Via Boris, I discover this quote from William Gibson:

The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed.

Just try flying from Delhi to Tokyo or from Singapore to East Africa and you’ll know exactly what he means. In South Korea they watch TV on their cell phones. In southern Kenya the Masai still walk dozens of miles barefoot in bright red robes, spear in hand.

But we’re not just talking about one futuristic country and its backward opposite. We are also talking about future and past within the same country. I think the concept first entered the popular imagination with India. “The two Indias” we kept hearing to describe the country’s new and old. Now it’s also the two Chinas, the two Thailands, even the two Kenyas.

I’m sure that when Boris refers to the future he’s not talking about wi-fi cafes, but virtual reality, artificial intelligence, consumer-ready hydrocars. Still, the same concept holds true: the future is here … only a few of us are engaged with it. Will the rest of the world ever catch up?

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And via Kathleen (a natural-born blogger, but alas, without a blog), I discover Carlos Fuentes’ splendid alphabetical memoir, This I Believe, in which he writes:

In Latin America … we continue to be two nations, the term used by Disraeli to describe mid-nineteenth-century England caught between industrial development and social backwardness. We are indeed two nations: Brazil rather wryly calls itself ‘Belindia’ – part Belgium, part India. In Latin America, the Mercedes and the mule, the skyscraper and the slum, the supermarket and the garbage dump, the baroque and the barock n’ roll all coexist, and the television aerial is the new cross of the neighborhood parish.

I believe that [civil society’s] principal challenge in Latin America is that of creating bridges between these two nations, advocating human development as the starting point for sustained economic development, with the understanding that global problems can only be resolved by tackling local problems: the village, the isolated community, internal migration, small farms, trades, neighborhood roads, rural schools, vocational training, and traditional craftsmanship.

There are so many forces behind this widening cleft of time and money. Trade agreements which favor business owners over new entrepreneurs, private education which is accessible only to the wealthy, low access to knowledge and social capital, brain drain, urbanization and the rural villages it leaves behind – it goes on and on.

Fuentes’ main argument is that in the developing world both the government and private sectors have their sites set on exactly that: development. All across the former Third World we see Prime Ministers touting their 2030 plans, 2020 plans, and among the most ambitious, their 2010 plans. “By so and so a date, our country will become a fully developed nation,” they say in speech after speech. Never mind that they offer no metrics with which to gauge progress, the point is that both governments and corporations are concerned with national growth, not equal opportunity.

And so it is up to what Fuentes calls the ‘third sector,’ civil society, the world of non-profits, NGO’s, and universities, to create a bridge between their country’s forgotten citizens, the corporate sector, and government.

Will this third sector be successful in bridging the present divide between past and future? I really have no idea. But there is reason for optimism as the world’s two wealthiest men have decided to invest the great majority of their fortunes in social development. Former leaders like Bill Clinton are also using their fame and popularity to push for philanthropy and social entrepreneurism. Even the supreme celebrities of our Hollywood-idolizing society are using (albeit sometimes misguidedly) their influence to push popular attention from the MTV Music Awards and toward communities that have yet to benefit from the economic boom of globalization.

There are other reasons for optimism. It used to be that after college you decided to either sell out or save the world. These days there is much more communication – even collaboration – between the government, private, and civil society sectors. Corporate boards hold non-profit directors and vise-versa. We often read of former corporate managers and Wall Street investors who take 10 years off and offer their organizational acumen to struggling non-profits. Less common, but also increasing, is the trend of non-profit employees entering the corporate world (often with a foot, or bleeding heart, still in the sphere of do-gooding). This cross-fertilization is a good thing. It keeps companies focused on social goals as well as quarterly profits. It also keeps NGO directors focused on the balance ledger along with their visionary manifestos for an equitable future. And it means that college students feel less anxiety when choosing between ‘doing good’ and ‘doing bad.’

Finally, (of course I had to say it), there is the internet. I remember attending a lecture back in my days at UCSD with the title ‘Toward a Transnational Labor Movement’. (This was back in my phase of attending any lecture or conference with the word ‘transnational’ in its title.) There was a lot of enthusiasm (and very few examples) of unions and labor movements reaching across borders to compete with the managerial evolution of top-down globalization.

Today there really are examples of social groups and social movements using the internet to contact and support each other across borders (and oceans). I’m sure that my former professors have no idea. Check out Georgia’s podcast with our friend Atillah Springer (AKA ‘The Dread’) about how she teamed up with a group from Iceland to stop development of an aluminum smelter plant in rural Trinidad. Also, check out how Taiwanese bloggers used the internet to save their country’s last leprosy sanatorium and how the strategies of their success have been studied and taken up by a group fighting the same fight in Malaysia.

The tight budgets of civil society groups have often forced them to forego aspects that are key to an organization’s success: outside consultants, networking, PR and documentation. Now the internet allows NGOs to do all of that freely – and with one another – so long as they’re willing to learn the new tools of online communication.

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