I went into this course hoping to gain new tools which I could use to tackle my thesis during these unprecedented times when physical contact and international travel has been severely limited. And while I may not have gotten the clear solution “served to me”, our discussions have made me have some very important personal reflections around what I do and why I do it.
On the topic of crisis, one thing that particularly interested me was the concept of resilience. It was first brought up by Marko Korhonen in his lecture “Real-world Challenges of Crisis and Disaster Management”. The influence of colonial power structures in this conversation is striking. The capitalist systems created by the exploiting countries (or Global North) to maintain control over the exploited countries (or Global South) still persists today, and makes it virtually impossible to build crisis resilient societies. We’ve seen it time and time again, and we see it with COVID-19. And while efforts are made to provide aid to help the less developed (or more exploited) nations, the whole issue is that those nations’ economies have been crippled so severely in the first place that it is even necessary.
This imbalance of power is another thing we’ve had great discussions around in regard to the decolonisation of design, technology and more. And there is a lot of work ahead of us to dismantle the systems which currently keep certain people — the vast majority of which are white men — in positions of what I would call extreme power.
Voluntourism* is a concept which, despite all the good intentions of its participants and contributors, uphold imbalanced power structures. By not properly educating and preparing volunteers for the foreign contexts in which they will be working, organisations create situations in which the experiences of the volunteers are prioritised over the everyday life of the people (and animals, environment, etc.) they have set out to help. There is a paradox in the ways in which we talk about this type of “work” as “doing good”. Because who is really benefitting from the system of voluntourism? And in which ways are these efforts and organisations perhaps just holding people in the Global South down? It’s obviously a very complex conversation which is in no way a binary of good and bad, but it is a conversation we need to have nonetheless.
A fellow student in this course shared the following quote by Ivan Illich with me, which I think so nicely verbalises the paradox of good intentions: “If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as “good,” a “sacrifice” and “help.””
What this essentially all boils down to is a change of mindset. Of course we also need a change of system(s), but it’s just one of those chicken-and-egg situations. If we want (and we do) more resilient, fair, inclusive, and empathetic systems and societies, we need brave, empathetic people to lead the change. And we need the majority to see and understand new perspectives, and understand them as true depictions of the world, even if they are not the stories that have been told or given a platform until now.
This process requires representation across the board, including in positions of power. Because without diverse representation, there is no empathy for diverse experiences.
Very importantly a lot of the heavy lifting in this process should be done by those in positions of privilege — whether that be financial privilege, nationality, race, gender or any other type of privilege. It should not be the burden of those who have shouted about injustices and inequities for years. It should not be the burden of those who feel the injustices on their own bodies every day.
So, while I have not found the perfect fix to how I should do my thesis, perhaps that’s the whole point: There is no perfect fix to any of this. All we can do is do our best and constantly reflect on our actions and the results that follow. To trust what we know, but be humble enough to be proven wrong.
* Voluntourism: A type of volunteering which includes traveling to another country, often to a country in the Global South.