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Good intentions...
by George Roter on Nov 7, 2006 - 10:04 PM EST

Here is a speech that certainly doesn't mince words:

Good start for a discussion on our responsibility as Western volunteers.

Also, I've attached the opening comments Parker and I wrote for the 2003 Western Retreat near Edmonton. Some things have evolved within EWB (a focus on human development, a more focused understanding of our value-add overseas, and a more comprehensive understanding of our operations in Canada), but the core is unchanged. I'm including it here because there are some related messages that speak to our responsibility in going overseas as volunteers, which is how I view the article above.

Jonathan VanderSteen, Nov 8, 2006 - 9:35 AM EST

This is a great topic and an important topic. The past year has seen me move from idealistic to very concerned for the development industry. As I read Illich's speech, I found myself agreeing with much of what he said. I also really enjoyed reading your document - there is much wisdom and truth there too. I find this leaves me/us in an incredible predicament - how do we help the people in need? Should we focus our efforts locally, as Illich suggests?

So here are my questions to those of you who have done placements in other cultures:
-Do you feel like you were able to help? Did you make a difference?
-Not considering the incredible experience I'm sure you had, was the large expense worth the benefits?
-If an overseas project can be beneficial, what is a good length of time for a placement?

Bryn Ferris, Nov 8, 2006 - 10:12 AM EST
"Come to study. But do not come to help."

That is a brilliant statement and is essentially the conclusion that I've come to. I simply do not support Western-based or Western-driven development.

However, that said, I unwaveringly support EWB's JF programme. I think that its focus is on studying rather than doing or helping, and I strongly feel like the large expense is worth the benefits--but only as it relates to change at home. I know that, personally, my impact in Ghana was fairly minimal, which is essentially what I expected from a four month placement. I did some skills training, I identified some areas the local NGO could move towards to improve its efficiency. But, generally, I did not do anything near $6000 worth of good. Especially when you convert that to Ghanaian cedis.

But the placement wasn't a waste of money. Now I'm home with a lot more credibility and a lot more knowledge than I had when I left. I can show people pictures of US food aid and explain why food dumping is a bad idea; and I can do this from a personal, more meaningful perspective. George, you mentioned in that retreat speech that the stats on poverty are hard to grasp and make the situation much less human. I agree, however I consider the JFID programme the opposite: it makes the situation much more human.

I've almost lost faith in international development since coming home. I questioned why I bothered with EWB and endorsed the concept of 'working' abroad that I feel is an ineffective use of funds. However, I've re-framed it now. I've become far more interested in Member Education and Leadership Development, because I think that's where our impact lies. This is where I whole-heartedly support EWB. EWB stands to influence a lot of high school and university students (and professionals) who will move on to have huge influence in our society. We can become a society that is much more globally aware and much more critical.

But we can only do this through local action; through community economic and social development. This is where we need to focus.
Emilie Lapointe, Nov 8, 2006 - 12:23 PM EST
What a thruthful man. Really, as a returning JF, I have to agree to most of Mr. Illich points. In terms of impact, the only worth of oversea work, at least short term, is the volunteer recognition of its ignorance and incompetence. One can argue that to be faced with the poor's reality enhanced your credibility once you returned, but is this really worth the 'damage' we might have caused in villages, by wanting to 'integrate' into it??...
I guess this is open to discussion, but as an organisation who promotes a culture of feedback and positive criticism, we have to aknowledge the facts and question ourselves.
So, is the money invested into our volunteers worth it?
The best way to 'help' is definetly realizing that the poors have different realities than ours, and that even with our 'humble' approach, development is in itself a 'couteau a deux tranchants'. We might feel good working in the field oversea, feeling like we are really helping, but who are we actually helping? As I expressed earlier, I believed we are the only person being helped in here.
I am not an anti-overseas work. I just want to make sure we challenge ourselves to question our work and aknowledge facts. It might be difficult to accept for a volunteer full of good intent, but if we are indeed inducing conflicts into villages when we visit, does it lead to any positive impact? Is the gain in awereness worth it?
Base line: work on what you master. Your community.
One has to measure the worth of the work we do as an organisation in Canada.
Worth in terms of pro-poor policies, better help (??), self-development...
and THEN, we can say we are helping the world to become a better place.

