restricted access Generation NGO ed. by Alisha Nicole Apale and Valerie Stam (review)
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Reviewed by
Alisha Nicole Apale and Valerie Stam, eds., Generation NGO (Toronto: Between the Lines 2011)

Poverty in the developing world demands a response. But what can people do to “make a difference” to their world and help to tackle poverty? In the past the impulse to act was framed by a politics of left and right, of competing visions for progress, economic and social. Through parties, campaigns, and macro political theories of the time, individuals’ relationship to global problems was a distinctly political one.

Generation ngois a clear indication of the changed landscape of how people relate to development, and also of development itself. Development here is refracted through the lens of individual morality in an ethical climate that eschews transformative economic growth and sometimes politics itself. As such, Generation ngois an important book that has already struck a chord with young volunteers and others interested in being a part of tackling the world’s problems.

The book is an edited collection of highly personal accounts of young Canadian volunteers with development ngos. The accounts are personal narratives that give clear insights into the motivations, feelings and personal journeys of the young people. The personal, autobiographical character of the essays is striking. The editors (two young volunteers themselves) seek to “interrogate [End Page 323] their socialisation by examining their position in the world relative to that of others” and note that this “includes reflecting on class, race, gender, language, religion, power, privilege, stereotypes, and many other social factors that determine how people interact.” (14) This linking of a working out of personal identity via development volunteering chimes with contemporary ideas of life politics and reflexivity in the social sciences.

One contributor gives a sense of the personal journey involved: “Studying was hard work, but it never revealed much to me about who I was.” (26) For that, a journey – geographical and experiential – was necessary. University education did not cultivate the “consciousness needed for solidarity,” and also “siding with the poor is not as easy when you realise that you directly benefit from theft from the poor.” This contributor sums up that: “I guess you could say I’m working on my own development.” (26)

There is a strong sense in the essays that western lifestyles are complicit in the poverty of others, and a sense of guilt alongside a desire to tackle injustice, as the volunteers perceive it. All too aware of their privilege (a point of reference in most of the essays), the contributors seek to “deploy their privilege creatively.” (14) There is also a clear sense that “being there” is important, and being “book smart” (all the volunteers are graduates) is limited and limiting with regard how to bring about change. At times, this recurring argument for enlightenment through personal experience borders on anti-intellectualism.

One contributor looks at friendship and power: can the personal friendships made when volunteering cut through power relations (Chapter 8)? There is in this account, and elsewhere, a preoccupation with establishing a personal connection with the people subject to the development projects. Emotions, doubts, and personal moral dilemmas loom large in the experiences of the volunteers. However, they all see large-scale economic development as intensely problematic, and the moral high ground of “alternative” development is a given throughout the book. There is a distinctly populist emphasis to the accounts. Whilst big business, big government, and grand development projects are deemed arrogant and damaging, the contributors attempt in various ways to challenge this. The projects they engage in include helping to organize sports for children in a refugee camp in Rwanda, promoting a “sustainable” organic agricultural project in Barbados and “awareness raising” in Burma.

Far from imposing western ideas onto the communities they work in (something mainstream development is held to be culpable of), most contributors want to return home with lessons for their lives and their societies. One contributor, a volunteer in Madagascar, comments on seeing a subsistence community plant, harvest, prepare, and eat their own food and comments: “A part of me dreads returning to North America where, in comparison, everything seems rushed, wasteful and isolated from its source.” (123) Another felt like “an...