Features | “Party on the beach while improving healthcare in [insert country here]!”

McGill's International Development Studies program fosters a culture of saviourism

Before I declared International Development Studies (IDS) as my major at McGill, at least three graduates of the IDS program cautioned me against it. They warned me that the program lacked substance, was overly broad, and had few options for specialization. I toyed with their warnings, but as someone with too many high school credits that more or less forced me to pick my major in my first year, and with an interest in many overlapping humanities, I chose IDS anyways. From McGill’s description, at least, it sounded interdisciplinary, critical, and varied. But four years later – and many encounters with supposedly well-intentioned saviours – I wish I hadn’t.

The doubts started when I attended my first IDS class. The professor began by asking why we chose this major. While many students of colour struggled to explain the complexity of personal experiences that led to their interest in development, some other classmates eagerly raised their hands. “I went to Kenya to build a well,” one said, while another added that she had travelled to India to lay the foundation of a school. Almost every person in that seminar who spoke repeated a variation of that same justification: a trip to a country in Africa, Asia, or Latin America to ‘build’ something – a house, a hospital, a health clinic.

To my surprise, the professor treated these students as if they were highly experienced United Nations officials discussing significant development projects, rather than short term visitors on dubiously effective – or even potentially exploitative – voluntourism trips. I felt even more uncomfortable being one of the few people in the class who had travelled frequently and for extended periods to the ‘Third World’ to visit family and friends – a part of the world that, apparently, some of my classmates felt they needed to fix. The semester continued without an increase in their humility or self awareness; it became clear that this sort of self-proclaimed expertise was yet another example of unexamined privilege. Many people of colour within the class and the program began to discuss amongst themselves how they had started to feel lesser. Despite our experience with the histories and cultures of the countries we discussed, we felt that if we applied this personal knowledge, we were at risk of being dismissed or disbelieved. Often, when we attempted to clarify, we were met with, “Yes, but…I was there, I know!” It sometimes felt as if students who didn’t speak the local language, and could have barely found the country on a map prior to their trip, had now become experts; they posed as spokespeople for issues and limitations in a so-called underdeveloped country. It also seemed as if the class was teaching us little about the limitations of development discourse itself.

I felt even more uncomfortable being one of the few people in the class who had travelled frequently and for extended periods to the ‘Third World’ to visit family and friends – a part of the world that, apparently, some of my classmates felt they needed to fix.

As an IDS student of colour, practices of cultural sensitivity and checking one’s privilege feel more urgent to me than to some of my white classmates. Even though I was raised in Canada, when I’m in the classroom, I sometimes feel forced to be a spokesperson for the actions of people in my so-called home country. Other times I just feel angry that people are dissecting the complicated, highly politicized situation of the country in such a clinical, simplistic way. I often wonder why there is so much scrutiny given to the supposed failings of other countries, and so little attention paid to the failings of the Canadian state – not to mention the lack of analysis on the connection between the two.

Development as a phenomenon

The first requirement for IDS is INTD200, a massive class in Leacock 132 that provides a very broad survey of development and international aid – perhaps not the best format to lay a critical foundation. The next are a series of three economics classes which apparently focus on development but mostly deal with explaining and then negating neoclassical claims; it often felt that we were being taught to reduce the complexity of people’s social and political choices to graphs and models.

The vast majority of courses required for an IDS degree are actually part of other disciplines: mainly a mix of anthropology, political science, geography, history, and sociology courses. But without a solid foundation of introductory courses specifically in development, the number of choices can seem daunting and confusing. Granted, I do think it is important to study issues through an interdisciplinary lens. However, within the program itself, there is barely any attempt to come to grips with the history and context of development work, or to understand what makes one country ‘developing’ and the other ‘developed.’ The very serious critiques of development work vocalized in the past two decades by activists and scholars are only conspicuous by their almost complete erasure from the program. Is it a surprise that politically and socially critical IDS students are frustrated?

According to its website, McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development seeks to “reflect a renewed commitment to building bridges between McGill and the international development community through our unique focus on multidisciplinary research that is intended to contribute directly to better evidence-based development policies and practices.” It all sounds very good on paper. Issues like food security, global health, and climate change are urgent and important, and I do believe that the IDS program is rooted in good intentions, and strives for academic credibility. But all the good intentions of modern-day development don’t obscure the fact that development work has a history of being used for empire building in the name of progress. Many projects undertaken in the name of development may actually seek to maintain the power imbalance between the so-called ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ nations. For example, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti brought an influx of hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to the country, however, the international aid response was seen as a disaster by groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières. Billions of dollars of funding never reached affected communities, NGOs’ promises were left unfulfilled, and Haitian oganizations were hardly ever consulted in the rebuilding process. With Hurricane Matthew killing over 1,000 Haitians two weeks ago, we might see this cycle repeat itself.

The very serious critiques of development work vocalized in the past two decades by activists and scholars are only conspicuous by their almost complete erasure from the program.

