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To conquer or collaborate?

Peru is a beautiful country. Old Spanish architecture sitting proudly overlooking perfectly manicured town squares. A gentle and welcoming local people, adorned with brightly coloured cloth, whose eyes are perpetually lined with the crinkles of a smile.

If it wasn’t for the old stone ruins sitting on the hillsides, and the ever present images of Machu Picchu in the shop fronts of bookstores and tour companies, it would be hard to imagine that this world was previously governed by the once proud and powerful Inca nation.

Like so many countries around the world, hundreds of years ago Peru was ‘conquered’ by people from another land. In the case of Peru, it was the Spanish that marched into the high peaks of the Andes in the 1530s and spent the next 30 years wiping out the native Inca empire that stretched almost the entire Western coast of South America and numbered 10 million people at the time.

The Spanish considered the Incas barbarians, despite the observations of the Spanish Conqusitors that the buildings in the Inca empire were as grand and well constructed as those in Spain at the time, with massive stones locked together with such precision that a knife couldn’t fit between them. They observed that the Inca cities were well ordered, and the Inca leaders intelligent, fiercely brave and quick to learn.

These Inca ‘barbarians’ had developed a kingdom of stunning cities, including irrigation systems, agriculture, taxation systems and paved roads through the previously impassable Andes. Their society was flourishing and growing. In fact the Spanish discovered that there was an oversupply of production, where items from crockery to fabric to food were stored in large warehouses, and when the warehouses overflowed, the items were given away by the Inca leaders as gifts to the peasants.

As Kim Macquarrie notes in the book The Last Days of the Incas, the Incas succeeded in not only creating a massive empire, but more importantly guaranteeing all the empire’s millions of inhabitants the basic necessities of life – adequate food, water and shelter. This is an achievement that no subsequent Government – Spanish or Peruvian – has achieved since.

The Incas by no means had all the answers to developing a productive society (and displayed some cut-throat behaviour of their own in establishing their empire), but they weren’t doing too badly, even by European standards at the time.

As we walked through the peaks and valleys of the Andes, on the same roads the Incas had built hundreds of years earlier, the question running through our minds was – what is it about human nature that leads humans to the kind of destructive behaviour displayed by the Spanish? What is it that leads us to make the determination that our ideas, abilities, ways of life, are somehow ‘better’ than others?

It is clear that the Spanish sought to conquer the Incas primarily out of greed – for more wealth, more land, more prestige. The Inca empire was fabulously wealthy – rich in gold and silver. Each of the initial 180 Spanish Conquisitors walked away from their first plunder of the capital city of the Inca Empire (Cuzco) with 80 years worth of their salaries in gold and silver (literally ripped from the walls of the Palace of the Sun God – the European equivalent of the Vatican – to the horror of Cuzco’s inhabitants).

But embedded within the act of genocide and plunder must have been the assumption that there was nothing of value to retain in the Inca culture, and nothing the Spanish could learn.

This assumption is not unique to the Spaniards of the 1500s.

In a modern day setting, this type of arrogance occurs in not-for-profit organisational settings often – to the detriment of the local communities that these organisations seek to assist.

We met with a women in Washington DC who has spent years working with the justice system in America. She relayed the story of a meeting she attended, where four large not-for-profit groups were offered a multi-million dollar grant from the Government to develop a project to support people exiting prison. Everyone around the table felt it was a great opportunity and agreed they would be part of it. But within one hour of the meeting, every single group had called to say that they would only participate in the project if they were leading it. The end result? No deal.

Similarly, a panel at a conference for Baptist not-for-profit leaders we attended a few years back (that had just announced that they had decided to investigate opportunities for partnerships with other Christian denominations) was asked whether they had considered working with groups of others faiths, for example Jewish or Buddhist not-for-profit agencies. The response? Silence. Blank looks. Some looks of incredulity (who would even think of such a thing?). The answer was a resounding ‘no’.

What wasted opportunities. And for whose benefit?

So what is it about human nature that leads us to assume that we know best, are they only ones that can do best, and that we should have exclusive rights to whatever it is we think we’re best at?

What if, instead of being threatened by the knowledge or power of others, we sought to learn from it, in the process strengthening both our own ability to deliver positive community impact, as well as that of our partners?

What if the Spanish had sought to learn from the Incas, to replicate the best parts of the Inca culture back in Spain, and to share their knowledge with the Inca people? The native Peruvians actually greeted the first Spanish ship with gifts, and questions. Perhaps that’s the first lesson the Spanish could have learnt from the local people.

What would the Inca empire look like today, if it had been left in peace to flourish and develop alongside the rest of Europe? What might we be able to learn from the Incas, if their empire still existed?

Kim Macquarie ponders this question in his book, suggesting that had the Spanish allowed an Inca Emperor to govern the last remaining Inca province in Peru (Vilcabamba) alongside the Spanish, then perhaps today the kingdom of Vilcabamba might be represented at the United Nations with a Quechua speaking ambassador. The same tourists who visit Machu Picchu every day might have the chance to visit a functioning Inca capital, perhaps learning about ancient Inca techniques such as stone cutting.

The question ultimately comes back to the idea of a ‘common good’. Working together for shared benefit. There are many great examples where this is occurring, on both a micro and macro level. And we want to encourage more of it.

Let’s not continue to display the same arrogance as the Spanish Conquisitors, who in their short-sighted greed, destroyed an enormous amount of valuable Inca intellectual capital. Perhaps a little humility and a cooperative spirit could be our first lesson.

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