ps.I was wondering if I was the only one feeling confused about the real worth of our overseas actions, so keep the replies coming!
Cameron Rout, Nov 8, 2006 - 5:27 PM EST
"Do not do anything for the next four months. You may look, listen, and learn. Then, if after four months you have thought very carefully about an idea and are absolutely certain you can pull it off, for the love of god... still do not do it."
-Parker Mitchel

I don't know if Parker still tells the short term OV's this same thing in his famous "do not fuck-up" speech, but it rings true more and more with every year I have to look back on my Op21 placement (or whatever it's called now).

Over a year ago I wrote a letter to an NGO who had asked me for insight into what to expect when working in Tanzania. My response was strikingly similar to the sentiments of Mr. Illich and now I feel much more comfortable about my response. This NGO was planning to take young volunteers to do AIDS awareness training in Tanzania for 5 weeks, with an even shorter time devoted to training. The entire concept sounded preposterous at the time, but now seems to be the accepted status quo and I understand Mr. Illich's frusterations to some degree.

I am also starting to understand why people are trusting EWB's approach. For example, when was the last time you heard a real success story about how an EWB volunteer turned around some poor african's life? Any success to our projects is immediately attributed to the africans we work with. This is a symptom of the humility in our approach.

Ivan Illich's speech is our conscience-mirror. If we can read that speech and not stab ourselves to death with the nearest sharp item then we can go on. He gives no alternatives to how overseas work should be done, in fact his whole point is that overseas work is destructive by nature. As a whole, this organization at least acknowledges this philosophy, perhaps whole-heartedly believes it, but still we go overseas.

The difficult question is not "should we go overseas?" the difficult questions is "why do we still go overseas when we know it might not be a good idea?". Perhaps Mr. Illich is right and we shouldn't go, but that is not a viable option. It is not a real alternative to simply sit and enjoy our complacent homeland with our middle-class furnishings. Like a rebellious teenager we will listen to the sagacious advice of our doting parents, yet promptly push the boundaries thinking "Well, maybe for YOU it's like that..."

I should think that if Mr. Illich took a tour of our overseas activities, he may find a twinge of hope... just a twinge.
Nicolas Kruchten, Nov 8, 2006 - 6:03 PM EST
Hm. I'm left pretty confused about his speech...

In one part, he seems to say that Americans abroad can do good, but not enough to outweigh the damage done by America's exported weapons and drugs. I don't understand the leap to "therefore don't go overseas". Maybe "therefore don't sell so many weapons" but...

Furthermore, he doesn't seem to have anything to say about how to address some of the big pressing problems we all care about (e.g. reaching the MDG's, in today's terms). Now maybe there were less problems in 1968 (e.g. no AIDS in Africa, it was before stagflation and uber-debts etc) but I wonder what he'd have to say about today's world.

I also wonder how much of what he says applies to us, as opposed to the particular NGO he was talking about, at that particular time etc. Does anyone think that EWB's overseas work does that much damage to the communities we work with?

Emilie Lapointe, Nov 8, 2006 - 6:56 PM EST
I was involved on the MFP project in Mali. At some point, I joined a team that was performing Feasibility studies in village to evaluate if a MFP was implementable in the village requesting it.
Northern Mali is Muslim, really traditional muslim. We did in fact create a bunch of troubles in these communities. Men aren't ready to allow women to manage such a project, especially if it means them dealing with money and being out of the house. Wether or not we agree with their opinion, doesn't matter, because that is how they have lived and they intend it to stay the same way.
If EWB works with MFP Mali, does that mean that we 'buy' all about the project? Certainly not. But the point I am trying to make is that, if villagers aren't going to be all united for the implementation of the MFP, should we, as an organisation, help the project to go forward?
(MFP Mali has done great, but sometimes it was just wrong...especially on their mission in the Tombouctou region that was financed by AEN (aide de l'eglise norvegienne)
Ryan Gusta, Nov 9, 2006 - 1:20 AM EST
Illich's comments were pretty extreme in some cases:

"It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don't even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you."

