At the Buffet Institute on Thursday night, students of all disciplines came together to discuss issues of cultural competency in international aid and research. The roundtable discussion— organized by Engineering World Health, Engineers Without Borders, and Global Brigades—provided the opportunity for both undergraduate students and professors to share their experiences and opinions on the matter. Professors Noelle Sullivan, Sara Hernandez, and Stephen Hill all have considerable experience living and conducting research abroad. Noelle Sullivan is a cultural and medical anthropologist in the Global Health Studies Program who has completed years of research on international volunteering. Prior to coming to Northwestern to teach economics, Sara Hernandez conducted field research on economic development in a number of countries throughout South Asia and Africa, with a particular focus on gender and labor economics. Stephen Hill, an anthropology lecturer and senior associate director at the Office of Fellowships, spent half a decade in Tanzania both as a researcher and a Peace Corps volunteer.
A large portion of this discussion focused on the impossible nature of cultural competency. Most everyone who had worked abroad — from undergraduates who have traveled abroad for a week to professors who have worked in the same country over the past 13 years—expressed frustration in trying to overcome cultural barriers. In large part, overcoming these cultural barriers simply takes time. Stephen Hill argues that, “The more time you have in a country, the more effective you will be. There’s always a curve of productivity. It probably plateaus out at some point, but that point I would say is probably two, three, maybe four years.” Unfortunately, this answer may frustrate most undergraduates who are unable or unwilling to commit more than a couple of weeks or months to these volunteer and research trips.
The conversation also explored topics inextricably linked to cultural competency, including the White Industrial Savior Complex and power dynamics. Several compelling points were brought up that complicated the traditional narratives around these problems. For example, it should be noted that its not only foreigners that hold power with their access to capital and resources, but local individuals with their understandings of and connections to the political, social and economic environment as well. Noelle Sullivan explained that the matter is much more complicated than its black and white depiction in the media. Volunteers are not saving the world, nor are they narcissistic neocolonialists, as the truth is much more in between.
In turn, representatives from the three host clubs shared the measures they have taken to combat the matters discussed, such as Engineering Without Borders’ yearly assessments of their ongoing project. Those conducting volunteer and research work abroad should do their homework—find out if you can make any connections ahead of time, talk to those who have visited the region before, and read all that you can about the region’s culture and history.
Stephen Hill illustrated the ambiguous nature of cultural competency and international aid with his closing remark, “I argue simultaneously that you should, number one, dedicate at least five years of your life before you have any clue about what you are doing, and number two, that even five minutes is worth it. Definitely, definitely, do the five minutes.”
This roundtable was the first in what the organizers see becoming a monthly or quarterly series on global development issues. Be sure to keep an eye out for more discussions to come!