Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Eleven Things We Can Learn ...

... from the Rest of the World

Eleven lessons the West can learn that would improve our lives and create a better future for all humanity.

by Ode

AlterNet (October 23 2007)

The world is becoming One. But the game is being played according to rules set by the West. Where colonialism ultimately failed at running the world, Hollywood and the stock market are succeeding. In the process, we are seeing material gain and progress for developing nations - but also substantial loss. And Westerners may lose just as much in this as the rest of the world. The cultural richness and indigenous innovation that is in danger of being wiped out in Africa, Asia and Latin America by globalization could actually make Western societies healthier and happier. Here are eleven lessons the West can learn that would improve Western life and create a better future for all humanity.

1. Democracy (Ghana)

Ubuntu for all!

by Baffour Ankomah

Here's a surprise. What Africa has to offer the West is democracy! History says Ancient Greece invented democracy. But the Greeks took their inspiration from the other side of the Mediterranean in Egypt. "African democracy", which is practiced to this day in villages and towns across the continent - where seventy percent of Africans live - is very different from "Western democracy". It is based on the humanist philosophy called Ubuntu, originating in southern Africa, which teaches, "I am because you are". African democracy is focussed on including everyone, whereas Western democracy, with its basis in majority rule, divides people and nations.

Traditional African democracy doesn't involve organized opposition. Power is arranged like a pyramid. At the top is the king who exercises supreme authority, assisted by his council of elders and sub-chiefs. But the king or chief has no power except that which is given to him by the people. He is usually enthroned for life, but the actual duration of his reign depends on how well or poorly he performs. If he is a good king, he stays. If he is a bad king - who oppresses the people, or acts against their interests and traditions - he is overthrown by the people, using the constitutional means established for the purpose.

African democracy has a lot to teach the world about decision-making. Minor day-to-day decisions are made by the chief or king in consultation with the council of elders. But major decisions affecting the community are made by the people - all the people. The job of the king or chief is really to implement the will of the people.

In the African system, for example, if villagers want to build a school, the chief calls the whole community together under the trees of the village square. The gathering of the villagers acts like a city council or parliament. Wide and passionate discussions are held that day on the subject of the new school. Everybody is free to voice an idea. There is no organized opposition, but opposing views are strongly and freely expressed. The chief or king is the last to speak, but that doesn't mean he has "the last word" as would be the case in Western culture. At the end of the day, a consensus is almost always reached. And - most important - the new initiative enjoys broad support, since even opponents feel heard and respected. This kind of democracy is not a struggle for power, but an organizing structure.

Baffour Ankomah, from Ghana, is the editor of the magazine New African.

2. Ingenuity (India)

Finding solutions for what's impossible

by Vijay Mahajan

In rural India, you may spot a rather unusual vehicle. Halfway between a cart and a tractor, it can carry maybe twelve passengers. It doesn't need a licence plate, but it does have a motor - taken from a surplus water pump - and can travel up to forty kilometres (25 miles) an hour. That can be a problem, since the cart doesn't have brakes to speak of. When the driver needs to stop, the passengers jump off and drag wooden brake shoes against the wheels.

Jugaad is the name of this motorized problem-solving device, and it costs just 60,000 rupees (about $1,300). A jugaad is an alternative solution, an improvisation, a jury-rigged answer conceived by a creative culture in which scarcity and survival are constant challenges. While India makes headlines in the financial press as an economic force to be reckoned with, the real dynamism of its culture is in creations like the jugaad. It's their talent for improvisation that keeps a billion Indians moving forward into the future. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes - an important lesson for the West. Indian farmers ride triumphantly on their homemade vehicle. It represents their personal victory over the hard reality they inhabit, in which nothing is certain. In their lack of possessions - so unimaginable for Western souls - lies the secret to fulfillment and happiness.

A jugaad is an adaptation; Indians are constantly adapting to their situation. If a train car is too full, they find ways to move over to make space for new passengers. Flexibility is a condition for survival and future success, evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin concluded from his study of nature.

In the West, with its long-established rights and all-powerful lawyers, this wisdom has been lost. If something doesn't work quite right, a Westerner throws it away and buys a new one. An Indian goes in search of a jugaad - and often comes back smiling.

Vijay Mahajan is the founding director of microcredit institution BASIX in India.

