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Global/local: The word "foreign" is losing its meaning

The global/local divide is an artificial one. The word “foreign” is losing its meaning. With increasing globalization, we have ever more possibilities of connecting across cultural differences and country borders. Community work may refer to work being done at the local level in North Carolina, Nairobi or New Delhi. For someone in the United States to assume that “local” or “community” refers only to places within the U.S. and “global” refers only to locations outside of the U.S. is myopic and ethnocentric. Local is wherever a person or institution is situated at a given time. Global is the entire world context in which the person or institution is situated. No person, institution or country is at the center of the world.

To see ourselves and act as global citizens, we have to practice radical self-awareness, humility and acceptance of others. We have to loosen our identification with and patriotism to a particular state or country and situate ourselves in a global context. We have to understand that we are interconnected and mutually responsible to each other, regardless of our culture or country of origin. This doesn’t mean that we no longer have or see differences, but rather that we connect through them. To act as global citizens, we have to practice global competence, which I define as the constellation of awareness, understanding, sensitivity and ethical practice within an individual or system that enables effective cross-cultural and country interactions, partnerships and work that result in mutually-beneficial and transformative outcomes. We have to do this because our health and lives - and the future of our world - depend on it.

By valuing and building on very real global/local connections, we can develop global competence educational programs that teach people vital skills and create a workforce that is capable of addressing local and international problems with appropriate and sustainable solutions. People can learn, practice and hone the components of global competence: 1) Awareness: exploring self in relation to others; 2) Understanding: deepening knowledge of the world and ethical principles; 3) Sensitivity: clarifying values and developing attitudes that are in accordance with ethical principles and 4) Ethical practice: putting principles into practice to act competently and ethically for the public good. In an educational program based on this model, people learn through case studies and other applied teaching methods that draw from local community and global examples. By reinforcing global/local connections, global competence educational programs will prepare the next generation of practitioners to capably and ethically address diverse problems and engage in ethical practices and effective partnerships in any setting. By strengthening existing global/local connections, we can create a society of global citizens thinking, acting and relating - for a better world.

To put images to these words, there are two photographs that I find emblematic of global/local. One is of President Obama and a bobby shaking hands outside 10 Downing Street in London in 2009. Although President Obama is the highest-ranking official in the Unites States, and I presume the bobby is a working man in London, in one moment, the world shrinks, and these two men see and connect with each other on a human level. They are two country-less men shaking hands. They are brothers.

The second photograph is of my son, Jaidan, and a boy we met on Lake Tana in Ethiopia. Jaidan is from a relatively privileged family in the United States, and the Ethiopian boy earns his living selling handcrafted boats to tourists. The boys come from very different backgrounds and live very different lives. But when the boy smiles and puts his arm around Jaidan, and Jaidan smiles back and leans in, the world again shrinks, and these boys are no longer strangers. They are friends. Seeing this, a nearby older woman exclaimed that Jaidan must also be Ethiopian. No, he’s not, I said. But they are brothers.

The world “foreigner” has lost its meaning.

© 3/2015 Global Citizen, LLC


Katherine L. Turner, MPH is President and Founder of Global Citizen, LLC, an international consulting firm that strengthens the capacity of students, professionals and institutions to interact and work more effectively and ethically across countries and cultures for mutually-beneficial and empowering outcomes. She is also adjunct faculty at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and Senior Advisor/Project Manager at Ipas, an international women’s health and rights nongovernmental organization.

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