I think that this is one of the favorite words of many people who are in the service industry in Ethiopia. Everything has to be international standards or have the word international in it. We have Ethiopian international hotels, schools, clinics, banks and even churches. But why? Why are you so obsessed with being “international”? What’s wrong with just being Ethiopian?
As I was mulling over this idea in the past few months, I decided to look up what exactly international standards means. According to google, international standards are “standards developed by international standards organizations. International standards are available for consideration and use worldwide. The most prominent organization is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).”
The ISO does set standards for a few things and people get certification and provide services based on these skills. Now I know for certain that the ISO does not have standards for banking or schools or even churches, so I still am not clear what exactly international standards are.
I do not think that international standards, whatever they may be, are a bad thing. On the contrary, it is good to have a certain standard which can help gage ones expectation about difference types of services. What I find bothersome about these standards though is that they are often times completely imagined, undefined and often unrealistic. In most instances, international standards really mean “standards of the person talking about them.”
You will often here someone say how impressed or unimpressed they are about a hotel or a service in Ethiopia, and they would complain about how it does or does not comply with international standards. My answer is often “what does that even mean?” And the frequent answer is: “well, (enter name of a Western country or one that is considerably richer than Ethiopia) they do government services differently or waiters are much better at services”. Yet, that is exactly it. We are not those countries nor should we aspire to be. Our realities and experiences are what shape us and the institutions that we build.
This is not to say that we do not have to work on making our schools or hotels or other parts of the service industries better, we really do. The question is; we should make them better for the people who are using them. The “international standards” we are often referring to are often western standards but in a different name. So in making our standards and services better, we have to keep in mind what our people and users want. They may or may not want those standards.
It pretty much comes down to this, should we live in a system where we have to get used to the standards or the standards have to conform to us? The answer is not as easy as the question and is definitely going to create a lot of disagreements. In certain instances, I do believe standards can be at the forefront of shaping social behavior but in other instances, standards should follow that of the people. After all, is it not that the goal of standards that of providing the users/customers with a uniform and satisfactory service?
As we enter 2009, I hope we start taking a bit more pride on being Ethiopian service providers rather than trying to conform to the ever so elusive “international standards”.