The readings by Appiah and Elliot highlight the complex, and often asymmetric, relationship between the West and the rest of the world. In a practical sense, the idea of being a global citizen is arguably reserved for people in the West. People from Western countries have powerful passports and we tend to have the resources to actually leave the places we were born. While being a global citizen requires us to take care of our siblings across borders, it also allows us to experience these places physically. The political power of being from a western country cannot be disregarded when having these discussions.
The industrialized West is seen as the epitome of the modern human experience. Sprawling cities with dozens of illuminated logos are seen as a sign of developed and advancing societies. This can be problematic in the realm of international aid and voluntourism, as discussed by Elliot, because it might lead to unsustainable forms of aid that don’t benefit local communities. By trying to help people reach our (unsustainable) way of living, we can cause more harm than good. This is why making sure that any project meant to help a community has a strong relationship with people in that community.
Another danger is ethnocentrism, which is lightly touched upon in Elliot’s piece, and further discussed in this interesting blog post. Something that comes to mind is religious service trips, which have the potential to disregard the host community’s practices and beliefs. It is a tricky thing to balance, however, keeping in mind Appiah’s discussion on what makes a culture “authentic.”
Finally, an important limitation is that the majority of the theories used as frameworks to understand relationships across borders have been developed in Western academic settings. From philosophy, sociology, and psychology to international relations and political science, these theoretical frameworks could benefit from non-western input. By not doing so, we run the risk of encouraging corruption and environmentally unsustainable practices in non-western countries trying to achieve the developments. Overall, it is important to be mindful of many variables when discussing globalization to no add to the western supremacy narrative.
Global citizenship can be characterized by humility, sensitivity, and acknowledgement of the human dignity that everyone is entitled to. Additionally, a large aspect of global citizenship is continuous reflection and acknowledging that all living beings on this earth are interdependent. However, as a result of power inequalities, Western notions are generally privileged within the global citizenship discourse.
In the article “Giving Back: A Special Report on Volunteer Vacations”, Dorinda Elliott contemplates the pros and cons of volunteer vacations, or so called ‘voluntourism’. It seems that in many cases, Western people will go to a community with preconceived notions, and while there, volunteers might only perceive what they expected to see. By having these prejudices, volunteers might think of themselves as “alien angles swooping in to help”. Given this notion of ‘white saviorism’, volunteers might not treat the local community with dignity; thus furthering Western notions, while marginalizing indigenous worldviews. As a result, many volunteer groups are “condescending and insensitive” towards the culture and the local people, in some cases doing “more harm than good”. For this reason, I believe it is important to consider to what extent your actions are selfless and aim to truly help others; and to what extent the actions are selfish, and are benefiting you more than the local community.
Though Elliott provides recommendations for voluntourism, she does admit that people locally could probably do the same job, perhaps even better. However, Elliott concludes that volunteers are needed to get the funding. This leaves me wondering though, if one aspires to become a global citizen, and treat everyone with dignity and respect, wouldn’t it be better to just donate the money?
Or better yet, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the global structures that are leaving some communities dependent upon the West.
How does the global citizenship discourse privilege Western notions of the human experience and marginalize indigenous worldviews?
While abroad in Costa Rica, the few projects of volunteerism we had also made me feel uncomfortable. The one that has stuck with me is when we visited a coffee farm near the cloud forests of Monteverde and picked coffee beans off the plants alongside undocumented Nicaraguan immigrant workers. As a group of white American students, it really bothered me as we worked alongside them, acting as if the few measly coffee beans we picked were really doing anything. I began conversing in Spanish with the person I was working with, who I, unfortunately, forgot the name of, because I could tell they were uncomfortable around our presence. As we began talking about Spanish music and cracking jokes, he began to relax and we began talking about the work they do at the farms. He told me that they usually work from sunrise to around 4pm, a 10 workday. This didn’t seem all that surprising as I expected them to have longer than usual work hours because of the demanding nature of the type of manual labor performed. As our literal 15 minutes of picking the coffee beans were up, we were told to head back and regroup for the rest of the tour. I overheard a classmate of mine say “this is fun, I could do this all day” and it infuriated me. I didn’t speak up because frankly I was going to be around this group of people for the next three months and frankly was afraid of being outcasted for making them uncomfortable.
