Article in SOIR-IM:s newspaper for volunteers in the southern Asian region:
WHITE PEOPLE CAN'T "SAVE" ANYBODY
When I was young I felt like I wanted to travel to India… or Kenya… or Bolivia… or South Africa and ”save” the poor people there from poverty and injustice. Nowadays I realize that there is something very fundamentally wrong and colonialistic and actually maybe even rasist, with that mindset. This doesn’t mean that we need to start a moratorium on all white westerners travelling to the third world (or to use better, less colonialistic terms, that more accurately pinpoint the population in richer and poorer countries: members of the 1/3 world travelling to the 2/3-world) to work with aid. However what it does mean for white people like me from the 1/3 world is: Tread lightly.
Tread lightly as in, we from the 1/3 world do not have a standard measure for how to erradicate poverty or create equality that we can ”export” to the 2/3 world. First and foremost because the road to development and the strategies to reach development looks and are different in different areas. One size does not fit all and activists and NGO:s in the 2/3 world are already building their own roads to development and equality. And our role here, if any, is to support these movements in their work.
Second, and also very important, we have not erradicated poverty or created an equal society in the 1/3 world. In our countries people are still living on the streets. queers like me are still getting hate-crimed, women still earn less than men and people who aren’t white still can be excluded from getting jobs simply because they’re not white. In other words the western world doesn’t know the way to erradicating poverty and creating equality, because we simply have not reached that goal ourselves.
We aren’t here to save anybody or to teach anybody, but we are here to learn from eachother and help out with already existing projects that do need support (we all need support). An all too common colonialistic western assumption is that activism, social movements and resistance doesn’t already exist in the 2/3 world. That there are no feminists, anti-racists, anti-capitalists or LGBT-activists in the 2/3 world. That it is up to people in the 1/3 world to travel down to the 2/3 world and start these resistances. The truth is that these movements already exist almost everywhere around the globe. White westerners should not start new movements, but can definitely support already existing movements. And it is definitely a learning experience for us all to meet up with eachother, work together and be inspired by hearing about the different struggles for equality that are going on around the world. These cooperations must however be held on equal terms and white people from the 1/3 world must understand their priviledges and never assume that they know all the answers (especially before even asking the questions!!)
Tread lightly also means do not generalize. A common mistake made by priviledged people is to generalize when speaking of oppressed groups/marginalized groups, thereby creating a group called ”the other”. Individuals in priviledged groups recieve the priviledge of being an individual, where as ”the other” is forced to become a stereotype and little or no room is given for individual differences. Westerners also give ourselves the power to look down upon everything that is different from what we are used to. The assumption being that the western way is the right way and that all ”other” ways of conducting your life is the ”wrong way”. There are all too many white people who travel and say stuff like: "they do this" and "they do that" and refer to ALL people in India. Who think they know everything about Indian culture despite only being here for 5 weeks. Who give themselves the right to make jokes about how ”Indian people are" (9 out of 10 times these jokes are derogatory). This is nothing other than racism. I even heard someone say that in Kerala you don’t need to know the language people are speaking there, because ”it’s mostly body language anyways”(!!)
So: Do not generalize, treat people like individuals and when you catch yourself placing people into stereotypes and boxes, STOP and question yourself.
This is something we have been thinking about a lot while we have been working here. Our mission is not to tell women in Self Help-Groups or NGO:s how to conduct their work. This is something they know much-much better than us. Instead we are interviewing and asking them about their work and what they feel can be improved. Their answers, not our opinions, are the basis for our evaluation and since this evaluation will be spread to the 4 different NGO:s we are working with, it will also create a basis for the different NGO:s to inspire eachother, learn from eachother and network together.
Of course there are still postcolonial barriers and problems that still must be faced in our work and we must never stop analyzing our own positions. But being aware of and criticizing these power dynamics is what can make these meetings useful and fruitful, not the other way around.
Aid is important, but we must tread lightly to make sure that we aren’t reproducing old colonialistic structures.
Alexander Alvina Chamberland
Alexander Alvina Chamberland is 24 years old and a queerfeminist activist and student in gender studies at Lunds University. They are doing their internship at SOIR-IM together with Linda Moestam, interviewing womens self-help groups in Delhi, Bihar, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu about their work. Together with Linda they will be writing an evaluation based on the womens answers.