Apart from evoking some very important and enduring debates in the practice of international development, “Something’s fishy about IDS internships” (Lisa Miatello, Commentary, October 8) adds very little to discourse on the field, and was misinformed, riddled with unfounded and often offensive generalizations, and disconcertingly sarcastic and unconstructive in its tone.
The dichotomy that Miatello draws in her piece between the invariably white “Westerner” or “great white traveller” and the “poor people of colour” (or worse “desolate backdrop” of “small black and brown children”) is an over-racialized simplification of identity both in the West and the “Global South.”
To put it simply, Western society does not consist merely of white people, and to generalize all development practitioners as such is incredibly inflammatory and insulting. Moreover, the assumption that all students who go abroad on internships have never taken time to think about the broader context of their work is simply unfounded. Not only does Miatello tell us nothing particularly new, she does so in a very unconstructive manner.
I was among a group of McGill interns who went abroad last summer on internships. Some of us were white; many of us were not. Some of us were IDS students; many of us were not. Before going abroad, we were all required to undergo training during which issues of racial, economic, and cultural relations and neo-colonialism were discussed; we were encouraged to think critically about these problems.
Certainly, not all of us were in rural areas taking World-Vision-style photographs with the local children. Many of us worked in cities, in offices, in courts, with businesses and NGOs with various goals and functions. Yes, some did go abroad to find that our organizations worked perfectly well without us. But, some also learned that issues of corruption and mismanagement can cause severe setbacks. You can be sure that none of us came back patting ourselves on the back with the illusion of having singlehandedly fixed the problems we observed.
And if interns really don’t “understand the language, the peoples, the politics, or the history of the regions in question,” then why are they to be denounced for trying to better their understanding by living abroad for a few months? How can Miatello assume that all interns are going to countries for which they care not at all, if some of them (like myself) were returning to their region or country of origin? If Miatello had informed herself a bit more, or even had talked to some of the interns she so crassly ridicules, she might have evaded the generalizations and assumptions she made, which so gravely degraded the quality of her discourse.
I commend Miatello for trying to engage a very important issue in North-South relations. Yes, we are privileged to have had the chance to go and do internships abroad, and that privilege must be examined and criticized. However, there is no room in intelligent discourse for lowbrow sarcasm and the disparagement of one’s colleagues. Miatello’s mockery of interns for experiencing culture shock and her characterization of their narratives as “grating” is an insulting and ignorant way to address the issue, especially given that she has demonstrably missed or ignored many of the nuances and variations in identities and narratives among international interns.
Vladi Ivanov is a U3 Honours IDS student. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.