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Paternalism vs. Solidarity

February 21, 2011

When I explain to friends/family/acquaintances what the MSID program is, and what I’m doing here, every once in a while I get a response that kind of disturbs me. Some friends, meaning to wish me well, will say things like “Oh, it’s so cool you’re spending so much time down there helping people,” or “Have you saved any lives yet?” Obviously the latter response is mostly tongue-in-cheek (I say mostly rather than totally because of the prevailing phenomenon of the medical mission trip- in which untrained North American students head to Latin American countries to “get their hands dirty” doing real medicine best left to actual medical teams, taking advantage of the more relaxed ethical standards in countries that experience shortages of health care professionals in order to get “experience” to put on their med school apps), but I still think it reveals something about the way we as privileged members of the “First World” approach the concept of development in the “Third World,” the majority world.

To begin with, to even refer to my study abroad program (or any sort of short-term volunteer/service experience) as “helping people” reveals the implicit assumption that any North American volunteer automatically has something* to offer people in the majority world, just for being North American. It doesn’t matter if you have no experience in the field, simply by flying from north to south you are assumed to be helping. The most obvious and painful examples of this are the teams that travel to majority world countries to build houses, schools, etc., and actually do the manual labor themselves. Meanwhile, unemployed construction workers must sit by and watch the gringos do what they themselves could have done more competently for a fraction of what the northerners spent on airfare. (And then, more than likely, the newly finished school will sit unoccupied, for who will pay the teachers to staff it?) Likewise, MSID students find themselves with hands-on internships in hospitals and health centers despite having zero clinical experience, while such internships are almost certainly unavailable to Ecuadorians at the same educational level. It becomes clear that the focus is not on how to best improve the lives of them, the people living in poverty, but rather on what we can get out of the experience.

This is not always bad, however, especially if you make sure to keep that in mind, and seek ye first your own personal transformation, without patting yourself on the back for “helping people.” That’s why I’m trying to stay focused on what I’m really doing here: above all, MSID is part of my education, possibly the most important part so far. And I’m a little ashamed to think that part of a previous post may have implied otherwise.

True, this semester will likely have marginally more effective results. Our specific type of survey has never been done in this canton before. The Concejo’s practically non-existent budget certainly doesn’t have room to hire people to do the survey work we’re doing, and our “boss” is very enthusiastic about having the type of information we will produce (regardless of whether it will actually influence policy). And despite our lack of experience as survey workers, we have carefully developed our methodology and are relying on a network of support and resources that may not be available to our Ecuadorian counterparts. So the type of work we’re doing would likely be hard to come up with otherwise in Canton Archidona, and it may actually turn out to be slightly useful to someone. But: if I had spent the whole semester flipping burgers, and then taken that money (or the money that I’ve spent on this study abroad program) and invested it in a similar project, from simply weighing the benefits to the people of Archidona it’s hard to see why that wouldn’t be a better alternative. (Welcome to one of my endless cycles of self-doubt, by the way.)

So really, it all comes back to me: what am I getting out of this. Though I can hope that the things I’m learning here will better equip me to give back more effectively someday, to think that I’m making a real difference at this point would be little more than self-delusion.

There’s another problem with the idea of “helping people”: it objectifies human beings. Rather than being seen as fully human subjects, this kind of language treats the poor as inanimate objects, waiting to be “developed” by outside agents. Part of the reason why this paternalistic attitude is accepted is likely because poverty really does rob people of agency, discrimination does rob them of personhood. But that is precisely why development must be focused on people as subjects: it is only the first step toward restoring their dignity.

What’s the alternative? In Partners In Health jargon: pragmatic solidarity. The first part of that term is just as important (and could use an entire blog post of its own), but here I will focus on the second. Solidarity in this sense could be defined as “having the same goals as the poor.” Not only does the idea of solidarity tap into one of our deepest moral intuitions as social animals, but it forces us to recognize the subjectivity of our neighbors in the global community, rather than treating them as objects to be “fixed” by a public health or economic development campaign. An example of this type of objectification would be the common representations of Africa or Haiti in our media: images of emaciated children and their wailing mothers, bleeding disaster victims. While these images often do truly represent the horrific reality of extreme poverty, and can be very effective at kindling our moral energy, the downside is that they objectify the suffering of their subjects. The result is that when we think “Haitian,” or “African,” these images come to mind, rather than the idea of a person with thoughts, desires, and, dare I say it, identity.

