Against the romance of study abroad

Undoing neocolonial power relations that benefit US higher education institutions at the expense of their, mostly global south, “partners.”

Image by Alex Tinder, via Flickr CC.

Are study abroad programs best understood as a neo-colonial activity? In what ways might a typical neo-colonial critique, while accurate, cause us to overlook other possibilities of how study abroad does or could operate?

We both teach at the University of Washington (UW), where we lead study abroad programs to Tanzania, South Africa, and Spain. The idea of global partnership is central to every aspect of study abroad programs as practiced at our university and many others. The university partners with faculty to create programs from the course content to the logistics. Faculty are expected to find local partners to facilitate learning experiences that will transform their students. Once abroad, local partners activate their personal and professional networks, as well as give of their time, to facilitate not only the learning of US-based students, but also their safety and comfort. Local partners are often compensated for lectures and sometimes as coordinators, but at rates that reflect salaries in their countries, therefore at a much lower rate than their US-based partners. Partnership becomes an idea invoked often in theory, yet referring to very different types of transactions in practice.

The term global partnership, whether applied to research, business, education or even activism, implies a kind of equality in agency if not in resources. Thus, the frequent mobilization of the term – particularly in connection to the African continent – seeks to convey that the individuals or institutions involved in those partnerships have moved beyond the inequitable relationships of the past: slavery, colonialism, structural adjustment, Cold War military domination and cultural imperialism. According to the discourses of global partnership, our relationships are no longer ones of exploitation or domination – in short, neo-colonialism – but rather ones of reciprocity and mutual benefit.

We call bullshit. Global partnership, as the term is currently used, has become so ubiquitous as to be vacated of meaning. Nearly any kind of agreement or relationship, contractual or informal, is now being described as a partnership, regardless of the degrees of reciprocity involved. We recognize that any formal or informal partnership, or any relationship for that matter, will contain varying degrees of reciprocity or mutual benefit at different times, and rarely is any relationship perfectly reciprocal at any moment, or even over the long term. Yet we hold out the ideal that reciprocity and mutual respect should be at the core of any partnership, and that to achieve these goals, one must keep dynamics of power and privilege at the fore. The discourses of global partnership, however, mask dynamics of power relations in the name of equality. They allow individuals and institutions to reinscribe unequal power relations with so-called partners in Africa while deflecting attention away from claims of reciprocity and histories of accountability.

Let us give an example. In the summer of 2016, we co-led a study abroad program called “Critical Perspectives on Ecotourism in Tanzania.” As part of the program, we hired a tour company to provide transportation throughout our time in rural Northern Tanzania. As a result, students and faculty spent many hours in small vehicles with three guides, who worked as drivers, nature guides and cultural interpreters. As is often the case with travelers of all types, the three guides built significant rapport with our students – sharing food, jokes, stories, and swapping nicknames. They became the closest relationships many of our students had with any Tanzanian individuals. After a day of game driving, the group settled into a hotel in northern Serengeti. Students were shocked and appalled to learn that the guides would not be staying or eating with us, as they had been previously, but instead would lodge in the bare-bones quarters reserved for staff of tour companies.

Why was this so upsetting to our students? Was it upsetting to the guides? Or was it a relief for the guides to spend some time “off the clock” and free from having to interact with our group? Was the lack of luxury in the staff quarters something that bothered the guides as much as the students?

What this experience most profoundly did for our students was disrupted the illusion of an easy, uncomplicated friendship or equality – a true partnership – between them and the guides, and made visible privileges in many forms: of travel, mobility, leisure and comfort. The experience also highlighted the very different approaches to the relationship taken between our students and the guides, wherein the students approached the relationship in a spirit of and desire for friendship, knowledge, and access to an “authentic” Tanzanian experience, whereas the guides approached the relationship as work, as part of their chosen profession and business, and as something in which they took pride but had no illusions of equality or simple reciprocity. In short, this experience reminded the students that the guides were doing a job.

Conceptualizing the guides as “doing a job” provides a very different valence to these relationships than “forming a partnership.” This is not to say that the guides did not enjoy their friendships with our group, or for that matter, that the students (and certainly we as faculty members) did not still see ourselves as doing a job. Our argument is not that these roles or experiences are dichotomous and cannot occur simultaneously. What it does point out, though, is the masking of unequal power relations through the claim of global partnership is not an unintended consequence or an unfortunate side effect of the discourse, but rather its point.-

It is relatively easy to critique our group’s western gaze or the students’ narratives of discovery and redemption. But our students’ concepts of study abroad are individual manifestations of the larger institutional fantasy of the joys and benefits of setting off to study abroad. The fact is that US institutions benefit immensely from partnerships that exploit existing unequal relations of knowledge and power. In this way study abroad programs recast global partnerships as a nostalgic form of exploration (our programs at UW are even called Exploration Seminars). When pushed to use their authority and finances in more reciprocal ways, US institutions often revert to a narrative of transforming their own students to one day change the world for the better in some abstracted future, while at the same time using financing models that rely on student fees to pay for direct student costs, actively precluding broader reciprocity.

We cannot expect that US institutions will embrace a more radical project of reciprocity without pressure. If UW and other institutions of higher education really want to build more equitable global partnerships, we suggest treating our partners as co-faculty with appropriate titles and compensation; supporting reciprocal exchanges and opportunities for students from host countries to participate alongside our US students in their home countries; and finally, situating reciprocal study abroad squarely in university efforts to address diversity and equity. This final step would not only address issues of access for US-based students, but begin to engage with the neo-colonial power relations that continue to benefit US institutions of higher education, often at the expense of our “global partners.”


Further Reading

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Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.