“This American Life” is one of my favorite radio/internet programs. Fascinating, entertaining, informative…it’s a story based show that looks at American life in the broadest terms. From an intercultural standpoint, it’s especially interesting, as it often covers the lives of Americans abroad or those who are new to America.
A recent program (aired on January 4, 2013 — the second segment starting at 29:00) really caught my ear: a classic tale of the best of intentions gone terribly awry with a cultural twist.
A young idealist named Octavio Sanchez is chief of staff to the president of Honduras. He gets an idea: What if you could cure all your country’s ills by just…starting over? In one little spot, you could create a whole new, perfect city. Then Octavio sees a TED Talk by a famous American economist, Paul Romer. Romer has more or less the same idea: “charter cities.” Octavio and Paul get together and persuade the Honduran president. They’re off and running. They choose a spot, they change the constitution to make it legal, they start searching for investors. But then, the whole thing starts to sour — for reasons both inevitable, and surprising.
What’s of particular interest is that the reason everything started to “sour” was not “inevitable and surprising.” It was, in actuality, completely predictable and preventable. The American Economist, Romer, describes himself “like Spock, from Star Trek,” a person who has a “hard time understanding these things called emotions”. Romer operated under the false assumption that ideas are supreme. That an inspired concept, one that includes a dynamic appeal to a greater good, transcends all…egos, feelings, bureaucracy, culture…everything! Even more astounding, Romer doesn’t seem to consider how an understanding of cultural values and how they impact daily interactions might help him better succeed in a foreign country – especially one like Honduras with a history of colonial oppression. What Romer failed to grasp is that ideas are not universally applicable and beneficial. If one cannot tailor their idea to the cultural specifics of the time and place in which they operate, they’re not going to get very far.
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