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Learning from the Global South

By Aminatta Forna

February 21, 2024

In Response to Why the Georgetown Global Dialogues?

Before I became a writer, I worked for 10 years as a reporter for BBC television covering British politics and policy. Back then it was an office rule that no report could pose a problem without also proposing a solution. Often, we looked at how countries tackled the same issue, and it seemed we were often on a plane to one or other of the Nordic countries who seemed to have found an eminently sensible policy solution to a challenge. Finally, our editor instructed us to look further afield. And so we did, investigating Chile's (at that time) excellent pension scheme and why Singaporean citizens enjoyed—and still enjoy—some of the best health care in the world.

When I moved to the United States in 2015, I was interested to discover current affairs programs here didn't follow the same rule. A journalist I asked suggested the answer was to be found in the lore (and lure) of American exceptionalism. Namely, if the answer was not to be found within the United States, it wasn't to be found at all. Her answer resonated. For if my British editor encouraged us to look abroad, even he had his limits. I couldn't, for example, persuade him that my fatherland, Sierra Leone, according to the WHO, then had one of the most successful AIDS education programs in the world.

The Global North doesn't imagine the Global South has anything to contribute in terms of policy or experience. The flow of ideas, expertise, and information, which typically follows the flow of aid, has always been a one-way street.

In the last 30 years, Sierra Leone has endured state collapse, civil war, and recovery. I have spent 20 years writing about the signs of incipient and growing authoritarianism, which include control of the press and judiciary, co-option of the loyalty of the police and the army, the rise of militias, and the manipulation of elections. Also, the rise of a transformational leader, both charismatic and ruthless, one who makes all this possible. The factors are the same in most countries, regardless of the color of the citizens.

The Global South has an abundance of experience of the most pressing shared problems, from social inequality to the effects of climate change to rising demagoguery. I welcome these Global Dialogues and the long overdue recognition to the professionals, policymakers, and activists in those countries seeking and discovering possible solutions.

Aminatta Forna is director of the Lannan Center and professor of the practice in the Department of English at Georgetown University.