The final installment in a three-part contribution to the faith, values, and service-learning series by Richard Slimbach:
5. Entitlement and sentimentality
Global political economy tends to commodify and commercialize most everything, including global philanthropy. Not surprisingly, student-volunteers, their parents, and even global educators are likely to see “study abroad” and “global service learning” as consumer goods purchased at market rates. Education abroad organizations are then expected to deliver the goods.
The dominant “what’s in it for me?” orientation among American collegians is traceable to the unprecedented prosperity that followed WWII. The ‘Great Prosperity’ that extended from 1947-1977 (and continues for some today) meant that parents and grandparents could actually provide their children “the dream”: a higher standard of living, more educational opportunities, and greater economic security. Along with real benefits, this era of prosperity also produced the highest rates of narcissism in U.S. history.
Social psychologist Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, documents the steep decline among millennials (born after 1981) to practice resource conservation, donate to charities, or be civically involved. There is one area, however, where their engagement actually rose: community service. The reason, claims Twenge, has less to do with genuine altruism and more to do with high school curricular requirements and the itch to travel.
Of course, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Among millennials there are scores of entrepreneurs, volunteers, activists, and community-builders who are dedicated to making a lasting impact in the world. Some are doing amazing things in remote villages and nasty slums throughout the world—not to feel good but to do good. Yet, much do-gooding by privileged persons is laced with entitlement and sentimentality. Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole strikes a nerve of truth in his post, “Seven Thoughts on the Banality of Sentimentality”
1. From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.
2. The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.
3. The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.
4. This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.
5. The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.
6. Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.
7. I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.
Cole doesn’t admonish Americans for their disregard of disadvantaged others but rather for their uninformed desire to end injustices. Most of the problems that pull on student heartstrings—like global warming, child orphans, and sex trafficking—are entangled within social and cultural systems that are only minimally responsive to inputs of more money and more goodwill. By elevating good-intentioned humanitarian practices like service learning to the status of “solutions,” we delude ourselves into thinking that the world’s suffering lies within our grasp when the facts indicate otherwise. Will switching our light bulbs have any significant impact on climate change? No. Will playing with a child for a half-day change the fact that there are more than 500,000 orphans in Cambodia? No. Are both actions still better than nothing? Good question.
6. Assessment constraints
A final factor in the relative neglect of community impact assessment has to do with difficulties in measurement. In short, how does one go about calculating the actual progress (or regress) in community wellbeing resulting from the interventions of foreign volunteers in poor communities? “Community wellbeing” is a complex, multi-factored phenomenon. What variables should be studied? Using what methods for data collection? Every community context is different in terms of size, age, physical characteristics, and the socio-political environment in which it operates. The development goals of a sprawling informal settlement in Sao Paulo or Jakarta will be different from a small village in India or highland Guatemala. The sheer complexity of what must be assessed makes reliable evidence of achievement difficult to obtain.
Valid assessment also assumes that all those affected by particular interventions have a “stake” in defining—and assessing—the desired impacts. Cultural outsiders, for all their good intentions, cannot independently determine the content or direction of change. Local groups must assume primary responsibility for prioritizing development goals and choosing appropriate indicators of progress.
Moreover, accurate assessment requires particular benchmarks (e.g. pre-intervention and post-intervention) to compare performance with. Such benchmarks or reference points are notoriously difficult to establish given the variety of relevant factors, and the complex ways all factors affect each other. For example, is a decline in rates of alcohol abuse among male adolescents in the Tondo district in Manila a result of global forces (e.g. an increase in local production and trade, and thus employment), national interventions (e.g. an alcohol tax by the national government or school-based educational programs), or community-based responses (local NGOs that combine national staff and foreign volunteers)?
All of this might leave us feeling somewhat hopeless. Is it even possible to dig ourselves out of the hole of our helping? How might we begin to correct the imbalance between student benefit and community benefit in global service learning? Other posts (or responses to this one) may wish to take up this most consequential question. I will only suggest that the necessary re-balancing will not be accomplished by simply developing suitable instruments for assessing community impacts (as important as that is). We will also need to carefully consider fundamental conceptual and structural issues: our conception of community health, particular program design features that bias toward positive community effects, the type of volunteers we recruit to our programs, and the type of community organizations we select as ‘partners.’ And that’s just for starters.
….View Slimbach’s earlier reflections on The Hole in Our Helping at Part 1 and Part 2. We thank Professor Slimbach for raising these important issues, several of which will be taken up through posts scheduled in the weeks and months to come. Do you have any thoughts, comments, or burning questions?
Richard Slimbach is Professor of Global Studies, Sociology, and TESOL at Azusa Pacific University. Since 1991, his professional energies have been dedicated to creating, teaching in, and managing academic programs aimed at preparing students to learn in socio-cultural settings radically different from their own. Slimbach supervises the Global Learning Term — a self-directed, full-immersion study and service abroad program that has enabled global studies students to conduct small-scale community research and academic service-learning projects in over 50 non-western countries. He recently completed Becoming World Wise: A Guide to Global Learning.
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