Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The White Man's Burden


The iCommons summit was an incredible event, but I wanted to point out something that kept bothering me in a couple of sessions, particularly the panel about the international role of Creative Commons.

I am perfectly aware that the lack of specialised knowledge of intellectual property from representatives of developing countries in international organisations is a big problem, and that it may induce some of those countries to comply easily with the tremendous pressure by developed nations and industry lobbyists. This is masterfully expanded in the great book "Information Feudalism" by Peter Drahos . However, I'm getting a bit tired of going to meetings where NGOs stress time and time again the perceived ignorance and naivité of those poor developing countries in extremely condescending and even patronising tones. I recognise that many of these people are well-meaning and commited to their ideals, and that their work does indeed help to alleviate some of the lack of education in this area. However, some of the rhetoric sounds like us poor brown people cannot figure things out on our own, and that we need the sophisticated and knowledgable white folk to enlighten us and bring us out of our ignorance.

This is not only condescending, it borders on insulting. We are not all naïve and stupid natives. Some of us have figured things out on our own without the intervention of the NGOs. Not only that, the debate is often framed as clearly “Us vs Them”, where all the bad guys come from developed countries, while the good guys are the Nice White People and selected allies from the developing world (hopefully singers, artists, and other members of the digerati cultural elites). This helpfully ignores that we have our own share of home-grown bad guys. I know a lot of very well-informed, intelligent people who think that free trade agreements are the best thing that could ever happen to developing countries. I also have met representatives at WIPO who really think that more IP protection is good, not out of ignorance, but out of pragmatism and inner conviction.

I’m not biting the hand that assists, the support is greatly apreciated. But please don’t provide assistance and then gloat at a meeting full of people from developing countries and insult us to our face by implying that we are nothing without the help of the Nice White Person.

If the NGOs really want to help, they should try listening and communicating a bit more, but not only with the cool elites from developing countries. We are rather more diverse than that.

2 comments:

Luke Razzell said...

Another perspective on this issue is that as soon as we define the identity of others for them, we limit and distort their true nature.

This, for me, is a problem with the conceptual split between philanthropist and beneficiary within the charitable mindset in general: it simplistically divides people into "rich" and "poor", or "haves" and "have nots", when in reality things like value, knowledge, wisdom and quality of life are far too complex and rich things to be reduced into narrow metrics such as material wealth or formal education.

[Also blogged]

Andres Guadamuz said...

Hello Luke,

Thanks for the comment, it is very accurate indeed to think about stolen voices.

I was watching CNN in my hotel in Rio, and I was disgusted by a special on Angelina Jolie and her humanitarian work. It was made mostly of these silent faces from developing countries, while we were told by Ms Jolie What It All Meant. I know that the goal is to highlight and publicise the problem by the use of celebrities, but to me it frivolises the issue, and highlights only that this is important because Angelina is concerned.