"You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of different you want to make" Jane Goodall
It is humbling to sit in a room of people who have been working internationally for years and realize that you do not know nearly as much as you thought you did. However, it is also empowering to be open about the mistakes you’ve made, the growth you’ve experienced, and the lessons you’ve learned. This was my experience attending the Academics Without Borders (AWB-USF) Conference in Montreal November 5-7, 2018.
Academics Without Borders is an non-profit network of Canadian Universities whose mission is to help developing countries improve their universities so that they can train their own experts and conduct research to assist in their countries’ development. AWB-USF held its inaugural conference this year in Montreal, Quebec, and they played host to a diverse group of university senior administrators, staff dedicated to managing international projects and development, faculty members who engage directly with international partners and communities, and representatives from consultancies, funding agencies, and a multitude of other organizations and NGOs. Focused on the theme of Reaching Across Borders, Building a Better World,Keynotes, panelists, and speakers spent two days questioning projects, impacts, funding models, and ways to address the UN SDGs as well as the imbalance of power and impacts between partners in more developed countries (MDC) and less developed countries (LDC).
Lousie Frechette, Former Deputy Secretary-General, UN, and Chair, CARE InternationalSupervisory Board & Council and Alex Awitit, Director of the East African Institute, Aga Khan, and Governor with Canada’s IDRC were two of the speakers that stood out for me. Lousie’s review of the Canada’s involvement in International development and her frank review of current affairs was refreshing. She voiced concern over the United States’ current position on the role and value of the United Nations – which tries to provide a set of rules and frameworks for members who acknowledge the interconnected nature of economies, people, and ecosystems. However, she indicated that climate change was the one global issues that keeps her awake at night. Louise noted that there was little evidence of true political will to make tough changes that will require real sacrifice by citizens. She also spoke to the inequity of trying to compare carbon output country to country (e.g., China’s output compared to Canada’s) when a per capita comparison clearly shows how poorly we are doing as Canadians.
Alex Awiti’s presentation reinforced my past and current experiences with funded projects. He spoke to research that questioned the value of PhD training programs that result in foreign trained scholars who end up in universities without the resources (funds, library, and research networks) to support ongoing knowledge creation and dissemination. Noting that these scholars also face challenges of role overload (e.g., administrative duties and teaching) and limited skill development related to applying for their own grants, developing research programs, or building research networks. Alex also reinforced the importance of ownership, alignment, and mutual accountability in the success and effectiveness of north-south partnerships: (related resource)
There were many other international development/internationalization issues that received significant attention at the conference including the:
I came away from the Academics Without Boarders conference with a few conclusions and a renewed recognition of the value of the smaller, community focused work that I do with my students.
You are still a tourist…
The tourism market place is a crowded landscape of niche groups with differing wants, needs, and motivation; however, they all have one thing in common…they are outsiders. It does not matter if you are a domestic business traveller from a nearby city or an international leisure traveller from a country that locals have never heard of, if you come from away you, are an outsider – it’s just a question of how much of an outsider you are.
For some being the other is a new experience, often an uncomfortable experience of not knowing the language, the food, the customs, or the environment. This can be shocking and unsettling for visitors who have spent most of their lives in places (even when travelling) that have people who look, speak, and dress like in similar ways to home. It is when travellers are confronted with these differences that we tend to see the two anchors on a spectrum of reactions: a) the visitor attempts to adjust and assimilate, so as to function more respectfully and effectively, or b) the visitor attempts to change the environment to match their own personal values and expectations. Regardless of where one ends up on the reaction spectrum, it is important to note that outsiders(or touristsas we are commonly known) come with all kinds of baggage and not all of it can be stowed in the trunk!
