I want to tell you about a common false dichotomy that has existed for a long time.
We live in a civilization that has pinned global-minded ideas against local-minded ideas. The concepts surrounding global ideas have long taken on the perception of innovation, first world modernity, high entrepreneurial capacity, and the belief that all boats also rise when the tide rises. In the wake of this perception is the sense that the antithesis of this is local ideas.
The word “local” conjures an aesthetic of simple, even perhaps, primitive. The term ‘local’ seems to represent shorter reaches, lower capacities, more specific impacts – and some might even argue that it represents the minor league of businesses. A person can own a local business for a long time, but to be regarded as having truly succeeded, a business must enter the big leagues of global business. “Local” is not considered efficient, it is not considered to be running at a truly scalable level, and thus it is not fully worth the investment if the entire vision of the company is able to be seen and the walls of the small empire fully grasped.
Inversely, global scale can seem callous, faceless, and disconnected from the true lives of individuals whose ideas, idiosyncrasies, blood, sweat, and tears make up the DNA at the core of even the most expansive companies in our world. We like to hate companies like Comcast and AT&T because it is easier to blame an ambient or ethereal empire when our internet goes out or when our phones erode into obsolescence. We can blame billionaires who can easily be categorized as near-alien in the ways that they are distanced from the common struggles of the general population, when we experience pain, scarcity, or find ourselves in some form of man-made difficulty. Yet we still have an overactive confidence in these globally-minded demigods. We institutionalize them. We build our own homes on a foundation of concrete mixed with Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, and we call it smart.
It is harder, in our post-confrontational lives, to get as angry at the local family-operated restaurant for messing up our order, or for paying a little more to keep the throngs of high school employees paid and supported during the summer. We engage with local business on a level that feels almost missional. We shop at the local bookstore because we feel called to be part of the buttress holding up such a pitifully flimsy cathedral. We know that the small business is buying time before they are swallowed whole by the big world out there. Bless its heart. This engagement has an origin story that has proven over and over that small businesses do often meet their demise and that their lifespan is much smaller than the institutionalized pillars of big business. We come by our local business engagement with a backstory that justifies our sense of hopeful fatalism. We support local businesses because they will probably fail, not because they will probably succeed. It’s okay. Whatever the motivation, it is still good to support local businesses.
But I want us to pay attention to the bigger misconception about local business. We see local as human, but not necessarily as “expert.”
The world of international social, health, and community development has been plagued by this unfounded idea for a long time. In fact, it would be easy to argue that the entire “industry” providing social good in the world has been influenced by the strange conclusion that small and local does not equal thought leadership or expertise.
Yet, the work of creating solutions to social, health, environmental, and societal challenges would not be possible apart from the practice of learning and listening to the experts in local contexts.
We need only look to the variation in the ways a city in the Northeast approaches its societal challenges contrasted with the way a city in the Southwest or the Midwest approaches the same kind of societal challenge, to see that we cannot find and implement solutions without local expertise.
We can look even more granularly at this need by wondering, for a moment, if the same methods our neighbors next door use to raise their children would work on our own.
Even before we sift through the uniqueness of human beings and how we navigate our universe, take into consideration the vast differences in geography, environment, climate, societal history, agriculture, politics, conflict, and so on. We need only look to that to see that without the expertise of people who have lived in the womb of these spaces, the work of forming and applying solutions is a futile checklist of fool’s errands.
The question that should pop up in your brain at this point is, “Has the international development community largely operated without elevating the importance and integral role of local expertise?” And the answer to your question is a resounding and painful, “yes.”
The work of solving health crises in developing countries has largely been relegated to big international NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) whose engagement is informed by a belief that local expertise is not the most important part of their work.
This belies an inherent disregard and disrespect for local leaders and what they bring to the conversation about developing their own communities, and solving their own societal challenges.
And it is the primary reason that the issues of water scarcity, nutritional resilience, health instability, and many other centuries-old problems have not been solved.