurt or drive away.  All the stories of crime, mugging, and theft flooded my mind and drowned out my own personal values.  Thankfully my friend who was in the driver’s seat got to make the decision, and she made the right one of stopping to help.

Developing multiple narratives in my view is a democratic undertaking that needs equal participation by Government, business, and civil society.  Governments, businesses, and citizens are however likely to be constrained by the resources available within the country.  Access and penetration of the internet/cell phones, stable Governments that support the growth of homegrown multinational corporations, or the ability to connect globally in a universal language are all factors that could inhibit a resource poor country from exporting more than stories about its poverty and challenges to the world.  Rwandan artists for example may not be able to have the global appeal that American or British artists enjoy, their food may not transcend borders the way Italian cuisine has, and its private sector may need another decade or two to build global companies.  But, maybe the story of how a country comes together once a month to better their communities can prove to be an inspiring and workable model for other countries.  And maybe this Rwandan story is worth sharing with other young undergraduates who may still be fundraising for HIV clinics in Rwanda and developing a narrow and negative narrative about the country the same way I had several years ago.

Just as the news headlines do not come close to defining or capturing what it means to be American and living in America, the same logic should be extended when thinking about developing countries.  There are monumental challenges, and I am not suggesting we pretend they don’t exist.  The media, aid organizations, and Governments are already focusing on building those narratives but why don’t you and I focus on building more interesting, nuanced, and constructive narratives? 

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