As the tour around the coffee farm ended, which boasted about its organic, sustainable, and ‘great’ treatment of workers ended, someone asked the guide, who was a family member who owned the farm, about the usual workday of the people who pick the coffee beans. He said that they work from 8am to 4pm, with long breaks to eat included. I perceived that as nothing less than a lie. Whether to make us feel better about the tour or to hide the realities of their workers’ treatment, it didn’t sit well with me. All of this is to say that in many occasions, these projects of volunteerism are purposefully designed to leave the rich western with a feel-good moment. Without this feel-good moment, how else would you get them to come back and spend more? This emphasis is why the discourse prioritizes the western human experience; until people can go abroad and understand that in reality, they don’t always deserve to be praised for simple acts of volunteerism, I don’t think the discourse will favor the indigenous perspective.
In my introductory class to Environmental Studies, we read a case study on the PlayPump. The design seemed ingenious, children playing would pump groundwater, and billboard advertisements would cover costs. Unfortunately, the PlayPump worsened problems rather than providing a solution. The pump was flawed and couldn’t provide adequate water supplies as the amount of time children spent playing on the pump was nowhere near adequate to meet water demands leaving women to spin the playground equipment by hand.
It seems stories such as these are abundant. A brilliant idea sparks a humanitarian project or service program which, despite having good intentions, falls flat. Why is this the case?
Global citizenship is focused on finding solutions to the world’s biggest issues however most of these solutions come from western countries. I think that many projects focus on great ideas and meeting a need without considering community dynamics. Folks from developed countries take new and innovative ideas and implement them. Without understanding the communities, the culture, history, and without a proper long term, plan such efforts are bound to fail.
During Rwanda’s reconciliation indigenous perspectives and Rwandanese culture were used to create lasting solutions. After the genocide of the Tutsis, the country rebuilt itself. Rwandans looked back to their pre-colonial culture and incorporated their traditions into reconstructing the country. One specific example is the Gacaca court. In pre-colonial Rwanda, the punishment of a crime would be determined by the community. Using the traditional western judicial system it would’ve taken decades to try the millions of perpetrators, however, with Gacaca the trials were completed after five years. As with everything there are mixed opinions on the use of Gacaca courts, but there is a great sense of pride in Rwanda surrounding their homegrown solutions.
By imposing western ideas and solutions on countries I believe failure is inevitable. Rwanda illustrates the power of solutions from within a country. The voices of indigenous people should be at the center of global citizenship, shaping the course of action and resources supplied, rather than incorporated into western perspectives. While the world failed to aid Rwanda, if global citizenship were to focus on supporting homegrown solutions I believe we may see fewer solutions fall flat.
The global citizenship conversation reinforce the existing belief that those in non-Western societies are ‘less fortunate’ and ‘worse off’. By painting individuals in these societies as such, those in Western societies are immediately elevated while those who do not exist in Western societies are put at a disadvantage. Consequently, their communities, customs, way of life and even their lives themselves are viewed as less important and their overall worldviews are marginalized.
Global citizenship conversations also prompts the idea that there are two distinctly different types of societies; Western and non-Western. The idea that these societies are different creates a mental distance between the two which allows for an ‘us versus them’ mentality to be formed. In such cases, the ‘us’ population (Western society) feels superior to the ‘them’ population (non-Western society). Because of this feeling of superiority, the ‘us’ population often views and treats the ‘them’ population negatively.
Historically, ‘us versus them’ mentalities and feelings of superiority has led to ideas such as ‘the white man’s burden’ which was said to ‘justify’ colonization and slavery. In the 1700’s, Caucasian’s (the ‘us’ population) saw African’s (the ‘them’ population) as different than themselves. This perceived difference created a distance between the two populations in the Caucasian’s minds. This distance allowed Caucasian’s to think of themselves as superior and think of African’s as savage, inhuman and therefore inherently lesser. These views and attitudes towards the African population then used to ‘justify’ enslaving the African population, as well as the atrocious acts committed towards Africans. This was done by arguing that the Caucasian’s knew what was best for the African population. However, in this case, and in many others, all the Caucasian’s really did was take advantage of, mistreat and abuse those they deemed to be lesser.