“The ugly American,” the title of a novel published in 1958 by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, entered the language to refer to boorish American officials abroad who sought to improve the lives of natives without taking the trouble to learn their language, culture, or needs. A long line of ugly Americans, mostly politicians and government officials from both parties, have believed that applying simple formulas based on idealized versions of US institutions – democracy, markets, and human rights – could convert long-suffering places like Afghanistan and Iraq into Western-style consumer utopias. Inevitably, these Americans caused more harm than good.
Today, the ugliest of all Americans is not a government official but a private citizen, the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg has received an endless stream of criticism because of Facebook’s lamentable impact on American politics and culture. Less attention has been given to Facebook’s impact on foreign markets, which Zuckerberg recklessly penetrated with no evident concern about the possible consequences of conducting massive social experiments in countries with weak institutions and histories of instability. Back in 2015, Zuckerberg teamed up with the musician Bono to advocate a human right to internet access. The all-too-common belief among America’s business elite that one’s economic self-interest coincides with the global good appeared as a paean to cyberspace that the duo wrote for the New York Times:
In Ethiopia and Tanzania, for example, farmers connect to get better prices, track inventory and make mobile insurance payments in case of bad weather. In Nigeria, citizens use BudgIT, a mobile app, to assess whether governments keep their spending promises…. In Guatemala, cellphones inform mothers how to have healthy pregnancies. In Kenya, women receive financial services via their cellphones thanks to the brilliant M-Pesa microfinance scheme.
Read more at Project Syndicate