Out to change the world? Think it through first

by Salvatore Ciolfi, BA'02

Throughout my senior year, something was gnawing at me: I wanted more from life. I was an idealist, and like others of my ilk, I thought I could go abroad and change the world. My father, though, had other ideas, “You think Africa is waiting for you to solve its problems?” He asked. He was right, and it kept me home. What happens, though, to the Canadians who do go abroad?

Valerie Stam, BA’02, and Alisha Nicole Apale, BA’03, wanted this question answered, and the book they’ve edited, aptly titled Generation NGO, shares the stories and experiences of Canadian international development workers.

“A lot of people we knew were working overseas, and we thought it would be great to put all these stories into a collection,” says Stam, who herself spent nearly a decade working abroad. “By writing these things down and capturing them before they got a little bit too digested, we can share it better,” says Apale, who has also worked abroad, explaining that Generation NGO provided an outlet that simply didn’t exist.

The process, however, was not simple. In all, the book took nearly seven years to get off the ground. Fittingly, the 10 short essays in Generation NGO are honest and harrowing, and they often involve youthful naiveté being quickly challenged by realities on the ground. “A lot of people go overseas with really naive expectations about how much they can offer and what they’re going to accomplish when they’re there,” says Stam, now a community developer with a community health centre in Ottawa. “There’s sort of a hard knock reality when you arrive, that there’s not a whole lot I can do. It makes you ask, what is it that I can contribute here?”

“A lot of us leave with this idea that we can go out and fix people’s problems, and I think that’s a false and problematic notion,” says Apale, who now coordinates the Aboriginal Health Initiative of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. “I learned a lot and it was a good opportunity for me, and that’s the point: I changed and I didn’t necessarily change anything overseas, I didn’t fix anything.”

The hope, then, is that these stories can provide food for thought for both development rookies and veterans, forcing them to think about what they want to do and why. “These questions come up, and if you start to think about them before you go, you’re one step ahead,” says Stam. Doing so, the two believe, can help aid workers avoid common mistakes.

“Thinking that they have the right answer, for example, and that there even is a right answer, is a common mistake,” Stam says, adding that workers going abroad should be prepared to accept the fact that they may not do the kind of work they expected. “Overall, I think we could all learn to go into situations with an open mind and a willingness to learn,” she says.

Reception to Generation NGO has been positive and both Stam and Apale are open to additional editions and formats. I think this is a conversation that needs to keep happening and different iterations of it would be valuable,” says Apale. I would have to agree. Maybe someday it can even help convince a certain skeptical parent I know.