“The World is Round” – Part 2

May 27th 2015

After a few action packed days at work, I’m back! I have so many updates to share, but first let me continue my lengthy, somewhat dry musings steeped in IDS terminology (apologies in advance).

To summarize where I left off in the last post, I was talking about privilege. Here in Uganda I am acutely aware of the preferential treatment I receive because I am a mzungu*. Even in Canada I am aware that my very comfortable life comes at the expense of the wellbeing of people in far off places, as well as at home. So although I cannot take responsibility for past harms like colonialism, I can acknowledge the consequences of my current actions. In my favorite childhood movie called Ever After – a rendition of Cinderella featuring a young Drew Barrymore – Barrymore’s sassy character tells the prince that he was “born to privilege, and with that comes specific obligations”. Although my life is unfortunately very far from the fairy tale world in the movie, this particular line is very relevant to reality. The privilege I was born into comes with the responsibility to act conscientiously and do what small part I can to improve the condition of the world (queue inspirational music).

Now, time for some development theory that I think is relevant (although I’ll leave that for you to decide, if you can stay awake until the end):

In historian W.E.H Lecky’s 1869 book A History of European Morals he introduced the concept of The Expanding Circle. The Expanding Circle theorizes that “the number of people we consider worthy of our moral consideration has expanded through history, like a circle”. At one time people only cared about their immediate family, but overtime the circle expanded to include a class, then a nation, and finally all of humanity**. Lecky argues that throughout history more and more people have gone from being The Other to being part of a collective Us. This is why we see countries sending humanitarian aid to other nations in far off places. As my co-worker S said, “the world is round”. Overtime humanity’s compassion for each other has expanded to include the whole world.

At least in theory.

Now let me turn to a different but closely connected topic. Australian philosopher Peter Singer has a popular ethical metaphor called The Drowning Child. Although I disagree with many of his arguments about charity and development, this particular metaphor is relevant to the idea that we have a moral responsibility to humankind. So let me walk you through it:

Imagine that on your way to work or school you pass a shallow pond. One day you see that there is a child drowning in that pond. It would be easy for you to save that child and you would incur no harm to yourself. However your clothes would be ruined and you would be late for your daily activities. The question is, do you have an obligation to save that child?

The answer is obviously a resounding yes. The child’s safety far outweighs the cost of ruining your clothes and being late. Even if there are other people walking by who have just as much agency to save the child, this doesn’t lessen the responsibility you have to do so.*** But now let us change the scenario slightly. What if the child who needs saving is far away, say in a different country? It is equally within your means to save them, with negligible cost to yourself. Most people would say that distance and nationality should make little difference, and they would still choose to save the child. I know I would. But now let us add one final layer to Singer’s metaphor. What if we are not only able to save the child drowning in the pond, but what if we actually had a role in how they ended up there in the first place? Wouldn’t that multiply our responsibility to save them by a hundredfold? I think it would, and does.

Andrew Linklater discusses a variation of this phenomenon in one of his articles when he reconceptualises foreign aid as justice. He gives the example of aid given by Britain to Mozambique after they experienced a flood. The world saw Britain as a charitable, caring nation to take such actions. However, what people failed to realize was that Britain had been responsible for some of the deforestation in Mozambique that contributed to the severity of the flooding. So were they being charitable, or were they simply addressing the consequences of their actions? Not to sound like a broken record, but the world is round. Countries should not be meeting their aid targets of 0.7% of their GDP – which by the way most of them aren’t – simply so that they can feel warm and fuzzy inside. They should be doing so because they have a moral responsibility to address the results that their actions have on the world. In his writings, John Rawls uses a thought experiment called the Veil of Ignorance. He imagines that people have to create society from behind a veil where they are unaware of what their position, race, or tastes will be. From this position, he argues that people would choose to maximize the benefit for the least fortunate in society, because they may find themselves in that position. Unfortunately however, in reality we cannot pause and recreate society from behind that veil. In the world’s current state, we must try to maximize the benefit for the least fortunate starting from a situation of gross inequality.

Alright, I’ll stop there.

So far this post has been very theoretical, so let me now ground it in my current experiences here in Uganda. As a visitor in this country, I can’t help but wonder what I can do to better the situation around me. The Canadian International Development Agency, aka CIDA (RIP), used to fund organizations like Canada World Youth that would send Canadian students on experiential learning programs abroad. The costs of these programs were included in the annual budget for foreign aid. Similarly, I am here in Uganda because the government is funding me as part of their development strategy. So both for my own peace of mind and to best utilize the government’s money, I can’t help but want to have the most positive impact here that I possibly can. I am a person who likes to help, no matter where I am or who I’m with.

