The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Confronting the White Elephant: International Volunteering and Racial (Dis)Advantage

Friday, January 17, 2014: 8:30 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 102B Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Benjamin J. Lough, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, IL
Janet D. Carter-Black, PhD, Clinical Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL
Background and Purpose: Racial issues are not often addressed openly in development discourse – leading some scholars to describe racial concerns as the “elephant in the room” or an invisible blind spot in international development practice. Despite lack of attention to this issue, racial power structures and relations that were often cultivated during colonialism continue to permeate development thought and practice. This study investigates how recipients of development aid view themselves in relation to Western helpers. It assesses whether the claim that a “whiteness of power” associated with international volunteers results in a consciousness among black community members of subordination or racial inferiority and disadvantage.

Methods: The research design is a retrospective case control study. Researchers spent one-month in Kenya conducting primary field research with nine major volunteer-sending organizations based in Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway and the UK.  Methods include a combination of 24 structured staff-member interviews, 59 community-member interviews in participatory workshop format, and 83 quantitative surveys. Interview guides were semi-structured, and workshops followed the United Nations Volunteers Evaluation Handbookmethodology. All interviews were digitally recorded, translated and transcribed. Researchers used Atlas.ti software to qualitative code and analyze key responses. Pearson’s chi-squares were used to test for statistical differences in responses.

Results: From the perspective of African community members, there is a strong association between race and: (1) resources or assistance, (2) knowledge, expertise or skills, (3) trust, and (4) caring and compassion. Staff members of local human service organizations were statistically more likely to believe that hosting an international volunteer from outside of Africa increases their appeal to funders. Likewise, respondents were more likely to believe that, all else being equal, hosting a white volunteer increases the trust others have of their organization compared to hosting a black volunteer. Overall, respondents were significant more likely (at p = .001) to prefer a white volunteer from the outside of Africa if given the choice. Findings also suggest that the duration of service and the level of cultural immersion may affect racial stereotypes and assumptions.

Conclusions and Implications: To shift the power balance and to change disempowered racial perceptions, civil society organizations that send international volunteers can engage hosting communities in critical conscious-raising, strengths-based dialogue and polemic discourse about the mutuality of exchange. Pointed interventions may also help avoid the potential dangers of implementing Northern templates for development in Southern contexts. Targeted preparation of volunteers may also confront the “color-blind stance of development” as volunteers are challenged to reflect on their own unconscious or unobserved helping biases. Findings have parallel implications for international social work field placements.