How many times have you heard that used to describe what New Orleans is like after hurricane Katrina? Those who use it, and those of us who hear it, know exactly what it means. It's shorthand for devastation, destruction, lawlessness, criminality, fear, violence and depravity -- the kind of things we assume are endemic to places like Africa, Asia and South and Central America.
As someone who has travelled in the world's poorest countries, I know that isn't true. Of course, there are places in the developing world that are violent and broken down. But most countries are not that way. In most poor countries, people live normal lives, despite incredible poverty and difficulty. They work, they play, they raise their families -- all the while dreaming of a better future.
That's not how many of us see it, of course. Our image of the developing world is shaped by media reports, which tend mostly to show war, disaster and civil strife in poor nations. Aid agencies haven't always helped, either, using so-called "famine pornography"-- graphic images of starving people that are intended to prod us into giving. A constant diet of such images only serves to build up negative stereotypes, and leads us to see the phrase "the Third World" as a synonymn for all that can go wrong in a society.
When people use that expression, what they mean is that what happened in New Orleans shouldn't have happened there -- it should only happen in places where people are poor, poorly governed, under-educated, at the mercy of criminal gangs and where there are lots of weapons and a willingness to use them. But that could be a description of large numbers of people in the United States; there are many people in that country who live in poverty, feel alienated from the governmental processes that affect their lives, frequently fail to graduate from high school, live in fear of gangs and are armed to the teeth with all manner of weaponry.
Something else they mean when they use that phrase is that we in West are better than the Third World -- superior in so many ways. Yet North Americans may be surprised to learn that many people in the developing world often view the West with disdain. Sure, many poor people would like to benefit from the economic opportunities available in Canada or the U.S., but they don't like our values or our lifestyle. When they look at North America, they see a place of rampant "me first" individualism, consumerism, violence and immorality. They certainly don't see us as having a superior way of life.
Former Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn summed this up neatly in 1978, at the height of the Cold War, when the West and the Soviet Union were in a battle of ideologies and ideals. Said Solzhenitsyn: "Should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours." Many people in the developing world could echo his remarks.
There seems to be a thin line between civilization and complete and utter societal breakdown, as was apparent in New Orleans. But that line has nothing to do with geography. It's not about whether you live in North America or Africa. It doesn't even have anything to do with race or economics. This line cuts through the heart. It's about inner values, about a desire to pursue the common good and seeing everyone as your neighbour. It's about the Golden Rule, the belief that you should treat others the way you want to be treated. Anyone, anywhere, can live according to that code--or choose to ignore it.
Maybe one day the situation will be reversed. We'll be watching the news about a terrible disaster in Africa or Asia when, amidst reports of violence, death and destruction, somebody will describe the situation this way: "It's like New Orleans around here." And the sad thing is, we'll know exactly what they mean.
John Longhurst writes on faith for the Free Press and has been involved in international development for 19 years. He lives in Winnipeg.