What Does It Mean to Help?

February 16th, 2017


Illustration by Sarah Dowler / The Phoenix News

Illustration by Sarah Dowler / The Phoenix News

On Friday, January 20, the event “What does it mean to ‘help’? : A discussion about humanitarianism and international development”, took place at the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art in Kelowna. Amid a room in the gallery filled with beautiful paintings, students, professors, and members of the local community gathered to discussing volunteering, “giving back”, and empowerment. The discussion was part of the AlterKnowledge discussion series, run by UBCO cultural studies professor David Jefferess. AlterKnowledge describe their aim as, “to foster community-based knowledge-making, bringing people together to discuss, share, and (un)learn, as a practice of decolonization.” And this ethos was certainly evident from the thought-provoking, alternative, and mindful nature of the talk.

There were three key speakers who led the discussion: Kezia Elaschuk, Safeera Jaffer-Hirji, and Hailey Myers. Hailey shared her reflections on her experience volunteering abroad, tackling some of the problematic aspects of terms like “giving something back” and “helping”. When volunteering, she said, “I kept the identity of the helper, and I let these people keep the identity of the helpless”—yet this can be problematic, because it assumes a power imbalance between volunteers and the communities they work with. She also addressed the idea that many of us volunteer in order to get somewhere in life – we put it on our resumes, and tell employers and schools about it. Yet when we do this, it becomes arguably more beneficial to us than to those we are supposedly helping. “When the dialogue became about me, I was comforted”, confessed Hailey. She also admitted to having felt “guilty” for the way that volunteering made her feel—when she received praise from others, and when she thought about the genuine impact she was having.

Safeera spoke about her work with women’s empowerment and experiences volunteering abroad. She has been troubled by the way that the word “empowerment” is appropriated by neo-liberalism, stating that “it rests on a western understanding of gender—which rests on a binary”. Essentially, one of the major issues she highlighted was the fact that Western ideas of “volunteering”, whilst often well-intentioned, invoke western discourses and stereotypes which can be harmful and even unintentionally negatively impact development. She asked, “Why are we trying to empower these women? How is that empowerment even possible when they are still in disempowering systems?” Too often western-run organizations are quick to assume certain stereotypes, such as that of third-world women, “as altruistic, caring worthwhile projects”, whilst men are assumed to be “violent” or “aggressive”.

After the three key speakers initiated the debate, discussion was opened up to everyone. People shared their personal experiences with volunteering, at both an international and local level, and the concerns they had. One of the key ideas that came up was whether “help” is the right word – and the connotations it can have. One speaker argued “there are other ways of engaging with the problem of social inequality which don’t fit under the term ‘help’”. Others questioned whether volunteering in the local community might be less problematic and more genuinely “helpful” than international volunteering (often referred to as “voluntourism”). Fundamentally, the discussion led to some very open dialogue, and critical insights on larger issues such as colonizing narratives, and the power imbalances between those who volunteer and those who are deemed as needing help. As one of the key speakers stated, “We create these kind of spaces to have conversations that don’t often happen.” And that was exactly how it felt—open discussion of a progressive nature, aiming to challenge dominant narratives about humanitarianism.

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