This is part of a series of blog posts written by the 2014 Peace Scholars as they experience their summer program in Norway. This post was written by Eleni Beyene from Augsburg College.
“By either omission or commission, you are guilty”, was what Leymah Gbowee told the men of Liberia when they were not standing with the women who were trying to restore peace in their country. Mrs. Gbowee and many other Laureates have addressed the issue of neutrality. However, one common mistake I have encountered during my stay in the United States is the narcissistic approach of desiring to help the oppressed or those in need, and hurting them in the long run.
I was born and raised in Ethiopia. When I came to the United States for college, I always enjoyed looking at people’s faces when I told them I was from Ethiopia. The most common questions I get are: “Where is Ethiopia?” and “How do you speak English?” I was often surprised by their idea of wanting to “save Africa” through volunteering. This was very surprising for me because I have seen areas in the United States that need prosperity and growth. I didn’t understand this need to cross the Atlantic Ocean and volunteer when there is so much to do nearby. A culture has developed where we see the western countries as saviors to the global south and where westerners see themselves as saviors of the world. This pattern has developed both within individuals and governments.
We have been discussing United States foreign policy and intervention – both past and present – in our International Politics class here in Oslo. But it is also important to discuss the issue on the individual level. There are many programs that advocate and promote “Save Africa” opportunities for Westerners. As an African who has seen, lived, and learned the beauty, growth and uniqueness of my country, I have a little problem with people telling me that they want to save my people. I’m not denying that we have economic problems and other challenges, but I don’t understand why there is more focus on the “other” when westerners clearly face their own challenges at home. In addition to that, these volunteer opportunities can create dependency on the rich, abuse of the developing country’s resources, and much more damage.
With the opportunity I have to voice my opinion as a peace scholar, I feel a responsibility to address the problems inherent with this type of “volunteerism” in developing nations. Staying neutral is like siding with the oppressor, but we all need to understand whether what we are standing for is ethical and isn’t doing damage to the oppressed.