WE HAVE THE ILLUSION of living in a global village.
Like many illusions, it is based on partial truths. There is no question that 20th-century technology, from jet travel to acid rain to nuclear missiles, has shrunk the distance between us in myriad ways. There is no question that, thanks to modern communications, we are quickly made aware of, and affected by, events in the far corners of the world. But the picture of the world that comes to us in this way is a gross distortion, a caricature.
What’s missing from our media-created vision of the world is a real knowledge of people. We are like "global apartment dwellers" who know only fragments about their neighbors in spite of the physical closeness. To become global villagers requires something more; it requires breaking through the psychological and cultural isolation that surrounds us.
The profound practical importance of this was brought home to me recently by an interview with Leonel Gomez, a Salvadorean reformer (in the Christian Science Monitor, June 19, 1987, p. 3). In it, he says that Americans of all political beliefs still don’t understand what went wrong in Vietnam, and because of this they are still making the same mistakes all over the third world. In contrast, the Vietnamese spent a long time analysing why they won, and according to Gomez, came to some interesting conclusions:
"The most important weapon the communists have [in the third world], and what makes their victory inevitable, is corruption and the Americans’ arrogance and ignorance of third-world societies, which make them not only tolerate [corruption] but often indirectly encourage it.
"The Vietnamese told me that if the land-reform project [in Vietnam] had worked, not only would the Americans not have lost South Vietnam, they would have driven them [the communists] out of North Vietnam. But the projects didn’t work because of the people the US put in charge of them. The projects’ money was constantly stolen, and they were mismanaged [and the same was true throughout South Vietnamese society]…
"When corruption becomes so massive, what you have is the prostitution of an entire society and the relatively rapid deterioration of its main institutions.
"The Vietnamese told me over and over again that this was the main weapon they had to work with, the weapon with which they converted people – not ideology, not Marxism-Leninism."
Our neighbors on this globe are not just abstractions, like "Iranians" or "third-world people", nor are they just expressions of problems, like hunger, poverty, and overpopulation. They are, above all, real people who wish to be appreciated and respected, people for whom the insult of corruption and unfair treatment can be worse even than the struggle of poverty.
What follows in this issue are the stories of people who have worked, with respect, in cross-cultural setting. If Gomez is right, recent history could have been quite different if more Americans had learned these lessons. Perhaps the near future can be made different as well if we will but hear these voices now.
The guest editor for this issue is Laurie Childers, who has spent much of the last 5 years working in Asia and Africa on projects designed to increase local production of inexpensive fuel-efficient cookstoves as a response to the dwindling supply of fuelwood in these parts of the world. She and her husband John now work on the technical and training aspects of development projects (through Childers, Selker and Associates), and have just moved to Ithaca, NY.