Originally posted on Pursue: Action for a Just World.
“Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love… Be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.”
–“How to Write about Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina
I have always been deeply troubled by the uneven power dynamics that seem inherent in international development. While disturbing, the destructive interventions into the affairs of the Global South through colonialism, transnational corporations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank are to be expected, given powerful economic forces that encourage the “haves” to take advantage of the “have nots.” I have personally become more wary of the people who see themselves as caring about the developing world while unwittingly taking on the role that Binyavanga Wainaina describes above in his biting criticism of white people who write about Africa. As I developed my identity as an activist, I felt overwhelmed by the scope of global poverty and the lack of models for positive engagement on an individual level. I felt that I had two options: to participate in exoticization of the developing world or disengage completely. Seeking to avoid participating in “the commodification of Otherness,” as bell hooks describes in her essay “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” I steadfastly clung to the latter, choosing to focus all of my activism on the local level.
My participation on American Jewish World Service’s (AJWS) Rabbinical Students’ Delegation to visit AJWS grantee Tostan in Thies, Senegal radically altered my understanding of my personal sphere of obligation. I had the opportunity to observe a model of support that was neither exploitative nor laden with misidentification. In its relationship with Tostan, AJWS limits its role to that of funder and advocate, helping to provide a long term source of resources and a voice abroad. Significantly, AJWS does not seek to involve itself in Tostan’s strategic decisions or attempt to impose an outside perspective on its approach to community development. Empowering communities in Senegal is left to the Senegalese nonprofit.
This experience has shifted my entire perspective on engaging with international social justice issues. I realized that embedded within the uncomfortable power dynamics that have both formed and resulted from the destructive impact of intervention in the Global South lies a potent route to positive change. Instead of seeking to consume culture as a strategy to disassociate from injustice imposed on the Global South, those in a position of power have the opportunity to subvert the power dynamic through supporting community empowerment on a local level. AJWS’s strategy for supporting grassroots nonprofits in the developing world without dictating a solution offers a positive model for each of us in our individual activism. We must assess the tools at our disposal and strategically seek to empower without imposing.
Jimmy Taber is a recent MA-MBA graduate from Brandeis University’s Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. He is currently a summer intern at JESNA’s Learnings and Consultation Center and will spend the upcoming year in Jerusalem serving in the Joint Distribution Committee’s Jewish Service Corps on issues related to African refugees and migrant workers.