Whose job is it, anyway?

As we begin thinking about providing content to an audience interested in urban planning issues that slice through geopolitical boundaries, paternalism in urban development stands out as an obviously persistent theme. In 1899 Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem, White Man’s Burden, characterizing the European colonization of the world as noble and for the good of the colonized.  This poem, controversial even in its own time for its racism and legitimization of imperialism, encapsulates a persistent paradigm today; we are civilized and living right, while they are all mixed up and need help.  If you are skeptical about the persistence of this attitude, check out this Fresh Air interview with C.J. Chivers (listen or read the transcript at http://www.npr.org/2013/04/30/179855633/c-j-chivers-on-the-ground-in-syria), a journalist and former marine.  In this interview, he discusses US activities in Syria related to the rebel uprising against dictator, Bashar as-Assad, in 2013.  At minute 1:20 to 2 minutes this modern-day New York Times reporter describes US involvement as “adult supervision.”

Indeed, this paternalism is nothing new.  In fact, it pervades the minds of people who have been marginalized by colonization.  In Zambia where I lived and worked for two years, successful farmers, government workers, and school children alike would readily explain to me why my whiteness and American-ness made me vastly smarter, more capable, and more able to solve their problems than they could ever be.

But how to reconcile this with the notion that to be a good global citizen, I should be compassionate by being involved, passionately?  I remember clearly the emptying of my gut when I watched the 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda as an undergraduate; Paul Rusesabagina, the main character and hotel manager, poses the question (I paraphrase, here): Where is the help?  Why won’t other countries come help us?

I felt humiliated that not only had I not done anything, I hadn’t even known about it!  Even after watching and internalizing his call to action, I had no idea what to do – what I could do.

Ten years later, I have more questions than answers: When and under what circumstances are my (or my country’s) interventions warranted?  When we do become engaged, what should my/our role be? How do I tell whether I am contributing to a betterment of the situation or its deterioration?  Is that something which can be measured objectively, or is it subjective? If it’s subjective, whose perspective deserves more weight?  And perhaps most importantly, how can I help reverse the damage done by the paternalistic interventions of the past?

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