Robert Burns and the Slum Dog World

The Mexicans say that you die twice; first when you stop breathing and second, when people stop talking about you. January 26th, 2009 marks the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns and with 80,000 members of Burns clubs worldwide and 18.8 million references on the web Burns is more than a topic of conversation.

In 2004, Kofi Annan gave the Memorial Robert Burns Memorial Lecture at the United Nations in New York. His theme, The Brotherhood of Man and his words provide a facinating insight into how relevant the words of the Rhymer are to an understanding of the essential dignity and relevance of  the Majority World in our ever more globalised world.

Burns was  born into poverty and spent his youth working on a farm. His Mother was illiterate and his Father had it tough. Burns poetry dignified and illuminated the struggle faced by the vast majority of the world today. Burns is the Bard of the poor and, his verse carries unique insights into the plight of those in our Informal World. Ralph Waldo Emerson was clear that “Burns had given voice to all the experiences of common life; he has endeared the farmhouse and cottages, patches and poverty, beans and barley and fear of debt.”

There is another theme running through Burns that highlights his relevance to the world of the ever resourceful poor. Burns 368 songs are not original – he wrote barely a line of his own music. More than a century before Dvorak and Janusek went folk song collecting on Bohemia, Burns travelled remote rural areas to collate songs and fragments of verse that he would rearrange and improve upon with innovative pragmatism. It is what India calls jugaad and illustrates the resourcefulness of tose who make of their circumstances what they can.

Burns even had a view on the poor connectivity between remote rural communities and the mainstream with his verse, On Rough Roads:

“I’m now arrived-thanks to the gods!
Thro pathways rough and muddy,
A certain sign that makin roads
Is no this people’s study”

Anyone who has looked at the Last Mile Video on this Blog will see the relevance.

A recent Biographer, Andrew O’Hagan, highlights the significance of the man: “Burns places a social roar in every heart and leaves no fellow uninvited”. These sentiments were echoed in Obamas Inaugural speech when he stressed that “a Nation cannot prosper long when it only favours the prosperous“.

There is another important perspective that needs to be highlighted in any use of Burns as the Bard of the Brotherhood of Man – the role of Women. Burns was a man of his times and, though the amorous daliances of a man who fathered 14 children have been well chronicled, there are less well known passages where the Bard registers the need for women to have a more equitable role in society.

There is no need to overstate the case but, when considering the dignity of the Majority World, we must be prepared to accept a responsibility to take account of the plight of women seriously. For example, the impact of the current Global crisis is being disproportionately felt by what one Ugandan commentator called the Mothers of the Nation – any Nation. Women, as the Grameen Bank demonstrates, play a crucial role in reducing poverty levels and, making things happen on the ground. 

Maybe these perspective on Burns can help us with those hybrid business models that will help the Formal world find common purpose with those in the Informal but Majority world. For a Man’s a Man for a’ that.

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