Summer service-learning projects that take place in the global south can easily slip into reaffirming unequal relations of power between students and host communities.
With summer just around the corner, many college and high school students are preparing to head out for service-learning trips. These trips are increasingly taking place in the global south, offering American students an opportunity to learn about issues such as poverty and development, while also making a contribution to the wellbeing of host communities. Projects often include building schools or parks, working in orphanages, engaging with the elderly in senior centers or painting murals, among others.
While praiseworthy in their pedagogical hopes, such projects can easily slip into reaffirming unequal relations of power between American students and host communities. Furthermore, they have the potential to leave students with a false sense of accomplishment, hindering their understanding about the complex nature of social change, development and poverty.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you are heading out for such trips.
POVERTY IS POLITICAL AND HAS A HISTORY
It is important for students and staff to remember that the underprivileged populations whom students “serve” in the global south have been made so. In other words, poverty does not emerge in a vacuum. It is a consequence of historical, political and social processes. Significantly, it is sustained and reproduced by current national as well as transnational policies.
To effectively address the poor conditions in which host communities find themselves, it is crucial to first politicize poverty and understand how it is produced. This entails an analysis that is both historical and transnational in its scope.
For instance, in the case of Pakistan, where I am leading a service-learning trip this summer, this would mean inquiring into the colonial and capitalist relations that facilitate the exploitation of women, the poor, refugees and rural populations. Land grabbing is a classic example of this exploitation, in which both the state and for-profit corporations are complicit.
This analysis would also include a critique of the rapid rise of nongovernmental and aid organizations in countries such as Pakistan. While such organizations do important work in terms of delivering services, their existence is an indication of the state having withdrawn from its responsibilities. This withdrawal is itself often the effect of international pressures to develop pro-market policies, which also benefit the national elite.
Likewise, the pace of urbanization and explosive growth of slums in cities, such as Karachi, have to be analyzed in relation to climate change and its drastic effects on rural populations.
In short, the poverty that students witness during their trips is an effect of multiple policies and should be engaged with as such. This approach resists reducing the problem to one that can be resolved by individuals for individuals, which takes me to my next point.
THE FRAMING OF “CHANGE AGENTS” IS BAD FOR EVERYONE
Service-learning programs often position their participants as “change agents” to motivate them and/or amplify their sense of fulfillment. This framing can easily slip into imaginations about Westerners as saviors.
Significantly, it puts the onus of addressing political issues on young people who are still in college or high school. Not only is this unfair to them, but it also assumes that efforts by these young people for a couple of weeks can actually effect long-term change. The “change agent” framing hides the extensive structural issues at play and the long-term commitment that development requires.
Achieving social justice and solving social problems then becomes an individualized activity, with the onus placed on the individual citizen. This logic, in fact, makes the communities in the global south more vulnerable by holding them responsible for their own (often poor) conditions.
LISTEN AND LEARN
Finally, host community members have a deep sense of their needs and potential solutions. It is crucial for outsiders to de-center their own knowledge about what is best for others and, instead, follow the lead of their hosts. This may be tough given assumptions about the superiority of Western academy and knowledge. However, there are plenty of examples where lack of understanding about local dynamics leads to short-term, unsustainable ventures.
A better approach may be to listen, offer thoughts and learn from the process. Service-learning can then be seen as an opportunity for reciprocity where the host communities help students learn about their societies, while the students offer their (often manual) labor. Anything beyond such aspirations hints of voluntourism — an occasion where well-wishers from West engage in volunteer work only to improve their own sense of self.
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Shenila Khoja-Moolji is a researcher who focuses on the interplay of gender, race, religion and power in transnational contexts. She explores this theme particularly in relation to Muslim populations. Khoja-Moolji is currently working on a book that combines historical and cultural studies analyses with ethnographic work to examine the construction of the “educated girl” in colonial India and postcolonial Pakistan. She holds a PhD in Education from Columbia University.