international development

Learning without Borders: International Service Learning

Last Friday, I got to spend some time at my old stomping grounds at the University of Toronto to speak to a class about my experience volunteering overseas and our experiential learning programs at Operation Groundswell. I was asked to do so by a former professor of mine, Linzi Manicom, whose class on community engagement I fell in love with in my final year of undergrad. I had always been active in community service and the nonprofit sector but it was this class that opened my mind to a whole new level of's where I really began to challenge assumptions about local community engagement and on a wider scale, international development. It's where I really began to critically think about privilege, systems of oppression, and power dynamics. It definitely shaped my thinking and where I am today so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak to this class. 

I spoke alongside a few other current students and graduates whose experiences took them to Ghana, Kenya, South Korea, Ethiopia, and Namibia. All of whom brought fascinating stories and learnings about international development and the many internal challenges that come with engaging in some sort of community service abroad. Always such a great feeling to connect with youth who are passionate about making an impact in our world and doing so with a critical eye and responsible mind!

Pushing back against the #Kony2012 Backlash

My Facebook feed has been exploding with videos, blog posts, and comments about Joseph Kony for the past few days. This is not normal. War criminals are not usually the topic of heated discussions amongst my Facebook friends. No, lolcatz and other banalities are often the topics du jour. But since Invisible Children's #Kony2012 video hit the internetz, all have been abuzz about Uganda, Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), and even the credibility of Invisible Children itself. A public dialogue about development, aid, and human rights on Facebook? Am I dreaming? When does this ever happen? Seriously?

#Kony2012 has been under some serious heat the past few days and it's been fascinating just to see and read all the backlash. Some of the main critiques of the campaign can be summarized as such:

Invisible Children's shady financials (from Visible Children):

"Invisible Children has been condemned time and time again. As a registered not-for-profit, its finances are public. Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% went to direct services (page 6), with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production. This is far from ideal, and Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they haven't had their finances externally audited. But it goes way deeper than that."

Factual inaccuracies and the oversimplification of the issue (from Michael Wilkerson on Foreign Policy):

"It would be great to get rid of Kony.  He and his forces have left a path of abductions and mass murder in their wake for over 20 years.  But let’s get two things straight: 1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn’t been for 6 years; 2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality."

The revival of the "white man as hero" narrative (from Max Fisher of The Atlantic):

"Worst of all, the much-circulated campaign subtly reinforces an idea that has been one of Africa's biggest disasters: that well-meaning Westerners need to come in and fix it. Africans, in this telling, are helpless victims, and Westerners are the heroes. It's part of a long tradition of Western advocacy that has, for centuries, adopted some form of white man's burden, treating African people as cared for only to the extent that Westerners care, their problems solvable only to the extent that Westerners solve them, and surely damned unless we can save them."

The effectiveness of the campaign's intended goal (from Project Diaspora's Teddy Ruge):

"Kony has been on the run for 25+ years. On a continent 3 times the size of America. Catching & stopping him is not a priority of immediate concern. You know what is? Finding a bed net so that millions of kids don’t die every day from malaria. How many of you know that more Ugandans died in road accidents last year (2838) than have died in the past 3 years from LRA attacks in whole of central Africa(2400)? We’ve picked our battles and we chose to simply try to live. And the world should be helping us live on our own terms, by respecting our agency to choose which battles to put capacity towards."

The absence of Ugandan voices and agency (from InnovateAfrica):

"Invisible Children’s US staff is comprised exclusively of Americans, as is the entire Board. How do you represent Uganda and not have Ugandans in leadership? Couldn’t the organization find a single Ugandan? An African? Did it even think about that? Does that matter to current staff and board members? I understand that IC’s main audience is American and its focus is on American action. However, when your work and consequence affect a different group of people than your target audience, you must make it a priority to engage the voices of the affected population in a real and meaningful way, in places and spaces where programs are designed, strategies dissected, and decisions made."

I've spent most of today sifting through the many blogs and articles about the campaign and though most of the critiques are valid, justified and very well-thought out, I can't help but feel a sense of repulsion from the sarcasm of those who lambast Invisible Children's initiative. The overall tone and language that have surrounded the backlash is sarcastic and arrogant, deriding those who I honestly believe want to genuinely do something positive (as these memes would demonstrate). More than that, much of what I've found online only offer attacks on Invisible Children and the #Kony2012 initiative without offering any alternative solutions. Instead of galvanizing people to act as a force for good, this tone and language will simply lead people to resort back to inaction, paralyzed and disheartened to hear that the organization they were so excited to support is just a "scam". Yes, it is essential to call out an organization on its transparency, accountability, and overall goals. That is part of being an intelligent and informed citizen. And yes, good intentions are not enough but disparaging them, in my opinion, is even worse than slacktivism.

At the time of writing, the video has over 43 million views. That is not something to scoff at. Let's be real. Activists, journalists, and academics who have worked in Uganda and Central Africa for the past two decades have never mustered as much interest and energy as this video has in FIVE DAYS. We need organizations who, with their slick marketing skills, will shine a light on pressing issues that fly under the radar. And we need the academics and activists who are well-versed in development and aid to work with these organizations to ensure that responsible and effective programs are developed and implemented. There should be collaboration in this space, not contempt. And so here I quote the sentiments of Sarah Margon of the Center for American Progress

"...instead of continuing to debate the strengths and weakness of the Kony2012 video, or attack Invisible Children for their lack of financial transparency, let’s figure out how to turn this momentum into a constructive opportunity that can result in smart policies that will have a positive, real-time impact in the affected areas of central Africa. Let’s harness this energy and turn it into something productive that ensures we’re telling the right stories, inspiring well-informed advocacy, and working together across governments, academia, grassroots activists, and local populations to help bring this chapter of the LRA — and the impact in affect areas — to a close."