3. Work (Nigeria)

Take the initiative

by Seyi Oyesola

Creating work. That's something the West could learn from the rest of the world. Asia, Africa and Latin America all host thriving cultures of entrepreneurship. People here constantly undertake new initiatives and create new jobs - for themselves and for others.

You seldom see local entrepreneurship anymore in the West. People are more likely to be employed by large corporations and organizations. Of course small business pioneers exist in Europe and the United States, but they are relatively few when you look at the entrepreneurial boom we're seeing in China and India. Social-welfare programs have tended to work against entrepreneurship, especially in Europe. Initiative is smothered if you aren't challenged to take care of yourself.

Wherever you go in Asia, Africa and Latin America, you see people creating work - and providing inspiration.

Seyi Oyesola practises medicine in London and is founding director of Global Medical Systems.

4. Yoga (India)

Bend it like a Brahmin

by Jagdish Parikh

Westerners should practise yoga. It's the best recipe for creating a healthier political system, economy and society.

Yoga? This may surprise you. In fact, you probably already know a lot of people who are doing yoga, right? Yoga studios are springing up everywhere in the urban West. They help people relax and stay in shape. But what on earth does yoga have to do with the functioning of society?

Real yoga is actually much more than the relaxation technique touted in the West. Yoga, an Indian life path that's been around for thousands of years, is about experiencing your self. Yoga points the way toward self-realization, which helps you see past identification with the ego to a consciousness more integrated with that of humanity and nature. Yoga is practised on eight levels. Hatha yoga, the physical yoga that's very popular in the West, is the first stage. Hatha helps relax you and promotes good health. These are nice side benefits, but not the core of yoga.

The other, deeper levels of yoga provide answers to a conflict that no economic model - from communism and socialism to the currently victorious capitalism - has resolved: the conflict between the individual as a human being and the individual as a tool for progress. In vain, people seek happiness and fulfilment in economic systems that are solely geared toward material growth. In the dominant Western model, an individual's private and professional lives are incongruent. Every activity is measured in money. Even the abundant supply of books and courses related to personal growth is mainly focussed on accumulating greater material wealth. No one can find happiness in such a model. We are not here to keep the economy going. Every individual comes to this Earth with his or her unique talents, and the true fulfilment of life is about developing those talents. This is why the economy and society must be reformed to allow people to develop and expand themselves through the work they do.

We can only really be happy if we can lead ourselves - instead of being led by the drive for more and more economic growth. To lead ourselves, we must first get to know ourselves. That is the path of yoga. When we learn that we are connected to our fellow human beings and nature, we become capable of making the transition from the current social model based on competition to a harmonious society based in co-operation. That transformation begins within us. Then, based on it, we can reform the way in which work is organized in society. Work should enable us to develop our talents.

Books about what needs to change and why abound. We know. Lack of knowledge isn't the problem. What we're missing is the courage to convert that knowledge into a behavioural shift. That courage can only be found through inner experience. Which is why yoga is so important.

Jagdish Parikh is managing director of the Lemuir Group of Companies, and the author of Managing Your Self (Blackwell, 1994).

5. Community (Kenya)

The real social security

by Kimanthi Mutua

The greatest value that Africa can teach is its culture of collectiveness. Centuries of individualism and materialism have destroyed most of this essential support structure in the West. Today's Westerners are trying to rediscover it on the Web. Social networking is the hottest new trend - people bonding with one another in virtual reality. In Africa, people connect in the daily reality of their lives. They naturally support each other, which builds an experience of community and compensates for the hardships of their lives.

It is important and interesting to note that in studies by the World Values Survey, most people in Africa do not report feeling less happy than people in developed nations despite being the poorest people on the planet. Africa is a living example of the fact that more money does not bring more happiness. That is a mirror the West should look into. Happiness comes from connections, from hope for the future and from the sense that you belong to something bigger than yourself. And because of the support people feel from their communities, hope is always present in Africa. The strong ties within the community also support healing. Look how fast Rwanda is recovering from a ghastly genocide and compare that with another terrible chapter of history - the Holocaust - that still rips through individual lives and politics in the West. Rwandans are overcoming their disaster faster because they find healing in their communities. That is an inspiring message. The West could rediscover the spirit of community.

Kimanthi Mutua is managing director of the microcredit bank K-Rep in Kenya.

