A Lesson on Shoes & Non-Universal Truths

Recently I ran my third marathon, my first in southern Africa. There were about 2500 runners, fewer than in any other race I’d run, and only a couple hundred were running the full 42 km (26.1 miles). Lining up at the start, and throughout the race, I noticed footwear: some people wore Brooks, others wore Asics or Nike, some wore Converse, some ran in just socks, and some ran barefoot. Those running the race ranged from professional runners who traveled to Zimbabwe for the race, to locals who wanted to be a part of this annual event. I fell somewhere in the middle as I had trained, but not extensively. I traveled, but only from neighboring Zambia. My shoes too, fell somewhere in the middle. Having trained in these shoes longer than I normally would, and on uneven, unpredictable dirt, tar, and grass surfaces, they were a bit shabby looking with a few tiny holes. Still, they were a pair of shoes that I bought for over 100 USD, made and used exclusively for running — a luxury.

Photo credit: vicfallsmarathon.com

An American runner watching this race would not be impressed by the state of my shoes and might be shocked by those running barefoot. He or she might feel badly for those who were running in “inappropriate” footwear or none at all. Fair enough, if you’re used to running in the New York Marathon, but this attitude is just one example of how we all have our own ideas and ideals of how things should be. These ideas are grown in our own environment, and yet we are so ready to apply them outside of their native context. As humans, we judge and evaluate what we encounter, and we frame these judgments with what we know to be true. But our truths are limited by our experiences — they are not universal. This is something we must remember, both as individuals and as a collective.

…no one has the right to impose their ideals onto another, and no government or individual should make judgments about another — even if they do run a marathon in their shoes.

In the development field, “truths,” ideas, and ideals are sometimes shared, but all too frequently they are imposed. The nature of bilateral aid (in which funds flow from one country to another) is partnership, but it can easily become hegemonistic, as the donor has more power to dictate the terms of use of the aid. To a degree, countries should have the right to decide what they directly fund, but any discussion of “rights” is corrupted when the conditionality of funds expands beyond the direct use of those funds or when those funds are used as a lever to promote an agenda, an ideal, a morality.

The Mexico City Policy is one example of this. This United States government (USG) policy disqualifies a non-governmental organization (NGO) from receiving funding if that NGO provides counseling, referrals, or advocacy for abortion, even if the funds for those activities are coming from another source. Note, this policy is not simply saying that USG money cannot pay for abortions. (While countries’ and continents’ worth of data will tell you that not providing safe abortion services is a terrible public health move, some people point out that American taxpayers should not have to fund abortion if it counter to their beliefs.) The Mexico City Policy prevents ANY funding for ANY programs, including nutrition and immunization programs, to go to organizations if they EVEN DISCUSS abortion services. In effect, the Mexico City Policy pushes a moral mandate onto these organizations and the countries and populations they serve. And what this imposition of ideals means in practice, is that NGOs lose thousands of dollars of funding, and the populations they serve have lessened access to services. And the impact is real.

Comparing access to good running shoes to access to reproductive services is, at the end of the day, like comparing apples and oranges. They are not equivalent. The point is that no one has the right to impose their ideals onto another, and no government or individual should make judgments about another — even if they do run a marathon in their shoes.

Annie Martin was a 2016–2017 Global Health Corps fellow.

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