Two weeks in Cape Town

May 25, 2015 | Kailey, ECH, Gender at Work, South Africa, Labour Research Service

Having been in Cape Town for over two weeks now, I have had the opportunity to discuss the cities dynamics with both foreigners and locals. I have also been greatly informed by the staff in the LRS office and the Gender and Work documents. This has been an interesting process because I feel that the dynamics of the social inequality between blacks and whites are much more complicated than generally assumed. One thing I have learned is that we ‘foreigners’ often seem too quick to jump to conclusions about South Africa’s rate of change since the end of the Apartheid.

Apartheid is described as the deliberate and systematic division and degradation of a racial class. Although the separation that exists today may not be deliberate, there is still a clear division of classes and cultures in South Africa. The history of apartheid here is shameful and the continued physical, cultural, and social separation of whites and non-whites in this city is awful, but it is important to not overlook the full picture.

Unfortunately the legacy of apartheid still remains. This is particularly true in terms of inequality, in that the country remains defined by race and economic disparity. However, the country has only been ‘free’ of apartheid for little more than two decades. The amount of progress that the country has made so far is incredible; human rights records are positive and the majority of the population is better off today than they were twenty year ago. Based on conversation with the LRS staff I feel that we just need to be realistic about the time it will take for a transformation this significant to be complete. Further, I feel that the political dynamics in the country are slowing down the transition. Although South Africa is a democracy, it cannot yet be compared to Canada or the USA. Like any other country recovering from a significant and lasting conflict, there are roadblocks; an example of this can be seen in the alleged corruption that continues in the country’s government and police force.

The international community, including the IMF and World Bank, also owe some responsibility to the current situation in South Africa and Cape Town. They originally put conditions on financial loans to South Africa following the apartheid and the restrictions they impose along with the neoliberal political policies of the country now prevent true equality from occurring. As such, Cape Town has followed neoliberal trends of income disparity, concentrating wealth in the hands of the elite class and marginalizing the majority population. South Africa was also one of many countries to fall into the trap of the IMF and World Bank’s structural adjustment programs. The World Bank has been involved in the city of Cape Town with urbanization operations since 1992 and as one would assume, South Africa embraced the free market policies that were encouraged.

Further, the United Nations Development Program, which created the Urban Management Program, promoted the active role of the private sector in South Africa. The financial support that was given by international actors were conditional and accompanied by structural adjustment which included privatization and deregulation among other harmful practices. Many other countries that have had structural adjustment implemented are ‘cut some slack’ for the rate of their progress. However, because of the success that South Africa has had with their transition to date, it seems that many foreigners remain incredibly critical. Neoliberalism triggered the shift from citizen to consumer, where the benefits of citizenship were equal to all those who could pay. The white minority in the country remained the population that could afford to purchase the rights that were guaranteed by the constitution. Security and health care are two such services that come to mind and which are largely afforded to and by the people who can afford to pay for such ‘rights’.

The international community’s demand for good governance and neoliberal polices mean that even though all South Africans now have the right to vote, their new freedoms have not yet translated into a better life or the ability to fully exercise their rights and freedoms. Those in Cape Town at least are still much better off today that they were in the apartheid, however based on conversation at our internship there is a lot of room still for change. It is easy to say that South Africa needs to change more quickly but it remains important that the background of the situation is considered carefully. The situation for the marginalized majority is slowly improving but it is very complicated and politics are at play.

Cape Town has Stolen my Heart

May 19, 2015 | Kaitlyn, DVM, Gender at Work, South Africa, Labour Research Service

I never like to engage in an experience with unreasonably high expectations out of fear of being disappointed or let down. I must admit however, that it was difficult to follow through with this internship in Cape Town without conjuring up some expectations. Now that I have been here for two weeks, I’m very happy to say that Cape Town has not only met my expectations but has far exceeded them.

Since my recent arrival I have made friends, seen a significant portion of the city and its surroundings and am feeling confident with my internship position at Gender at Work and LRS. The South African Gender at Work team is very small and this is reflected in the multi-disciplinary role I will be playing as an intern here. My work ranges from reviewing policy documents, submitting funding applications, to designing pamphlets and signage. My supervisors have given me quite a bit of freedom in the sense that they will not be micro-managing my every move, nor will they be giving me constant direction. This suits my work ethic since I like taking personal initiative in my work; however, they are always very helpful when I have questions. I’m flying to Johannesburg tomorrow to meet with the rest of the team for a few group facilitations, internships and workshops. I’m looking forward to this because it will be a chance to see another part of South Africa and to see some of the more practical work that the organization does.

