Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa


During my EWB Pre-Departure training in May, we had a session about oppression and empowerment.  We learned some interesting statistics and useful definitions that I think are valuable to consider when thinking about international development.

First, our teacher defined “empowerment” as the idea that you have control over your own life.  People throw the term around a lot* but I like her definition.

Second, she broke down oppression into three types:

  • Stereotype = idea
  • Prejudice = feeling
  • Discrimination = action

This is an important point.  While anyone can hold stereotypes or prejudice, someone needs to hold some sort of power to discriminate.  For example, 21 years ago in South Africa, blacks did not have the same legal rights as whites.  Although a black person may hate (hold prejudice against) all white people (because of a stereotype), there was little he or she could do about.  Consequently, that black person couldn’t actively discriminate in very many situations.  Some white people, on the other hand, were able to discriminate against blacks in almost every aspect of life: where they could live, where they could work, legal standing, what door to use, etc.  Even though only a select few white people created the laws of apartheid, many more helped carry them out by constantly discriminating against black people.

We were also given some U.S. statistics to think about.  I’m not sure the source or what year these are from, so I really shouldn’t be publishing them.  UBC-EWB Chapter back home, don’t use these in your essays!

  • 88% of development workers are white
  • White people are twice as likely to volunteer overseas as black
  • 25% of overseas volunteers think they’re taking the job of a local
    • Half of which think a local could do it better than them
  • 8% think they’re part of the problem

Um… well shit.

As much as I hate that stupid, over-used term “privilege,” us rich westerners are pretty damn privileged to be able to drop into another country for a few months, make some suggestions, and go home again.

Interestingly, this year’s cohort of Junior Fellows was a racial mix – which I think partly reflects how multicultural Canadian universities are.

*This is an example of the wrong way to use a derivative of the word “empowerment.”  About six months ago, I wrote on my Facebook wall, “Can anyone fix my phone?” and someone I barely know commented, “Or you can learn to do it yourself.  That can be really empowering.”  Which suggests that by not fixing my own phone, I was disempowering myself.  Look, we each have our strengths and weaknesses.  Technology is not my strength.  Asking for help does not make me a less capable person.  The only thing that person accomplished by his comment was one less Facebook friend.  Rant over.


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