The Junior Fellow program and its discontents

My placement with EWB’s Junior Fellow (JF) program has brought me to a community named Diare in northern Ghana. I’m partnering with an NGO named Agribusiness Systems International (ASI) to help farmers in this area establish a new system of storage for their maize. The project hopes to increase the amount and quality of produce that farmers store and sell by improving on current storage infrastructure and post-harvest handling practices.

My role, in short, is to live with the communities where the project will first be implemented in order to gather information that will be used in implementing it.

There are many challenges that confront me in carrying out my work. The biggest is the language barrier because I, of course, don’t know the local language, Dagbani. I have to rely on the few people in the community who speak English well to translate for me if I want to engage in conversation with farmers. I also did not come to the community with a good understanding of the local customs and traditions, and local agricultural practices.

Although there are still two and half months left in my placement, it’s clear to me that the value of the work I do in Ghana will not outweigh the value I gather from the experience. Concern about whether my work could have been more easily done by a Ghanaian (perhaps a graduate from the local University for Development Studies) will no doubt hold considerable weight. Such will be the case for not only me, but likely all the other Junior Fellows as well. For the majority of JFs four months is not enough time to make a worthwhile impact on the ground.

What, then, justifies our coming here? It took a substantial amount of donated money and EWB staff members’ time to bring us to Ghana. Donors, of course, did not want their money to be used in a way that would garner valuable personal experiences for volunteers while, in comparison, providing marginal value to Ghanaians. And the time of EWB staff could have been spent towards initiatives that would create clearer and more abundant benefits for Ghanaians.

The value of the JF program is often questioned in this way within EWB. Responses to such questioning generally lead to justification being given to the program on the basis that it helps Canadians connect with Africa – through JFs relating their experiences to others back home via blogs and other means – and that JFs return from the experience as better “change agents”. These further justifications are not extremely well defined. Though they succeed in giving enough reason for the JF program to continue to exist, they fail to put to rest doubts about its meaningfulness – thus, questions about its value remain ever-present.

I would like to suggest that the current way in which Canadians are connected to Africa and JFs made better “change agents” through the program fails to capitalize on the its full potential. If the terms of these two justifications are more rigidly defined and implemented, they would go much further in settling doubts and, more importantly, make the program more meaningful in forwarding the cause of development.

Connecting Canadians to Africa currently amounts to, in the main, the JFs’ families, friends, and university chapter members learning about their personal physical and emotional experiences, and interpretations of ground realities in Africa with regards to culture, development challenges, economic conditions etc. Out of everything else, primary emphasis is by far given to sharing personal experiences, which also extends itself to relating interpretations of cultural norms. Certainly, spreading awareness about other cultures is a meaningful exercise in itself; to the extent that development should be our main concern, however, there is a certain point after which it becomes rather meaningless to spread awareness about the fact that there are many goats in Ghana, etc.

Furthermore, it must be stressed that any interpretations of cultural norms by outsiders are just that: interpretations. More importantly, in this case they are interpretations made by mostly middle class, white university students who have a dehistoricized and depoliticized interpretive consciousness. Given the power differences in place between them and people in the South, and the dehistoricized and depoliticized framework through which they perceive their surroundings, this class of people is one of the least perceptive when it comes to making interpretations that are close to actual reality. At the same time, as they are part of a class that is one of the most powerful in the world, the interpretations they make serve to be of serious consequence. It’s a dangerous mix.

The class origins of JFs, as well as their level of historical and political consciousness, are also to blame for limiting the extent to which they can become better “change agents”. “Change agent” is EWB terminology for activist – though, characteristically, unlike the word activist, the term “change agent” is not politically charged. Struggling to make an impact through development work as a JF is supposed to provide meaningful lessons for future activism. Unfortunately, distorted interpretations and EWB’s narrow focus on aid and development work, as opposed to a focus on the larger issue of development (see my previous post), make any lessons learned not easily applicable to other fields of activism, or for that matter, within activism around broader issues concerning development.