6. Raising Children (Kenya)

Families first

by Nthenya Mule

Raising a family is a full-time job. Without my extended family and close friends, I would not be able to take care of my two sons the way I want to do, given that I'm a single working mother. Not only are friends and family always available to step in and take care of my sons as needed, they also support me with advice about how to guide and educate them best. Without them I would not be able to do what I'm doing.

"Madness is genetic - you get it from your children", goes the saying, but before I ever go to a therapist, I have spoken with at least five people in my immediate circle and the problem that initially seemed insurmountable no longer seems as daunting.

I think solutions for problems and conflicts that are found in my community are more suitable, because there is broad and permanent support for them. I can even accept critique more easily, because such advice comes from relatives and lifelong friends, who have my best interests at heart. I know they mean well and care about me. That social fabric supports our lives and those of our children. It's something the West seems, sadly, to have lost in the quest for individualism above all else. Generations - even the world - would benefit if the West could rediscover its own communities again.

Nthenya Mule is the Kenya manager of the Acumen Fund, a non-profit global venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of poverty.

7. The Village (Tanzania)

Someone looking out for you

by Zuhura Sinare Muro

My marriage was a challenge for our families. I am a Sunni Muslim woman. My father was a leader of the Muslim Council of Tanzania. I fell in love with a man who comes from a staunch born-again Christian family. This was at a time when evangelical Christians were decimating congregations of traditional Christian churches in Tanzania. Knowing the sensitivities of a civil marriage and the family profiles involved, we decided to request our families to allow us do a small wedding ceremony.

When we presented that idea, it caused an uproar. Despite the challenge of the anti-religious wedding, both clans decided to arrange for a big ceremony. The climax was the wedding reception, with 1,200 invited guests, members from both families. Including the pre-wedding festivities, the wedding day and the after-wedding party, more than 2,500 people showed up. This is a typical way to celebrate a marriage in our society. The whole village came because people feel connected and wanted to be part of the event.

These strong community ties support me as a working mother. I can leave my children any moment - even unannounced - in the care of a sister, a grandmother or an aunt. It's easy; it's normal. I don't need daycare, because my children belong to the extended family. I also know that I will be taken care of when I'm Ill. When I die, my family will take care of my children. And I know my clan will bury me.

The flip side of that is I'm expected to take care of my relatives as well. I may serve on the board of an international company, but I cannot leave on a business trip abroad when my mother-in-law has to be taken to the hospital. I am supposed to nurse her day and night. I will be shunned by my family or community if I let a stranger bathe and feed her. I'm also expected to look after any orphan the clan feels will develop well under my care.

The village - in the widest possible sense of that word - supports me, and I support the village. We give and we receive. We are connected.

Zuhura Sinare Muro is a social entrepreneur investing in value-based education.

8. Happiness (Bhutan)

Boost your country's GNH today!

by Lyonpo Jigmi Y Thinley

Governments usually aim to achieve the highest possible economic growth as measured by the gross national product (GNP), which is how the world looks at progress. In Bhutan, however, we believe this is a narrow view that traps people in cages of materialism. All that humanity sacrifices at the altar of materialist progress to appease insatiable wants has not been in the best interests of furthering human civilization.

The king of Bhutan introduced the concept of gross national happiness (GNH), which is based on the idea that true development of society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. That's why for the past two decades, happiness has been incorporated as a guiding principle in Bhutan's policies.

Over the years, we've made Bhutan greener than most countries and despite the advent of satellite TV and the Internet, the social fabric is still intact. These policies have also made Bhutan more secure than ever before. To us, these are all indications that our policies are beginning to realize the goal of making people happy. And that's what all of us want: to find more ways we can engage in the pursuit of happiness.

Lyonpo Jigmi Y Thinley is the former home minister of Bhutan, a small kingdom in the Himalayan Mountains.

9. Non-violence (India)

One world, many truths

by Satish Kumar

The most important thing for the West to learn is that there is no one truth. There are many truths. You have a truth. I have a truth. Both could be true. Take a tree. A botanist sees a particular species. The carpenter sees wood for furniture. A religious person sees a sacred tree. A poet is inspired to write a poem and a painter sees a painting. One tree, many views. Many truths - all equally true.

Truth is not important. Anekant - "no one truth" - teaches the Jain religion of India. Without fixed truth, there are no dogmas.

However in the West, and particularly in science and religion, truth is supreme. The West needs believers. Hence the disagreements, the fighting, the wars and the conflicts. The Jains don't need believers. They seek happiness and practise friendship, respect, tolerance and harmony. Nonviolence is supreme; truth is secondary. And seeking the impossible one ultimate truth, with all its divisive effects, is not the primary objective in life.