As of now, I’m enjoying the work because it is giving me great insight into what work could be like at a development NGO in the future. Furthermore, the organizations approach to addressing gender inequality and gender based violence is very cutting edge; focusing on participatory processes and capacity building of locals to empower them to mobilize their own change. The approaches they use for this are very interactive involving community members and other important stakeholders. This emphasizes the importance of everyone’s role in process of changing social structures and dynamics of gender relations. The organization also seems to value the importance of creating their programs based on local contexts that exist here in South Africa. Many development organizations and programs tend to preach this principle of contextual relevance but do not practice it. It’s quite interesting to see how the work I’m doing and what the organization does connects to every day life here in Cape Town. Life here is amazing if you have the means and resources to live a good life, but within this beautiful city lives major inequality and poverty. I find it difficult not to feel guilty when I go to places like Camps Bay or V & A Waterfront, amongst all the other tourists, where issues of townships and poor quality of life seem so far away. I’ve seen inequality and poverty in my previous travels but there is something particularly unique about the Cape Town context. It’s strange to see such affluence co-exist with extreme poverty. This may sound ignorant or naïve because I know this dynamic exists everywhere, but the townships and the crime are spoken about so casually here, as if it’s an acceptable norm. Many local friends I have met have mentioned that the country hopes that their generation (the youth) will be the one to truly change the inequality that persists. The normalization of inequality and hierarchal structures of everyday life reflect a need for organizations like Gender at Work and their endeavor to affect a more equitable society. I’ve been making an effort to keep up with political and state affairs in the country to see how this impacts Gender a Work’s work, and other development organizations alike. The state suffers from problems of corruption and lack of transparency and accountability, where their priorities do not lie in favour of the people who are in the greatest need. This also emphasizes the need for the presence and work of NGOs to continue mobilizing positive change in the South African context however; I wonder how effective this will continue to be in the long run without the accountability and utmost support from the government. Nevertheless, I can confidently say that Cape Town has stolen my heart and I wish I was spending a lot more than three months here.

« Toute bonne chose a une fin.. »

April 15, 2015 | Maxim, CRM, CWY, India, MARG
C’est avec le cœur gros et la tête pleine de souvenirs que je quitte l’Inde. Mon expérience ne peut se résumer au contenu des paragraphes ci-après en ce sens où je n’arrive pas à trouver les justes mots pour synthétiser ce vécu. Un simple résumé ne pourra jamais réellement exprimer l’incroyable aventure à laquelle je me suis engagé il y a trois mois.

Lorsqu’on me demande comment a été mon expérience en Inde, je suis toujours bouche bée et le seul mot que je parviens à dire est: « Incroyable ». La vérité est qu’une telle question provoque une rétroaction des trois derniers mois dans lesquels les expériences formidables sont si nombreuses que je ne sais où commencer. Ainsi, je reste sans mot avec un qualificatif qui ne pourra jamais rendre justice à ce que j’ai réellement vécu.

Ce voyage m’a permis de déconstruire les stéréotypes populaires qu’on attache à l’Inde pour reconstruire ma perception de ce fabuleux pays. Jour après jour, j’ai fait face à plusieurs défis que j’ai dû transformer en expériences d’apprentissage. L’Inde m’a offert un environnement favorable à l’apprentissage puisque j’ai pu observer directement de grandes injustices. Comme je l’ai mentionné dans mes blogues précédents, j’ai été dans un milieu où l’égalité est très loin d’y être. Ceci étant dit, explorer de telles inégalités n’est pas chose facile. J’en tire tout de même plusieurs leçons pour mon savoir personnel. Après un tel voyage il n’est pas difficile de réaliser la chance que j’ai de vivre au Canada.

