Eleanor Green: Development vs. Tradition

We sit in our motel café eating breakfast in a cool dark room. The sun has been up for a few hours but hasn’t gained much heat yet, a young boy outside is weaving flax. A brand new Toyota drives past drowning out the women in the kitchen speaking rapid Samoan as they bake our bread for the morning. Katy Perry’s ‘Hot and Cold’ plays on the radio. If you are looking for proof of globalisation, look no further.

Culture is tricky, water is also wet and pigs can’t fly. It’s deeply personal and constantly in evolution. Every generation holds custodianship of it and it is always moulded through this process. The concept that culture is static is simply wrong. This is not to suggest that traditions and history should be ignored. However history shows a roadmap in any culture of how the peoples of the world grow and evolve. Perhaps humanities greatest skill is our ability to adapt. We use what works and leave behind what doesn’t, this is the skill which we use to scale Mount Everest, map the stars and gather from all nations across the globe to discuss what to do next.

Because that is the point of every United Nations conference. What is working and what isn’t? Where are the gaps? What are we not thinking of? Our shared but different experiences allow us to realise and implement the best possible solutions to our various problems and address our failings. How well we do this is another topic, but that is the intent. Trying to translate this evolution to developing countries is an incredibly difficult task.

Whenever something is threatened, its defences spring up and all resources are directed to self-preservation. Of course there is no greater threat to a developing countries culture that westernisation, a sub set of globalisation. These cultures are incredible, diverse, unique and truly central to the life and success of these nations and communities. And it is a threat. That is clear. Walking through the Faleata Sports Complex we see drawings from school children on how they want to see Apia, the Samoan capital, in 20 years. One in particular shows a huge, bustling cityscape, featuring in particular Nike, Puma, and KFC. You cannot help but feel like this would be a huge loss of the uniqueness of Apia, and indeed Samoa.

But then who gets to decide this? Will it help people gain jobs and income and raise standards of living? Will it allow these Small Island Developing States to engage more fully in the international community, strengthening their voice and impact? Development that has occurred over millennia in the western world is being condensed in to a few short decades within these states. It is also impossible to reverse these processes which have begun so vigorously.

The dichotomy of small island states is very difficult for someone form a western viewpoint to understand. Women are only given a tiny amount of land rights within Samoa, and yet at this conference their involvement is far higher than men’s with regards to facilitation and panel discussions.  Involvement have clearly come before rights here, however it is working, women are being heard loud and clear and directly or indirectly involved in decision making. It comes down to dialogue. Western women’s rights activists despair at SIDS for their equality situation, with many refusing to go in to these societies to work. We can always do more for these women and the strive for equality is far from finished, even in our own societies. How do we initiate change without disrupting millennia of culture? How can cultures apply their adaptive skills to make a better future without turning themselves in to a mini United States, or Australia or New Zealand?  

The answer is not clear, but certainly refusing to help people because of ideological conflict, simply leaves these vulnerable communities without assistance. Communication is key, but other than that the way forward is confusing. How can we create societies in which everyone is equal and free without deconstructing culture? It’s painfully obvious that currently there are more questions than answers. They will not be one-size-fits-all and we will not find it overnight, but as I currently sit in a Gender forum at SIDS2014, where people from all over the world are discussing how to solve these problems, I believe we are starting to unravel this. 

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Posted on September 2, 2014 .