Perhaps I am a biased EWB member because I still believe that development work overseas is (if anything) important to the understanding more of what needs to be done to improve conditions all around. Say for example, the MFP project in Mali was attempted and its potential realized. However, at the same time, if the community is not willing to accept the technology because of the cultural situation, perhaps then more questions can be asked as to HOW the project can be made to work more effectively. Maybe if woman are expected to raise the family instead of working the MFP, then some men can work it instead. Also, perhaps as time marches on it will be more accepting of women to be working. You do not know if you do not try.

Also, from returning JF's/OV's/Op21's, I have heard nothing but positive feedback and about amazing friendships being made. And an understanding from people in these countries that realize why there are westerners there in the first place. With respect to Illich's point of view, I think that maybe the difference lies in the generations that have passed, and perhaps that the USA has more of a direct influence/impact on Mexico culturally, in comparison to Canada on Malawi, say.
Vera Rocca, Nov 9, 2006 - 2:11 AM EST
Wow! I am very impressed by Illich's formidable intelligence and capacity to articulate his argument in such an eloquent and expressive way. I wonder what Illich would think about the growth in popularity (at least as it seems to me as Hollywood stars make development seem like the "in" think to do) in going overseas to "help," "make a difference," and to do one's part in "saving the world," and subsequent proliferation of agencies to bring Western well-intentioned do-gooders overseas.

There are hundreds--I hesitate to say thousands, but I would not be surprised--of agencies that bring people overseas. It seems to have become a profitable industry. What made me hesitate before I bought the latest Verge: GO-Abroad Directory were all the advertisements that make volunteering abroad seem like a vacation, and an adventure that supports the line of thinking that YOU are truly needed to "help."

I will be ruthless and name names: Global Crossroads, for instance, targets idealistic youth who want to "make a positive impact" while exploring. Global Crossroads calls their program "Summer Escapes." Summer Escapes? Come on! That sounds like an advertisement for Club Med! Another for Projects Abroad reads, "help...learn...explore!" There is a picture of a poor Indian woman smiling as if she truly feels YOU can help her! To me, it doesn't seem like Illich's argument is given thorough consideration for many of these agencies.

Now I turn to criticize an organization that I've been heavily involved with, AIESEC, because it facilitates overseas internships-though not all focused on development. The volunteers that we send abroad, though, for the most part, work with local community-based NGOs only if the NGO feels it has a need for an intern to assist in its work. I am wondering what people think about this process. Still, I recognize that the contribution is very small, and the most benefit goes to the intern; AIESEC's mission, after all is to provide leadership experiences, to develop individuals' potentials in order to create agents of positive change in society.

Ultimately, I think Illich is right to be critical about Westerners going overseas to "take up the white man's burden," but I think it is necessary to remain weary of even an argument as persuasive as Illich's. Possibly in some contexts and in certain forms, there might be a worthy reason for a Westerner to go overseas in an attempt promote human development, and come back stronger, and better able to fight in the riots at home.
Ryan Gusta, Nov 9, 2006 - 2:14 AM EST
And the opening comments from the retreat were good to hear again too. Thought provoking, inspirational, and motivators.
Jonathan VanderSteen, Nov 9, 2006 - 11:09 AM EST
Illich's warning are important and should be listened to. If I understand his field (postdevelopment theory), he would argue today that our best impact on global inequalities would still be to fight our battles at home. He would argue, I think, that so much of the source of our problems comes from the current, dominant structures and their desire to maintain their power. (Illich is often seen as an anarchist saint.)

I don't think that he is right, but I think that his warnings are of extreme importance. I think there could be a place for global action, but only with extreme care.

