Towards ethical global North-South relationships

To hell with good intentions.

This was the title of a speech delivered in 1968 by Ivan Illich, an Austrian philosopher and social critic of contemporary Western culture, to the Conference of InterAmerican Student Projects. Illich warned of the dangers of paternalism in the act of ‘doing good’ as part of international voluntary service projects. He argued it is unfair for missions from The West to impose themselves on villages in Mexico where they are linguistically deaf and dumb, where they don’t understand what they are doing, what people think of them or the unintended damaging effects of their efforts to do good.

Illich was one of the earliest voices to bring into focus the need for critical and ethical global engagement.

In 2014, Universities Canada reported that in recent decades, globalization has become a pervasive force in shaping higher education. Ninety-six per cent of Canadian universities include internationalization as part of their strategic planning and more than 80 per cent identify it as one of their Top Five planning priorities. This is up five per cent from 2006.

The rapid expansion of internationalization efforts meant increased student mobility, including practicum, volunteer and internship placements in development organizations or with community groups in the Global South. North-South student mobility experiences benefit students by providing important skills in a rapidly changing world, including leadership skills, intercultural experience, complex thinking and communications skills.

However, the focus has historically been on the benefits to the students from the Global North, with little attention paid to ensuring mutual benefit and reciprocity with host institutions and communities in the Global South.

Given the existence of global inequality and asymmetrical power relations, ethical issues arise that must be attended to in order to avoid inadvertently reproducing problematic historical patterns of thinking and relationships. How we go about establishing partnerships, engaging in research, representing local communities, and preparing students for experiences in the Global South is arguably more important than the tasks that are accomplished. The good news is Global South partners want to receive students from the Global North for international learning experiences, as long as local voices are heard in planning for these experiences, real community needs are met and students are prepared with the historical, political and economic context in which they will be working.

To engage ethically is a choice. Working in collaboration with East African partners with the Western Heads East program inspired me to engage in reflexive practice and to approach the work of the program with a critical eye. Critical not only about what we were doing with the probiotic yogurt social enterprises that economically empowered women while bringing health to their communities, but how we go about this work. In 2015, I began working with Farzana Karim Haji of Aga Khan University and Pamela Roy of Consultancy for Global Higher Education. We embarked on a path to explore the complexities and risks in North-South partnerships with humble acknowledgement of our own individual fragility and vulnerability. At the same time, we recognize our own privilege as members of the Western academy to speak and be heard.

Karim Haji, Roy and I compiled research on the topic of ethics and international experiential learning programs in higher education, with an aim to expand our knowledge on ethics and the nature of asymmetrical power relations in our work. The result was a publication, Building Ethical Global Engagement with Host Communities: North-South Collaborations for Mutual Learning and Benefit, presented at the 10th annual Global Internship Conference in Boston.

This document presented important resources comprehensive of the diverse stakeholder needs, responsibilities and activities to achieve improved ethical practice in international experiential learning programs. It amassed valuable information about core ethical dilemmas, standards of practice, critical self-reflexivity and reflexive practice, comprehensive pre-departure preparation and how to develop ethical partnerships.

In November 2017, Universities Canada launched a publication entitled North-South mobility in Canada’s Universities, which featured the 10 important ethical considerations for North-South student mobility programs based on the work of Karim Haji, Roy and myself.

Western International is committed to continuous learning with a critical and ethical approach to global engagement and to employ hyper-self-reflexive practice, both for students and as an institution. By acknowledging global inequality and attending to resulting asymmetrical power relations, we are better able to focus on the voices of our partners in the Global South, and to pay attention to important ethical considerations such as non-reciprocity, invisible barriers, learning as transaction, exclusion in decision-making and the burden of resources and time.

When our programs and practices emphasize critical and ethical global engagement, our students will leave with this same lens as leaders of tomorrow.

Robert Gough is Director of International Internships and Development and the Western Heads East Program.