This post was written by James Busumtwi-Sam, Member of the Project Management Team and Project Advisory Committee as well as Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at Simon Fraser University.
Faced with complexity, it is often prudent to simplify. To that end, we have invented concepts like “left” and “right” as tools to better understand politics, and use broad categories like “middle class” or “below the poverty line” to build manageable categories out of unwieldy continuums. In some instances, these simplifications help us to make sense of the context in which our busy lives unfold. In other cases, they obscure important dimensions of reality, generate unrealistic perceptions of the world and throw up barriers to achieving a more equitable, just and sustainable global society. The portrayal of the world in terms of a “global north” and a “global south” is a case in point.
According to Jon Tinker, founder of the Panos Network and Executive Director of the Panos Institute of Canada, the concept of a global “north” and “south” is a relic of a bygone era. In the wake of the Second Word War, as communism spread and the powers of Western Europe and North America moved to check its expansion, it became useful to think in terms of a world divided between the First World West, the Second World East and the Third World South. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Warsaw Pact, the Second World was dropped and a simplistic two-part vision of the world remained.
Jon Tinker thinks it’s high time this conceptual hand-me-down is tossed in the dustbin of history. He points out that the “North and South are no longer broadly distinct and homogeneous groups. Today, they are overlapping and heterogeneous categories, with at best only a historical validity” He argues that, while the “North/South lens” was sometimes useful to the social justice and development movements, ultimately “using [it] is not just lazy. It’s dangerous. It hinders us from seeing, let alone addressing, today’s unjust and socially unsustainable imbalances of power and wealth.”
The Panos Institute of Canada is part of the global Panos Network consisting of eight independent institutes. The network’s members in London, Paris, East Africa, Southern Africa, West Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean and Canada engage in programmes with a strong focus on economically and socially disadvantaged people around the World. The Panos Institute of Canada, of which Jon Tinker is Executive Director, makes HIV-AIDS its primary area of focus.
One of the most powerful methodologies they bring to bear on the immense problem of HIV-AIDS is the commonalities lens: an explicit rejection of the notion that there exists a “North” characterized by economic prosperity, technical ability and expertise and a “South” that is “poor, ill-informed, technologically backward, badly trained and politically naive.” Instead of fixating on differences between countries and cultures, the commonalities lens focuses on what we have in common. It “helps us realize what we share, and provides a basis for solidarity, and for learning from one another as equals.”
A recent initiative of Panos Canada illustrated vividly the power of the commonalities lens. In November 2008 the Panos Institute of Canada brought 10 Haitian AIDS experts to Vancouver. The Haitian delegation did not come to Canada to receive training; they were not invited to play the part of recipients; nor was the aim of the exchange to ‘build their capacity.’ The goal of the project was to provide an opportunity for the experts from Haiti to share their insights with their Canadian counterparts. In the context of the dominant development paradigm, this was a radical initiative.
The project evolved as a follow-up to The Panos Institute of Canada’s 2007 collaboration with public health specialist and photographer Pieter de Vos: AIDS in Two Cities. This captivating photo essay juxtaposed images from Port-au-Prince and Vancouver not as means of pointing out differences, but of highlighting commonalities. What emerged from AIDS in Two Cities is the understanding that the problems surrounding HIV/AIDS in Port-au-Prince and Vancouver are characterized by differences of degree, but commonalities of type. What emerged form the Haiti Exchange was that AIDS experts charged with addressing these problems in Port-au-Prince could teach a great deal to their counterparts in Vancouver.
The sad history of “development” in the latter half of the 20th century has exposed as folly the notion that having achieved advanced economic development is the only necessary and sufficient condition for knowing how others should do the same. We now understand and acknowledge that underdevelopment is not simply a result of ‘insufficient local capacity’; reality is a much more complex picture. The “North/South lens” reinforces that discredited perspective. By recognizing the diversity that exists within countries and the commonalities that exist between them, the commonalities lens suggests how a more equitable exchange might be possible and how we might begin to redress the power asymmetries that have for 60 years rendered the “North/South” development relationship impotent.