Travailler auprès d’une organisation sans but lucratif qui cible les groupes marginalisés pour tenter de leur offrir un appui légal a été une expérience hors de l’ordinaire. Tel était l’objectif principal d’une ONG portant le nom de Multiple Action Research Group (MARG). D’être rattaché à cet organisme m’a offert de multiple opportunités au cours desquelles  j’ai pu explorer le système judiciaire indien et les différentes politiques du gouvernement indien. Ceci m’a été très utile pour d’abord commencer à comprendre les coutumes de mon pays d’accueil, mais surtout pour comparer les politiques étrangères avec celles avec lesquelles  je suis plus familier. J’ai ainsi tenté de découvrir des innovations pour notre propre système de justice. De plus, de nombreux débats m’ont permis d’exploiter mes idées au maximum tout en tentant d’explorer de nouvelles façons de faire ou de penser.

Les personnes qui ont participé à mon aventure ont rendu mon expérience particulièrement mémorable  J’ai effectivement été très chanceux de pouvoir m’entourer rapidement de personnes formidables. Chacune d’entre elles a  été très généreuse en m’offrant ce dont j’avais besoin. Que ce soit sous la forme d’une aide bien nécessaire, d’un hébergement chaleureux ou de conseils précieux, j’aimais m’ont elles déçu. J’ai pu développer des amitiés qui n’ont pas de prix et auxquelles je tiens précieusement.

Bien évidemment, je n’ai pas manqué la chance de visiter des paysages à couper le souffle, notamment de précieux temples et d’immenses forteresses. Du Taj Mahal, la septième merveille du monde, au fort de Kumbhalgarh, protégé par une muraille de 36 kilomètres, en passant par le temple caché de Garadia Mahadev, l’Inde n’a cessé de me surprendre et de m’émerveiller. Ces trésors répartis à travers le pays ont su me faire ressentir une émotion très difficile à décrire; une émotion d’émerveillement, émotion incontrôlable, mais définitivement plaisante. Miriam Beard a bien décrit les effets des voyages à l’étranger: « Travel is more than the seeing of sights. It is a change that goes on deep and permanent, in the ideas of living. » C’est ce que m’a donné mon voyage en Inde.

Bref, mon aventure en Inde n’a eu que des effets positifs pour mon bagage personnel et professionnel. Je profite donc de l’occasion que me conne ce blogue pour  remercier chaleureusement toutes les personnes qui ont croisé mon chemin et qui m’ont guidé tant dans mes voyages que dans mes expériences de travail. J’en garderai de précieux souvenirs bien gravés dans mon cœur. La larme à l’œil, il est maintenant temps pour moi de retourner à la maison. Comme maman m’a toujours dit : « Toute bonne chose a une fin! »

Bhalâ kar, bhalâ hai !

-Maxim

Second Impressions

April 15, 2015 | Xela, ECH, CWY, India, PPES


I think we can only truly learn through our own experiences. Making my own choices in India has allowed me to learn lots that I never would have expected. Specifically I have been able to confront my own misconceptions and presumptions about India. This being the second time I have visited India, I came here with my own unique set of expectations. The first time I travelled to India was with my family when I was fourteen. In fact, my family has history in India. My grandfather grew up in India with his sister and two parents. His parents were both doctors who dedicated themselves to the health of people in rural India. Although, the fact that they were missionaries and participants in British colonialism is in my view problematic, I cannot judge them since it was a different time with different schools of thought. What more, they left a fascinating legacy for our family through the stories my great grandfather published in a book and the bedtime stories I was told by my own grandfather. Overall I hold the perception that my great grandparents were dedicated, honest and well intentioned. I know that they truly loved India and its people. In this way my childhood was shaped by stories and images of India.

The first visit changed my life in the true sense that it opened my senses to a world of possibility and my eyes to global inequalities. However, it also kept me sheltered from the harsher elements of Indian society. In this way, I was, most thankfully, protected from having to bargain and fight for my daily needs to be met. Because of this, I also constructed an idealistic vision of India. On my second trip I was forced to be independent and to grapple with the lived realities of people in India. In this way I was able to deepen my understanding of the culture and people of India. Although, three months is a relatively short time I was able to explore a lot geographically and theoretically. I learned how much diversity there is in such a small sized country. Every state is coloured by different fabrics, foods and smells. There is so much more to this country than the single image presented in the West and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to explore it. There is also an endless amount of cultural terrain to explore in terms of gender issues. It was so exciting to be able to discuss the local issues with the local people. In addition to that, gender issues took prevalence in daily conversation with colleagues and friends. It felt as if I was just riding the ever growing wave of discussions, conferences and politics surrounding women’s rights in India.

