The Value of Learning from the World

Friday, April 5, 2019 - 3:15 pm
Karabi Acharya

What do you do when you have a difficult and complex problem? If you’re like me, you start by trying to understand it. You think the problem through from all angles, looking at the data, talking to people in your community. You study the problem, inside out.

Now, what do you do when you're looking for a solution to a problem? For me, I try to do something a little different. I look up and far away. I wander, both literally and figuratively, seeking new perspectives from across the globe because I believe that good ideas have no borders and the source of inspiration can be found all around our world. History has shown that solutions often come from unexpected places, so doesn’t it make sense to look there ourselves?

In our work at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that's precisely what we do. To help everyone in our nation have the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible, we need the best ideas the world has to offer. That’s why we search the globe for programs, policies and practices that might work in the United States.

As a grantmaker, it is easy to wonder why looking to Kigali, Rwanda for ideas for Camden, NJ; or turning to Johannesburg for solutions for Birmingham, AL is a good use of our time or resources. But, through our grants, ideas are traveling:

These are just three out of almost eighty plus grants we’ve made in the last three years to learn from abroad. What is interesting to note is that we and our grantees did not need to get on a plane to discover these solutions. Learning from the world doesn’t require travelling around the world.

Marcel Proust once wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” And yes, while spending time in other countries and cultures conveys great benefits, the most important thing for us as a sector and as organizations is to cultivate a practice of expanding where we look and how we see our world.  

Here are three practices that have helped us and our grantees find solutions from around the world without ever getting out our passports:

  1. Put the “world” in world wide web. Here are several sites that are searchable by issue area that will point you to some interesting solutions and approaches being tried abroad—and even give you guidance on how to bring them stateside. (ChangeX, World Policy Center, Solutions Journalism Story Tracker)

  1. Nourish yourself with a global diet. We all consume so much information - going to conferences, subscribing to newsletters, attending webinars. But how many of them are global by nature? Check out these resources to expand your diet with more worldly ideas. (Apolitical, Reimagined in America Webinar Series, BRIGHT Magazine, Global Voices, Johns Hopkins Global Health Now) And don’t forget to follow these global conversations about topics that impact us all (Sustainable Development Goals, Global Dialogue for Happiness)

  1. See the global in your own community. Talk with people from other countries in your community (immigrants, refugees, visitors) or people with international experience. Ask them about how their cultures and countries address the problem you’re tackling. Make this a regular practice of engaging people from different lands in your work. (Portals, Welcoming America toolkit, wikihow)

The reality is that we, along with many others, are just getting started on our global learning journey and have plenty to learn ourselves. So, please connect with us to share how you or your organization practices global learning. Who knows, maybe together we can see the world as we’ve never seen it before.  

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