Think Locally, Act Globally

by Sanjena Sathian

In farming communities like this one in Nepal, you might never hear about the outside world beyond the next village over. (Sathian/TYG)

The slogan “think globally, act locally” started getting plastered onto the bumper stickers of hippies’ cars sometime in the 1970s. It was part of the first wave of awareness about “globalization,” and the early bearers of the catchphrase were for the most part supporters of an environmental movement that supported individual activism. The theory behind the saying was that in order to make large-scale global movements stick, the responsibility lay on individuals to carry out progressive practices – like environmental stewardship – in their own homes. The globe had become the new frame of reference for some far-thinking activists.

Our generation of American teenagers has grown up with an intuitive understanding of this: the world has never seemed so knowable or attainable as it is to us today (case in point: this blog, cataloguing 18 to 22 year olds’ adventures across the globe, from Patagonia to Liberia to Thailand). Hand in hand with this understanding of the globe being ours to traverse, we have an implicit assumption that equates globalization with development.

“Developed” countries are easier to be American in. They have McDonald’s and if your Nikon DSLR camera breaks, you can easily get it fixed there. Most people will understand your English, and plenty will be able to respond in some permutation of the language, even if we laugh at its strange Oxford-like crispness or formality. They have been included in the waves of globalization; they are, in Thomas Friedman’s words, a little bit flatter.

“Developing” countries are harder to be American in. The aspirational people – the ones who might speak Oxford English and maybe even do so well enough to understand English puns or sarcasm – have, too often, already fled to America, the UK, Australia, or at least the biggest city in close proximity (see “Over the River and Through the Woods”). That leaves behind people whose awareness and understanding of a world outside their own seems minimal at best.

Here in Nepal, things are not flat. Literally, the terrain of the country makes it so not-flat that accessibility issues plague the rural areas. But globalization has touched the country in strange ways. As I hiked through a local village last weekend, I stopped to stare at a woman coming out of the rice paddy fields; she had her baby strapped to her back, a woven basket full of plants slung around her neck, and she was chattering animatedly on her cell phone. The week before, I was surprised to find a poster of Avril Lavigne staring at me from a storefront in a village which it had taken me 5 hours to hike to. They didn’t have a doctor for miles, but they had “Sk8erboi.”

Globalization doesn’t equate to development – and it doesn’t necessarily mean the world is flattening. Friedman writes of flattening that an advantage for cities like Bangalore is that Indians can now sound American on the phones in call centers or with their MBAs; they can access the global economy, even control it, all without giving up their idli-sambar (a south Indian dish). The world is coming to them, and now they don’t have to flee their countries – like my parents’ generation did – for opportunities.

While India has the world at its doorstep, jostling to get in, the world is trickling into Nepal… slowly. Foreigners have brought a few things, including a thriving marijuana trade and old t-shirts (it’s not uncommon to see a village boy wearing a shirt that says “I know HTML: How to Meet Ladies” with no idea what his clothing says). Meanwhile, in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata… those who want America can have it in whatever dose pleases them. Maybe a college education or an MBA, but then they can come home and run a Fortune 500 company from the comfort of their motherland.

So though the slogan to think globally and act locally might work well for Infosys in Bangalore, it doesn’t quite hold up in the hills of Nepal. It’s actually kind of the opposite: you learn to think locally, think small, think within the borders of the place you’re in.

Development projects require working like this. Thinking globally and acting locally only works when the place you’re in fits easily into a wider global context. Here, what matters isn’t the ideals you’ve stored up, the theories of fitting the underdeveloped world into the developed world’s economy. Here, not everyone wants the rest of the world to be their frame of reference. Though the introduction I’m given when I enter a new village – “she’s from America” – certainly stirs up my mystique and brings stares and whispers, they’re not all the hungry whispers of wanting to grab my coattails and ride back to the US with me. Sometimes, they’re just whispers of curiosity; I come from off the map.

The last few weeks, as I’ve spent time in smaller and smaller villages, trying to plan my gender equity project, I’ve learned one thing quickly: it doesn’t do to use words like “development policy” or “gender equity.” We talk simply (me, especially, in my limited Nepali) – not because the people we are talking to are simple, but because the world we’re operating in is one limited by the mountains surrounding us. We can’t make a plan for an entrepreneur in a village to sell his wares in the next village over if he can’t cross the river. We can’t tell women of a higher caste to include the untouchable women in their plans if the untouchable women live too far up the mountain to make it to meetings. My limitations become their limitations – and they are deeply, viscerally local in nature.

Thinking locally trains development workers more than the global thinking they sweep in with. This is how it works, I’m told: you learn from living small, and then as you slowly ease yourself back into the wider world – as I’ll be doing in a week’s time –  you begin to act globally once more.

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