Charity is profitable and the development industry is a billion dollar industry. Our challenge, I believe, is to shed idealism and to realize that if we want to work cross culturally we need a life time committment. Short term projects are useful for opening the eyes of Canadians, which has its own benefits, but I don't think it will make the impact on the poor that we long to see. And we can't forget how privaledged we are to be able to go on short term projects.
Veronic Francoeur-Castilloux, Nov 9, 2006 - 3:20 PM EST
My point of view: As an old wise man speaking to young fellows, Illich is using a strong vocabulary and holding an extremist point of view. He wants to shock, he wants us, and CIASP people, to "think untill head hurts", because he has an idea of how commited we can be! :)

I am a LTOV in Mali since february and, during this year, I've been through a lot of questions about the pertinence of my presence here. A few months ago, I don't know what would have been my opinion about it! But now, I am definitivly against Illich's conclusion: "If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home." Hummmm.

1st: There's a lot of impacts of a foreign presence, positive or negative. But this presence is mandatory, you like it or not! We live in a globalization context and all countries now have to share with others. At least, volunteers like EWB's ones, commited to excellence, humble and flexible can be role model for the other OVs.

2nd: Each day, we make choices. Development workers, especially those who works in cold and western offices in Canada or somewhere else, take decisions that can have a huge negative impact on "so-called poor" people. Someone who has never been to Africa we'll never be able to "help" these people. I mean, we won't change the world in two days. The things are what they are, the farmers and women here are working and taking decisions considering a lot of advices, coming from Mother Nature and History, but also from GO-NGO, who relies on local gvts, who relies on IMF and WB. I am right? Those people at IMF and WB, if they would have lived with Aruna and Jeneba, eating with hands and, hum, doing a lot of things with their hands, I am sure they would not have be the same! Here I have to bring Jonathan, "if we want to work cross culturally we need a life time committment." And, considering a life time commitment, with good basis as those we have, hte choices that we make will be, at least, better!

3rd: Like Cameron said, it is simply not viable to hold such a point of view. How can ou think that saying ti 20-ish years old fellows, thinkin about going oversea, to "change the world my friend" that this is not a good idea. Stay at home! If we want volunteering to improve, let's work on it! But there's no way that you could eradicate it, life is life!

4th: I could say, with an overall look, that I've bring very good things here. I am not as efficient as I would like to be, but I worth the money, I worth the local people that maybe has not been hired, I worth the little changes in mindset, I've been there for something. Like I said, I have to say the the first months were difficult; my point of view at that time was more... pessimist! But I've understood that some "impacts" take time, to occur, to appear, and to be discovered!!!

I'll conclude by thanking Illich because he has reached his goal, since we are having this chat!

So, please apologize for my English, I would have done a wayyyyyy better in French! (I just wanted to share with everyone and, also, it is kind of difficult to jump in French in an English conversation!)

My 2 cents!

Cameron Rout, Nov 9, 2006 - 7:40 PM EST
I wanted to add to what Emilie was saying about the MFP project as I had a similar experience with Enterprise Works in Tanzania. Sometimes westerners have good development project ideas but they are still tied to the way of life in the west. In my experience, the project I was working on was being forced into areas that might have required more delicacy and patience.

For example, one treadle pump manufacturer had made a market for himself in the forested region of Mpanda. A relatively remote area populated by Hutu and Tutsie refugee camps along with many villagers who had a difficult time transporting things from the nearest major city (several days travel on bad roads). This was our champion manufacturer who had organized his own field extension agents and hired salesmen to sell his pumps.

In order to have a "successful" project, Enterprise Works had to train more and more manufacturers. The only place left to train manufacturers was in Mpanda, putting the champion manufacturer into competition from his own NGO. We all knew it was a bad idea, but we "had" to. If we didn't then we wouldn't recieve any money from the donors to continue the project.

I'm assuming it might be similar with the MFP project. The NGO has a "good" idea and therefore it has to be made to "work", so that "success" can be shown. Such is the danger when using quantifiable indicators.