But now for the hard part: what does that helping look like? For the next three months does it mean paying a higher price for things at the market so that the hardworking vendor’s can pocket an extra few shillings? Does it mean giving the children begging on the street a few bills and hoping it doesn’t get taken from them by the people who they report to? I find it hard to believe that my money is all I can give, despite the common assumption here that all mzungu’s are wealthy. I know that I have many valuable things to contribute, but it is hard to identify what they are and how to utilize them. They say that knowledge is power, but I feel like the more I learn about these complex issues of inequality and poverty the more my hands are tied. I want to do the right thing, but the more I learn the more it seems like every option is wrong.

Moreover, how much should I assume that I can realistically do? I am a twenty two year old student who is here in Uganda for three months working as an intern. Despite the preferential treatment I have been given, my power is very limited. In a work setting, anything I have been included in is more for my benefit than for the organization’s. And to play devil’s advocate to my former discussion of cosmopolitanism, why would I assume that it is my responsibility to do anything? When people think of this continent they picture starving children and people dying of HIV/AIDS. The image is one of helplessness. But in the two weeks that I’ve been here this seems so far from the case. People here are alive. They have normal concerns, like what to do on the weekend and whether they are doing a good job at work. As one MP said in a meeting last week: “we have problems, but we are not dying”. There are hundreds of Ugandans working to solve Uganda’s problems, and doing a good job of it considering what they’re up against. So what gives me the right to swoop in and assume that I can do a better job than them? And furthermore, why would I be trying to change a country I barely know, when there are scores of issues back home? It is a neocolonialist idea to think that foreigners can do a better job of solving a country’s problems than the people who have grown up there.

Now here’s another question: why do so many people from the Global North assume that people in the Global South want to be like them? In the GMO meeting last week that I mentioned, a few MPs referenced the issue of obesity in America. They used it as a cautionary tale of what they do not want for Uganda. Interestingly, they talked about obesity with the same tone of fear that we in North America would talk about HIV/AIDS on this continent. Yes, both are pressing health issues. But the media presents us with one angle – mere snippets of a much larger story, presented out of context and coupled with fear tactics. I hate that more often than not media corporations only show the negative side of the equation, because it assumes a lack of agency and flippantly disempowers a continent of people in the eyes of the Global North. It is actively perpetuating stereotypes that I’ve seen firsthand are not necessarily the case.

So, to conclude.

This post has been long and rambling, so if you’ve made it this far I applaud you. When you boil it down, what I’m trying to say is this: I think Lecky’s idea of the Expanding Circle needs to be challenged, at least to some extent. Yes, in theory we feel responsibility for the state of humanity, but in practice we still put up walls and create divides between each other, both at home and abroad. Sometimes we see the drowning child and dive in to save them, but other times we just continue to walk by – if we don’t break the surface of the water than we won’t have to deal with how deep it is. The pond looks shallow: give money to a country in the Global South and you can make a difference. But in reality the issues run much deeper than that. Wanting to help isn’t enough – you have to know how, which is something I’m still trying to figure out. But as Linklater explains, it’s everyone’s responsibility to do so.

It is true that the world is round. But unfortunately, despite my good intentions more often than not I feel like all I am doing is going in circles.
_______________________________
*A Swahili word that originally meant ‘dazed’ to refer to the confused looks that European settlers had in colonial times. Now however it is used to refer to white people – we hear it at least five times a day. It is not meant in a negative way, but merely as a way to identify us.
**One argument is that we are now expanding to include the whole animal kingdom. Therefore The Expanding Circle argument is often used by animal rights activists.
***However what may occur in this case is a collective action problem when everyone expects someone else to act and therefore no one does. But that’s getting off topic.

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“The World is Round” – Part 1

May 24th 2015

Zig Ziglar once said, “Among the things you can give and still keep are your word, a smile, and a grateful heart”. Since arriving in Uganda, everyone I’ve met has given the two former things and much more, while in return I have given the latter. In many cases people here have devoted their time and their energy to ensure that we feel safe, comfortable, and welcomed. This weekend was no exception: on Friday night a co-worker invited us out to a bar to hear some Ugandan music. Over Nile beers (delicious) and a few games of pool (we lost), we talked about music, relationships, gender equality, and Uganda’s laws against homosexuality. This morning the same co-worker picked us up at 6:30am to attend church at his local parish. The church was a large brick structure with narrow wooden benches – a simple space with just the necessities, but our voices quickly filled it with music as we sang the many hymns that Jeremy, Shelby and I struggled to follow. Afterwards our co-worker, S, took us back to his home and fed us tea and sandwiches while his young nephews ran around in the background. There was a constant flow of cousins, brothers and sisters in and out of the house, which added to the atmosphere of warmth and closeness that enveloped the neighborhood. From what I could tell it was the ultimate example of a close knit community. When we left, S gave us each an avocado picked from the tree outside and invited us back next weekend.