Although it is not always easy to love India, the people of India are so real, honest and vibrant that you can not help but leave a piece of your heart behind and hope one day to go back for it.

Falling in love with Nepal

April 15, 2015 | Leilani, ECH, MAC, Nepal, Ban Landmines Campaign Nepal

While preparing for my internship in Nepal I was really excited and a bit nervous. I was pretty sure that I was going to love Nepal. From what I had heard from my friends and acquaintances that had travelled to Nepal and from my own research, I had a feeling that it would be a place where I could learn a lot. What I had not quite been prepared for however, was just how much I would like it, to the point where I feel like I can really say that I fell in love with it. I think I can attribute my feelings for Nepal to three things: the people, the food, and the landscapes.

Nepal fascinates me because it is home to some many different ethnic groups. These groups all have distinct languages, cultures, and traditions. Even within some of these ethnic there is great variety in languages, to the point where some villages have essentially their own language. To me this is amazing. What is wonderful is that many of these languages are still spoken, though some to a limited extent. Though I do not like making generalizations, I feel like I can safely say that the Nepalese people proved to be some of the kindest, most helpful, and easy-going people I have ever met. The only other place where I have met people who are on par with the friendliness I have encountered here is in small towns in the Canadian Prairies. Kathmandu’s load shedding schedule (for power), it’s traffic, and the lateness of things like flights mean that if you are used to things getting done quickly, you may become very stressed. Perhaps partially due to these obstacles to efficiency, many of the people I have met are not easily perturbed when things do not go exactly according to plan. As a person who is often late and often without a plan, this aspect of life in Kathmandu suits me very well.

If the amazing people were not enough, the food alone would have captured my heart. Dal Bhat, the main Nepali food, is delicious, and different everywhere that you eat it. As a staple it is served almost anywhere you go out to eat. In each place though, it has its own flavour. I once ate it for lunch and supper for a week straight and never got bored. Momo, another famous Nepali dish is steamed dumplings filled with vegetables, potato, meat, or cheese. They are sort of like a pierogi except that the filling is flavoured with momo masala, a wonderful mix of spices that takes a fairly flavour-poor dumpling and makes it into a fiesta of flavours. They are often served with peanut and tomato pickle (sauce) which really finishes the dish well. My favourite drink, available almost anywhere, is masala tea. This is milk tea made out of black tea and tea masala, a mix of spices including cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon. It is absolutely delicious! There are many other wonderful dishes that offer a host of interesting and deep flavours.

Nepal is also home to a wide variety of interesting landscapes, from terraced valleys, to the windswept mountains of Mustang to the snow-capped Annapurna range, to the nearly tropical Terai. Coming from Canada, where the landscape varies considerably throughout the country, I love this aspect of Nepal. What is nice about Nepal is that due to its small size, these landscapes are much closer to each other than in Canada where if you want to get from the forest of Ontario to the rocky mountains it takes three days by car or train (thankfully only a few hours by plane).

This whole post was really just to say that, if you are looking to find love, just go to Nepal because if nothing else, the masala tea, the mountains, and the people will make you feel like maybe cupid has taken up residence in Kathmandu. If you do travel to Nepal and do not quite feel as strongly as me, I can still guarantee that the variety present in the country will ensure you are never bored!

I never want to say goodbye

April 15, 2015 | Yasmin, DVM, Independant, South Africa, CTRC

So I’m officially back in Ottawa. The only thing that I’m happy about is having efficient WiFi at the moment because for the last few days before leaving the internet was shut off in my house and then I was stuck in an airport for 10 hours with no WiFi. Other than that I have to admit that I’m missing Cape Town and all the new friends I’ve met. I have traveled many times and I have to say that I have never felt this way about a country. To say that saying goodbye to Cape  Town was hard is an understatement. One of the things that I will miss is working at the CTRC. The CTRC can improve in many ways but overall it is an amazing organization. I will miss the hectic intake days interacting with refugees and trying to offer them some sort of assistance. Although I’m not changing their lives I will miss the feeling I get every time I’m able to put a smile on their faces by helping them with either food or rent. My last day was on Wednesday which is an intake day. Usually interviews happen for most of the days, then on Thursday I write a motivation letter for all the clients I’m assisting and process their file so they receive their assistance. Since my last day was on Wednesday I unfortunately didn’t have the chance to process my clients claims which makes me feel a little uneasy. I know the CTRC will still assist them but the refugees I interview are relying on me so much that I like to make sure everything is done and processed properly instead of handing it off to the next intern. I know the CTRC is closed for Easter this Monday and I couldn’t help but wonder if some refugees spent the day travelling to the center in desperate need for assistance only to find that they were closed. Working at the CTRC is one of many things I will miss. The weather, food, culture, and people made my experience what it was. I will miss looking up and seeing beautiful table mountain no matter where I am in the city. All I can say is that this internship truly changed my life, personally and professionally. It has answered many questions I had concerning what direction I wanted to head in and I thank Ottawa U for giving me this opportunity.

