Written by Bianca Rêgo, Wake-Up 2022-23
Last month I went to a seminar in Vienna with Grenzelos organization to study further about how to take the maximum advantage of a volunteering program abroad without a mindset of colonization. The topic is very important hence we see plenty of people, mainly from the global North going to the global South, or, people from “first world countries” going to “third world countries” to volunteer and they keep the same way of thinking of old colonizers… as in, they go to these countries to “help the poor people” or “grow as person”. And although we know those are not harm intended desires, they are still very problematic. In this article we will discuss why this is a colonized mindset, we will wonder together if it’s possible to have a decolonized volunteering experience abroad and if so, how to accomplish that.
What is a colonizing mindset and why is it problematic?
Colonization occurs when one nation or one culture subjugates another with their own values, imposing their customs and exploiting the other nation or cultural group. This happened frequently in the past and there are still wounds from those behaviors. I’m brazillian and I lived in Portugal, from my experience I saw first hand how the two people still hold grudge to each other in many ways. Growing up in Brazil, there was this constant feeling of inferiority compared to the global North. We are tend to believe that everything that comes from United States or Europe is superior from our own. And, as an adult, we deconstruct this thought and start to value our own culture. But there is ALWAYS a piece of you that still believes in the North superiority over the South. I wonder if the other way around is also true, if people from the North was led to believe in the same values and therefore still can’t fully let go of these believes.
From this point, I guess it’s clear where I want to get to: if those beliefs are still part of us, even if uncounsciously and not intentional, is volunteering the perfect scenario for these power structure to appear? I believe that if you go to a developing country with no research of the culture, no self awareness of your own abilities to help where not only is needed but also where you are actually contributing with proper knowledge, no desire to exchange cultures and also the thought of White saviourism, you are doing more of a disservice to the community than actually improving it. And writing it in this way, we see how problematic the subject is, mainly because it comes from very early age doutrination and can often come from a good intention point.
Is it possible to have a decolonized IVS?
At the seminar, we tried to imagine how a decolonized IVS (International Volunteering Service) would look like. And we had in the room people from Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. Of course, our visions were not the same and getting definitions of how a perfect scenario could unfold was difficult.
Seminars and study sessions like this one proposed by Grenzelos are a great way to start thinking of how to go abroad with not only good will but also an open mind/heart to exchange experiences. We all agree that learning about the country you are going to volunteer and hearing what the people there needs and wants you to colaborate with is the base for a good relationship to work out. But when it comes to the possibility of a power structure to dissolve, we had different arguments in the room. On one side there’s the belief that we are doomed to the thought of North superiority and on the other hand we have the hope and belief of a new deconstructed mindset about old concepts such as this one.
Particularly, I’m not so optimistic in the thought of total deconstruction of such incrustated ideas that was built in subtle yet very aggresive ways in our formation years. But I don’t believe that we are doomed in not being able to go volunteering abroad because of it. For me, recognizing that this structure exists is a step closer to identify when it’s happening and repress it veemently. If you know that happens, it’s easier to make it stop too. So, if someone from the North goes to the South for volunteering and automatically they see a scene when they can’t help to feel “sorry”, they can reflect on where does this feeling is coming from. If it’s coming from an empathetic vein or a superiority one and take appropiate action on this feeling, questioning, if / how / why the underpriviledged person needs your help. It’s not always easy but with some effort you can stop perpetuating the same damage that has been done for centuries.
How can I do an IVS in the best way possible?
If we agree that it’s possible to do volunteering abroad without being traped in the same mindset that caused so many damage in a different number of cultures around the world, what are the steps to do an ethical and effective volunteering program?
– Research the country you are going into: learn what do the community needs and be conscious with your own abilities to improve the setting.
– Research the sending and hosting organization: who are the leaders? Are they trustworthy? What is the work they have been doing? Is diversity being applied?
– Do a deep dive on yourself: question your intentions, be aware of your priviledges and try not to perpetuate harmful ideas from it.
– Exchange and have fun! Keep in mind that this is an opportunity to teach as much as learn. The exchange of cultures can be something beautiful if it’s done in a balanced way 🙂
Here’s some photos from the seminar: