[Paleopsych] Foreign Policy: Dangerously Unique

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Dangerously Unique http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3212

    Dangerously Unique
    By Moisés Naím
    September/October 2005

    Why our definition of "normalcy" can be costly for everyone else.

    You are not normal. If you are reading these pages, you probably
    belong to the minority of the world's population that has a steady
    job, adequate access to social security, and enjoys substantial
    political freedoms. Moreover, you live on more than $2 a day, and,
    unlike 860 million others, you can read. The percentage of humanity
    that combines all of these attributes is minuscule.

    According to the World Bank, about half of humanity lives on less than
    $2 a day, while the International Labour Organization reckons that a
    third of the available labor force is unemployed or underemployed, and
    half of the world's population has no access to any kind of social
    security. Freedom House, an organization that studies countries'
    political systems, categorizes 103 of the world's 192 nations as
    either "not free" or "partially free," meaning that the civil
    liberties and basic political rights of their citizens are limited or
    severely curtailed. More than 3.6 billion people, or 56 percent of the
    world, live in such countries.

    Statistically, a "normal" human being in today's world is poor, lives
    in oppressive physical, social, and political conditions, and is ruled
    by unresponsive and corrupt government. But normalcy is not only
    defined by statistics. Normal implies something that is "usual,
    typical, or expected." Therefore, normal is not only what is
    statistically most frequent but also what others assume it to be. In
    this sense, the expectations of a tiny minority trump the realities of
    the vast majority. There is an enormous gap between what average
    citizens in advanced Western democracies--and the richer elites
    everywhere--assume is or should be normal, and the daily realities
    faced by the overwhelming majority of people. Information about the
    dire conditions common in poor countries is plentiful and widely
    discussed. Curiously, however, expectations about what it means to be
    normal in today's world continue to reflect the abnormal reality of a
    few rich countries rather than the global norm.

    We assume that it is normal to eat at least three meals a day, to walk
    the streets without fear, and to have access to water, electricity,
    phones, and public transportation. Sadly, it is not. Today, 852
    million people, including many children and the elderly, do not get
    three meals a day, and when they do, their meals do not provide them
    with the daily caloric intake required by a normal person. Roughly 1.6
    billion people lack access to electricity, and 2.4 billion rely on
    traditional fuels such as wood and dung for cooking and heating.
    Thirty percent of the world's population has never made a phone call.
    Street crime and urban violence are normal in most of the world. The
    average homicide rate in Latin America and the Caribbean is about 25
    per 100,000 inhabitants and, in sub-Saharan Africa, it is roughly 18
    murders per 100,000. (In the European Union, there are just 3
    homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants.) An estimated 246 million
    children, about 1 in 6, work, and 73 million of them are less than 10
    years old. Whereas childbirth is typically an occasion for celebration
    in high-income countries, it is a source of death, disease, and
    disability elsewhere. According to the World Health Organization, more
    than half a million women die every year due to pregnancy-related
    complications in the developing world, where the risk of maternal
    mortality is 1 in 61. In rich countries, the risk of maternal
    mortality is 1 in 2,800.


    This distorted perception of what is normal can take on subtler forms.
    Consider, for example, our common assumptions about the quality of the
    news we get. We tend to assume that the news is free from government
    interference. Yet, in most of the world, that is not the case. A World
    Bank survey of media ownership found that in 97 countries, 72 percent
    of the top five radio stations and 60 percent of the top five TV
    companies were state-owned. The study also found strong statistical
    evidence that countries with greater state ownership of the media have
    fewer political rights, less developed markets, and strikingly
    inferior education and health.

    Rich-world assumptions about what constitutes the global norm are
    costly illusions. Billions of dollars have been wasted by assuming
    that governments in poorer countries are more or less like those in
    rich ones, only a little less efficient. Despite constant reminders
    that most governments in the world are unable to perform relatively
    simple tasks, such as delivering the mail or collecting the garbage,
    most recipes for how these countries should solve their problems
    reflect the sophisticated capabilities taken for granted in rich
    countries, not the realities that exist everywhere else.

    We want people to have a better life, and it is natural that our
    definition of normal serves as a compass for helping others. The gap
    between what we assume is normal and the reality that billions of
    people face is driven less by a parochial propensity to impose our
    experience on others than a sincere expression of our values. Nor
    should values be abandoned--they are our true north and point us in
    the direction where progress lies. But our strongly felt ideals must
    not become the basis for policy. At a time when values have become so
    common in political discourse, it is important to remain alert to when
    our advice is built on faulty assumptions about what is normal. When
    that happens, values lead to bad decisions, not moral clarity.

    Moisés Naím is editor in chief of FOREIGN POLICY.

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