Imagine: white benevolent heroes, a desolate backdrop, small black and brown children. Sound familiar? You know the drill – it’s your generic IDS poster promoting internships in the Third World.
It seems that one of the most normative ways to be a contemporary do-gooder is to reach out beyond Canada’s borders to help all the “needy” folks abroad. Let’s not get confused now. The problems exist over there, not here. To be sure, there is a bottomless reservoir of poor people of colour who are sitting pretty just waiting to be rescued. And they’re all far away: Latin America, Africa, South Asia, bring it on!
Now, Western students aren’t only travelling to these far-off countries for the warm, cuddly feelings afforded by altruism. That would just be silly. So what’s in it for them? And who really seeks to benefit from their efforts?
Let’s throw some things into focus. The ability to volunteer abroad, forego an income for three months, and receive funding from the alumni of an international university bespeaks extreme privilege. Insofar as downward mobility is unlikely to be found on anyone’s to-do list, most budding capitalists have a vested interest in either maintaining their class status or strengthening it. Yes, even the ones who want to make life better for all the starving babies of colour in remote (and distant) places.
So what benefits does the great white traveller acquire in venturing to these impoverished lands? Well, there’s the whole academic credit thing. And then there’s the building-of-the-CV thing. Oh yeah, and the using of your internship as leverage for higher education thing. Sounds like a pretty sweet package for someone who’s simply trying to make the world a better place.
Profiting off of the Global South is nothing new. Back in the old days, when colonialism was an explicit system of domination, the European empire’s economic and political power was consolidated through slave labour and the extraction of resources. Honey, the rules may have changed, but the game is still the same. By wearing a mask of humanitarianism, neo-colonialism grants us the permission not only to capitalize on the struggles of people in the Third World, but to feel damn good while we’re doing it. Righteous pioneers, indeed!
The most grating part of Western students’ narratives is their confessions of culture shock. What, exactly, is shocking? That you’re a white Westerner who’s either being viewed with suspicion or is disturbingly revered? That the “real deal” defies your omniscience by failing to line up with your course packs? That you, in fact, don’t understand the language, the peoples, the politics, or the history of the region in question? That your “help” is not needed? That these grass roots organizations are productive and effectual on their own? Quelle surprise! Colonial mentalities aren’t just a relic of the 19th century.
Let’s face it, we’re at the top of the global food-chain because masses of people are at the bottom. In the famous words of Albert Memmi, “If [the European’s] living standards are high, it is because those of the colonized are low…. The more freely he breathes, the more the colonized are choked.” Channelling resources into internships to increase the opportunities, status, and wealth available to the rich is not a viable solution – even when done in a spirit of goodwill. Journeying home after a couple months in the “thicket” and patting yourself on the back does not a better world make.
Lisa Miatello is one of The Daily’s new biweekly columnists. Follow her exploits in this space every other week. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.