L’éthique dans le travail humanitaire

April 15, 2015 | Sinda, ECH, Indépendant, Afrique du Sud, CTRC

J’ai eu la plus belle et la plus intéressante expérience jusqu’à maintenant dans mon parcours universitaire avec le centre des réfugiés de Cape Town « CTRC » et c’est avec le cœur gros que je quitte cette belle organisation et celle belle ville.

Pour mon dernier jour au « CTRC », l’équipe a organisé un déjeuner d’au-revoir, c’est une tradition qui ont pris l’habitude d’appliquer à chaque fois qu’une/un stagiaire s’en va, pour le remercier pour l’effort qu’il a mis durant sa période de stage. On fait un tour de table et chacun doit dire un petit mot dans lequel il décrit son expérience/son impression avec le/la stagiaire. C’été très émouvant pour moi d’écouter leurs discours très gratifiants, j’ai réalisé à ce moment à quel point je me suis attachée à cette équipe et combien cette expérience m’a enrichie et j’été vraiment contente d’entendre toutes ces belles choses qu’ils ont partagé avec moi, mon égo a certainement été bien servi.

Pour mon dernier jour de travail, j’ai eu l’occasion finalement d’animer mon premier atelier avec les femmes réfugiés qui ont subi des traumatismes de types sexuels dans leurs pays d’origine. J’ai commencé de travailler sur ce projet depuis mon second mois de stage et je suis vraiment contente d’avoir pu le mettre en pratique avant que je quitte, mais j’ai réalisé après la séance que j’ai eu avec les clientes choisis pour l’atelier que j’ai eu peut être tort de commencer le groupe de soutien sachant que je ne vais pas pouvoir rester jusqu’à la fin. Les clientes m’ont fait confiance et se sont habituées à moi étant donné que je les ai vu pour plusieurs entrevues auparavant. J’ai partagé mon inquiétude avec ma superviseur, elle m’a dit que c’est vrai que ce n’est pas éthique et ce n’est pas bien pour les clientes, mais de toute manière dans ce centre étant donné que l’équipe est composé moitié staff et moitié stagiaires, on ferme les yeux sur plusieurs détails et on essaye de faire ce qu’on peut avec les moyens qu’on a pour les clients. Nous avons par ailleurs décidé de continuer la planification des séances ensemble ma superviseur et moi via Skype et e-mail, je ne sais pas encore de quoi ça va avoir l’air mais je suis prête de donner un mon temps pour ce merveilleux groupe.

Cette conversation m’a donné une petite idée sur la thématique de ma question de recherche que je dois proposer à mon retour aux cours. Quand on évoque l’éthique dans le travail humanitaire (Nord- Sud), je pense qu’il y a beaucoup de détails oubliés par les universités et les organisations dans les pays du nord quand ils décident de créer des partenariats avec des organisations humanitaires dans les pays du sud pour envoyer leurs étudiants et leurs membres. Lorsque j’essaye d’évaluer mon expérience maintenant que je suis du retour au Canada je vois qu’il y a un déséquilibre. J’ai beaucoup appris de mon expérience et ce gain est à long terme dans mon cas, hors que le « CTRC » a bénéficié de mon service à court terme seulement durant ma période de stage, et même si j’ai essayé de commencer un nouveau projet, voilà que je parte avant de voir les résultats, ma contribution dans ce cas est certainement loin d’être durable, du coup d’un point de vue coût-bénéfice, la relation entre stagiaires et staff de l’organisation est loin d’être équilibré.

Évidemment ce que je dis dessus est une simple observation qui doit certainement être repenser et qui est relative d’une expérience à une autre.

