Imagine for a moment something distant and unlikely. A village in Europe in what can still be called the Dark Ages. Barbarism. Desperate poverty. A deeply conservative social order with great gaps between haves and have-nots. Little regard for the value of human life. And the status of women? Forget about it, not on the map. Disease and ignorance are rampant, and wandering witch-doctors compete with fallen priests and monks to cure the sick, and take their money. On top of all that, it's northern Europe. The weather is lousy.
Into this non-Shangri La come strangers from distant lands. They are well dressed cosmopolitan, and at ease. They are concerned, shocked even, by the deprivation around them. They speak among themselves in strange tongues-Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Chinese. It's clear that on their journey to this distant land, they have seen much of this sort.
In parts of this dark land, they say to each other, people still live in caves, paint themselves blue, worship objects in the forest. Our visitors, humane men all of them, decide to take action. They send messages back to Cathay, Samarkand, Vijayanagar, Damascus, Teheran. "We must do something. These poor benighted people need our help. They don't know about sewerage systems, public health, algebra." The Chinese member of the party makes a special note about the absence of gunpowder and writing paper.
Months later-this was pre-email, mind you-comes the signal from the head office: Do something then. Help them. But make it worth our while. Our mysterious but well-meaning party of wise men set up liaison offices and start importing technology and ideas from home to help the locals. It takes ages to get there, carried by porters and camel caravans. But eventually, in old barns on the edge of the village, supplies start to accumulate. Stacks of fine paper, carved quill pens, finely worked leather and iron implements, seeds from local plants, and folios of fine calligraphy, filled with the secrets of science, mathematics and medicine.
The locals take to this like fish to water. At first. They join the aid operations (for it is such) of the outsiders, signing-on as translators, cart drivers, labourers and willing participants in uplift programmes and joint ventures. They plant the outsiders' crops and harvest them with wonder and gratitude. They learn the languages of their employers and they embrace the concepts that have been imported with such goodwill and enthusiasm. All goes well. At first.
Then neighbouring villages, districts, kingdoms begin to wonder if they're losing out. Feudal lords in distant castles realise that despite local improvements, a lot of revenue is being spent on pointless things like schools, roads and water schemes. It should be accumulating in their coffers. Bandit leaders too eye the booty and recruit the resentful.
Worst of all, the sheer pace of change forces a local backlash. Old land disputes emerge with new vigour. The priests of the village church realise that control over social change is slipping away. And the adults worry about the impact of all this on the young. But even youth are having trouble adjusting. Instead of working in the fields, or the smithy, or just getting ready for future family life, young people want jobs, instant gratification; they develop the urban aspirations of those that help them. They feel they're not getting what they're entitled to, and they start blaming everyone but themselves.
The Asian benefactors are shocked and appalled. Sitting around an exclusive inn, amid steaming cauldrons of food from home, they express their resentment of the way things are going. They deplore the rising crime rate, the failure to rise to the occasion by local elite, the stubborn refusal of real, beneficial change to take root.
Of course, this is all a fallacious construct. But as I tour the developing world and see the almost ubiquitous presence of outside assistance, ideas, attitudes and technology, I wonder why the great civilisations of Asia didn't voyage through backwards Europe (and North America) and try to change things with lashings of cash and goodwill. I am glad they didn't, and that they left my forebears to make their own mistakes, follow their own blind alleys, decide for themselves that meaningful change has to be indigenous if it is to be long-lasting.
Hail the wise ones of the East (occidentally speaking) for their wisdom was great. And I know they'll regain their greatness soon enough.