By Sarah Priddy
Living in Seattle, we as students have the incredible opportunity of being exposed to global issues on an almost daily basis. When we are not being bombarded with flyers and petitions on Red Square or reading articles via Facebook, we are attending rallies, buying “fair trade,” wearing Toms shoes, and giving our 20 bucks a month to an NGO dedicated to good work. Many of us have gone abroad, volunteered, or even actively participated in progressive or humanitarian campaigns. We are the “millennium generation”. We are the good-doers, the generation who is committed to not repeating the mistakes of the past. We are the reincarnation of the radical youth of the sixties focused more intelligently and acutely on the issues of economic, social, and political justice worldwide. We are informed. We are active. We are making a difference. Right?
But what happens when these good intentions are not enough? In the flurry of our weekly Anthropology classes and annual donations to “Save The Children,” we seldom pause to consider the possibly negative effects that are often the direct result of our passionate desire to help others. Often, we are so focused on seeing or feeling the immediate and gratifying results of our efforts that we fail to critically evaluate what our work is actually achieving and which ideologies it is actively promoting. We are raised on this concept that we the “privileged” Global North have a mandate to help our fellow human kind in the Global South. The word privilege thus implying superiority, or the idea that we know best. But are these ideals really universal? Furthermore, for being so progressive and accepting, we as “do-gooders” rarely think of our aid-receivers as our fellow human kind. That would imply that they get an actual say in what they need “saving” from.
We come in the name of helping, but are our actions truly helping eradicate the fundamental issues that are at the root of these inequalities? Or are we persistently validating such poverty by implementing solutions that serve to merely cover up the past failed attempts? This, I feel, is the hardest part of change — realizing that sometimes you don’t have all the answers. However, it is important not to be cynical. There is an ongoing balance in the development rhetoric, a constant push and pull of what “works” and what “does not work”, what is “good” and what is “bad”. However, aid work can not be defined as black or white. Therefore, I implore you “Toms buyers” to begin to move beyond good intentions and to consider the ongoing and global impacts, both good and bad, of international aid and development work. Moreover, I urge you to consider the history of such efforts and rather than implementing solutions to cover them up, actually learn from them. We claim to crave change; however, only when we realize that we do not solely hold the power to define it, can we truly start to make a difference.