Editor’s Note: This post is the first in a series by Yanik Rozon, a Coastal Routes’ undergraduate researcher who is doing an international development internship with Live and Learn International. She will write several of these during her time abroad.
I grew up believing that the world needed saving. I think this was a result of my loving parents’ belief that I would someday ‘save the world’, combined with the influence of Sunday morning masses that were filled with praise of missionary groups, groups who had gone to distant, foreign lands and volunteered their time to help “save” the local people. Or perhaps, it was a result of the frequently-aired World Vision commercials which showed images of young African children in dire need of food and medical attention while Sarah McLachlan’s song ‘Angel’ played in the background. There were probably a hundred more ways that I, from a young age, learned not about real development issues but instead learned a caricature of them: of people in developing countries that are helpless, communities full of poor mothers and starving children eking by in barren landscapes.
The limited exposure and knowledge I had of actual development issues instilled in me this belief that they could be resolved through measures as simple as donations or volunteering. I saw the people who embark on such volunteering trips as courageous and selfless heroes, heroes who speak out not regarding the challenges people face but how rewarding the experience had been for them. People praised them for having ‘made a difference’ in the lives of others, even if their trip was a mere seven days long. Desiring this kind of experience for myself, I launched into a program of international development studies, hoping that I would someday be able to implement lasting change through easy, quick measures. Of course, my university classes quickly taught me that developing countries were not in need of saving, as they had so often been depicted in the media, and that development issues were complex and as so warranted more elaborate, long-term solutions. Nonetheless, a part of me held on to the idea that working in the international development field would allow me to do meaningful, hands-on work which would allow me to visibly see the changes achieved through my efforts, and as a result, would yield that strong sense of personal achievement I so strongly desired.
That is why I chose to come to Fiji. As part of my semester abroad, I am interning with Live and Learn International, a network of local organisations working on poverty and sustainability in 11 countries across the South Pacific, South East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Nearly one third of the population in Fiji lives below the poverty line, which means countries like mine (Canada) classifies Fiji as a “developing” country. This is my first experience “in the field” and I am going into it with excitement. Live and Learn assigned me to work on UN-Habitats’ Urban Climate Resilience Program, which works with informal settlement communities around Fiji to increase their resilience to the impacts of climate change. The project is currently in phase one of three, which consists of assessing the needs of each individual community, particularly how they are impacted by climate change hazards. My role is to help conduct the community awareness sessions, which will involve travelling to each community and gathering information on their most pressing needs, as well as informing them on how the project may be useful in attaining these objectives. I have also been assigned to write individual case studies for each community, which will be part of the official community assessment reports sent and used by UN-Habitat during phase two to determine the best response to achieving resilience.
On paper, all of this sounds amazing. But in reality, this is a lot of report writing. Like, a lot. While this is exactly the hands-on work experience I was hoping to get, and don’t get me wrong, I am so grateful for the opportunity, I underestimated the amount of tedious tasks that go into the completion of a development project. Because here’s what no one is going to tell you about development work: the tasks you do are often so scoped-in, so narrow in focus, that you’re unable to see the end-goal. And in my case, I will be gone back to Canada long before the end of the project, and will likely never get to see the ‘fruits of my labour’. This doesn’t mean that I am enjoying the experience any less- in fact, I’ve never been more excited about a future career in international development. However, it has made me realize the issue which comes with growing up idolizing volunteers, missionaries, the ones who claimed that they were ‘saving people’. It leads to false perceptions not only of the Global South, but of development work as a whole. Over-simplifying these issues poses the danger of achieving unsustainable long-term solutions, and creates a pathway for development workers to have wrongful expectations of their career choice. Instead, these sources should shed light on the structural reasons behind development issues and what true development work consists of.
By changing how we speak and portray development issues to representations which are more realistic, someday a young girl may be sitting in church on a Sunday morning, or watching TV when a World Vision commercial comes on, and rather than thinking that someday she might ‘save the world’, she will instead learn a more realistic understanding of development issues. Because she will know that although the world does not need saving, the work she will be doing will be important. That alone would be a wonderful change.