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What is Progress?

Progress is understood today as the approach to European norms and the standfard of life of Europeans.. The new Bolivians demonstrated their emancipation with sentences like We don't want your progress of assets accumulation. We want harmony with pachammamma, mother earth.

The Goethe Institute raises the big question - What is Progress? - from Bolivia and Russia to India

By Harald Schumann

[This article originally published in: Der Tagesspiegel online, 11/29/2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://archiv.tagesspiegel.de/archiv/29.11.2004/1507709.asp.]

What is progress? Whoever asks this question in the world public is either na´ve or brave. With great earnestness, co-workers of the Goethe Institute and the Society for Technical Cooperation (GTC) sought answers to this question all over the world in the past seven months. They invited politicians and intellectuals, managers and activists, farmers and citizens and urged them to debate the theme. At conferences in Alexandria, Calcutta, La Paz, Windhoek, Kalingrad and Dresden, they sowed irritation and often harvested conflict. Last but not least, they invited twenty participants from four continents to Berlin to debate the question again this time in the global context. Tomorrow this truly multicultural group will present its conclusions to a prominent conference. The project cost over 300,000 euro. No one knows what will result. Can a worldwide debate be kindled with tax funds over such a run of the mill theme?

"We should have done this much earlier", said Franziska Donner. The 61-year old head of the GTC office in the capital is a veteran of "technical cooperation" or aid to developing countries. For decades she tried to encourage progress in many countries of Asia and always carried away a feeling of unease. "The really important things are never discussed. The guiding ideas and basic values underlying every project have enormous effect and are never debated."

Their proposal for a transcontinental debate on the term progress ignited burning interest everywhere. Ulrike Hofmann, the director of the Berlin Goethe Institute, inspired her colleagues abroad and their local partners. The idea of progress is the most powerful ideological export good of European-American civilization. "The wheel of history moves on the rail on which the human race reaches its perfection", as Gottfried Lessing outlined the idea of progress of the European enlightenment at the end of the 18th century. This idea is still omnipresence today in politics and science. However the triumphant colonial and then economic advance of their armies, technologies and businesses seduces Europeans and Americans again and again to assume that humanity can only move on their path. "One can be less developed and more traditional in different ways but one can only be modern, developed and progressive on one way, the Western way", as the Indian sociologist Ashis Nandy sarcastically described the monotheism of the faith in progress by the elite of his own country during the Calcutta meeting.

"As in the West, so on earth." With this formula, the scholar Wolfgang Sachs twelve years ago summarized this limited salvation promise that for ecological reasons can never be fulfilled. Worldwide understanding on the question about true progress is increasingly urgent, Sachs insists. Sachs is director of the globalization and sustainability research program at the Wuppertal Institute for Energy and Environment. What the Berlin women at GTC and the Goethe institute initiate is "a really fantastic project".

The cultural dimension of the progress discourse kindles the greatest passions, not the technical or ecological dimensions. The loss of culture and identity makes Europe's project of modernism indigestible for the rest of the world, particularly in all the countries where the material advantages of the western success model only benefit a small minority. In 1992 the American sociologist Benjamin Barber described this conflict with the title "McWorld versus Djhad" and thus explained the cultural-religious fundamentalism flaring worldwide. In one form or another, the phenomenon was present at all five foreign conferences.

The scholars and journalists gathered in Alexandria debated the question whether the re-Islamization of Egyptian society over 25 years stands in the way of progress or whether "the belatedness of the Arab nations", as the Moroccan philosopher Mohammed Sabila said, was a result of the colonial inheritance and the despots in their countries supported by the West. In Kaliningrad, the representative of the regional government dared the sentence "progress is understood today as the approach to European norms and the standard of life of Europeans. Aggressive protest came surging from many participants who urged instead "Russian values" and strengthening the orthodox religion.

At the conference in the Bolivian capital La Paz, all the lecturers assigned the western idea of progress to the waste-heap of history. For centuries, the Spanish-speaking minority ruled over the Indian majority. After a popular rebellion, indigenous politicians along with the Indian culture now strive for power. The local GTC-co-workers invited their representatives to the debate. However the word "progress" does not even occur in their languages. The advances of their oppressors consisted in the exploitation of raw material resources and destruction of nature. The new Bolivians demonstrated their emancipation with sentences like "We don't want your progress of assets accumulation" and "We want harmony with `pachamamma, mother earth'."

This sounds like Greenpeace romanticism without a connection to reality. Ultimately Indians also need medical care and schooling. Still the argument about the basic ideas of life is important for the local progress researchers. Now they can explain why building mini-banks for small credits to Bolivian farmers accomplishes nothing. The notion of amassing capital breaks the norms and strict rules of rural community life.

The organizers admit that these are all very incomplete snap-shots. Because of shortage of money, the conference series had serious shortcomings. All east Asia, the region with the most successful adaptation of the western model, was not included. No representatives participated from the Islamic movement that fights for cultural autonomy and material gain, the Koran and the computer.

The political-cultural experiment was greatly applauded in all the participating countries. Tashi Taroor, the under-secretary of the United Nations, even proposed that the project continue next year under the auspices of the UN. The project is a "showcase" for Germany because it propagates a completely new idea of international cooperation.

The invited participants were very surprised that there weren't lectures, said GTC director Donner. Instead they discussed progress and religion, tradition and the social question with representatives of other countries foreign to them in three study groups. the next day the officials of the Foreign Office and the development ministry listened for hours to presentations of guests from abroad before they commented. "We have no idea what will emerge. This could fail but we must make the attempt". That itself is courageous and progress.

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