When in Rome? or What the heck am I doing in Rome?

People who work in development sometimes say things that are bleeding obvious and pass them off as profound without really exploring what they mean or what the implications are. I may not be immune to this practice. Saying that “context matters” is one that particularly gets my goat, perhaps in part because as a sometime-geographer my job used to be about trying to understand/explain which aspects of context matter in what ways.

In the development sphere, a close cousin of context matters is the point that things that work in one place/country/context might not work in a different place/country/context and as such one should: a) pay close attention to how things work in a particular place; and b) be very careful about trying to impose rules/ways of doing things that might seem to work in one place, onto another. Of course, this is just the general argument about whether there are (or should be – and there is a difference between is and ought!) general rules.

Anyway, the other day someone – talking about the tendency of Ethiopians to drink and drive (I don’t know how widespread it is, but it seems to be more common and tolerated than in the UK) – said half-jokingly  “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Well, no. If what the Romans do can lead to the premature death or injury of oneself or someone else, don’t bloody well do what the Romans do. And, if you’ve got any balls, perhaps try persuading the Romans – using evidence – that they shouldn’t do it either. And, what the heck, if you’re providing the Romans with a car to help them to get them where they want to go, then maybe tell them that if they drink and drive you’re going to take the car back.

Respecting and appreciating and understanding context is of course important; I ain’t no imperialist – double negative for effect. But if part of the context is abject poverty, and if the locals don’t like poverty [!] and request some assistance to reduce it, and if an outsider – working closely with locals – has some ideas or resources that might be put to work to change that context, some of which might be about saying “the evidence from other countries suggests that acting in the way I’m suggesting might be more effective at reducing poverty than doing things in the way that they tend to have been done around here”, then I don’t have a major problem with that, particularly if I’m open to the idea that the Romans might visit my place and make suggestions as to things might work differently there too. Otherwise being in Rome is just an excuse for a Roman orgy of mutually-assured drunk-driving destruction.

Actually … is this the same as the idea of “going native”, minus the perjorative use of the word “native”?

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