Friday, March 4, 2011

An Egalitarian Society

One of the really frustrating things I've found about working with Americans on "development" projects is that they don't realize the prejudices that they bring to a project. One of the things in particular is that they don't understand the difference between an egalitarian society and a hierarchical society. The US tries to be a very egalitarian society where everyone is equal and  you're judged by what you're capable of doing, what you can contribute, instead of where you're from, your background, your parents, etc. It's taboo to talk about "place in society". Just because you're wealthy doesn't (shouldn't) mean anything.

But these are values of our society. They are part of our culture. And I find that a lot of people don't realize this and look down upon hierarchical societies where "class" is very important. And the hierarchies are different. It might be age, profession, parental lineage, wealth, etc. There are places out there where these things matter. And people will not (cannot) do business with you unless they understand your place in society.

This all stems from a discussion during a seminar where we're talking about ways that we can make seismic retrofit of a school into something that the community would want to adopt for themselves. Someone brought up the point of certificates and if we can certify construction workers who are trained to do seismic retrofits and put certificates on buildings that are seismically safe, this would be a great way to spread the idea. But he proceeded this idea with, "I hope that this isn't the case in all of the country." And people laughed when someone (I won't name who), said that these certificates were "silly" but maybe they'll work. This is all coming from people who are very well traveled, lived in different places, worked on different development projects. I just find it shocking that they still don't understand by saying (judging) these things (e.g. certificates) are silly, that they are imposing their own values on another society. It's as if they think that every society is striving to be an egalitarian one.

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