The sales of home cleaning products, such as Domestos and Mr Proper, are going through the roof in the Balkans. Shoes are left at the front door, and cloths are changed not to bring outside dirt into the home. Family members and/or external cleaners take great care to keep the home spotless clean. Norms, values and cultural habits are in place to uphold this tidy behaviour.
Now, when the persons leave home, the norms, values and habits change completely. Suddenly its culturally acceptable to leave the garbage bag in the elevator, leave the picnic trash in the glorious, green fields of the mountains and toss the ice cream wrap next to the bin in the city park. Somebody else is supposed to remove the bag from the elevator, clean the environment and pick up the wrap. But who? Mother, neighbor, state or park cleaner? Who, and why not you?
“Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean”, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote. Goethe was referring to how our individual actions affect the larger whole, or society. Our individual behaviors shape the collective norms, values and habits in society. If we, as individuals, set out to systematically avoid playing by the rules (norms, laws), it cannot come as a surprise that others do the same, which in turn lead to the state and society not functioning adequately to satisfy even the most basic needs of the majority.
The simple truth is that we ‘value’ our home because we own it. We don’t ‘value’ the common space in our apartment block (the elevator), state or environment because we don’t perceive ourselves as ‘owners’. The state is somebody else so somebody else is responsible for making it function. But the state is us, its institution contain people, like us (a friend, a neighbor, a relative) and not robots.
We find it difficult to apply the same sense of ownership, responsibility and care for ‘things’, which are not under our private ownership. Now if we are incapable of feeling responsible for ‘material things’ outside of our home, are we capable of caring for ‘people’ who are not family? Probably not. This goes a long way in explaining why political parties in the Balkans are ran more like profit-seeking family businesses, than policy-driven entities with altruistic purposes. It also explains why it has been so difficult for modern Balkan states to make the right policy decisions required to reduce poverty among the majority, while at the same time doing exceptionally well in making a very, very small minority of society very, very rich.
It all starts at home, but we need to carry the same strong sense of responsibility and ownership in the public sphere. This is part of our responsibilities as citizens in a democratic society, and our contribution to the building of a sense of statehood. Only then can a process of ‘real’ improvements in people’s lives begin.
So they next time the person in front of you almost hits you throwing the trash out the car window, take a stand, show responsibility, and with time our children will inherent a better place to live.