Power Relations

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A selection of posters on the wall of the Comhlamh office.

A selection of posters on the wall of the Comhlamh office.

While overseas, it is likely that you will encounter personal challenges and potential conflicts based on your position as an outsider from the ‘technically advanced’ North. Some volunteers can be given positions of power and responsibility simply because they come from Western countries.

Dr. John Makumbe of Transparency International Zimbabwe points out that NGOs based in developed countries are often reluctant to provide financial assistance for operating or running costs for their Southern counterparts. This is an attempt to avoid the creation of personal employment for those who operate programmes. However, it is often very difficult for NGOs to find alternative sources of funding to cover these costs, which include salaries.

This can have two consequences: firstly, local NGOs may doctor and falsify their accounts; and secondly, they may be forced to accept volunteers to carry out work which they cannot afford to pay a local, qualified worker for. Yet Makumbe notes, these foreign ‘experts’ are often likely to make wrong assumptions about the local situation, as they are not fully conversant with the local culture. As a result, volunteers may be given positions of responsibility because their labour is free, they can sometimes bring in funds, and they can be seen as being more ‘honest’ than locals.

Such opinions are often rooted in attitudes emerging from long experiences of colonisation, both on the Northern and Southern sides. One such attitude, identified by Eilish Dillon of the Development Studies Centre at Kimmage, Dublin, is the way that we in the Global North ‘other’ those in the Global South.

This can be done by:

  • highlighting the differences between us and the people of developing countries rather than what we have in common;
  • contrasting our ‘superior’ knowledge and abilities to their supposed ‘lack’ of them.
  • This notion leads us to believe that ‘we’ can ‘help’, ‘contribute’, ‘empower’, ‘change’, whereas ‘the other’ is ‘poor’, ‘needy’, ‘lacking in skills’.

It is important to be aware that if you have this kind of powerful position, you will have to make personal judgements about the appropriate way to use your power and influence. In doing this, it is necessary to consider:

  • all the issues of fairness and dignity that you would consider in an organisation at home; and
  • how an outsider in a position of power influences the confidence and perspectives of local workers.

Try to avoid underestimating the contribution that the knowledge, skills and experiences of the ‘other’, that is the citizens of developing countries, can make to our knowledge, skills and experiences. It is important to challenge these assumptions, and the status quo in our volunteering work, and instead encourage solidarity between the peoples of the developing and developed world in order to achieve justice, equality and human rights – in a word, development – for all.

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