Perhaps we should be more critical when we here NGO statistics (including our own)

eg. "Started 650 programs affecting 4500 children.... etc".

Perhaps half of those programs ended up in direct competition with the other half. Perhaps 4450 of those children should never have been effected until the other 50 had adapted to the new circumstances. Perhaps 600 of those programs were not introduced with the full understanding of the people to its effects. Perhaps it would have been more effective to start 1 program affecting 1 child.

I digress... I'd love to give an expose on the important distinctions and between and the relevance of effectiveness and efficiency with regard to resource allocation. But I will wait until another time when it is asked of me :)
Cameron Rout, Nov 9, 2006 - 7:45 PM EST
I hear a lot of talk from us all about how we are the exception to Illich's assumptions. Maybe we are...

At the end of the day, we are just another NGO sending volunteers to poor countries. Perhaps what we see as the exception to Illich's rule is really just that we manage to not completely suck as bad as everyone else, and by contrast appear to be real exceptions.

As soon as we think we aren't the bad guys, as soon as we think that we can do no harm as long as we stick to the path we've been following. We have become just like them.
Andrew Gillese, Nov 10, 2006 - 3:09 AM EST

Woo, a lot of replies to this one. I am in no position to offer insight; I'm still gonna try though.

Very interesting topic. I liked reading everyone's comments and I think a healthy conversation like this is what makes EWB great and continue to be better; even if my speculation is uninsighful I think other people's comments are!

Let me first say that I have a friend (that's actually a practicing engineer now in Calgary) who is originally from South Africa, and she shares a less extreme but very similar point of view on western development workers as Illich.

I was gonna do a point by point but I think I'll be repeating a bunch and will make my thread unnecessarily long. So instead I'll focus on one thing.

I think Illich's position is actually reflected in some of EWB's long term OV's. Let me explain. Some OV's haven't stopped volunteering overseas ever since they got there.

Maybe it has something to do with: once the language bar is lowered, the impact of the development worker vastly increases. And how can that specific OV justify coming back to Canada once there value has increased, and will continue to increase the longer they stay there; I think the answer is, some haven't come back to Canada (example that pops in my head is past ualberta president Paul Slomp).

Maybe EWB should look at informal language (local dialect) study/research/learning for OV's prior to departure, to attempt to increase the effectiveness of OV's communication skills as soon as they arrive at their placement.

I know sometimes the locations of placements are specifically unknown until close to departure, and even when they are known, can change due to funding (example that pops in my head is current ualberta OV Rachel Maser).. And there's so many local dialects in each and every country; perhaps having enough concrete knowledge of a specific location placement, a few months prior to departure, is implausible.

At the end of the day, EWB is recognized as doing great volunteer work overseas for a reason. I think many of Illich's points are geared towards the type of NGO that goes in-and-out of a community and leaves no real chance of self sustainable development impact. I think the length of 14 months for OV's (I think it went up from 12 months) is a great way to address the impact vs. length of time spent.

I know I said I'd only talk about one thing but briefly...

And in terms of damaging the community, yes there are cases where this very much does apply (Re: Emilie discussing development work by women in traditionally muslim Northern Mali). And even the concept of someone entering a community does in fact change it (I keep thinking of the 'ping-pong ball in the dark' extended metaphor that a member of the Calgary professional chapter, I can't remember his name, told me last year at the National Conference).

Though EWB does try to limit this 'change' on the community, once again, by integrating the OV into the community right?

Jean-Luc Ratte-Boulianne, Nov 10, 2006 - 8:55 AM EST
Hey all... few thoughts...

I really liked Vero's comment: there will be Westerners in Africa. the best we can do is to increase their awareness and to change their vision so they're more "pro-poor". EWB approach isn't perfect, and yes, we can damage and hurt in Africa. However, if you have a look to other NGOs sending people oversea, we're definitively not the worst...

