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UW student activist calls on Millennials to be less dreamy, more political

Dean Chahim is a student of Civil & Environmental Engineering and International Development & Social Change at the University of Washington. Chahim co-founded and facilitates the Critical Development Forum, which is having one of its informal forums later today on the issue of climate change.

This is a guest post and the views expressed here are Chahim’s, in case you needed to be told that.


A UW student at an Occupy Seattle event asks for less hope, more action

There is the social and political movement of Occupy Wall Street. The Arab Spring. And then there is Seattle’s exploding ‘humanitarian’ community. These are all driven, in part or maybe largely, by the younger generation’s desire for change – for a better world.

At the University of Washington, it’s impossible to miss what’s happening. The youth movement for change operates under many banners and goes by many names: development, humanitarian, philanthropic, global health, global service, social entrepreneurship. Here on Humanosphere, this has been described as a key feature of my “Millennial” generation.

New student-run NGOs seem to start here every week. Information sessions pack in students by the dozen. Flyers litter campus for the latest two-week trip to empower African villagers, help with sustainable projects, and oh yes, see a few waterfalls. They seek to work miracles, changing communities forever “in just five days.”

In between volunteer trips, they might send shoes to the Dominican Republic or bras to Nigeria. Yes, bras. Gently used bras.

There is no denying that some of the work they do has real benefits in the short-term for the poor and marginalized globally. But I would argue that many of these well-intentioned efforts don’t have much impact – and that they distract from the most powerful means to fight poverty and inequity, disease and suffering.


I’m concerned that the way we frame our discussion around these efforts is actually stunting my generation’s view of social change. We dream of helping “one village at a time” through service overseas when, arguably, we could help many millions more through political activism here at home.

Dean Chahim

The importance of activism has perhaps never been greater. Here at home, we have the greatest inequality and worst health of any rich country in the world.

And around the globe — despite all our international aid efforts — the gap between rich and poor is growing and today the richest one percent of the world’s population own almost 40% of the world’s wealth, more than the world’s poorest 95% combined. Our society’s rate of consumption is putting us on the brink of a climate catastrophe that will only disproportionately hurt the poor globally.

It can take a while to recognize how our own individual efforts to help the poor sometimes work to merely cover over the more fundamental causes of poverty.

In 2008, I spent three weeks working on roads improvement project in Bolivia with Engineers Without Borders. Of course, I didn’t wonder why I was doing Bolivia’s public works projects.

Once I began to pursue the question, my dream of saving the world through engineering projects was shattered, reduced to a pile of contradictions. I had no idea that our international financial institutions coerced the Bolivian government into cutting spending, leading it to lose its ability to implement the very projects we’d so kindly come to build for their people.

Nor did I realize that the West has robbed of Bolivia of not only its enormous mineral wealth through bloody colonial extraction but also its glaciers (and thus water supply for millions) through climate change. This is a debt far greater than we can ever repay with short-term aid projects.

Our naiveté is understandable. We were born after Reagan had convinced the nation that government was the problem, and that private initiative would cure all ills. Government – and hence politics – had nothing to do with poverty.

In the rubble of the shrinking government, NGOs blossomed, providing services to the poor here and abroad. In order to secure donations, NGOs promoted the myth of fighting poverty through individual service or philanthropy, not collectively through political action and solidarity.

If NGOs told us the grimy truth – that poverty is a political mess the developed world created – they’d be out of jobs in a week. Politics isn’t sexy. It doesn’t fetch donations. Tear-jerking advertisements about starving children do.

My generation has been sold a dogma of the individual as the solution to inequality and poverty. The older generation glorifies our individual achievements as “social entrepreneurs” while brushing the total failure of our economic system under the rug. Is it any wonder our youth think that if they start enough NGOs, go abroad two weeks at a time, design a new widget, or send a few bras – all will be well in the world?

This is not the way it has to be. Eventually most people working in development come to recognize that we can’t end poverty abroad without simultaneous activism at home.

Those of you with experience must accelerate this process. Educate youth in your organizations, workplaces, classrooms, places of worship, and your children. Explain the root causes of inequality and poverty, rather than selling them the illusion of simple, apolitical development problems with technical solutions.

If you’re not sure where to start, collaborate with us at the Critical Development Forum.

Our goal is to encourage those interested in challenging poverty and inequality to connect with one another, critically reflect on their work, and challenge themselves to move beyond good intentions.

The developing world has pressing challenges that we can occasionally help put band-aids on. However, we will never succeed in healing the deeper wounds our economic system inflicts on the developing world without political activism.

Occupy Wall Street is not perfect, but it is an unparalleled window of opportunity my generation cannot miss. We can use it as a space to demand the political changes that truly empower the poor and marginalized globally.

Students, staff, and faculty in the Department of Global Health and beyond have already started organizing to educate on the global dimensions of inequality by forming the Global 99. But this movement to address the root causes of inequality is still far too small.

Join us. Help us become collective activists for change, not individual servants of the status quo. We cannot do it alone.

Dean can be reached at


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.