Up in the Ivory Tower vs. Down on the Ground

I know it’s a strange thing to say, but it weirded me out that I felt so positive and fulfilled as Chan and I completed our final presentations and summed up the work that we had done over the previous 10 weeks. For those who know me back at Penn, I’m heavily involved in clubs and classwork focusing on international development. But, at the same time that I devote myself to these projects, I’m a huge critic of the often unethical ways that “development” plays out. Much of it comes from the West or “global north” to the developing world or “global south.” Because of this, it emphasizes existing differences in power and wealth, while following all to familiar historic patterns of intervening, “teaching,” or “saving” communities or countries who are believed to be unable to do so themselves.

Looking from a theoretical perspective, our own project had some ethical questions as well. For my and Chan’s project – why are two rising seniors in college cut out to tell a bunch of girls our own age about what to eat? (especially, as Chan mentioned, because our diets back at school are nothing to brag about) Why are our western ideas of nutrition and health to be taught, when they already have their own? Is that kind of teaching a form of neocolonialism? Why create peripheral interventions when the central activity of being a garment worker with a low salary is creating a number of problems itself? Why are we given the choice of what project to pursue, instead of polling what the workers wanted most? Etc., etc….

This past semester, I took a class called NGOs and Humanitarianism, where we discussed many of these topics. Throughout the entire semester, I became even more critical and I sharpened my arguments with theory. But, at the end of the semester I found myself challenged to answer my own question – if all of this is so problematic, why do we do it? Why does anyone try to help, especially if many of these projects end up causing more harm than good? I ended up using my final paper as a way to answer this, and came to the conclusion that the alternative—not trying—would be so much worse. Working towards justice and equality and engaging deeply with people who have far less privilege may be ethically problematic or re, but that generally seemed better than pure indifference.

My experiences working in a garment factory have only confirmed this.

Going into the internship, I was frustrated that the low salaries of the workers were a central problem, and that working on something like nutrition felt like ignoring the elephant in the room. But, when you’re on the ground doing this work, theory doesn’t hold up as well. The capitalist method of production can be very harmful to enormous groups of people, but the chances of me overthrowing capitalism or convincing a garment factory that employs 100,000 people to double everyone’s salaries was a bit slim. Why not focus on something small? If we could help provide bananas in the morning or a training session, and these things were met with approval from the workers, that felt like success. Of course, we can always do things better. When we received the first order of bananas, they were size of my ring finger. The workers complained, and fewer girls came the next morning to receive one. But, we talked to management and got approval for a size increase. After that, the number of girls who showed up to take fruit in the morning started growing again.


The bananas were maybe the size of the tiny ones on top  (thanks to wikipedia for the great banana diagram)

My last day in Bangalore, we decided to take an early morning trip to unit 11 and 12 where we had implemented our intervention. For the first time, I saw the girls filing through the canteen, picking up their free fruit. While the theory-loving side of my brain critiqued the minimal impact that this would have, I couldn’t help the creeping sense of happiness and satisfaction that it gave me.

One thought on “Up in the Ivory Tower vs. Down on the Ground

  1. I love the ethical questions that these projects in development are making you ask. Even being aware of these issues is a challenge most people are afraid to self-reflect on.
    I also love that you were able to do something within your control to shift what people ate at the factory. I always wonder why it seems like that shift in the U.S. at many businesses seems so difficult.
    -Lucia (CASI 2012)

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About amysindiabound

My name is Amy Summer and I'm a cultural anthropology major at the University of Pennsylvania concentrating in medical anthropology and global health and minoring in international development. I'll be a rising senior this coming year, and I'm hoping to work in the non-profit field for a few years once I graduate. I love to travel, cook (and eat, of course), and write. Over the summer I'm working on the Shahi experts internship team in India. I'm hoping to experience what it might be like to work in international development or the corporate social responsibility division, all while gorging myself on naan, dosas, butter chicken, and biryani.