By Andrew Grant
Last week I was ‘scalped’- literally. While surfing at my favorite location in Bali I was ambushed by a 2 meter wave from behind which threw me onto a treacherous coral reef in front. With a split second lapse in concentration, my adversaries overwhelmed me and I collided with the reef head-on. The near death result was an 8cm gash in my forehead with the skin ripped through to the bone – leaving me needing to be rescued by lifeguards and then in the skilled hands of a plastic surgeon. Only after a few hours of surgery, MRI scans, x-rays, drips, needles and 80 stitches, was I reconstructed and released back into the world of the living (but now with a permanent scar to remind me of the incident.)
My ‘scalping’ experience led me to reflect on what this concept has meant in history and what it means today. And as I learnt more about the concept, it occurred to me that there are some deep connections with the approaches we take to corporate social responsibility and tourism. I was fascinated to discover, for example, that scalping was originally a sign of bravado for ancient primitive tribes who, when threatened by other ‘enemy tribes’, ‘scalped’ their helpless victims after attacking them in a show of strength.
History is littered with too many examples of such cases to think of these strange acts of aggression as isolated or freak incidents. It seems that humans are prone to attacking that which we fear and wearing our supposed bravery as a badge of honor.
Today the term ‘scalping’ is used (along with the word ‘fleecing’) when someone rips off another person by taking advantage of a situation, particularly where there is no personal relationship involved, and usually when there is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mindset. In his book ‘The Undercover Economist’, Time Hartford describes the dangers of a ‘market economy’ in which one person will always be ripped off, if one party is unaware of the value of an item or situation and/or if there is unequal knowledge about that item or situation.
Micro scenario reflects the macro situation
Nowhere is scalping more prevalent than in a tourist destination in a developing country. The prices people get charged for a brand name copy or some local artifact continually amazes me. Asymmetrical market information will always create a sacristy of power and allow one person to take advantage of another, and we tend to become outraged when we feel we have been ‘ripped off’. But while we as tourists may focus on our own personal woes when we get scalped or ripped off, we may be failing to recognize that in fact we can be the ones doing the scalping.
In Bali, for example, I can’t help notice that as the local tout completes the deal and pockets the money, rather than walking home through tranquil rice paddies onto a pristine beach with the deep glow of a clear-skied sunset as a backdrop, he instead steps over piles of rubbish and through a polluted noisy traffic jam, onto a filthy crowded beach with a nasty grey haze for a backdrop, happy that more tourists are lining up for more sales without noticing the high price that is being paid.
As tourists continue to pour into the tiny resort island of Bali, we need to ask how it will cope ecologically? Is the island itself being ‘ripped off’ by those who come with their own personal gains in mind and not with an appreciation of the real impact of their passive aggression. And is this just a small example of what’s actually happening on a global scale?
Research shows that damage is certain to occur in societies when new people suddenly ‘colonize’ a culture, or when people take on new technologies whose destructive power they have not had time to adjust to. (This can include something as simple as throwing away plastic – which has replaced banana leaves as a food wrapping in many Asian cultures – so it is natural that people would be used to throwing this on the ground without realizing the consequences).
Ignorant or wilfully blind?
Historian Jared Diamond believes that for most of human history we have lived in a state of xenophobic isolation from each other, tempered only by the need to trade. The end of mutual isolation is leading to a loss in cultural diversity. Diamond believes that tragic failures become moral sins only if one should have known better from the outset. Past societies that have collapsed had an excuse of being ignorant, but we are not, so our sin becomes willful blindness.
What is our responsibility to the countries and cultures we impact then? It is to ensure that we are not taking advantage of those developing areas that we can easily exploit through our greater access to wealth and power. Even more than that, it is to ensure we approach other countries and cultures with mutual respect and a desire to find win/win outcomes for all situations. As organizations, we need to become partners in helping to solve issues that we have helped to create as part of the global community.
Our own approach as a company has been to find ways to contribute our own expertise in finding long term sustainable solutions. After having lived and worked in Asia for more than 13 years, we can see that the best responses are not mere band aid solutions or simple clean up or smooth over jobs. There will need to be some expert attention and a great deal of time and effort putting into deeper reconstruction that will last.
We have recently developed a series of health and environmental education workshop kits as part of an education project that is already impacting whole communities. Local Indonesians are involved at all levels of the process – from the production of the kits, to the train-the-trainer program, teaching the kits, implementing the education process in remote communities – and it is turning into a really effective partnership program. We are beginning, hopefully, to find ways to move beyond potential exploitation to mutually beneficial development.
Travellers, not tourists
There is a lot to learn and a long way to go, but we believe it will be worth the effort over the long run to find ways to work between countries and cultures and with community needs at all levels with mutual respect and support.
So how do we effectively deal with the cross-culture issues in a positive way? Breaking down the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality by creating genuine dialogue will go a long way to helping us all progress as a race. Harford believes that allowing free markets to rein puts the truth over the table and destroys privileged information along with the power of scarcity. So yes, travel to and involvement in different countries and cultures can be constructive as long as we see ourselves as travelling a path alongside the others we encounter in other countries and cultures. We must be careful we don’t take with us the ‘tourist’ attitude – the desire to gain for ourselves without taking into account the impact our actions will have.
After 13 years of living in Bali, we recognize the possibly unfair advantage we have had and the inequalities in privilege and power, and we recognize that with greater power comes greater responsibility. We have the ability to pass on the knowledge we have been lucky enough to gain and to educate others, ultimately to hopefully prevent an unfair abuse of power and promote a sharing of responsible mutual development instead.
My accident was not a provoked enemy attacking me, just a random event. When I next get the chance to go surfing again at Uluwatu I will have no feelings of animosity against the waves or the reef that scalped me, and will focus instead on the enjoyment of riding what’s known as one of the best waves in the world. I will also reflect on what I have learnt from this incredibly beautiful country and country and what I can help to give back.
- Further reading: Bali Update Editor’s Bali Real Estate: Boom or Bust?.