The tourism niches that I will speak to here, include: a) Voluntourism, and b) Educational Tourism. Both of these may also be put under other categories such as: service learning, missions, volunteer tourism, sport for development trips, community development programs, etc.What I am focused on is short term travel (<6 month) where the purpose of the trip is either to help (‘Save’) a community or group of people or expose students (predominantly from the global north) to developing countries through short term study tours, internships, and/or a combination of both. It is worth noting that I do not hold myself outside of this critique and many of the lessons and much of the critique shared here comes from firsthand experience (and my own mistakes).
Volunteer + Tourist = Voluntourist
According to Wearing (2002) voluntourism is defined as “those tourists who, for various reasons, volunteer in an organized way to undertake holidays that may involve the aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments, or research into aspects of society or environment” (p. 240). While the idea of voluntourism suggests a more responsible alternative to mass tourism, the reality is that it has become a billion dollar industry that is fueled by two groups. The first includes ethical organizations with close ties to the communities and the people that are being helped. The second group is comprised of unethical and fraudulent organizations that are capitalizing on the narrative that those who hold social advantages and privilege should dogoodby volunteering to help those without social advantage and privilege.
The research on this form of tourism is still growing but there is a clear trend…the benefits accrued through voluntourism are largely experienced by the tourist and not the host. In some cases (see Tourism Concern for more info) problems/issues are invented, children are trafficked, and community are left dealing with work completed by unskilled foreign labour that at best leaves them were they started and at worst puts them in a worse position.
University Program + Travel = Educational Tourist
International Internship + Student = Educational Tourist
Educational tourism shares a lot of the characteristics with voluntourism (particularly short term study tours and ill-conceived internships). Universities, professors, and internship coordinators can be myopic – keeping a singular focus on achieving the desired learning outcomes for students. Unfortunately, when this myopia is taken into a cross-cultural setting by those with limited understanding (or care) of the context, the learning for foreign students may come at the cost of the community.
When faculty/program leaders do not take into consideration the nature of the experience, do not assess the suitability of the students to participate in the international program, and do not take the time to build the relationships BEFORE bringing students into the mix, issues are bound to happen. When you put all of this into a post-colonial context where white (and foreign) privilege is high, the end result is the reinforcing of colonial or imperialistic perspectives. Worse, students return to their home countries thinking that their truth (as defined by their experience) is the true story of the place/organization with which they interacted.
What’s a Prof to do?
So should we end international volunteer experiences and short term field schools – NO!! There are incredible positives that can come about from cross-cultural interaction. A greater sense of understanding and awareness of different ways of knowing is just a start. However, we must do better and we must take a much more critical look at the programs that we design and the work that we do.
Here are some questions that we should ask ourselves:
My international experiences over the past 12 years of teaching at VIU have taught me a few things that now guide my practice:
Educational tourism and voluntourism both have the potential to lead to greater cultural awareness and to social change and development; however, if you are not willing to do the necessary work you should stay within the tourism bubble. The cultural space that has already been sacrificed to the economic development model that is mass tourism.
Stumbling in the daylight
My first introduction to Ghana should have told me just how out of touch I really was! After a day in the country we ended up attending a wedding of a Ghanaian colleague (that no one really knew) and the major public celebration for the Ashanti King – both in Kumasi (Ghana’s 2nd largest city). As my mind tends to move towards risk management, my first concern was how would we find a small group of students (12) at a major public event where they were expecting over 100,000 people?! My second thought was…we are going to a strangers wedding…what do I wear?!
It turned out that finding 12 Canadian (Caucasian or Oburoni as we are called locally) students in a crowd of 100,000 Ghanaians was pretty easy! All I needed to do was find a high point and look for those that didn’t blend in! The wedding turned out to be a very different experience all together – we were placed in a position of honour next to the Bride and Groom (sitting next to the head table). This odd experience was topped off by watching a group of the grooms friends spray him and his new wife with water (clean and dirty), cola, and brightly coloured non-alcoholic sparkling juice. Did I mention that they were still in their wedding finery?
Ghana has taught me that to expect the unexpected and to assess risks in very different ways. Those early experience highlighted for me that when trying to make sense of what was happening around me, I needed to shelve my own cultural norms and expectations. I needed to trust the advice of those around me and needed to learn to talk less and listen more and differently.