Western Europe, and more recently North America, considers itself the apex of human rights protections. Thanks to a history of colonization, Western states have the power to create and enforce standards of ‘development’ that ‘underdeveloped’ countries must strive towards. Western economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have – and exercise – the ability to put ‘underdeveloped’ countries in perpetual debt. Western students trained in development feel like they have the authority to tell people from other countries how to ‘fix’ their societies. And while the catch-all term ‘Western society’ has historically referred to white people, people of colour living in Europe and North America can also be susceptible to these same skewed notions of Western superiority. As a friend pointed out to me, despite having many international students, the program is structured to accommodate only Western modes of knowledge, and assumes a Western-educated audience. With the rise of IDS programs at schools across North America, development work is now being marketed as sexy and glamorous. The idea that each individual student in the program can go and ‘save the world’ with their McGill IDS degree in hand is constantly perpetuated.


Saving the ‘Other’

Often, in the middle of their IDS degrees, many students decide to go abroad to do field work. Trips to ‘developing countries’ are sometimes advertised as vacations-cum-work trips: “party on the beach while improving health care in [insert country here]!” The problem with these trips is that they fail to encourage students to think critically about their own positions and privileges, and how their under-informed involvement in another country might be more damaging than beneficial. A student’s experience of being in an Indian village for two weeks, for example, does not make them an expert on anything. It doesn’t make them an expert on that village, nor that province, nor that larger region, and certainly not the country as a whole, but too often these students speak and act with the authority of experts.

Local people’s daily realities and lived experiences are highly complex and cannot be simplified to fit into a two-week trip, yet there are countless variations on the image of a Western do-gooder smiling amidst poverty-stricken-yet-happy children of colour plastered on posters around McGill. As Teju Cole and others have dubbed this phenomenon, the White Saviour Industrial Complex is alive and well. Are so-called ‘developing countries’ always to be gazed at and defined by the Western eye? Does that mean that we do not need to respect other countries’ histories, traditions, resiliencies, and methods of coping?

There are countless variations on the image of a Western do-gooder smiling amidst poverty-stricken-yet-happy children of colour plastered on posters around McGill.

Too often, Orientalist and racist assumptions of the ‘other’ have made it seem like people in developing countries are ‘stuck in the past,’ and are ‘traditional.’ It is not stressed enough in the IDS program that cultures should not be judged through a homogenous, Eurocentric and Western lens. If one ever wants to provide meaningful help that isn’t inflected with paternalism and cultural essentialism, it’s crucial to ask: what do people in these developing countries actually need and/or want? How can we foster their own sense of agency, and respect their understanding of their own situations? Ideally, the IDS program would provide help IDS students deconstruct what they have learned all their lives – that Western civilizations are supposedly the ultimate metric of modernity and goodness. It should be noted that while the saviour complex is particularly endemic to the Western world, privileges like gender, caste, and class, in any nation can also foster saviour complexes, regardless of one’s race or nationality. White students, due to their immense privilege, do provide much of the driving force behind voluntourism and saviourism. But I’m cautious of using the phrase “white saviours” because within IDS, I’ve noticed even students of colour, privileged by their language, wealth, and education, who are prone to trying to “fix” other countries.


Turning the gaze inwards

The other day, I met a prospective IDS major who asked me if the program entailed “some kind of internship or volunteering in Africa.” It is this outward-focused and othering language that aggravates me: the assumption that Canada and the U.S. are the utter pinnacles of progress, that there is nothing more to ‘develop’ in the Western world, and that development happens elsewhere. Wilfully ignoring the whole spate of problems in our own backyards, the IDS major seems to want nothing more than to go on a foreign rescue mission. What about addressing the role of Canadian and U.S. foreign policies, providing millions to oppressive regimes – like Justin Trudeau’s commitment to sell $15 billion dollars worth of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, even after footage that shows similar vehicles being used against Saudi and Yemeni civilians? What about a larger conversation about the role of Canadian mining companies, like Goldcorp, which foster disruption, violence, and catastrophic environmental damage in many communities in Latin America? As I write this, protestors are demonstrating in Charlotte, North Carolina, as yet more young Black people are fatally shot by police across the United States while the country can’t seem to confront its own problems of racism and systemic poverty. What about talking about systemic racism, precarious work, limited worker protection, and lack of human rights afforded to migrant workers in Canada and the U.S.? Are these not `development’ related issues that need to be examined in an academic setting as well?

The IDS program is similarly silent when it comes to Indigenous issues in Canada. Shockingly, I have only come across one Indigenous Studies course that counts towards an IDS degree. It is only in the past two years that McGill has developed an Indigenous studies program through the hard work of students, faculty, and staff. In contrast, the Institute for the Study of International Development’s website boasts that “McGill’s long history of commitment to promoting development studies [dates] back to the creation of the Centre for Developing-Area Studies in 1963.” How many IDS students are willing to acknowledge that this is not our land – not belonging to me, as a settler of colour, nor to white settlers. This land rightfully belongs to its Indigenous peoples, who had it seized from them unlawfully. How many IDS students know that Indigenous peoples were not granted the right to vote in federal elections until 1960? Even now, how many know that Indigenous rights and values are commonly ignored, their food unaffordable, their water and air often poisoned, their lands ravaged through tar sands and pipeline expansions, their resources neglected? There is little to no discussion about these issues within the IDS program.
We, as IDS students, should examine the shortcomings of our own country before travelling abroad to showcase our know-how to other people. This isn’t just the case for Indigenous issues, but also for cases of discrimination against those who are marginalized on the basis of ethnicity, gender, and disability, to name a few.