The whole experience reminded me of something S had said at the bar on Friday when we’d thanked him for being so welcoming. He told us that his father would always say “the world is round”. It is a sentiment akin to karma, or the phrase “what goes around comes around”: the idea that your actions now will inspire similar actions in the future. To me it also seems to embody the closeness between people that we somehow rarely feel. The world is round meaning that it is contained, and we are all part of the same cycle. Maybe it sounds cheesy, but that quote stuck with me, as will our experiences today.

Now onto a heavier topic: let’s talk about privilege. It’s something that I’ve been acutely aware of since arriving in Uganda. No one in the top economic and social percentiles of the world’s population can ever truly ignore it, but often privilege is merely one small thread in the midst of a tumult of other thoughts and concerns in peoples’ daily lives. For example, when passing by a homeless person on the street you may briefly have the thought “I’m glad that isn’t me” – but that is quickly replaced by lists of errands or other irrelevant to dos. Here though, faced with a constant stream of good wishes from people like S, I can’t help but wonder what we’ve done to deserve this? Not to be cynical, but people here don’t know us, so they have no reason to be so open and helpful.

That said, I do believe that the reason people here are so friendly has very little to do with who we are and instead a lot to do with the quality of their characters’. From our boda driver who always picks us up with a big handshake and an exuberant smile, to the owner of the guesthouse who calls a few times a week to make sure we’re ok; the Ugandans who we have come into contact with are generally just good people. But while this weekend’s events occurred because Ugandans are inclined to be friendly and welcoming, there have also been many times in the past week or so when we’ve received preferential treatment. And yes, to put it bluntly it is because of the perceived privilege that comes with having white skin.

I’d like to stop here and take a minute to say a few things: Race is a sensitive topic, so I apologize if I manhandle it in the next few paragraphs in an effort to sort out what I think. In a world of political correctness there are so many pitfalls that can quickly label you as racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. Sometimes the simple misuse of a word can overshadow your good intentions. So please know that these next few paragraphs are well intended and are written in an effort to give an honest account of my experience here so far. There are some tough questions that I’ve been asking myself lately – things that I am mulling over and have not necessarily come to terms with fully yet. What follows is just my attempt to reconcile them internally, and now externally to you.

So to continue: Jeremy, Shelby and I are a visible minority here. As Caucasians, there are associations connected to the colour of our skin. It is because of this that half the congregation came up to shake our hands after church today. It is the same reason why on our third day of work we were privy to a meeting with members of parliament to discuss the proposed GMO bill (more on that later). Now one could argue that this latter example happened because we won a prestigious scholarship that has allowed us to travel here and work for an NGO, and as an intern at said NGO a meeting with MPs is part of the parcel. But I don’t think it’s that simple. For instance, the only reason we won the scholarship was because we (and our parents) had the means to send us to a good university. I was raised in a comfortable, well off setting, and because of that, this scholarship and many other opportunities have made themselves available to me. I recognize that this privilege is something I have that many others don’t.

As someone who wants to fix things, I struggle with this privilege because I don’t think the solution is for me to feel guilty for a position in life that I was born into. I could just as easily have been born to a poor rural Ugandan farmer instead of a middle class Canadian couple (bear with me here). Similarly, there is a long history of colonialism on this continent, all enforced by people who I happen to share a skin colour with. Although some people may disagree with the following statement, I don’t think it would be productive for me to feel personally guilty about what people who share my skin colour have done. However, knowing that I had no say in what men and women with whom I share small amounts of DNA did a few hundred years ago is different than ignoring the fact that it happened. Whether it is fair or not, there is a history that I represent because of the colour of my skin. And whether I feel direct responsibility for that history or not, I must acknowledge the underlying power dynamics that it has created.

Furthermore, while I may have had no control over colonialism, I am responsible for my actions now. One of the things that I’ve learned in my four years at university is that my relative wealth and happiness comes at a cost. Unfortunately, in its current state the world is zero sum – for one to win another must lose. I don’t believe it has to be this way, but right now my lifestyle in Canada exists because there is exploitation elsewhere in the world. Child labour allows me to buy clothing very cheaply, and my old laptop will probably be shipped to a country in the Global South where it will leak toxins into someone’s drinking water. As S said, the world is round. My actions in Canada affect people halfway across the world, and without knowing it I have the power to harm someone I’ve never met. Not to sound preachy, but whether we like it or not we have some measure of responsibility in the inequality that our lifestyles perpetuate. And although that’s a hard pill to swallow, it’s much easier than being on the other end of the equation.
(To be continued)