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TEDxLeeds, Ted Turner, Anti-war, MDGs, and Development

September 21, 2010

I spent a fairly surreal afternoon in a lecture theatre in the Leeds Met. Rosebowl yesterday afternoon.

We had been invited to ‘take part in’ (actually watch) a live simulcast from the TEDx team in New York, working with the Gates Foundation to look at progress on the UNs Millenium Development Goals (halving poverty, reducing infant mortality, improving maternal care etc).

Surreal because the entire front row was filled with bagels, muffins, cookies and fruit, the lecture theatre was half empty, and we sat gawping at a large screen while some people in a foreign land berated and congratulated themselves in roughly equal measure on their progress.

As the afternoon went by I got increasingly uncomfortable.  A feeling not assuaged by copious bagels and cupcakes, as we witnessed a theatre full of rich folks in New York clapping along to Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew.

But the source of my discomfort was more than just the cultural dissonances.  It was that for me some of the central tenets for good development work appeared to have been overlooked.

Instead of being invited in by communities to work on the issues that mattered to them it felt like we (the great and the good of the west) had dropped into their world to work on the issues that mattered to us, as judged by our moral compass and our self interest.  Not theirs.  And we could do it because we were rich.  We could hustle our way into the game because we had a whole stash of cash.

So we celebrated the fact that through increased access to contraception ‘we’ had succeeded in reducing family size in just about the whole world.  And as we all know reducing the planets population growth is essential.  No mention of the fact that small families in the West use a gazillion times more of the earths resources than even a large African family compound for example.

We celebrated the fact that Coca Cola had a distribution network to flood the 3rd world with diabetes inducing corn syrup based products and that we could use the same channels to flood the same communities with our ideologies of entrepreneurship and ‘progress’.  In my experience the tobacco companies have been even more successful in setting up networks of distribution and influence throughout the planet – but I guess they are just too clearly part of the dark side for happy, shiny people to embrace.  Good old Coca Cola on the other hand….

One of the first principles of good development should be R.E.S.P.E.CT.

Respect for the culture on the ground.  Respect for what local people value and find important.  Respect for how they are trying to shape their futures, whether or not they fit neatly with our ideologies and ideals.   A certain humility and a refusal to believe that ‘our superiority’ means that we have the solutions to their problems.

Good development work should be less about turning the developing world into entrepreneurs who can, and do, control their own fecundity than about helping people find the power to act in their own interests, rather than ours.

Ted Turner said recently “War is obsolete. You end up bombing your customers.”

And at times yesterday I felt as if the whole Millennium Development Goal thing was a kind of ‘anti-war’, the objective of which is to make everyone healthy and rich enough to consume.

A massive exercise in expanding viable territories.  Rather than an exercise in compassionate facilitation of self determination.

As Ted Turner went on to say….’why do you think I gave the UN $1bn? I could have bought a couple of really big yachts with that money.’

Big thanks to @imranali and @herbkim for setting this gig up.  One of only 2 in the UK.  It certainly engaged the heart and mind of this leeds citizen of the world.

  1. Well said Mike. Now let’s all chant; ‘west is best, west is best, west is best’ hmm…

  2. Rashik Parmar permalink

    Respect is something that we all need to relearn (if indeed we had learned it in the first place). Thanks you for a very thoughtful perspective on the situation.


  3. I think that Coca Cola must have been popping open bottles of grand cru cola with all that free advertising they got yesterday. I was surprised there was no mention of and their efforts to use the existing distribution channels Coca Cola have to deliver medicine etc.

    In fact ColaLife have asked a similar question:

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