Even now, how many know that Indigenous rights and values are commonly ignored, their food unaffordable, their water and air often poisoned, their lands ravaged through tar sands and pipeline expansions, their resources neglected?

This is also not to say the program is all bad. Some IDS professors offer interesting insights, challenges, and research on theories of globalization and development, especially in higher-level courses. Furthermore, many of the program’s shortcomings cannot be separated from the corporatization of education under the Quebec liberal government’s austerity measures, and the fact that our school operates more like a business and less like an educational institution. When academic institutions are strapped for money, they begin to treat students as consumers, which means catering to their demands. And, similarly to the demand for voluntourism trips, students are demanding academic programs that allow them to feel like they can ‘save the world.’

Perhaps it’s optimistic to expect a change in the IDS program when our educational system does not exist in a vacuum. Neoliberal economic practices – which have pervaded most corners of the globe – are premised on exploiting people in one part of the world in order to make life comfortable for people in another. Some might argue that altering the structure of an International Development program is impossible, as long as the program exists within such oppressive systems. I hear this criticism, but I disagree. I think the two must change concurrently – if our education systems reflect our society, society is also shaped by the ways we teach, learn, and discuss.


Towards a better IDS program

International Development Studies programs at other universities, such as Trent in Peterborough, Ontario, look at current, pressing issues in a comparative manner. They offer critiques and ideas on developmental policies, structures, and systems and have various courses with a wide array of topics such as agrarian reform, food and resource distribution, law and its role in development, citizen’s struggles and rights. While McGill does offer these kinds of classes, the program feels disjointed – it seems to me there is a disconnect between the content some professors are trying to teach, the mentality of many students, and the structure of the program.

McGill’s IDS program should include more Indigenous Studies classes, and other classes focusing on Canadian issues, making them a mandatory component of the program. Given the diverse backgrounds of students majoring in IDS, there should be more avenues for student feedback. A greater number of core courses should focus specifically on developmental theory and critiques thereof. Climate change, globalization, foreign policy, diaspora and transnational studies, policy explorations, research methods are all topics that could be added to make the IDS degree a more meaningful one, making for a more coherent, well-rounded program that grapples with contemporary issues.
I find myself growing irritated in classes, and even more so in conferences. Perhaps I have become accustomed to only engaging with people who share my ideals of social justice and cultural sensitivity. Some have told me that the program itself is a ‘step in the right direction, which starts with incremental change.’ Others have disagreed, with a fellow student reminding me that in some classes, people spend more time sniggering about the professors’ accents than paying attention to the lecture, which, in my opinion, points to the levels of insensitivity and privilege that go unchecked in IDS. If you can’t respect other people’s accents, how are you planning on working ‘in the field,’ with people who speak English in `funny’ accents, or maybe don’t speak English at all? These professors come from the international settings that seem to be so enticing for many of these students. Yet, ‘developing countries’ take on the double-characterization for IDS students as both a playground and a regressive wasteland.

Yet, ‘developing countries’ take on the double-characterization for IDS students as both a playground and a regressive wasteland.

I am not trying to say that I hold all the answers, or that the program can change overnight; nor am I saying that I do not contribute to global chains of exploitation and capitalism. And the voluntourism industry is not maintained by students alone – often, it is international aid organizations that actively and sometimes aggressively solicit volunteers because they’re dependent on them. I also don’t want to suggest that I’m ‘above it all’ – to quote Teju Cole, “I involve myself in this critique of privilege.” We, settlers in North America, attending an elite university, wearing clothing produced in Bangladeshi sweatshops, and using cell phones made with minerals mined in Congo, cannot separate our personal lives from global systems of exploitation. This, in fact, complicates matters further, and proves why IDS classes ought to be more critically focussed – in order to illuminate and acknowledge our own everyday complicity in upholding the systems we are supposedly learning to dismantle. I feel that the way the program is structured perpetuates mindsets and practices that we should have all been warned against as first years in the program: the Saviour Industrial Complex, the vacations-cum-helper-trips, the unidirectional notion of progress. Unfortunately, my experience is that the students who first justified choosing IDS as a major because they once participated in a voluntourism trip leave the program without any significant shift in their approach to development.

I hope my essay will not be taken as a wild rant of a disaffected IDS student. I hope that it will be received in the critical but well-intentioned spirit in which it is written. I hope that if, and when change comes about in the IDS program, I will have contributed to the conversation in making that change.