Can – and should – great local ideas be applied globally?

There are examples across the world of communities, societies and entire countries implementing great ideas that really work, from subsidising electric cars in Norway to microinsurance in Rwanda. Could we scale these ideas globally and should we? Mel and Alex discuss in this week’s conversation-blog.

Alex Matthews: Something that I really enjoy is reading about ways in which people, communities, even countries are taking action to change the way things work for the better. It’s so encouraging to discover that, for example, the world’s first 3D-printed, earthquake-resistant homes have been built in Mexico, that New Zealand has put wellbeing at the heart of its economy, and that the Dutch government has found a way to prioritise bicycles over cars in its major cities, thereby cutting down carbon emissions from vehicles. It makes you wonder if we could collect these examples and simply replicate them across the world. Perhaps Los Angeles could turn its roads into cycle lanes? Could China and the US prioritise wellbeing over economic growth? Or is it more complicated than that?

Mel Young: I guess you are suggesting a sustainable and good form of globalisation! The critics of globalisation when it began rallied against the greed of big corporations which were making huge profits by operating across the globe. The world has become a much smaller place and you can’t go backwards, so somehow using systems which work and applying them across the world makes absolute sense. If the whole world was to follow the Netherlands and ride bicycles instead of cars then the environment would be so much better. For sure. But the pushback is: what works well in one country won’t necessarily work in another. How do we decide what is good practice and should be followed, as opposed to bad practice?

AM: Yes that’s the problem – who gets to decide whose ideas and practices are better than others’? And should the ‘right’ practices be imposed on other countries, no matter what the local cultural and economic nuances? What body would be able to do that? The Finnish education system, for example, is upheld as a beacon of what an education system should look like – it’s inclusive, based on soft as well as hard skills and doesn’t focus solely on academia. But Finland is a small, wealthy country, so it’s arguably much easier for them to implement radical change than, for example, a developing sub-Saharan African country. 

That said, I do think that there would be a lot of benefit in celebrating the things that countries are doing right and having them share their learnings and successes with other countries that have room for improvement. Many complain about globalisation but in this case I think it’s only a good thing – where’s the bad in being inspired by the successes of other countries?

MY: Well, I agree, we should all be learning from each other. This will work if it is a two-way process. In your education example, it might be that a sub-Saharan country might have an excellent education system which even Finland could learn from. Yes, I think we should be inspired but we need to get away from the notion that everything the West thinks about is the latest catch-all answer for the world. I guess, what I am struggling with just now is that so many people and organisations across all sectors are talking about the need to change the world. Well, I agree, absolutely, but everyone is operating in silos and not really sharing concepts which could form into a set of values which everyone in the world could adopt. So, it is becoming intense noise with lots of jumping around but little genuine systemic change.

AM: Yes you’re absolutely right – we’re in danger here of putting Western practices on a pedestal and neglecting the innovations and advancements of non-Western countries. There was an example of that recently when the world – rightly – celebrated new miscarriage laws in New Zealand which allowed more compassionate leave for parents who have suffered miscarriage. They were lauded as the first country to do this – until people pointed out that countries such as Malaysia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and many more already had such laws in place.

To answer your point about the set of values which everyone could adopt – that’s a good point. I believe that most people around the world understand that change needs to happen across the board, from climate change to inequality, but there seems to be an impasse, with leaders unwilling to implement difficult change and people unwilling to dramatically change their lives. If we had an international body that had the power to implement a set of values and could recommend – or even enforce (although that could be controversial!) – changes to be made, then perhaps we would get more action and less noise.

MY: I think if a set of values were to emerge then they could be adopted across the world rather than imposed. If the values were right and made sense then people could adopt them as part of a fundamental society. People have to own them, so it becomes a type of movement. There is a huge challenge around enforcement. I don’t think anyone has an answer to that. A lot of people criticise the United Nations, for example, for being slow, ponderous and toothless – but what do we replace it with? I think it would be interesting to have an international body on national values but how much power would it have – that’s the big question!

AM: That is indeed a big question! My instinct is – and this might be reflective of my generation and political views – is that an international body that has been properly, fairly elected and properly represents the different experiences of people across the world, should have significant powers in this respect. The world needs to change and it’s not going to as long as countries are competing with each other for trade, energy and growth etc. If a supranational body, like the UN but more agile and more action-oriented – and therefore more powerful – had the power to enforce change then I think we could really get somewhere. But I do understand that that is a controversial view, and also that there would have to be major checks and balances to ensure that you didn’t get some megalomaniac in charge.

MY: Yep, there is no easy answer for an international body which has powers. Maybe it will never work. So, we simply return to concentrating on what works in our own area or country to make it fairer and sustainable and tell everyone else the story of that access in the hope that other people and countries can be inspired to do the same. Perhaps that’s all we can do at the moment. We become global but focus on making a positive impact where we live – that seems like a contradiction but in fact it isn’t!

Photo by Lucas George Wendt on Unsplash

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