It is my honor to be able to post a blog entry from our beloved group leader, Professor Lo. Thank you for the time you have invested in this program and in each one of us. - Daniel Barron
At the end of the 2008-09 school year, DukeEngage marked the beginning of a three-day academy, in which roughly 350 students participated. Its goal was to maximize students’ intellectual and behavioral capacities to engage, to provide students with the skills necessary for volunteering across cultural, ethical and logistical challenges. This event was a practical move forward because as DukeEngage bureaucratizes its personnel, it also has to institutionalize its mission. However, the other side of the debate on DukeEngage was not presented in this workshop, and now as site leaders, we have to confront its manifestations on the ground, deal with its presence on blogs and websites, and address its symptoms in students’ anxiety. It is a cultural debate, and DukeEngagers, whether faculty, students or community partners, have to deal with its multifaceted constructions. It is an uneasy argument, a discursive dialogue on the purpose and relevance of DukeEngage.
The main tenet of this discourse is the idea that by assuming the role of a community helper and a ‘world changer,’ a DukeEngager is also projecting and assuming some level of superiority, elitism and leadership. This debate could extend further into the world of politics if it is introduced in the global context, where the legacy of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the failed politics of multi-lateral aid and neo-colonial policies have served to foster economic dependency and generate a wide-spread politics of discontentment among the communities that they intended to serve. Since DukeEnage is geared toward partnership with local communities, its model is hardly divorced from international NGOs. The similarities are that both are sponsored by an external entity, both are Western-based, and both are primarily accountable to their sponsors, and not necessarily to those they serve.
Therefore, there is some validity to these postulations: they are well intentioned in many cases, even if they are based on ill-informed criticisms. The validity is that there is an existing structural tradition that justifies these concerns, and we should not ignore them. However, DukeEngage is also a remedial model, an experimental approach to treat societal challenges, unlike many of the international NGOs.
On this latest point, the approach of DukeEngage should not be confused with that of many of the international NGOs. If the reality of international NGOS is that they often bypass local communities in their decision-making process, and that they are often legitimated by and accountable to their external board members, DukeEngage’s mission is service-oriented; its success is measured by a positive impact on community partners, its student body and to Duke University. By impact here we mean the degree to which community projects are completed, and their internally established agenda are accomplished. In some respects, measuring the impact of DukeEngage is a difficult undertaking, but its hallmarks include a lasting experience for the DukeEngager, a deeper bond with fellow students and faculty, and an entrepreneurial approach toward societal causes. In this sense, Duke will become known as an institution that bridges theory and practice, an institution of learning and service, and an entrepreneurial hub of civic engagement.
In this, one touches the philosophical ground on which DukeEngage differs from other social service providers. International NGOs are an outgrowth of conditionalized aid and politicized humanism, which, in a deep analytical reading, cannot be divorced from contemporary human catastrophes. The father of the concept of the international NGO, Guy Gran, has argued (in Development by People) that international NGOs (from the industrialized countries) should be the catalyst for applying just civil society in developing countries. Obviously, this is not the domain of DukeEngage. DukeEngage, as I understand it, is an investment in the human self, the human capacity and ability to do good, regardless of the constraints of lack of experience and the challenges of time-limits. It is a manner of helping students transit from the legally segregated classrooms to the chaos of the hierarchical, politically divided outside world, where they can witness the myriad problems that confront humanity across the globe.
No one can deny the failure of institutionalized diplomacy to prevent war, reduce poverty or even criminalize man’s inhumanity to man. It is a shame that so many years have passed since Jean Améry, a philosopher and an Auschwitz survivor who committed suicide, warned us that ”anyone who has been tutored remains tortured,” (in At the Mind’s Limits) and that our democracies are still debating the ‘needs and utility of torture.’ it is a crack in our moral order that the same rationale of going to war that caused mass human displacement in the twelfth century in the Middle East is today largely the same rationale for war that is behind the 9.2 million refugees and 25 million internally displaced people around the world (UNCHR Report, 2006 & UNCHR World Refugee Day, 2009 gave an estimate of 42 millions). Human progress should not only be measured by what it can do, but rather by what it has failed to achieve. There is an old Wolof proverb that says “the sharpness of your sword also mirrors the limits of your argument.”
As I told Yasmina, a staff writer of Egypt Daily News, in response to her inquiry on whether DukeEngage was a response to Obama’s engagement of the Muslim world, DukeEngage is not the Peace Corps, and it is certainly not President Obama’s brainchild. It seems to me that both President Obama and DukeEngage are products of a chain of occurrences that followed 9/11. In major human tragedies, the great Arab poet and philosopher, Al-Mutanabbi (d. 965) postulates, man has the natural predisposition to go to extremes—whether right or wrong—good or bad—evil or noble. DukeEngage was an institutional response to this tragedy, as is Obama’s appearance, in the reactionary chain of the many responses to the tragedy. The Peace Corp, although a great success in terms of numbers (more than 165,000 since its inception in 1961) and in terms of its mission of being for ‘world peace through friendship,’ is different from DukeEngage due to its national self-centered goal of “grand and global alliance,” to quote President Kenney’s words.
DukeEngagers should highlight these differences in theory and practice. They should not shy away from articulating what the program stands for, and proudly affiliate themselves with its mission and vigorously work for its success. At the communal level, they should be partners in development, and not agents of development; not managers of development, but facilitators of its projects; they should be working for the success of their projects, and not as consultants for these projects.