Neighbours learning from neighbours

Maps and borders are human creations. Remember when the first astronauts saw earth from space and realized there were no borders visible? Artificial lines on a map, however, influence us more deeply than we think. For one thing, we divide countries into several camps – the ‘developed’ world and the ‘underdeveloped’ world. Different terms have been used over time, of course. In the 1990s, people used to talk about the Third World; now they talk about ‘fragile states’.

But one result is the same – people in the ‘developed’ world don’t tend to think they have anything to learn from people who live in ‘less developed’ parts of the world.  Their picture of what life is like in those places, created largely through media, underlines differences, rather than commonalities. The result is that we miss out on lessons that could be shared and applied in the ‘developed’ world as well.

I first realized this when I began reading about ‘failed’ states when I was studying human security and peacebuilding in 2004. The collapse of the USSR and the wars in Somalia and Yugoslavia in the 1990s had led scholars to begin analyzing states in a different way. Some of these countries had governments that didn’t govern; one, Somalia, had a government that had collapsed entirely. The scholars who coined the term ‘failed state’ suggested that those places needed a guardian, much as did people who were ill or incapable of managing their own affairs. Over the next few decades, this kind of thinking led to a great focus on intervening to ‘improve’ governance in those countries.

As I was reading many stories of how people in such countries were making life better for themselves and their communities, I began to wonder if they really thought of themselves as living in ‘failed’ states. So I began to ask my friends in Canada how they related to our national government, and learned that by and large, they didn’t – their focus was a local one, on their community, their organizations, and their friends and family. This was, I discovered, the same focus that people had in many other parts of the world that we thought of as ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘fragile’ (this is the more politically correct version of ‘failed’ that has come to be used in recent years).

Horizontal learning

I wondered if we would get further, both locally and internationally, if we began to share our stories as peers – what the Community Development Resource Association in South Africa calls ‘horizontal’ or neighbor to neighbor learning – rather than as ‘experts’ to learners (what CRDA calls ‘vertical’ learning). This is akin to what John McKnight discovered about community development work in the US in the 1980s – that it was far more effective to help people identify what they had and knew and work with those assets, rather than focus on what they didn’t have and didn’t know (their deficits). This has since become ‘asset-based community development’.

And I discovered, in my research, an interesting but little known example of how such an approach could help create more of that neighbor to neighbor learning. In 1994, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was faced with a Congress that was skeptical about the value of its overseas development work. So USAID decided to bring home to US communities some of the innovative techniques it had discovered overseas – creative, low-cost solutions developed in countries with scarce resources.

This program, called Lessons Without Borders, actually grew from a casual conversation. Why do we not apply these innovations here, one person involved in international activities asked USAID’s administrator. Cities in the US jumped on board even before there was a formal program, in fact. Struggling with such issues as infant mortality, joblessness, teen pregnancy, child immunization and dealing with gangs, they saw hope in what people had learned overseas about dealing with these problems.

City officials ‘got it’, although many US residents didn’t make the same connection. When USAID applied its expertise to work with a health clinic in inner city Washington that had been closed by city budget cuts, for example, some residents were completely shocked to discover that their situation might be anything like the situation of people living in the ‘third world’.

Innovations introduced

Despite its short life, Lessons Without Borders introduced US cities to human development, ecological and economic strategies used overseas, and many of these we now take for granted. Few travelers go anywhere without packages of ORS in their kit, for example. Oral rehydration salts, developed in Bangladesh as a desperate attempt to save lives during the cholera epidemic that followed the independence war, may have saved the US health system as much as half a billion dollars when they were introduced to American hospitals.

US cities dramatically improved their childhood immunization rates, using techniques from Kenya. Women’s programs established “peer lending” initiatives based on Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank and Kenyan micro-credit programs. Several cities trained neighbourhood leaders as health educators, using techniques developed in Bangladesh and Bolivia. Environmental ideas from Egypt were introduced to Seattle’s city markets. Florida learned educational system reforms from South Korea. California began using disaster assistance management courses based on Central American experience. Texas learned innovations in agricultural productivity from Tanzanian projects. Drawing on Somali experience, one national youth council introduced a gathering of elders into its annual conference. Public policy institutes learned from citizen engagement in the new democracies of Eastern Europe and South Africa.

Before it ended in 1998, Lessons Without Borders effectively closed the circle for USAID, which was created in 1949 to share US technical expertise with developing nations. Now that sharing was bringing useful lessons home to a rich country that had lost sight of the creative, low-cost solutions developed in countries with scarce resources. Neighbours in those ‘fragile’ states were sharing their ideas with neighbours in ‘developed’ states, and their ideas were improving life in the ‘developed’ world as well as in their own countries.

Wouldn’t it be a much better world if that was how all international development work was done?