How, then, should we move forward from here?

The class origins of JFs can’t be changed. Their level of historical and political consciousness, on the other hand, can be lifted; and with it the negative aspects that accompany their class origins can be quelled to a large degree. The privilege afforded to their class can hence be more surely exploited to serve positive ends.

With a broader and deeper understanding of how the world works JFs can use their time in Africa to survey and understand the implications of far-flung policies and practices on the lives of Africans. (How, for example, did the sub-prime mortgage crisis impact rural Ghanaians?). Having returned home they will be able to connect Canadians to Africa in a way that attaches their personal experiences to grander realities. Also, having a clearer idea of what the big picture looks like will allow them to make more accurate interpretations and learn lessons that will be applicable in disparate struggles.

There is no way to lift the consciousness of JFs to the level being proposed during pre-departure and in-country training. It would require a much larger time commitment, and in fact, an effort to lift the consciousness of not only JFs or potential JFs, but the organization’s membership as whole. Undoubtedly, the argument will be made that with a limited amount of resources, EWB can concentrate only on a limited number of pursuits, lest it become overburdened and the productiveness of its activities affected. What I’m suggesting, however, isn’t that we chase more pursuits, but that we develop a background of the big picture which would inform the foreground of our pursuits.

What would, in a sense, amount to changing the culture of the organization would involve lots of hard work and time. I don’t expect such a reason to turn away interest from this venture, though, because everyone in EWB is a workaholic.

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11 responses to “The Junior Fellow program and its discontents

  • Sylvie Spraakman

    Hear hear Umair. I think a lot of volunteer sending organizations have the exact same problems as EWB. I participated in a study on the effectiveness of short term volunteers – from their preliminary results, a lot of people had experienced the same things you’re describing. The study will be released some time this year (should be a book and a conference and all – it was huge)… and I hope having that kind of real data can make a real stir in the volunteer-sending world.

    Great post overall!

  • erinantcliffe

    Hey Umair. Nice post! I think you’re totally right about the way people interpret their experiences.
    I thought it was interesting though that you refer to JFs as “they” and “their” rather than “we” and “our” – what makes you not identify as part of this group? Do you not also have your own historical, political or class-based lenses through which you’re interpreting your experience?
    I think you’re right in proposing a sort of “general education” on historical/current events and how they effect Ghana, though I’m also not sure how we would go about doing this… but still, I think it’s unrealistic to think that we can do anything but change the lenses through which we’re seeing Ghana. We can never eliminate them.
    Great post though, keep it up!

    • Umair

      Hey Erin,

      I definitely would’ve used “we” if I had stopped with describing most JFs as “middle class, white university students”. I have pretty much the same socio-economic status as middle class white people. For all practical purposes, other than when I’m at the airport, I hold the same amount of power and receive the same privileges as they do.

      But then, I went on to add that “they” have a “have a dehistoricized and depoliticized interpretive consciousness”. Now, excuse me for a second while I do the opposite of striving for humility here, but I’m of the opinion that this part of the description doesn’t apply to me.

      That’s not to say that even though I’m an outsider I don’t have my own interpretive lens, I just have a different one.

      Going back to the first part about me being of the same socio-economic class as middle class white people, I should add that on a personal level I don’t identify with that class. While that status may be imposed on me, my upbringing, life experiences, and a bunch of conscious effort on my part has led me to self-identify with the colonial subjects of the world. As in, as far as identifying myself as part of a particular group of people, sharing common interests, etc., I’m on the coloured/lower side of the race/class divide.

      … I know nobody asked for my life story… but yeah… It’s like my man, Boots Riley says, “Identify yourself, it’s a part of being conscious.”