Cela n’empêche que je crois fortement à la nécessité de ce genre de stages et expériences sur terrain sans lesquels le cursus universitaire reste incomplet et aussi nécessaire au développement de l’esprit des étudiants en les confrontant à des nouvelles cultures et expériences qu’elles soient positives ou négatives, elles seront toujours positives en ce qui me concerne.

The first and last train

April 15, 2015 | Chantal, ECO/POL, CWY, Inde, Ajeevika Bureau

There is a running joke that public transportation in India is the most hectic and crowded experience one can have. I’m definitely not going to disagree with that notion, public transportation in India is over-crowded and stressful. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking a bus, train, or public jeep the vehicle will be filled with way more people than it should be and you have to ask twenty times if it’s actually going to the destination you are trying to reach.

My first experience with public transportation in India was taking a train from New Delhi to Udaipur on January 11th, 2015. I had arrived in the country three days prior and was already overwhelmed with the sheer population size of Delhi. We had a cab driver and a hotel employee bring us to the train station and they had been given instructions to seat us in our compartment to make sure we were in the right place. The only problem was is that they had no idea either and thought it okay to not show up to the train platform until the last possible minute. We were left standing on an overcrowded platform with one man running in one direction and the other in the opposite, it was truly awful. There we were with no hindi language skills and thousands of other people cramming on to this train and our only help was freaking out as well and running around with our luggage. Ultimately it all worked out and we got on to our train and arrived safely in Udaipur the next day but for the next 3 months I remembered the situation as being tense, crowded, and stressful and the strong desire to never repeat it.

Well on March 31st, 2015 our train rolled back into the exact same train station in Delhi but this time from Agra. I was worried because I just remembered everything being so unmanageable so even though I had taken plenty of trains throughout my 3 months I just recalled Delhi being way more stressful and I was quite nervous about disembarking from the train. Colour me surprised because it was the easiest navigating I had done. Sure it was crowded and we weren’t 100% certain who was coming to pick us up but ultimately it was no problem. At first I thought that perhaps it was my memory that was wrong and that the Delhi train station really wasn’t that bad but then I realized that it was me who had changed. I had gotten used to India and now knew how to navigate my way through the bustle that exists everywhere. What had seemed so incredibly stressful to me when I arrived had morphed into the expected and didn’t faze me anymore.

3 months is not long enough to properly integrate into a society that speaks a different language and follows different cultural norms but as the train station in Delhi showed me it is certainly enough time to learn how to navigate and get around. With enough personal flexibility you can get used to anything and adapt and live in it. What freaks you out when you first arrive can (and often will) become such a non-issue by the end that were it not for the vivid first memories you might not even recognize as being a strange experience.

A way out.

April 15, 2015 | Jahaan, ECH, G@W, India, Labour Research Services

My internship has come to a close…well; at least I thought it had. Upon arriving at the airport, I was prohibited from boarding because of mistakes made with the processing of my visa back in Canada… the dates were swapped, which, when dealing with immigration, can almost never be a good thing.

In dealing with the fact that I need to find a way out of India, I have realized something crucial in this journey of attempting to figure out how the world truly works; both in our host country, and in Canada as well.

This country is absolutely brilliant. I mean, the organized chaos is so wonderfully confusing and, the fact that as students we were living more ‘privileged’ lives, we were able to explore and see things that many people within India, unfortunately, have not had the opportunity to see themselves. Among this, I was able to enjoy things that seemed so simple to me; for instance, riding the auto every day. But these things aren’t accessible to all people, and mean more than a ‘bollywood-style’ cruise down a wicked bazaar in India, but are often a deeper reflection of life. In this instance, perhaps the auto experience should have rather been a reflection of the realities of the drivers’ life… I this didn’t cross my mind every single drive; I became blind to it at certain points. Just like I became blind to the children knocking at the car door, or the beggars on every block of every street.

Anyway, in this entire experience there have been a few times where tricky and difficult situations have come up where there was definitely potential for something to go wrong. Having to be out extremely late, alone, having uncomfortable discussions with a driver. Or, being stared at and approached in ways that I’m not used to. And, now, being yelled at and kicked out of an airport by officials at an odd hour… these were all things that really truly scared me. I realized in each of those moments that we are blessed insofar that we have ‘a way out’. Although I definitely tried to live as authentically as I could, the reality is that my experience was an intern experience and that I constantly had the safety and security of knowing that if something were to go wrong, I could go home. And, the safety and comfort of knowing that ‘home’ was x amounts of days away.

