The Role of Students in Development

I’ve been busy. That is the easiest way to explain why it took me until the end of my internship to describe what I’m actually doing here. But the more honest answer is that I am reluctant.

Even a brief mention of my “internship abroad” leads to a gush of compliments.  Sentiments of sacrifice, helping others, being involved, altruism, learning opportunities… few people ask me if I’m sure I’m the best person for this position, if I understand the ethical implications of working abroad on CIDA taxpayer money on a program called Students for Development. Jeez, that’s a lot of responsibility… I’m a piece of Canada’s international aid. Because I can’t reconcile the compliments with how this whole thing feels, I just try to avoid the whole situation.

The work was amazing. It was everything I could have asked for as far as a public health internship goes but the nagging feelings didn’t go away. I went back to the first letter we penned,  you know, the one we felt so confident in the way it outlined any potential ethical concerns, the one that was supposed to ease our minds. Reading the letter again I was surprised to realize that although all of our concerns had been addressed—we should be put on an existing long-term project (check), that we should work with other Ghanaian student interns (check), and that our greatest contribution would be an open mind (check)— I was still troubled.

I’ve been asking myself:

Is this a voluntourism project?
Why does a Canadian undergraduate student have to fly to Ghana to do this?

I have come to two (transient, I’m sure) conclusions: (1) A distinction between voluntourism and a larger idea of unsustainable development, which led to the realization (2) that we had addressed the letter to the wrong organization.

I don’t think my internship was a voluntourism project. In short it just felt too far removed from the “pay a third-party organization, paint a school for two weeks, travel for two weeks, go home” style of volunteering. This doesn’t mean my internship was a good example of sustainable development, that is, development that addresses underlying causes and puts the needs of the host country first.

To be honest, it is very likely that the main reason I went is the main reason I feel conflicted: $6500 from CIDA. You simply cannot deny that the primary beneficiary of this internship is me, not PPAG, not Ghana, and not “the local people”. For starters, I don’t speak the language, which means I can’t communicate with some of the most vulnerable people.  Additionally, I received many hours of excellent training only to leave the country after three months. Let me be clear: this was an amazing learning experience for me; I worked hard to put in my best work for PPAG and people benefitted from our work. However, this is funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, not the Canadian Student Development Agency—the primary beneficiary should not be Canadian students.

Which leads to the second realization: we wrote a letter to the host organization with our concerns, but that doesn’t address the inherent flaw of an international aid program that mainly benefits Canadian students. Our concerns should have been directed towards CIDA (who funds the program), the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (who runs the program), and SFU (who fills the program with students).

There are underlying issues in the work I was doing in Ghana. For example, the spirit of volunteerism is waning because the economic situation in Ghana means that many people are not interested in pursuits that don’t make money. Civil engagement, meaning people working together to improve their communities and hold the government accountable, can also be higher. But Arsalan, with his 6500 development dollars, does nothing to alleviate any of these concerns; in fact he maybe even exacerbates them.

No one wants to volunteer? Import them from Canada!
Government not creating infrastructure? Don’t worry, a legion of eager international students are waiting to do just that.

And now, a comprehensive answer to the question “so what did you do in Ghana?”:

I was an intern at the Cape Coast clinic of the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana. The organization works in the field of sexual and reproductive health. There is a clinic (which offers family planning, counselling, comprehensive abortion care, and many other services), and an outreach department (in which the interns (operate)). The topics we usually cover are STI’s, HIV, abortion, teenage pregnancy, and family planning. The team of interns for this summer was Margaret, Daniella, Abigale, Kwame, Roda, Sherzel, and I; four “obruni’s” (from abroad), and three Ghanaians. We were supervised by the one and only Mr. Michael Tagoe.

Specific activities:

  • Weekly visits to prisons (including a maximum security one) to have group discussions with the inmates and presentations for the officers.
  • School presentations in junior and senior high schools. This is particularly neat because we designed and administered a survey at the end to understand the sexual practices taking place at the school.
  • Mobile clinics with counselling, free contraceptives, HIV tests, and presentations (interns mostly do registration, HIV tests, and presentations while people are waiting)
  • We organized an inter-school debate competition between four schools. Topics were the legalisation of abortion, whether sex education leads to promiscuity, and whether a woman is to blame for rape. The final debate was broadcast over local radio.
  • HIV testing at schools and clinics. I learned how to do a rapid-response HIV test.
  • Weekly “Life Planning Skills” workshops for local youth, facilitated by interns on different topics
  • Various other meetings, training sessions, and projects as they came up.

3 thoughts on “The Role of Students in Development

  1. Pingback: Penned In: The Role of Students in Development « Caroline's Ghana Challenge

  2. As soon as I come home, I will get in touch so we can discuss this entry at length over a coffee, panini and chocolate cake – deal?

    • Thank YOU for starting this blog. Me and my frenids have already told so many people about it. It’s nice to have intelligent dialogue and read all the different points of view. We need to discuss things that matter as well.

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