In Mali, I'm taking advantage of my Westerner status who has been in Mali for 9 months now to change attitude and mentality. Not of my co-workers, but of the others Westerners I'm meeting here. It's not only an opportunity, but it's a responsability for me to do it. Changing other Westerners mindset is one of the less known EWB "action", but one which has a lot of impact (hey... we use the same language, have the same education, share the same culture and interests. It's a lot easier to get the message trought!). A remark thought, it's a lot easier to do in medium/big cities, where you'll find more Westerner...

Concerning "language deaf"... I certainly won't say that local language learning isn't important, as I'm very entousiastic about that (and my Bambara level is, I could say, quite good! I can hold a conversation :) ). But while it's a good way to exchange with people and to learn to know them better, we don't NEED to speak those languages. I don't really know how CIASP was/is working, but EWB approach is to team our volunteers with a local worker. We're not trying to change farmers attitude (well that can be, but indirectly most of the time), we're trying to build capacity of our co-workers who are talking French or English. To be effective, we need not to talk in Bambara with them but in French! By the way, I want to reinforce what I said, learning the language is a must to have a better exchange and integration experience.

that was part 1... hopefully, part 2 will follow soon :-)

Ibrahim aka Jean-Luc
Mike Quinn, Nov 10, 2006 - 9:53 AM EST
Hi everyone,

Great discussion so far but I wanted to share my perspective after having spent two and half years overseas with EWB on two placements in Ghana and Zambia.

First of all, I found Illich's speach to be cynical and hopeless. While I agree he has some very valuable points, he goes way too far in my opinion. I totally disagree with his prescription that you cannot help and shouldn't even bother trying. I think the speech was written in a different time period and different context (even though he still thinks it applies and it may in some cases). Sure there is a lot of irresponsible, outsider-imposed development still going on, but there is also a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw on. EWB is a great example of this - I don't think we could have existed in the 1960s, or at least our focus would have been completely different. The phrase "participation" wasn't even popularized until less than 20 years ago - so progress is being made.

I would like to pose the opposite argument that one of the main problems with development (possibly even the biggest!) is that there aren't enough people who have gotten their hands dirty and worked right at the ground level. Or who have even tried to. I am finding this right now studying my masters in development - the big decisions and policies that directly affect poor people's lives are made by people who are so far removed from the "field" that they lack perspective. The bureacrats, donors, policy makers, governments (even local ones), and even NGOs are filled with people who are scared or can't be bothered to interact with the poor and the results show it. The more bottom-up the solution, usually the better it is.

I think most if not all of these people are all well intentioned, but often lack perspective. In my personal experience the majority of what I learned overseas was sitting in a village. It humbled me and challenged everything I thought I knew and all of my stereotypes. The more I sat in a village, the more I "unlearned". I can't even imagine working in development without that experience. As such, I think anyone interested in working in development should spend at least two years in the field, right at the ground level - because that's what it takes to begin to understand. And knowing many of you in EWB (even just through reading about what the chapters are doing!), I would love to see more of you make this comittment. There are so many amazing people in this organization that I truly believe can make a difference overseas, and I know you are all making a difference at home already.

How can we even pretend to help the poor if we don't spend a considerable amount of time with them - getting to know them, listening to them, building trust, and working in partnership to find solutions to the complex problems that they face? Isn't this true of any social problem? Isn't this what democracy, participation, empowerment, and voice are all about? Illitch's argument seems like a copout to me - a message that we should avoid facing the problem head on because we could potentially do harm. Of course we could do harm, but that's no excuse to stop trying, or a good reason to stay home in the first place. Will avoiding the poor because we are scared of doing harm give them more voice or less?

