‘No man is an island entire of itself’ – we are all a part of the whole

This morning, I read a fascinating article on 100 Days in Appalachia, about the cultural aspects of mental health counselling. Ariana Velasquez, the author, has both Appalachian and Asian ancestry, and yet most of the therapists she initially encountered regarded the ‘collectivist’ dynamics of one of those societies positively and the other, negatively.

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“But when I tried to explain to them that my Appalachian familial dynamic was very similar to that of the Asian side of my family — almost identical, in fact — I was met with the explanation that it was different. That was a part of the Asian (specifically Filipino) culture. It is widely accepted by mental health professionals that Asian cultures are more collectivist in their mindsets. This means that we prioritize the needs of the whole, the entire family for instance, over that of an individual.”

And Appalachia, she says, is a ‘collectivist culture. This not only influences how families operate, but prioritizing family and community influences our politics, our economy and virtually every aspect of our lives.”

This is one of those usually unspoken, often unconscious, assumptions that underlies how we ‘do’ international and community development. I suspect many North Americans do not grasp how ‘individualism’ underlies our societies.

Grasping the difference

I remember vividly the first time I fully grasped this huge difference, two or three decades ago. I was doing research in the northern Bosnian city of Brćko, which rebuilt peace in its district after the terrible Bosnian war. The man I was interviewing was talking about the finances of reconstruction and redevelopment, and he seemed for a moment stuck for words.

So I jumped in, trying to show I understood by using an analogy. “It’s like when you grow up and leave home and start earning money for yourself,” I said. He looked horrified. “No, no. When you grow up, you become able to contribute to your family’s growth, to do your part to help the family grow.”

It was one of those sudden realizations that you have encountered a cultural divide, between two very different ways of thinking. Growing up did not mean leaving your family behind to strike out for yourself; it meant the ability to make a different kind of contribution to your family – to give instead of just taking. And that has major implications for social policy, and for development strategies.

 It crystallized something I should have realized clearly, having lived with aboriginal communities in Canada and seen how family traditions influenced Serbian society – but somehow, I had not seen it so clearly before.

And like so many realizations of that kind, once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

North American society is in many ways the outlier. There is a myth of individual achievement, the idea that we each create our own destiny by ourselves. And because that is what we think deep down, that is how we approach development in communities and internationally. It affects how we treat other societies that are “collectivist”, as if we have somehow graduated beyond that approach.

The family focus

Most of the rest of the world focuses on the family and how individuals are part of and contribute to its growth and development, not separate from it. And of course that thinking extends to the community as a whole.

You see it in how Serbians build their homes in rural areas. They build a much larger building than they need, with upper floors unfinished. As their children grow and establish their own families, they move into and finish the upper layers. They celebrate with slavas, gatherings of family and friends tied to religious holidays which operate according to a fixed pattern – family on the first day, friends on the second, and the rest of the community on the third. Even when children have moved to the city, they come back for slavas. And when people were successful in the city, they found ways to contribute to their home community.

Or when you think about Indigenous communities in earlier times, when hunters sought game on behalf of the whole community and divided up the meat among the whole community. While they hunted individually, their obligation was to feed the whole community.

Photo by Askar Abayev from Pexels

For women, time matters

These assumptions, so rarely surfaced, affect our developmental strategies. The brilliant New Zealand thinker, Marilyn Waring, named another one of them decades ago. When she worked in development in Africa, she talked about how what was significant for women was ‘time’ – what was significant for men was ‘money’.

So designing projects that saved women time, in collecting wood, water and food, had a markedly different effect on both individuals and communities than projects that focused on ‘money’, which often tended to benefit individuals rather than the whole community. It required looking at how women and men lived their lives – what they do from sunrise to sunset and how that work contributed to supporting their families and communities. But many international development projects focused on how to generate money, not to save women’s time.

I saw this for myself in post-conflict Bosnia one time, driving through a town where the men were sitting in the cafe drinking coffee or maybe rakia while the women were filling containers with water from the water tanker provided by international forces. In Somaliland, women came to help Edna Adan build her hospital, learning the non-traditional skill of making bricks while the men often chewed khat, a popular stimulant.

Clans – bigger family groupings – are key aspects of many societies. Not understanding the obligations or allegiances to clans, or the role they play, has caused problems in international attempts to rebuild Somalia, whereas an understanding of clan dynamics helped Somaliland rebuild. In earlier days, when Somalis were nomadic, clans would encourage intermarriage between clans because then, when they travelled, they would be meeting with kin rather than with strangers. 

In southern Sudan, people traditionally cared for strayed cattle as they searched for their owners; during the civil war, people started to keep strayed cattle for themselves. Preparing for the 2011 referendum, community workers realized that they were making progress towards peace when they discovered that people were once again trying to return strayed cattle to their owners.

The power of remittances

Development finance does not pay enough attention to the mechanics and effects of remittances, as Dilip Ratha pointed out two decades ago. People go to work in other countries in order to send home money, to make a better life for their children and their families. Remittances are massive, continuing streams of money – far exceeding traditional development programs or philanthropic giving.

When development programs recognize this dynamic, they can build on it – as Mexico’s powerful ‘three for one’ program recognizes, providing support for communities and states based on the flow of remittances.

During civil wars of the past, ‘hometown associations’ – groups of people who have emigrated elsewhere – provided support for their communities back home, allowing them to survive and even build while war raged around them. Yet few peacebuilding strategies have chosen to work with such groups.

The world for our grandchildren

The climate change discussions have also illustrated these different ways of thinking ever more clearly than before, in fact. Many more of us have grasped the wisdom of thinking ‘seven generations forward’ as a way of making societal decisions, of thinking of the future collectively and not just for ourselves alone.

So many more of us have begun thinking about what kind of world our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live in. Our definition of well-being has expanded beyond ourselves and our nuclear family, and that changes how we think about the decisions of today.

As John Donne wrote, centuries ago:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”