By Hillary Smith-Dam and Lone Brink Rasmussen
An increasing focus on global development and global health has become what marks the Western countries as the pioneering advocates for a better, healthier world. When behaviors or events threatening health are being carried out, the West quickly speaks up. While we as Western citizens rely on our governments, various organizations, interest groups or the media to illuminate the unjust, little light is rarely shed on a bigger picture: that our Western lifestyle affects health around the globe either directly or through underlying systems. Though we do not necessarily intend for it to be this way, we reinforce many issues that our ethics otherwise speak against. To help understand exactly what is being suggested, let us take a look at a real-life example that highlights the Western role in the perpetuation of an inequitable global market.
“Throw me some beads!”
Every year, between the months of January and March, hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists gather to partake in the Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, Louisiana. The origins of Mardi Gras are rooted in the Christian religion and entail the celebrations leading up to the first day of Lent. Amongst the many traditions linked with Mardi Gras, such as parade floats, extravagant masks and intricate costumes, is the tradition of beads. Beads are in fact so integral to Mardi Gras celebrations in the U.S. that about 25 million pounds of plastic beads end up in the city of New Orleans every year. Mardi Gras beads are acquired by float riders who throw thousands of beaded necklaces out to the public, who receive them and put them on with great excitement. On top of this, the practice of flashing one’s breasts to acquire more beads has become increasingly popular since the 1970s amongst female tourists visiting New Orleans (particularly on the well-known and tourist-ridden Bourbon Street).
However fun and innocent all of this may seem to party-goers, it is fairly safe to say that people on the other side of the world may have a slightly different opinion. In a documentary made in 2005 called “Mardi Gras: Made in China”, the process of production to distribution is traced back to a town in China, where the majority of Mardi Gras beads are made. The workers, who are most often young women, work 14-20 hour work days, live in the space the size of a small box, and are paid pitiful wages even by sweatshop standards. With the unrealistic dreams of saving up enough money to get out of their factory jobs, these women put up with exposure to chemical manufacturing and harmful work environments in hopes of attaining a better life. However sad and all-too-familiar this story is, it is just one of the uncountable examples of the inequity that exists in a global economy. In a much-too-typical scenario, people on the other side of the globe end up bearing the brunt of the excessive and consumer-based lifestyles that Americans (and other Westerners) lead. Though the film displays the common disconnect between consumer and producer, the problem goes beyond simply this.
Removing the ethnocentric lenses
We in the West have developed the almost impressive skill to distance ourselves from what we consider unattractive and undesirable behavior. Yet, how many western tourists have wandered the streets of the red-light district of Amsterdam or entered a ping pong show in Thailand, both of which often times contribute to forced prostitution and human trafficking? While we like to think of ourselves as informed and conscientious citizens, we often times lack the ability to see the whole picture, and furthermore where we lie in this picture, despite the best of intentions. When provided information, our interpretation of it is often prone to media sensationalism where we tend to take things at surface value 1) because it is easier and requires less effort and 2) because it places information in a neat and digestible package. The kind of sensationalist approach to issues across the globe leads to an attitude of “us” and “them”, a kind “other-izing” if you will. It is this somewhat dangerous distinction that smoothly removes our impact and responsibility out of a joint problem – our global problem. While bringing issues to light should never be discouraged, perhaps it would be wise to tread with caution before we make our minds up about complex issues.
Why is this worth addressing?
Our intention is not to bad talk Westerners, nor a call for us to be perfect individuals who buy all the right products and make all the right judgment calls. That would not only be silly, but impossible. Rather it is to shine some light on and even poke a little fun at our own overconfidence and self-assuredness in our own cultural values. Most importantly it is a simple reminder, especially to those in the global health field, that we are not necessarily the people with all the answers or all the “exemplary” behaviors. If we intend on working with and trying to help others, let us try and be aware of the metaphorical log in our own eye before starting to take the speck out of someone else’s.