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Students ask: Can you save the world?

Well, can we save the world?

Hundreds of students at the University of Washington packed into a classroom Monday evening for a panel discussion entitled, “Can You Save the World?

Finding a place to sit at the UW's "Can You Save the World?"

Sponsored by a new student-run organization called the Critical Development Forum, it was an acknowledged riff on an earlier event we (KPLU Humanosphere) sponsored at Seattle Town Hall called “Can Seattle Save the World?” — this time aimed specifically at the concerns and questions of young people.

I’ve noted before that there’s something special going on with the Millennials and this event only confirmed my suspicion: They actually do want to save the world.

And they know it won’t be easy or simply based on good intention.

As UW civil engineering student Dean Chahim, lead organizer of the forum, says in his personal blog describing why he organized this group:

“How can we really help? Are NGOs (non-governmental organizations) really the answer? How can people with “good intentions” best apply their skills and passion?”

To try to answer these and other questions — including how to find a paying job when trying to save the world — Chahim and his student colleagues asked a select panel of professors, development experts and student activists to first answer the question, “What should we do and why?”

Here are some of the answers they got:

  • Stephen Bezruchka, UW global health, said they first need to be aware that many of the strategies of development are rooted in neo-colonialism and can end up fostering dependence rather than economic and political freedoms.
  • Bryan Furst, a UW student who grew up in East Africa and Asia as the son of a development expert, warned against the common mistake of assuming you know more than the people you’ve come to help: “The people best suited to be working on development are the people in those communities.”
  • Eva Tagoe-Darko, a Ghanaian scholar, echoed Furst by emphasizing that the development or aid worker’s first job is to listen and learn. Too many aid projects are designed by Western experts ignorant or dismissive of traditional knowledge and culture, she said.
  • Matt Sparke, a UW geographer who specializes in globalization, said it’s important to recognize that there is often a tension between those who see development as primarily a means to help achieve overall economic growth and efforts aimed helping the most disenfranchised.
  • Remi Torres and Garrett Strain, students active in the movement to convince the UW to end its Husky stadium concessions contract with Sodexo (a global food services firm that Human Rights Watch and other organizations say abuses workers), offered their perspective on how that tension exists at home.
  • David Citrin, a UW anthropology and global health student who studies the “long-term impact of short-term aid,” reiterated the advice to listen and learn from the community you seek to serve.
  • Susan Bolton, a UW engineering professor who advises the local branch of Engineers Without Borders, emphasized that most development projects lack any kind of monitoring and evaluation: “Nobody knows if it works if it’s not getting evaluated.”

At this point, Chahim turned to the crowd, which despite the panel’s best attempts to largely emphasize what’s been going wrong with development remained rapt and enthusiastic.

Well, can we save the world?

In response to a question about the role of NGOs, Rachel Chapman, a UW anthropologist, said “NGOs are the problem.” Chapman said many foreign aid and development projects end up undermining the public sector in poor countries with fragile governments. Good aid should build up governments and their public sector capacity to take care of themselves, she said.

Chris Dodd, a UW physician who has worked in Nicaragua, had perhaps the most catchy description of the difference between curative aid and symptomatic aid. He drew a picture of a cliff showing people walking to the edge and falling off. At the bottom, Dodd drew pictures of clinics and hospitals.

“This,” he said, pointing to the base of the cliff, “is social service. There’s a difference between social service and social change.” Dodd said the best kind of aid and development projects act to erect a barrier at the cliff’s edge to prevent people from falling rather than fix them up at the bottom.

Sparke and some of the others enjoyed the illustration but disagreed somewhat, saying there’s room for both immediate aid projects and long-term structural change aimed at preventing the need for aid.

Many students wondered about their job prospects in global health and development, and probably went away from this event still wondering. Bezruchka suggested that if they really want to have an impact and can’t find a job in the U.S., they should consider just moving to a poor community and living with the poor.

“You can save up $700 and go live in one of those communities for a year or so, quite economically,” Bezruchka said. Many in the audience laughed but he wasn’t kidding. That’s what he did when he was young, he noted.

Despite all the difficulties of doing this kind of work, of trying to save the world, the panelists appeared to agree that young people should go out into the world, try to do good and become engaged.

“Don’t ever give up,” said Tagoe-Darko. Be young, exuberant and even foolish, she said, but believe that you can make a difference.

Here’s a story by The Daily’s Katherine McKeon on the event.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.