As a nine-year-old, I became committed to ‘doing good’ through my involvement with Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan, a non-profit organization that helps girls in Afghanistan receive an education. Since then, activism has been a prevalent part of my life. When it came to choosing my university major, the natural next step was to delve into an academic understanding of my passions by studying International Development at McGill. WE, an organization that calls itself a “global force for good,” has played a central role in my activism journey. I went to ‘WE Days,’ joined the ‘Me to We’ club at school, attended ‘Take Action Camp,’ volunteered at their Toronto offices, and, most recently, went on a “Women’s Empowerment” trip to India in 2017. My experiences left me with nothing but admiration for the organization. Prior to beginning my degree, this optimistic outlook largely filtered how I viewed development work.
While sitting in my first International Development class, however, I learned that being critical of development is a key component of work within the field. It became apparent to me that not only are there negative aspects to international development, but that they should be pointed out and addressed. However, as my class explored the problematic effects of voluntourism, I continued to tell myself that WE Trips were different.
I had many exceptional experiences with WE and met plenty of people that genuinely wanted to positively impact the world. However, the recent scandal surrounding WE has encouraged me to critically reflect on my trip to India. As participants, we had no educational background in development to contribute, nor did we have any particularly useful skills to provide. The trip instead emphasized creating an experience for us, the customer, rather than on making a sustainable impact for the local communities we were there to help. Although it was a life-changing experience, it would be unethical for me to focus solely on my personal gain and to prioritize my own development over evaluating whether the trip had meaningful effects on the local communities.
My major has instilled in me the importance of being critical of “good” work. I say “good,” because a distinction must be made between work that is only good in its intentions and work that holistically generates positive change without introducing harm. The merging of my education and my wanting to ‘do good’ morally compels me to be critical of WE Trips. Through the trips, WE creates a false narrative of what development work looks like by presenting it in a digestible and simplistic package. Some believe that just doing something is better than nothing, but naively accepting WE’s work as ‘good’ allows it to persist by distracting from the fact that a better approach is necessary.
The increased scrutiny surrounding WE’s work has prompted alumni to reflect on how the organization’s core values of inspiring young people to advocate for social justice have drifted—how the ‘Spirit of WE’ has been clouded over. Longtime supporters have voiced criticism about WE’s involvement abroad by questioning the usefulness of volunteer work, and WE staff has been calling out oppressive behaviour towards staff members of colour. Still, over the years, WE has played a key role in encouraging many to speak up about social injustice, and it is this ‘Spirit of WE’ which is worth salvaging. WE helped shape me into an activist, but my degree has turned me into an individual capable of the discernment needed to hold the organization accountable.
If I fail to learn from this, to make my own positive contribution to the field, I would not only be betraying the ‘Spirit of WE’—which teaches to not stay silent when injustices occur—but also the field of international development. It has been challenging to criticize an organization that I’ve looked up to for such a long time and for which I believe has the potential to do better. However, being critical of “good” work does not equate to being cynical. Rather, being critical is quite the opposite—it is necessary in development work to build better organizations that can serve communities in less oppressive and more ethical ways. Being critical of “good” work is not something to be afraid of.