Assignment 6

 

College campuses all across the United States offer service trips to their students in which students can help provide aid to a developing part of the world. Elon University takes pride in offering many of these programs to it’s students, including a trip to Malawi during the summer of 2013. On the Elon University website there is a story describing how students provided aid to “Chimwemwe Children’s Center, an organization that serves street children” through building “a garden to provide children with fresh produce” (Students Visit…). Students also “spent a day working with an HIV/AIDS support group learning about the difficulty of living with the disease” (Students Visit …).

Henry, a Malawi child helped by the Chimwemwe Children’s Center

When assessing the effectiveness of these this program, one must wonder if these service projects really had a lasting impact on the residents of Malawi. Did the college students really make a substantial difference in the lives of the people they met in Malawi? If so, what kind of impact did they have? Although the small aid projects brought by the Elon students, such as the produce garden, may help some Malawi residents, Daniel Dennett would argue that the real impact these students is far more lasting and far reaching. Dennett states that, whether we realize it or not, we pass along ideas and cultural norms to everyone we meet (Dennett). For the Elon students visiting Malawi, they unknowingly passed along the norms and ideals of American culture. Dennett further explains that as these ideas infectiously travel from person to person, they have an incredible power to transform cultures (Dennett). Elon students most likely passed along ideas about religion, dress, behavior, Americans, humanitarian aid, and more. Adults may find the imposition of these ideas as impeding and disrespectful to their own culture. Children were likely impressed by, possibly even idolized, the American students. These children would be very likely to shove aside their own cultural norms to embrace the western ideals taught to them by the American students. How does this effect the countries that receive humanitarian aid? How can it be improved?  Antonio Donini argues that “the cultural baggage of western agencies is clearly challenging and presents many challenges” (186). Donini goes to explain that the recipents of aid often ask “‘Why do these young people come to our country? Is it because they can’t find work at home?'” or they wonder, why “‘they want to help but they tell us what to do without asking'” (186). The cultural insensitivity of Western aid workers keep aid workers from consulting victims as to what services and goods they needs. Instead, aid workers assume they know what is best for the victims, and apply their services accordingly.

I personally saw this type of ethnocentric influence during a service learning trip I took to Kerala, India. I traveled with about 20 Elon students to different schools around the state with a traveling science museum. The exhibits of the museum were meant to encourage “hands-on” learning, although that teaching style is not common in India. Most of the Indian students we saw were educated in science far beyond the scope of our exhibits. The students we saw all aspired to be doctors, engineers, and other science professionals. It felt as if we were almost insulting their intelligence by teaching high schoolers basic scientific principles they most likely learned in elementary school. Therefore, instead of talking about science, the students asked us about American popular culture. This kind of experience was typical of most of the schools we visited. And although these experiences were full of cultural insensitivity, the experience I found most shocking was when we visited a school in rural India. At this school, many high school students were already married and hoped to continue working on their family farms. Gender inequality was most obvious at this school. Most students could not speak english, and therefore could not understand any of the science exhibits we brought. Our “aid” was completely useless. Instead, we were treated like celebrities, swarmed by herds of students waiting for our autographs. Many Elon students pitied these kids. We wondered how they could already be married, how they could settle for such a lowly career, and how the girls could adhere to such restrictive rules. Now looking back, I see how insensitive we were to their culture. We looked at their situation through a western lens, assuming our cultural norms were more “right” than theirs. I realize now that we, the visiting Elon students, had no positive influence on the lives of these rural Indian children we encountered. No science lessons were taught. Instead, we simply introduced them to western cultural norms.

 

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 A swarm of rural Indian students gather to as us for our autograph.

Although college students and other humanitarian aid workers may believe they are making an important difference in the countries they visit, the recipients of aid often have a different opinion. Donini points out that although “most will accept food aid and the new school even if it is not what they asked for, many wonder about the patronizing attitude of the outsiders who are here one day and gone the next” (189). In a video interview, Donini goes on to describe what he believes will be the future of humanitarian aid. It seems that we do not even recognize the cultural insensitivity we bring to humanitarian aid projects. And until we do, humanitarian efforts will continue to be both problematic and ineffective for its recipients. In her book War Games, Linda Polman leaves us with an important idea that we must critique humanitarian aid if not “for our own benefit” but for “the sake of the people who’ll see our next crisis caravan move in” (164).

Sources:

Daniel Dennett. Dir. Ted Talks.YouTube. YouTube, Web. 16 June 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded>.

Donini, Antonio. Abu-Sada, Caroline. In the Eyes of Others. MSF-USA, 2012. Print.

Polman, Linda. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern times. London: Viking, 2010. Print.

“Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities.” E-Net! Elon University News & Information. Elon University, n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <http://www.elon.edu/e-net/Article/72834>.

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