Believing is temporary. You may change your mind. Today's truth may not be tomorrow's truth. Truth changes. The practise of nonviolence is enduring and universal.

Satish Kumar was trained as a Jain monk in India. He is the editor of Resurgence magazine.

10. Food (India)

The cradle of local food

by Vandana Shiva

Western industrialized agriculture is not as productive as most people think. The extensive use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides requires a lot of water, harms soil fertility and poses a threat to biodiversity. Numerous studies have shown that the yield per acre at organic farms is higher than at conventional farms, but just as profitable and often more so. By going organic, farmers can get higher yields, while taking better care of the land.

The very essence of good agriculture is sustaining the land. That cannot happen with the intensive chemical and mechanistic farming methods that characterize Western agribusiness. Some people in developed nations are beginning to understand this, as witnessed by the growth of organic and local food, even though it's nothing new in the rest of the world. This traditionally efficient way of farming in developing nations needs to be protected from the incursion of Western farming methods - so we can better feed our people, sustain our land and continue to offer inspiration to those in the West who understand the importance of these things.

Vandana Shiva is founder of Navdanya, a movement for Biodiversity Conservation and Farmers' Rights, based in India.

11. Humility (Sri Lanka)

Make a bow, receive a blessing

by Lalith Gunaratne

It was an emotional farewell for 24 boys and girls between the ages of fourteen and seventeen who had spent five days learning and sharing together. In keeping with South Asian tradition, most of them bowed down and prostrated themselves in gratitude and respect to the elders who had been their tutors. When they bowed to me, I got a sense of their innocence and felt genuine happiness for what we as adults had shared with them in their learning.

The youth were from six schools in the Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra states in India, participating in a British Council-sponsored experiential-learning program on leadership and teamwork through sports, held at a school in the city of Chennai. I was there supporting the lead trainer from Britain in working with these young leaders and six teachers.

The tradition of bowing to elders is one of the most beautiful acts of gratitude I encounter in Asia. Yet I had not always felt comfortable when someone bowed down to me. My urban parents had not brought me up in that tradition. A lot of hugging and kissing took place at my house, but no prostrating and bowing. So I had always felt embarrassed when anyone prostrated themselves in front of me. My Western beliefs led me to think that no one should feel so subjugated as to go down on his knees to anyone else.

I have come to realize that this is my Western notion of individuality coming out, even though I was born and spent my early years in Sri Lanka. My parents, both teachers, were part of a hybrid generation, having been English-educated in colonial Sri Lanka at Christian schools, but experiencing the Buddhist influence of humility and simplicity in their homes. So I did live in two worlds. The only time I bowed to my parents was at my wedding. My partner Samantha had been brought up in the tradition of bowing to her elders. Her German-born mother encouraged it as a part of her father's Sri Lankan tradition. I remember feeling awkward doing it, but then saw the tears in both my parents' eyes as I got up. It became a moment of great emotional significance for me.

Recently I discovered that in bowing, people are not only showing gratitude, but looking to receive a blessing from you in parting. When someone bows to you, the correct response is to touch the person with love and compassion, giving him a blessing for a happy future. It is a return gift of positive energy. Further, in bowing, a person shows you complete trust and abandons his ego as he puts his head down and takes his eyes off you. He is at your mercy. This show of trust strengthens the bond of our common humanity.

So now I see bowing to another in a different light. To bow to someone in gratitude and respect, in request of blessing, needs one to love and respect "self" first. If we can learn to bow to our self, to each other as the human family and to nature - if we can learn to bow with love and trust, and to receive blessings - we will have done much to keep our hope for humanity alive.

Lalith Gunaratne is a renewable-energy consultant in Sri Lanka and a Readers Blogger on


Reprinted from the October 2007 issue of Ode Magazine.

Copyright (c) 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

Bill Totten


  • CORRECTION: Jagdish Parikh, mentioned in the "4. Yoga (India): Bend it like a Brahmin" section of this article, has written to me pointing out that he is not Managing Director of the Lemuir Group of Companies in India, but just a Director. I apologize to Jagdish Parikh, to the Lemuir Group of Companies, and to my readers for this mistake. Bill Totten, 2008-01-13 20:28.

    By Blogger Bill Totten, at 8:29 PM, January 13, 2008  

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