by Joseph Markus
One of the oldest critiques levelled against the Western academy is that of imperialism. Imperialism could be identified in the way scholars once wrote about the exotic world of the Orient, recorded the strange rituals and practices of colonised peoples, and purported to impose on this Other their own set of—apparently objectively superior—values and beliefs. The same form of benevolent parentalism can be sometimes perceived in the writing and work of human rights and development NGOs and academics.
Sam (my fellow blogger) identifies something significant when he suggests that rather than looking down from our ivory towers on those whom we feel driven to assist, we actively should seek to engage with them in order to understand the social evils that affect them.
I fear, however, that the problems associated with the ivory tower thinking, may still be pertinent to that analysis.
I am conscious that in descending to the streets in order to better see those who are the subject of your academic or policy goals, there is the risk, however small, that one continues to treat the subjects of your work as objects, as inanimate and impotent. They might be seen as something ‘other’, to be considered, analysed, and improved from the outside-in.
If it is the lived experience of poverty, degradation and marginality that shapes the change we wish to see, it is the people who experience those things who are best placed to determine the way forward. If not we risk the work of politics becoming irretrievably elitist and exclusive.
In that light, perhaps the most democratically acceptable way to pursue change is from the grassroots-up. This could go some way to identifying Gandhi’s meaning in that often-quoted phrase. In operating for an NGO, as an academic, as a ‘change-maker’, one should be aware of one’s responsibility to act as the catalyst for community-led change rather than necessarily being the author of such change.
The charge may not be as relevant to those living and organising in the United Kingdom and is perhaps more applicable overseas. Cohorts of the young and the idealistic fly out from the UK to be stationed around the world in an effort to advance a particular worldview. Charity and international development work is more popular than ever before. All this is surely a good thing but it does present just a few lingering doubts.
The insight towards which I’m ponderously moving is this: feel free to speak for, or on behalf of, others, just so long as you’re careful not to put words in their mouths.