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It is sometimes said that the abstract universalism of the Enlightenment, the assumption that all humanity shares certain values, should be replaced, not by just an insistence of difference (the postmodern approach?), but by looking for concrete commonalities. This way of looking at things, the commonalities lens, is part of the current paradigm shift.


The idea, applied to development, is applied by Jon Tinker of the Panos Foundation, in a Drumbeat editorial. See

"I have a suggestion for replacing the North-South lens as a tool: as a way of gaining new insights. Panos Canada has begun to explore a "commonalities lens". Instead of looking for differences between countries and cultures, we are homing in on what they have in common.

We started field-testing this approach in 2006, when we teamed up with Panos Caribbean and AIDS Vancouver to create "AIDS in Two Cities", a photo-analysis by Pieter de Vos of the human impacts of, and community responses to, HIV/AIDS in Port au Prince and Vancouver.

Seen through the commonalities lens, AIDS looks remarkably similar in one of the richest and in one of the poorest cities in the world. In both Haiti and Canada, the ARV (anti-retroviral) drugs which can keep HIV-positive people alive are readily available to the wealthy, but not to the very poor. Haiti has, of course, a far greater proportion of people in absolute poverty than does Canada, but while their numbers differ their situations do not. In each country, many of those who get free ARVs are unable to afford the adequate and balanced diet without which these medications do not work. So NGOs in both Vancouver and Port-au-Prince have to feed hungry people living with HIV/AIDS.

The North-South lens sees Canada as North and Haiti as South. It assumes that Canada must provide "technical assistance", "experts" and "training" to Haiti. The commonalities lens helps avoid these comfortable and self-deceiving attitudes. The Haitian NGO FOSREF (Foundation for Reproductive Health and Family Education), for example, whose sophisticated and successful youth clubs ingeniously integrate a multi-layered range of sex education into activities ranging from sports to street theatre, and drumming to language classes, could teach its Canadian counterparts a good deal.

The North-South lens emphasises what divides us, and lays the groundwork for alienation and patronage. The commonalities lens helps us realise what we share, and provides a basis for solidarity, and for learning from one another as equals. "AIDS in Two Cities" is, we hope, a modest first step towards seeing human societies more objectively, with all their diversity and defects.

Some 2.5 billion people - 40% of the world's population - live on less than US$2 a day. And many tens of millions - by no means all of them in the North - spend US$2 or more on a daily cup of designer coffee.

Changing these shameful disparities doesn't need rocket science. A mere 1.6% of the income of the richest 600 million people could release US$300 billion a year, and lift one billion people above the extreme poverty (US$1/day) threshold.

There are few global challenges which are peculiar to one culture, one region, or one ethnic group. Health care, housing, access to clean water, HIV/AIDS, poverty, security from violence, human and civil rights, climate change and a score of other issues all have similar dimensions in both North and South.

The North-South lens is obscuring the reality of the world we live in, and distorting our perceptions of social justice challenges which affect virtually every state in the world.

Appropriate and effective responses are usually derived locally. But our analysis should be global. I suggest that civil society should increasingly focus on commonalities, to spotlight the marginalised and deprived in all our societies.

Lenses matter. How we see determines how we feel - and how we act. The North-South lens is blurred, cracked, and warped. At 50 years old, it's long past its sell-by date. Isn't it time we threw it away?" (