How did I end up doing international development?

When I decided to apply for volunteering overseas, I had forgotten that when I first began my life as an activist, it started from attending a week long international youth/student conference in Australia after I had just graduated from University of Waterloo with an honours bachelor of math degree of all things – that is something I would have done differently but such is life.  I had never attended such an event before, had probably never even considered it.  I had been active in student “politics” – more like a fun social club most of the time but it had my 1st time of sitting on committees representing a population group, in this case various university committees and representing students.  I do remember that the issue of tuition funding and fee increases was beginning in the late mid 80s.  I had ended up attending uni in the most expensive province at the time.  If I had known I would have gone to a uni in Montreal where it was the cheapest, but Waterloo was the place for computer science and coop work terms where you ended up have 2 years work experience after 5 years – boy that really didn’t pan out but that is another story.

So my 1st activism was organizing actions against the tuition fee hikes, attending lots of meetings, and marching with others protesting the government decisions.  Anyway off to Oz I was, planning on staying to do a working holiday after the conference.  In a nutshell this conference changed my life and for the 1st time I felt I knew what I was meant to be doing for my life.  The conference had several key themes of discussion – the environment, human rights, peace and disarmament and development – still as of today the biggy issues.  And you know now why my fb profile photo is as it is.  So little has changed… but that is again another story of the lament of the activist.  (you can read my draft “the life of an activist academic – alone in the academic wilderness” if you are interested although a 2nd draft was really necessary but then I gave up my sabbatical to come to NS – another regret?…hmmm).  You see the person behind this conference, the late Hein Wagenfeld, a physicist who experienced WWII and who carried the guilt of his nation with him, relentlessly working to end the nuclear arms race throughout his life, had hope that youth would build the future, hence the namesake of the event “Youth Building the Future”.

The conference took place in a magical place, Lorne, Victoria, located on the Great Ocean Road. I fell in love with Oz (in more ways than one) and it will always have a special place in my heart.  At the conference I met for the 1st time young people – all university students so an elite group really in any country – from as diverse countries as China, South Africa, Fiji, Japan, Argentina, Malaysia, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, Egypt, and various European countries and of course Canada & the U.S..  If you have ever attended a conference in your early adulthood, you know the intensity that can take place and occur it did.  The discussions during presentations and breaks, in the evenings into all hours of the night were intense especially in the latter case, Victoria Bitter or VB beer helping along.  The Ozzies were amazing; it certainly helped they were a very political groups of students.

This conference lead me several years later in a roundabout way to undertake a masters converted to doctoral degree in Melbourne a few years later, focusing on the topic of young environmentalists.  During my studies, I ended up volunteering for what was then Community Aid Abroad (CCA), now part of the Oxfam family, in their resource centre.  I was able to attend many free events discussing everything connected to international development, one burgeoning topic at the time being ‘green trade’.  I remember a fellow from fair trade Germany, Transfair, was at an event, also a ‘newish’ movement at the time.

I ended up teaching for the 1st time courses in Peace and Conflict Studies (and a few others that were part of a selection of courses uni students had to take in order to graduate, a sort of mini liberal arts curricula in small classes) while studying.  I had the privilege of essentially getting a crash course from several male colleagues twice my age about all things the CIA had undertaken globally and in Oz for the past 100 years, e.g. the coups they instigated and supported throughout the world – the beginnings of the U.S. empire, transitioning from the British Empire. For those who may know here’s a hint – the United Fruit Company was key in some Latin American countries, in Cuba for example but also elsewhere. This was a new era of the global web of State sanctioned and State initiated terrorism. They didn’t call it that back then of course and still don’t today but that was exactly what it was.  It was was truly fascinating and mindboggling but also so freakingly disturbing and infuriating. All of this connected to international development or should I say undevelopment, ongoing colonization.

In any event, I learned all about the work CCA was doing in Asia (e.g. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar), in the pacific islands (East Timor, some Pacific Islands ), in African countries (Ethiopia, Sudan, South Africa which still has apartheid at that time).  I see this now as my informal education into the beginning of the alternative, and I would have to say far more accurate, history of the world in terms of its economic, political, environmental and social development. I have never stopped this type of learning, and everything that I continue to learn to this day, adds more pieces to the puzzle, or rather the events of today e.g. current U.S. president, fall in line with this explanation of global trajectory and phenomena – unfortunately I might add.

Upon completion of my Ph.D., I returned to Canada, sought employment, and continued a trajectory of volunteering and activism in a variety of social issues – all of these being interconnected.  International development (ID) wasn’t a specific focus of my endeavours but it was always in the background as well as foreground on occasion, e.g. in peace & disarmament issues or environmental issues ID is intimately part of this.  In this stage of my life of career transition (and existential crisis?!?!), I have chosen to focus on my passion for travel but not of the tourist kind, and so ID is one way I can experience the world of other countries and cultures.

I sometimes wish I had continued more specifically in the field of ID in my younger years, as adapting to life in developing countries is difficult no matter what age one is but it can be particularly challenging when you have the hindsight of 3 decades of life experience.  It doesn’t help that as Ross says I am a true believer, having a passion of all things pertaining to social justice but more broadly justice for all life forms, so seeing injustice can be very difficult at times. I don’t know if I will continue on this path, far too early to tell.  But for now the journey continues in Lima.


For another discussion – the real moral dilemmas in doing ID, ecotourism and voluntourism.

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