      Also, I think I should’ve done a better job of describing what I meant by raising the JFs’ “level of historical and political consciousness”. On its own, learning about historical/current events isn’t necessarily going to let us get to where I’m proposing we go. Instead of historical events, we need to understand historical processes. And developing a political consciousness isn’t about learning about political parties and the way they work, but rather, understanding politics in the general sense of the word (i.e. the process of collective decision-making) and consciously adopting a political outlook. Being political, in this sense, isn’t about adopting a partisan affiliation along party lines. It’s about understanding that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and not letting ambivalence rule the day.

      “You can’t change shit by ridin’ the fence.” (Boots Riley)

      The end goal would be to have EWB as an organization adopt a outlook that’s concerned with development and not just development work and aid, like I talked about in my previous post. Kind of like when someone who’s against the War in Iraq goes to Iraq and comes back better prepared to carry out resistance to it on the home-front, the JF program would prepare EWBers to better struggle for development on the home-front.

      … I talk a lot,
      Umair

  • nadeem

    Great post Umair. “The privilege afforded to their class can hence be more surely exploited to serve positive ends.” !!

  • Stacey Gomez

    Dear Umair,

    Thanks for the post! I think it’s important to continue to have this dialogue on how the JF program can be improved and whether it should continue at all. How open this organization is to change on those aspects, however, I don’t know.

    In response to some of your statements, I would venture to say that JF’s aren’t blank slates and that they come to this position with significant background knowledge (at least that was the sense I got from those in my sending group). Furthermore, the JF program places a significant emphasis on self-directed learning, which is important to take into account. As well, you speak of the “class origins of JF’s.” I would ask you to elaborate on that. Do you mean “class” within the context of Canadian society or more broadly?

    Finally, I appreciate the distinction you make between the terms “activist” and “change agent.” I’ve been debating the use of the term “activist” for a while and I hadn’t thought of it that way.

    Look forward to reading more of your posts!
    Stacey

    • Stacey Gomez

      My apologies, you mention “middle class, white university students.” I wasn’t sure if you were referring to the North-South relationship.

      Stacey

    • Umair

      I certainly agree that JFs’ minds aren’t blank slates. Though, I would hold that the self-directed learning taken on by the JFs most often doesn’t lead them to become more historically and politically conscious. They develop a better understanding of development work and aid, and perhaps historical/current events, but that doesn’t raise their understanding of the big picture (see my response to Erin).

      How I see the issue of non-blank slate minds is from the angle that JFs don’t walk into their placements as objective observers, but as prejudiced individuals who then look for justifications to meet their already formed ideas. By not adopting a historicized and politicized outlook which would allow them to consciously develop their own ideas about the world, they fall victim to having socially formed ideas implanted in them.

      • Stacey Gomez

        Umair,

        Thanks for the reply. You are correct when you state that JF’s come to the position with their own biased lens. I think would hope that they recognize this and (strive to) use their own preconceived notions as the basis for hypothesis testing.

        I wanted to comment, as well, on your characterizations of JF’s as mostly “middle class, white university students.” As a racialized able-bodied woman coming from a low-income family, my experience with the JF program is perhaps more the exception than the rule in many respects. However, people’s realities are oftentimes disparate, nuanced and difficult to discern. My experience regarding those whom I have perceived to be “middle class, white folks” has often been to have my assumptions challenged. However, this is my own biased lens coming in here.

        Stacey

      • Umair

        Word, I didn’t do so great at incorporating nuance into my whole thing. Thanks for mentioning this.

  • Umair

    I realize that I’m probably coming off as a major hater. I don’t mean to be. The JFs are all very lovely people. My whole thing with this is to suggest an avenue for EWB to venture down which would hopefully make the JF program serve a more meaningful end, and put a dent in doubts about whether or not it should exist.

    • Janine Reid

      Great! I loved reading the comments section because they assuaged some of my concerns about your statements in the original post. And yeah, EWB clearly needs to address this issue head on to look for some long-term resolution, especially if we run up against these questions every year!

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