As Robert Chambers said to me at last year's conference, "Enjoy your mistakes, and learn from them." Anyone working in development will surely make their fair share, and what seem like solutions will never have the exact outcomes we desire. But the more we work with the poor, engage them in the process, spend time sitting under a tree talking to them, waking up at 5am to help plough their fields, the more likely it is that solutions will be more effective and sustainable. Will our presence result in change? Of course it will - but development is all about change. We need to be Cautious, Conscious, and Critical about how our actions result in change, but we should not be scared of change. Furthermore, it's naive to even think we can predict what change our presence will bring. That is a long term, complex, and unpredictable outcome. But I firmly believe Dorothy would welcome all of you into her village if you were genuinely there to help her and commited to listening to her.

I have worked with three groups of EWB JF/OP21s on the ground, and I have been blown away by what they were able to contribute in such a short stint overseas. Do I think they directly helped make people less poor? No. But they helped build trust and relationships and paved the path for the long term volunteers to slide in and have positive impact. Rob Borzychowski worked with me this summer in Zambia and wrote an incredibly useful report that is impacting the long term direction of the sorghum project and provided the new LTOV, Josephine Tsui with a great starting point. He was only able to do this by spending 6 weeks visiting farmers and sleeping in villages. He also worked hand in hand with a Zambian graduate volunteer and it was amazing to watch them feed off each other. He definitely changed her life, and I'm sure she changed his. In my opinion, the benefits of Rob being there far outweighed him not being there, without even thinking of what he has been able to bring back to Canada. And I think Dorothy would agree with me.

It does get better over time. I would love to see some of our short term placements move from 4 months to 8 months, because in both my experiences, you really start feeling like you are contributing after month 6. I am convinced that there is a role for us to be overseas and that we should be there as long as possible. Practically, 4 months is a good starting point and overseas work isn't for everyone. But if one of the root causes of global poverty is that the rich world doesn't care (as many people would argue), your potential impact back home just from a quick stint overseas is tremendous.

So in short, more volunteers, not less. Longer commitments, not shorter. More good people in development, not less. Deep integration into communities, not "climbing mountains" around them. If we concretely want to contribute to development, we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. My challenge to everyone is to stay critical, but don't back away from the problem out of fear you will do harm. Let's be the organization that tries to get this right. Let's amplify the voices of the poor by integrating with them in our overseas placements. Because that is what it will take if we ever hope to work ourselves out of a job in our lifetime.


Levi Goertz, Nov 11, 2006 - 1:41 PM EST
Should volunteers from the west be sent overseas
I'd like to pick up on one issue that is being discussed as a side point that I feel is actually quite central. This is the issue of change in communities and who is directing it. It is not about "EWB changing communities." It is about communities changing themselves. EWB helps our partner organizations do a better job of empowering and enabling communities to change. The change is directed by the communities themselves. Of course there are instances when us or our partners are more forceful in being the impetus for this change and is very difficult to be 100% community driven.

There is no blanket answer to should EWB, or other groups, send volunteers overseas. There are instances where we should and where we shouldn't. I would say the answer is less important than who is making the decision. Do our partners want us to be there? Do the villages they work in want them to be there? I've seen cases on the ground of both answers and EWB works very hard to respond accordingly.

Control and power are at the root of many problems, and solutions, in development. This is tough to explain in a few words (it's about who is making decisions, who is benefiting from the development work and who is losing, are the vulnerable and powerless contributing to shaping their own future or are others deciding for them). Discussing whether or not voluntary organizations should send people overseas is not complete without discussing the process of how it is decided if and where they will go.

Not everyone in a community agrees
As Emilie's post points out some communities don't want the change that our partners can support. That is fine. Remember that communities are heterogeneous. Because the men want something doesn't mean that the women want that same thing. Managing this heterogeneity is a different issue that could be discussed in another post (it is linked to the control and power from above). In the MFP example remember that the government of Mali (representing those communities) and the MDG's put empowerment of women as something that is of the utmost importance.

Fight riots at home
I personally define my home and community as the global community. As such a riot in Burkina Faso is a riot in my home. This is not a question of us and them. It's not as simple as saying help people like you and leave everyone who is different alone. We're all in this together. Building global understanding and solidarity will help Canadian do a better job of supporting the global community. Ultimately two people working together are two people working together regardless of where they're from. Would Illich argue that there should be a zero global immigration or travel policy? Telling everyone to stay home (wherever you define home as?) is not a solution to any problem.