Importantly, the above definition holds that our goals should be those of the poor, necessarily giving them a voice in the process, rather than coming up with our own goals and imposing them through development. It acknowledges the role of the poor in their own fight for liberation. And it hints at the need for change initiated at the grassroots, rather than assistance handed down by foreign experts from the “treetops.” This may seem like an arbitrary distinction, more wordplay than an actual difference in practice. But such distinctions are, in fact, fundamentally important, given the myriad examples of the damage caused by wrong-headed development.

Beyond that, what does “solidarity” mean, not just in words but in practice? I’ll have to get back to you on that…


*Money is, of course, the one blindingly obvious example of something that can be used to bring about effective change. It should go without saying, but it doesn’t get said enough, so here we go:

The problem, at least for me, is that giving to monolithic organizations like PIH, even when you are familiar with the incredible work they do, doesn’t make you feel like you are personally involved. You don’t feel like you “worked” for change, even when a simple donation of a portion of your earnings is often the most efficient and effective contribution you can make.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Abby Solom permalink
    March 21, 2011 9:35 PM

    I’m glad to see that you, too, are struggling with this idea of “helping people.” (Not glad, but you know what I mean.) I got that reaction a lot when I talked about both my trip to Uganda over winter break and my trip to the Dominican Republic over spring break.

    The Uganda trip was exclusively educational, and at no point were we doing anything helpful to anyone. In fact we were quite the hinderance, taking the valuable time of doctors and health practitioners to talk to us, often when they were the only one in the area and patients were lined up to see them. And yet, people assumed that because I was going to a developing country, it must be to “help.”

    Conversely, the D.R. trip was a volunteering trip on which the sole purpose was to offer what we could to improve the conditions of the community we served. However, a lot of us walked away from the experience frustrated with the program for a lot of reasons and feeling like we hadn’t helped at all.

    We were teaching classes in some of the schools in Monte Cristi, D.R. I was on the public health team, so we taught basic public health lessons, one on anatomy and physiology, one on basic nutrition, one on dental health, and one on my favorite, infectious disease and prevention. However, we had a really hard time knowing what the kids already knew and how to tailor our lessons to each class (my group had classes of 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 7th graders) due to lack of communication with the teachers. Some of the other groups were teaching English. We had a lot of really interesting conversations about whether or not English should be taught, since the only reason it would be useful is to get a job in the service/tourism industry, inevitably serving Americans.

    So even when the goal was “helping people” we weren’t sure it was done in the right way, or even accomplished at all. I certainly got a lot out of the trip, and my education is definitely more enriched because of it, but I’m not sure they felt the same way, and I’ll never know.

    Hope you’re doing well!

  2. March 23, 2011 8:36 PM

    Hey Abby, thanks for the comment! I’m really glad to see you struggling with these same questions. And even though I’m sorry to hear that you guys came away feeling like you didn’t help, I’m also really glad that you came to that conclusion. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, it’s far better to see things how they really are than to persist in delusion, especially if that particular delusion perpetuates a colonial dynamic.

    I think it’s very rare to find a short-term trip that will actually accomplish something substantial/meet a community need. Hell, even my Peace Corps friend’s goal for her whole two years is to 1) try to identify the needs of her community 2) try to meet in some way one of those needs. So it’s awesome that you came to that conclusion. If we even want a shot at solving the world’s problems, we need to understand them fully. And realizing our extreme limitations is the necessary first step of that process: if we delude ourselves into being satisfied with superficial or illusory “interventions,” we’re just that much further from implementing effective ones. Whether effective ones actually exist, on the other hand… At this point I don’t think I can answer that, except by pointing once again to Partners in Health.

    Regarding the English thing, isn’t that frustrating? Living in a touristy town, I’m constantly being bombarded by how important it is to the economy (and one’s personal chances to succeed) to please the rich Americans who come here to spend money. Definitely the exact same approach to English here.

    You are awesome beyond words, and I’m really excited to get back to the States to see you so we can discuss all this face to face!


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