I was in the airport and when I was attempting to deal with this situation, one of the officials said to me “..This isn’t Canada”. This hit me hard and reminded me of how lucky I am to be able to escape something that could very well be extremely difficult otherwise.

This country is wonderful; at least, the experience I had in it (call it what you may) was. And although my experience was perhaps not as authentic as possible, at least I am able to acknowledge this difference. The fact is that one of the greater issues is that the people who actually live their day-to-day lives in India don’t have the same security net that we do, and that is a scary thing. That is something that needs to change. I’m happy to have at least been able to realize this.

Power and positionality: Reflections of a white Westerner working abroad

April 15, 2015 | Élise, DVM, MAC, Nepal, Ban Landmines Campaign Nepal

I’m in the final few days of my internship and I can’t express how sad I feel at the thought of returning home. Of course, I’m excited to see my friends and family again, to breathe the fresh Canadian air, and be reacquainted with familiarity. At the same time, I feel that I’m not finished learning and discovering all that Nepal has to offer. I can say without doubt that this internship opened my eyes to the intricacies of Nepali society and politics, as well as realities and challenges of international work. Although I have done some travelling in the past, this three-month stint is the longest I’ve spent in a foreign country… not to mention a country so drastically different from Canada.

In my academic program (International Development and Globalization), we spend a great deal of time discussing and contemplating privilege. Concepts such as the saviour complex, dependency theory, and whiteness are of no mystery to those studying international development or related fields. Prior to this internship, I was confident that I fully understood the concept of privilege. Although I can never alter my privilege, I always believed that it is possible for me to mediate it. In reality, this is way easier said than done.

The fundamental problem with privilege is that it is comfortable. It makes life easier for some, at the expense of others. It’s so simple for me to say that I recognize my privilege, as a white gender-normative woman, but it takes so much more than mere recognition to live in a way that actually challenges privilege. This is especially evident in international work.

The interesting thing about international development work is the privilege that easily accompanies it. It truly is a paradox. On the one hand, we privileged Westerners are passionate about making the world a better place. On the other, we perpetuate the hierarchies and inequalities that remain at the root of so many global problems. Often, international development workers, such as those with the United Nations or other large agencies/foundations, are entrenched in a system of hierarchies and privilege. International work can often (though not always) allot high salaries to expats living in countries with extremely weak currencies and low standards of living. This means that international workers can afford everything and anything they desire… a cook, a maid, a driver, fine foods, the best entertainment, frequent spa treatments, large homes, nice cars, the list goes on and on.

Some would say they deserve it… international work brings valuable contributions to society and is beset with great challenges. Some would say the “bravery” and “resilience” of international workers merits a lavish lifestyle. This concept of the proverbial “Good Samaritan” in international development work is probably better suited to a separate blog post, so I’ll get back to the point.

Although I spent a lot of time with Nepali friends during my internship, I also I met some pretty inspiring expats. I met teachers, aid workers, yoga instructors, and entrepreneurs. The expats I met were wonderful people, who truly believed in their work, which ranged from teaching at international schools, managing education programs for Nepali children, or starting an NGO to assist women professionals in Nepal. All these expats were educated and well-rounded people, who should most definitely feel proud of what they’ve accomplished.

In many cases, although not all, these expats take advantage of their inflated salaries to live lavish lifestyles, indulging in amenities that only Westerners and the top 1% of this country can afford. I’ll admit, it would probably be tempting to live such a lifestyle here in Nepal, complete with a beautiful home, house staff, and frequent visits to the spa. But considering that inequality is exactly the root of so many problems in this country, how does one reconcile their privileged lifestyle in such a context?

Perhaps, while working for a specific NGO or agency, expats find it easy to distance themselves from the global picture and work in a silo, so to speak. They exist within their own organization and they live to fulfill a specific mandate. However, this organization is part of a global economic system that thrives on the institutionalization of privilege. Recognizing this as a development worker is key to challenging the structures that create global problems, such as oppression of women, rural poverty, inadequate healthcare, and regional disparities.

This is not to say that development workers should forgo all comforts and amenities for the purpose of living “ethical” lives. However, in order to live in a way that challenges privilege, it only makes sense for expats to live modestly. Otherwise, we simply perpetuate the structures that nourish inequality.