Essay by Karabi Acharya: “At the global learning team at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, it has been exciting to see people looking at what the world can teach us, whether that be how China is handling COVID-19, South Korea’s drive-through testing, or New Zealand’s elimination of the virus under Jacinda Ardern’s leadership. Yet in a survey conducted by Candid in early 2020 of foundations located in the US, 73 percent of respondents reported that their domestic grantmaking was rarely or not at all informed or inspired by ideas and solutions from around the globe and beyond US borders.
These practices may be shifting. Those of us working in philanthropy, government, and social change are trying to learn as much about COVID-19 as possible, and that naturally includes looking abroad. Yet what will we actually see when we do? Too often, our vision is obscured by bias, and as we try to distinguish news from noise, good intentions are often not enough. We must ask ourselves critical questions, and train ourselves to overcome our biases.
Here are four ways to see the world in a new light, as we look to come out of the pandemic’s darkness:
Seeing Beyond the Familiar
COVID-19 has no borders and the same with good ideas. But too often, we are limited by what has been called the “country of origin effect,” a psychological effect in which people understand the quality and relevance of an object or idea by the country it comes from. In short, we tend to look for ideas from countries that are demographically, culturally, economically, or politically similar to us. In the US, this can mean we overvalue learning from Europe and undervalue learning from low- and middle-income countries.
Yet countries like Nigeria have much to teach us about contract tracing and mitigation from their experience eradicating the Ebola outbreak, just as Ghana’s innovative testing and taxation policies (including a three month tax holiday for health care workers) are balancing protecting health and the economy. In example after example of necessity being the mother of invention, African nations are leading the way in innovation: developing low-cost tests for under $1, using zipline drones to transport the tests to testing sites, and leveraging its cashless digital payment infrastructure to facilitate social distancing. Another often-ignored source of inspiration are Indigenous cultural practices, where ideas and practices centered around collective well-being can be instructive for us as we tackle issues of inequity arising out of COVID…
In other words, we look to other countries with the hope that doing so will change how we see our own, opening our imaginations to new ideas, solutions, and futures. This is only possible if we can overcome our biases that impair our ability to see the solutions around us.
COVID-19 will be studied for generations to come. But what the world will learn will depend on what we were able to see today. Did we seek out solutions from every corner of the world? Did we bring on the journey those who would most benefit from what the world had to offer? Did we recognize the underlying conditions that exacerbate inequity or help overcome it? Was our imagination strong enough to see how we can create the kind of society that allows everyone the opportunity to live healthy and happier lives?…(More)”