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Ethics in engagement

Due to programs like DukeEngage, many more Duke students have summer experiences in places where the world’s “bottom billion” live, like Southeastern Asia, Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa. But once there, many of us might have conflicting feelings of guilt or self-doubt.

Last summer, I got a DukeEngage grant to intern at Grameen Bank, a Bangladesh microfinance bank that was founded by Muhammad Yunus. Talking to people in various villages, I found myself feeling somehow accountable when coming into close contact with extreme poverty, yet ultimately not able to do much about it.

For the typical driven and socially-minded Duke student going into an unfamiliar country for one of these summer experiences, many factors contribute to this sense of defeat.

Upon reaching the site, students hear a series of accounts that are fairly typical to a native but unbelievably atrocious to new visitors. Early last summer, I met a family that had recently been robbed of their life savings. The family consisted of a senile father-in-law, a father who had killed off all the livestock in a fit of hysteria, a mother who was struggling to afford traditional medicine and food for the family and a daughter and son who had both dropped out of school to work as manual laborers. The amount stolen was equivalent to $100, an amount that could buy a nice pair of shoes in the U.S. As shallow as that comparison sounds, at the time the insight was deeply shocking.

After the initial shock, students will feel both galvanized and ashamed about not caring as much before. They will also realize the limitations of creating change. I desperately wanted to work in a position more likely to help these people in the future. In the meantime, I was just there to observe and extract information—data or photos or film footage—which made the relationships formed seem exploitative, characterized by premeditated casual conversation with the side goal of data collection.

And then, students naturally compare the lives observed with their own. Last summer, while listening to women’s stories in the villages, my mind flickered to over-air-conditioned Los Angeles suburbia, where I would return by the end of the month. Within that juxtaposition of thoughts, stark comparisons would arise. Even though my life wasn’t necessarily better, and the villagers weren’t envious of me, I felt uncomfortable when I noticed that amenities I had previously taken for granted were blatantly missing from the village. There were also opposite instances in which some villagers had qualities of life that were particularly strong, like lifelong bonds with family and friends or an unconditional sense of deeply held satisfaction with life.

Being in an unfamiliar culture involves further barriers for students bent on creating meaningful change. In my own internship, I grappled with bureaucracy that required me to write a letter and wait at least a week to go even one floor down to talk to a different department. I spent a great deal of time over-ambitiously trying to secure more serious projects to work on.

Office culture in Bangladesh was somehow both bureaucratic and relaxed—so relaxed that as an intern, I didn’t have enough to do. I had imagined that a Duke student would be in great demand as an intern there. I had confidently presumed that I would always be consulted or asked to do something useful—or at the very least that I would be in demand for my English skills or quick typing abilities?

But no, even the Grameen office staff nonchalantly told me that I could show up at 10 a.m., or 11. If I wanted to just get lunch and come in at two or three in the afternoon, that was fine, too. There were plenty of times I would show up, and my internship coordinator was nowhere to be found. I’d be a 20-year-old unclaimed and unwanted orphan-intern, sadly wandering the halls calling out “Mr. Humayun? Mr. Humayun?” (I later discovered that Mr. Humayun was having a bout of typhoid, and that was why I ultimately never connected with him.)

Although everyone’s experiences will vary greatly, going abroad to work in development or do field research about poverty alleviation will inevitably involve a great deal of risk, frustration and mixed feelings. But I think that overall, these experiences are valuable for anyone interested in these issues.

Students shouldn’t feel accountable for the scenes of poverty they encounter because it isn’t within our capacity to fix the situation overnight. Instead, we should translate our sympathy and shock into a sustainable, long-term commitment to creating change. We should strike a balance between remaining compassionate without letting our emotions detract from our academic work or outside perspective.

Lastly, we shouldn’t be too readily discouraged by the seeming hopelessness of these problems or the frustration of working in different cultures. And even if they do, it’s better not to let them turn into normative comparisons of which cultures are better or worse.

Jessica Kim is a Trinity junior studying abroad in Beijing. Her column runs every other Monday.

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