Bonus comment:
Good intentions are not enough. That's why EWB hires and trains great people who have incredible knowledge, skills, attitudes and commitment.

Cameron Rout, Nov 11, 2006 - 7:06 PM EST
I just want to put a HUGE shout out of support for all the current OV's busting their asses every day to make us all proud to be members of this phenomenal organization. Veronic, Jean-Luc, Mike, Paul... all you guys.

We get to talk about these things from home and are still confounded by the complexities, whereas, you are on the ground living the complexities to bring us the insights. So, thank you. Not because of any sacrifices you make, but for keeping yourselves responsible to the task at hand, for keeping Dorothy at the forefront of your decisions, for staying humble and thinking before you act.

Preston Sorenson, Nov 11, 2006 - 10:38 PM EST
I had the chance to listen to a presentation by Robert Fox (the executive director of Oxfam Canada) today and he brought up some points that I think are related to this discussion.

The first point is that culture is an evolving process, and as such cultural change is not inherently a bad thing. However, it is important that cultural change be something that is brought about by the people of that culture and not imposed upon that culture by an outside group. It is one thing to go into a community and decide to impose those cultural changes you see fit onto that community, but it is quite a different situation where desire for change comes from within the community and one is helping to build the capacity of that community to create that change.

The second point that Robert Fox raised that I think is relevant has to do with the philosophy with which development work is undertaken. Illich criticizes Americans going into Mexican communities to do charity work so that they can feel good about themselves, and I think he is right to criticize those activities. However, I believe that development work doesn't necessarily mean charity, even though it often does. Development work can also be a recognition that people have fundamental human rights such as a right to life and security, and a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their family. Since we have been lucky enough to be born into positions of privilege we have a responsibility to ensure that these rights are respected. It is not about feeling good about ourselves, it is about recognizing what responsibilities we have as part of a larger global community.

I think Illich does raise some good points, and he outlines what development should not be, but I believe that development does not have to take the form that Illich describes.


Manasvini Vaidyula, Nov 12, 2006 - 2:28 AM EST
This article reminds me slightly of the comic from a while back about sustainable development of 'tribal communities' as another form of imperialism. I think both see development work (and the situation in place that creates the need for 'development') as symptoms of the global power structural.

So for Illich, it makes perfect sense to tell us to riot in our streets instead of performing small acts of charity if we really care about the causes - because our governments and our western ideals/mindset are responsible for many of the ills that exist in the first place. And if we really want to help, then we should fix what's fundamentally wrong at our end.

From that framework, whether development work should exist at all would then depend on your views about whether exporting values such as democracy is imperialistic or not and whether sovereign nations/governments have the right to be despicable to their citizens without international intervention. (most of us here would answer a hearty no to the latter question at least, I guess?)

To a certain degree, I think he's absolutely right about concentrating locally. For example, working on political action to end agricultural subsidies is much more difficult than signing up to go over to Africa to dig a well with much less immediate personal satisfaction or accomplishment, but the eventual payoff will be more substantial. Your community may extend all the way around the world with globalization but you are only truly able to affect change within your own culture.

However I don't think his cynicism with the interventionist politics of Western powers should necessary extend to all development work. There are situations where a greater knowledge base is needed and appreciated and where overseas organization play a secondary role in assisting local ones.

But it still makes me slightly nauseous to think about the idea of 'development research' and 'let's run this project with one variable in this village and another variable here and see what happens!' (villages and villagers are not guineau pigs for your stupid think tank report damnit. if you don't know what you're doing why on earth are you here?). Even if I recognize that trial and error and data is necessary for an optimal result... it still reeks too heavily of the experimentation of political systems where fledging African countries newly freed from colonialims were playgrounds. (Hey Marxists - in this corner you back this guy, and we'll back this one. Let's see who wins!)

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