Do your research. Learn about and educate yourself on the situation in Central Africa today. Listen to and read African voices by tuning in to local media. Some of the leading newspapers on the ground are the Daily Monitor, the Independent, and New Vision. Another great resource is Global Voices, which is a community of citizen journalists and bloggers (this includes stories from around the world too, not just limited to Uganda).

And then support local initiatives. There are many organizations led by Ugandans themselves who are better equipped and better informed to implement proper solutions on the ground. I've been scouring the internet, talking to leading activists on the ground and here are some starters for you:

HURIFO: an NGO dedicated to promoting human rights and aims especially to raise the visibility of the plight of internally displaced persons in Uganda.

International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI): dedicated to promoting human rights in situations of conflict and displacement, enhancing the protection of vulnerable populations before, during and after conflict.

Art for Children Uganda (ACU): an NGO committed to lift the voice of all children through creative means to promote cultural awareness, develop critical thinking and self-expression, and recreate and promote psychosocial healing.

a youth-led community building initiative in Lira, Uganda.

Concerned Parents Association (CPA) Lira: a child focused organization formed by a group of parents affected by the abduction of children by the LRA in Northern Uganda.

Women of Kireka: a women’s cooperative business based in Kampala, Uganda providing business skills training, added capital and a resilient peer group to women affected by the conflict. 

The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI): an interfaith peace building and conflict transformation organization.

Friends of Orhans Uganda: an initiative administered by former child soldiers, orphans and abductees from Pader District that aims to reduce the vulnerability of mothers, orphans, former child soldiers, abductees and women through education and skills empowerment.

**This is not, by any means, an exhaustive list. If you know of any local organizations doing responsible and effective work in Uganda, please let me know in the comments section so we can expand this list!


For all its flaws, Invisible Children has managed to raise not just awareness but also fervour about an issue that many have forgotten about or never even knew about to begin with. Let's use this surge in energy and momentum to do something productive. Opportunities like these do not come by very often.

More Than Words

"Language shapes the way we see the world". These were the words of my community engagement professor and they have stayed with me through the years and well beyond the four walls of that classroom. As I learn more about aid, international development, global injustices and inequities, these words have gained even more saliency in my mind.

Thoughts from Damned Nations still linger, especially those regarding the feel-good rhetoric of humanitarian involvement and many of our own desires to make a difference in this world (whatever that entails). We throw words around like "doing good", "charity", "empowerment", "social change", without a thought to their deeper meanings, historical significance, or the assumptions they bear. And then we act on such conceptions with the presumption of knowledge...a presumption that, on many occassions, can be more damaging than ignorance itself.

One of the most powerful quotes I've encountered is that attributed to Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian artist and activist, and one that has become the motto for many activist groups: "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together". The choice of words in the two sentences may, at first glance, be subtle but their implications and entire messaging are radically different. Power dynamics are changed, dependencies are shifted, and even the result of the effort are dramatically altered.

Some may scoff at this and say much of this is just another case of our society's obsession with political-correctness. And I'll admit, the thought has crossed my mind as well. But I honestly do believe that the words that we use and the discourses we take part in shape not only our assumptions about global issues, but ultimately the way we react and respond to them.

Just as a small pivot can change one's entire direction, so too can a single word.

For those of you who read this post hoping for Extreme's ballad, my sincere apologies. Let me make it up to you: click here.

I'm a Kiva Lender!

Hurray!! I've finally got around to doing something that I've been promising myself I would do for awhile now. As with so many things in life, we put it on the back burner and it stays there. But alas, I have made my very first loan on Kiva!

Meet Tarcila. She's an entrepreneur who owns a furniture-making business in a small town in the Philippines called Ilagan. For over two years now, she has been selling household furniture within her local community. Tarcila plans on using the loans to buy raw materials to make more furniture and hopefully expand her business.

Tarcila Tandayu

For those of you who don't know what Kiva is or how it works, let me give you a quick run down. Kiva is a non-profit organization that facilitates the lending of money (with a 98.79% repayment rate!!) through the use of the Internet to microfinancing insitutions in various developing countries around the world. These microfinancing institutions then lend the money to small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. As for how it works, here's a pretty simple diagram that explains the process.

The Kiva Cycle. For more info, visit

Now why Kiva? Because I firmly believe in sustainability, in empowering people to lift themselves out of their dire living conditions by giving them both an opportunity and a platform to do so. The people living in these developing nations are some of the most resourceful and intelligent people our world has to offer and they are the very people we should and need to be investing our money in. It is they who will ultimately alleviate poverty for themselves and for their communities.

So if you've got some dough to spare, make a loan's easy peasy and you'll be doing some real, tangible good! Visit today!


A huge thanks to my friend, Andrea, whose blog post served as reminder and an impetus to lend ASAP.