I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am taking far more from Uganda than I could ever hope to give. Enhanced career prospects, letters of reference, a big fat CV, a prestigious scholarship, and a handmade pair of shorts are all among things that I will take back with me to Canada. So what does Uganda get out of the deal? Another selfish, white, middle-class Canadian kid? An intern who will leave after three months of work that anybody with ¾ of an undergrad can easily accomplish? Yep.
One of the most difficult things that we interns in the ‘Global South’ have to grapple with is the notion that we are incapable of creating widespread change. From the day we are born most of us are told that we are special; that we can do anything we put our minds to. Our parents give us so much agency that they forget about the structures that we face once we flee the nest. The fact of the matter, however, is that white, middle-class kids who do development work abroad are not special. We are not going to bring about widespread change in the 3-6 months we spend abroad. Heck, we are lucky if we don’t make matters worse. Finally, we would be delusional to think that we are on a noble crusade to counteract the very structures that we directly benefit from – namely, neoliberal globalization.
Sure we work in NGOs, tie our unwashed hair up in a tight bun, and fight the good fight for a couple of months in our 20s. But the fact remains that when we go back home we will still buy that $3.00 shirt from Walmart made by a 7 year old in Bangladesh, grind Tim Horton’s coffee beans picked by underpaid farmers in Central and South America, and use our laptops that contain minerals mined by child soldiers in the DRC.
Quite simply, most Canadians that do development work abroad tend to conflate “thick” cosmopolitanism (not the magazine) with selfish pragmatism. In its broadest form, cosmopolitan thought assumes that all humans have moral obligations to other humans. John Cameron tells us that these moral obligations are both positive and negative in nature – that is, not only do we have a duty to help others where we can, but we also have a duty to do no harm. Pretty easy to digest: I am human and you are human so let’s not be complete dicks to each other. “Thick” cosmopolitanism takes the idea of moral obligation one step further by recognizing the causal links that exist between human actions and outcomes.
For instance, “thick” cosmopolitan thought requires us humans to understand that the industrial revolution was powered by the extraction of raw natural resources from the African continent; the slave trade enabled the United States’ weak agrarian economy to rapidly modernize; today’s technology revolution is made possible by the extraction of minerals from Central Africa. Things like development and modernization then are not dichotomous – rich and developed vs poor and underdeveloped. Rather they are two sides of the same coin.
In a sense, the relationship between the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ is kind of like the prophecy in Harry Potter: “Neither can live while the other survives”. If this prophecy holds true in the real world, then it looks like us humans have some serious horcrux hunting to do.
Luckily, there are ways for international development workers from the ‘Global North’ to root their selfish and pragmatic actions in “thick” cosmopolitanism. The first, and most obvious way is reflection… hence this blog. The second way for rich white kids to mitigate the replication of harmful power structures while abroad is to understand that they are capable of creating change, but in VERY small increments. The latter has taken me more than 7 weeks to fully appreciate.
I am in the midst of a swimming competition here in Kampala. Crazy, right? Anybody familiar with the sport of swimming knows that competitions tend to be a breeding ground for selfish behaviour. Racing (unless you are lucky enough to be on Dal Varsity) is very self-centred. It is all about how YOU preform; if YOU go a best time or win an INDIVIDUAL medal; if YOU executed the race plan that YOU practiced and refined for months on end.
As a side, I’ve noticed that us Dal Tigers race just as much for the team as we do for ourselves. Pretty great bunch of athletes if you ask me!
Anyway, where was I? Right. Meets. Selfish. Got it. Now, it is very difficult for me to be selfish at the competition here in Kampala for a couple of reasons. First, there is no clock so I do not learn how fast (or slow) I race unless somebody goes out of their way to time me. Second, best times are few and far between as my training regimen here is geared towards maintenance rather than performance. Third, if I complete a race without disqualifying then chances are I will medal. The competition in East Africa is not as stiff as it is in North America – that said, in a few years’ time the world better watch out because Uganda is going to be a swimming powerhouse. Given these conditions, the swim meet this weekend is a lot less about how I do then what I do.
Yes, I still swim each race to improve myself as a swimmer. Unlike other meets, however, I also swim each race with hopes of inspiring others.
In a way, the meet is a great way to give back to the sport I love. In fact, today alone numerous parents thanked me for getting their kids excited about swimming. A coach of a Kenyan team told me that he got his swimmers to watch my races so they could pick up new technical skills. Another kid was feeling a bit down after a below average day of racing so I gave him one of my medals and congratulated him on giving an honest effort in the pool. Based on the way his face immediately lit up, I can say with reasonable certainty that he will have a good day of racing tomorrow.
So there you have it: the white kid doing development work ‘Global South’ managed to meet his positive and negative moral obligations as a cosmopolitan global citizen… and all while wearing a speedo to boot. Sure the change I created at the pool was small, but it was somewhat tangible. At least now I can go home at the end of August and know that I played a small role in getting a kid excited about competitive swimming, if nothing else.
While I certainly take more from Uganda than I give, it is nice to know that I am capable of contributing… even if that contribution is minuscule and has nothing to do with my NGO work.
Your Cosmo Boy,