Learning to listen differently
Ghanaians have an indirect communication style and this means that as I was making missteps no one was directly correcting my behaviour. Sadly it took me more than one trip to figure this out and it cause much frustration! The clearest example of this for me came from a colleague in Sunyani – I thought that he simply couldn’t remember that I was one of the prof’s on the trip and not a student. After running a session with students on research I provided some feedback and he turned to me and said, “that is very insightful for a student”! After the session wrapped I handed him my card and reintroduced myself as Dr. Aggie Weighill – it was sometime later that I realized that he knew that I was a professor, he was trying to tell me that if I dressed like a student I would be treated one!
For my first trip to Ghana I packed a couple pairs of shorts, some capris, and t-shirts…the weather ranged from low to mid 30s (Celsius) and as a large women all I was thinking about was trying to stay cool! What I didn’t know (and had not thought to ask) was that Ghana has a hierarchical structure and that there are strict norms related to how one dresses within that structure. A professors (particularly a female professor) does not wear shorts and t-shirts! She definitely does not wear them to work – this may be somewhat acceptable for foreign students (Ghanaian students would not dress that way for school) but not for the leaders. An important lesson that I now pass along to my students – needless to say that I do not pack shorts to Ghana and my t-shirts are limited to outdoor activities and days off (I will come back to clothing and its importance in community work in a later post).
Canadians have a relatively direct communication style – we will say no if something isn’t possible or if we don’t want to do it. Ghanaians have an indirect style and they are less likely to say ‘no’ directly; this is something that can cause confusion and frustration…unless you listen for the implied ‘no’. I have come to learn that when posing a question or suggesting an activity I need to listen to whether there is a clear (and somewhat enthusiastic “yes”) or if there is a somewhat lackluster ‘that could work’. I also listen to hear whether obstacles to doing the suggested activity are presented (3 or more times if the person presenting the idea is persistent) as this can also be an indication that it really isn’t feasible or not desirable for the local partner. Learning that a lack of a clear “no” does not mean “yes” was one of the toughest lessons that I have learned in Ghana.
Growing up in rural British Columbia, Canada, what I knew of Africa was famine, war, corruption, and that the most amazing wildlife and biodiversity lived there! My father helped to develop my love and knowledge African wildlife through watching many hours of BBC Natural History shows, Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness, and wildlife specials on CBC. However, my understanding of life and diversity on the African continent would not really being until I was in my early 20s and in class with Dr. Wendy Bedingfield at Acadia University.
While taking Wendy’s course on Global Issues in Leisure, I naively stated that after graduation I wanted to travel to Africa to dig wells, or something like that, to help ‘save’ the people who lived there. Fortunately for me, Wendy had experience in international development, community development, and dealing with the misguided and well-meaning intentions of eager undergrads. She asked me some important questions that day:
Fast forward ten years and I was presented in what many (I know I did) would consider a once in a lifetime opportunity – I was asked to join colleagues in CIDA (now Global Affairs Canada) funded project in Ghana, West AFRICA!! Yes – I was offered a low cost (to me) opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream of visiting Africa and after quick consultation with my personal voices of reason (Cameron Weighill & Jean Weighill) I said yes to an opportunity that would shape and change my professional practice and personal values in ways that I could have only imagined.
My next few blog posts will include reflections on my transition from the stumbling novice who had a lot of book learning, some general community development knowledge, and very little contextual knowledge to put the pieces together to the somewhat seasoned international community researcher and project workerwho makes fewer mistakes, acknowledges how much I don’t know, and how much I have left to learn.
Dr. Aggie Weighill
Fernweh is a German noun that speaks to longing for travel to distant places - something that I strong relate to. I am very fortunate to have a career that helps me to fulfil my desire to travel and to explore our amazing planet. I also have incredible friends and family who both encourage me and join me on adventures at home and abroad.