Our 'global community' is alive and well

Nov. 28, 2013 @ 02:42 PM

Keeping up with the daily local, national and international news can lead some readers to conclude that our world is increasingly cruel, chaotic and splintered. I beg to differ.

Aid continues to arrive in the Philippines from around the globe in response to Typhoon Haiyan. Current estimates put the toll at over 5,000 dead and 13 million impacted with many survivors in immediate need of food and clean water. Even before the storm, scores of countries started contributing water, food, medical supplies and logistical support.

Does this sound like a world that does not care? There are cynics who argue that there is no “global community,” and talk of same is just meaningless rhetoric. Tap hard on the hollow shell of our so-called humanitarian oneness, they would say, and it will crumble into shards of self interest like so much cheap terra cotta.

The narratives we have about the world are important because they impact our actions and the actions of our governments. 

Author Linda Polman describes the massive response to a humanitarian disaster as a “crisis caravan” and points out that in large emergencies, hundreds of relief entities show up to distribute aid. Shoulder to shoulder with governments like the United States, the United Kingdom and China, organizations such as MSF/Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross-Red Crescent and World Vision provide relief using financial donations from hundreds of thousands of people from around the world.

One may question the motivation or infer hopes of reciprocal exchange when examining aid given to various nations -- and certainly now many question the motivation of aid going to places like Iraq, Somalia and Egypt -- but from a strictly “you are how you behave” perspective, the global community shows, in moments like these, that the human inhabitants of this pale blue ball do care about each other.

We saw that in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when there was a palpable sense that we were all Americans. The international outpouring of sentiment and support was magnificent in depth, breadth and impact in the short term. The same could be said of the international reaction to Katrina a few years later. I remember that even Namibia, a country most Americans would not be able to pronounce let alone find on a map, offered a boatload of fish as material support.

One wisdom found in my field of sociology is that people tend to think matters are worse than they are when bad conditions rapidly improve. We think conditions are worst when they actually are getting better because we see more clearly the way things could be if we only were able to move more quickly. Our negative narrative construction is predictable but can be avoided by taking a longer, objective view.

We do have many reasons to be critical of the global state of affairs. The Middle East continues to writhe in the agony of political and social chaos, refugee camps in Kenya are now more than 20 years old, we must deal with endemic corruption in many nations, kleptocracies abound around the world, and racial, ethnic, religious and class wars plague every continent. I am not blind to our failings as a global community.

But we are making things better. If you look at UNICEF data, the number of children under 5 dying of causes directly reacted to poverty has dropped precipitously in the last decade. We continue to make solid progress in leveraging the power of social media to better communicate with and support wide arrays of social justice causes. In the last 20 years there has been exponential growth in both the impact of and vision behind corporate social responsibility divisions in businesses large and small.  The list of goes on.  We are working together to face problems both acute and chronic.  

Do we have more to do? Yes. But is it all doom and gloom? Maybe not. Let us continue to work for a more humane and robust global community of people and nations, forged from our collective desire to demand order and humanity from ourselves and from those around us.  

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He can be reached at arcaro@elon.edu.