GS Thandi, MSW RSW
There is a conceit in the west that somehow our criminal justice, education, health and social service systems are vastly superior to the same systems that exist in other jurisdictions. The comparisons are often most explicit when comparing western systems to systems that exist in African, Asian and South American communities (I would suggest that it’s not a coincidence that these are communities of colour).
We often hear that bribery is common in some parts of the world: that all it takes to get things done, for example to get permission to run a business or develop on land, is ensuring the right people are paid to speed the process up or to have them look the other way if certain shortcuts need to be taken. Again, whether explicit or implied, the message seems to be loud and clear, that “West is best,” when it comes to how our local, provincial and federal governments – and the systems they oversee (the aforementioned criminal justice, education, health and social service systems) – operate. Somehow corruption is rampant in those ‘third world’ nations, yet few seem to acknowledge such corruption exists here too.
While bribery in some nations is overt, it is systemic and covert in the West. For example, handing someone an envelop full of cash to curry favour may be deemed ethically, morally or legally wrong in the West, yet we do similar questionable activities that are somehow considered above board. For example, having a ‘business’ lunch – and writing it off as a taxable expense – with someone you want to impress / curry favour with is deemed completely acceptable, or rewarding government contracts or esteemed appointments (i.e. senator/ambassador positions) to ‘insiders,’ party donors or lobbyists is somehow okay (while it may lead to outrage in some circles, such practices have basically continued unabated for years).
Many of the inequalities of decades ago – sexism, racism, homophobia – are still around, though in some instances they have become less overt, and more systemic and entrenched. For example, few would openly support the notion that abusing women is wrong, but our systems have created numerous obstacles for women who try to leave abusive relationships. We may talk about equality for women, but our systems don’t reflect that. The same can be said for other oppressed groups – our education, criminal justice, health care and other systems are rife with such systemic discrimination.
Such discrimination and corruption as I’ve described above are far from the only problems within our systems. Many oversees communities may not even have formal criminal justice, health, education and social service systems, but their collectivist approach to supporting each other can often more effective than the individualistic, bureaucratic and fragmented services that exist in the West. Yet again, our more formalized systems are promoted as being ‘evidence-based,’ transparent and accountable, though frankly they are far from it.
Ultimately, I am not arguing that one way is better than the other; democratic governments in the East, West, North or South all function in ways that can benefit their citizenry and in other ways may hurt that very population – thus no one system is perfect. I am instead arguing that in the West we need to drop the conceit that our systems are superior, and instead be open to learning and growing so that they can truly serve and support those they were designed for – all of us.