Not long ago, international citizenship required a valid passport. Today, we effortlessly cross borders when speaking to customer support, checking the online news and browsing store shelves. New technologies, media and markets now grant each of us the ability to reach far beyond the immediate community in which we live.
In this increasingly connected world, even the slightest of actions has the potential to effect global change. What small role can one play in shaping our future?
Thirty years ago I left my home in Minnesota to join the Peace Corps. Looking back, it was then that I began my life as an international citizen.
The experience would take me on a rewarding journey to less-developed countries working with the World Bank and the United Nations -- assigned to transform traditional crafts into commercially viable industries. Naturally, it led me to a career working closely with local governments and private citizens to raise standards of living in the developing world.
A pivotal point for me came in 1986, when the World Bank invited me to Nepal to assist the nation's wool and artisan industries. The hope was that by growing Nepal's export market in hand-knotted carpets, we might improve the country's ailing economy. The challenge quickly became clear -- there was simply not enough raw wool to supply production for its existing European market, let alone an American one.
A centuries-old barter system used for trade in raw wool between Nepal and Tibet, combined with a government-controlled wool board, severely limited Nepal's wool supply and growth of the carpet industry. As a World Bank consultant in marketing, I collaborated with government officials, businessmen and traders in assessing a system overhaul that eventually enabled carpet makers to buy wool with hard currency earned from their exports. With the end of seemingly corrupt trading practices, Nepal's carpet exports multiplied more than seven times in six years - as did the number of jobs in the industry.
While living in Nepal that year, I grew close to its people and the ancient Tibetan techniques of hand-carding, hand-spinning and hand-knotting Himalayan wool, as well as the all-but-forgotten methods for vegetable-dying yarn. This led me to create my business which, 20 years later, provides employment to more than 10,000 Nepalese craftspeople. Today, because individuals are content in the workplace and with their earnings, standards of living are much improved, and community interest in health, sanitation and education has evolved substantially.
Due to the nature of my work, conditions in the areas I visit are harsh. Witnessing the human struggle with my own eyes is often difficult to bear -- it is tempting to turn away and shield myself from its realities.
Each day, we are all reminded of difficult situations around the globe -- war, terrorism, human-rights abuse. Having lived and worked in places of unrest, I have come to believe firmly and passionately that much of the world's turmoil stems from poverty.
The violence we attribute to religious fanaticism or corrupt regimes, in my view, is actually the product of leaders exploiting the desperation of the poor. False promises can be convincing when one's children are going hungry.
But I am hopeful. I have found that if a person is offered fair, steady work, he or she is far less susceptible to calls for hatred and hostility. And a job that feeds one's family, particularly one providing cultural satisfaction, also instills pride -- empowering that person to think beyond basic survival to focus on health and education within the community.
So how can we, as individuals, take a small part in improving conditions in other parts of the world?
Regardless of whom we are, we decide how our money is to be spent. We can become more aware of the global impact of these decisions -- by asking retailers and manufacturers to better educate us about their products:
- Where was this item made, and by whom?
- Was it under conditions where human rights are respected?
- Were people paid fairly and are standards of living being improved through fair labor practices?
- Was it produced in a responsible, sustainable manner?
- Have these claims been verified by a third-party organization?
With each informed purchase, we send a clear message to those accountable for a product's bottom line. And in today's borderless marketplace, our collective financial power is capable of influencing business and government leaders to work toward products and policies that benefit all members of our global community.
Stephanie Odegard, recipient of the 2008 Twin Cities International Citizen Award, is founder of New York-based Odegard Inc., which designs and produces hand-knotted carpets and home furnishings. Odegard also works with Rugmark (www.rugmark.org) to eliminate illegal child labor in the carpet industry throughout Asia.
© 2008 Pioneer Press