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Critically Considering International Social Work Practica

By

Barbara Heron, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Social Work
York University
Toronto, Canada

 

 

Abstract

Schools of social work in Canada and other countries of the North are increasingly offering their students the option of undertaking an international practicum. Often implied in this term is a placement in a Southern country. In this article I draw on a critical social work perspective, and the notion of the “encumbered self,” to consider the ethics of international practica in the context of a larger movement in Canada and elsewhere towards short-term international postings of various kinds. In conclusion, I argue for not only substantive pre-practicum preparation, but a post-practicum curriculum that leads students to interrogate, rather than consolidate, their learning overseas.

Introduction

Schools of social work in Canada, like others in the North, are faced with the decision of whether to provide students with access to international practica, a term which often implicitly references placements in the countries of the South. Increasingly, this is an option that schools choose to actualize as the concept of international social work gains momentum through influential proponents like Ife (2001), who argues that: “International social work must no longer be regarded as peripheral to the apparently core task of social workers . . . [because] all social work practice, wherever it occurs, must now be regarded as working at the global/local level” (p.13). With few exceptions, it has seemed that debates by Canadian schools of social work about the merits of international practica proceed largely on pragmatic and sometimes pedagogical bases. The pragmatic issues include who to select and how, the preparation process, the arrangements for an overseas placement, and adequate field supervision. Pedagogical concerns tend to centre on how to support student learning in a cross-cultural environment, and to a lesser extent, how to enable students to further develop their understanding of global issues post-practica. These foci seem to reflect what Gillespie (2003) suggests: “That we should take advantage of these new opportunities seems obvious” (p. 7). As Epprecht (2004) notes, the work-study experience is taken to be “so intrinsically valuable that neither the ethics nor the pedagogy requires dedicated reflection and analysis” (p. 2). The fact that social work students on practica, like other short-term placements, contribute to a rapid proliferation of Canadians and other Northerners going to Southern countries is obscured, and the significance of participating in this influx not examined.

A former development worker myself, I want to critically consider the ethics of international practica in the context of a larger movement in Canada and elsewhere towards short-term placements of various kinds, and reflect on the social justice implications of social work education contributing to this direction. I will first present the findings of recent research I have done into the short-term postings phenomenon, then suggest ethical issues that arise from these findings, and, lastly, propose what this may imply for schools of social work whose students participate in international social work practica.

The terms North and South are used here to denote the “haves” and “have-nots”’ among countries of the world, and roughly correspond to the “First World”/“Third World” terminology of the Cold War era, and the “developed”/“developing” dichotomy. Rather than geographic location, what underlies the North/South split is the extent of present-day economic development, or lack thereof, linked to the effects of colonization and empire. Thus, the countries of the South are former colonies. This definition of globalization refers to integrative processes of political economy that began with European exploration five centuries ago and that operate worldwide to maintain the North/South divide (Ellwood, 2001). Although there is a growing literature on the meaning of the term, globalization as defined here is consistent with the popular conception associated with Fukuyama in 1992: “the spread of the capitalist free-market influence over the world’s economic and political systems” (Pugh and Gould, 2000, p. 124).

The Movement Towards Short-term Placements

I began research three years ago to examine whether short-term postings have been gaining ascendancy in the international development sector. By “short-term” is meant placements of less than one year. It should be noted, however, that most short-term postings in this study were of three to six months duration. This research has led me to unanticipated terrain and surprising discoveries, which are summarized here. Since the majority of Canada’s development NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, belong to the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC), the Council’s membership list was taken as the basis for the study (CCIC, 2000). Of the organizations contacted, ten participated in the study. In general, though, these ten include the NGOs that are traditionally the main volunteer-sending actors in the development field in Canada, volunteers being a term that encompasses people who go overseas to do development work for a stipend that covers the cost of living.

Is there a shift towards short-term placements? It would seem that there is a trend in this direction among the organizations that participated in my study. In general, the ratio of short-term to long-term postings among the participating organizations, while consistently weighted in favour of short-term, has changed from 3:1 in 1992-93 to just under 4:1 in 2002-03. However, the NGOs surveyed here also make short-term placements via the Canadian government’s Youth Employment Strategy (YES) programs, and when these numbers are included the ratio of short-term to long-term increases during this time period from 3:1 to 5:1. Thus, whereas the total number of short-term postings rose from 1,609 in 1992-93 to 2,062 in 2002-03, the long-term postings dropped from 515 to 407 over the same time period (Heron, 2004). The Youth Employment Strategy began in 1997 and was designed to help young people to prepare for, obtain, and maintain meaningful employment as a long term result of experience acquired through short-term (usually six-month) internships in four “growth” sectors, one of which is international; indeed, the Canadian government has made short-term assignments overseas a priority (Human Resources Development Canada, 2001). While some YES placements are made via the NGOs in my study, as noted above, a wide variety of Canadian organizations send youth overseas on YES-funded internships. Figures for the first two years of operation were not available from the federal government, but from 1999-2000 to 2003-2004, 8,225 interns have been deployed worldwide, including within Canada, via YES programs operating through six federal government departments. Of these interns, approximately 4,563 or 56 percent have gone to Southern countries, and the proportion has been steadily increasing. The most dramatic point emerging from my research, however, proved to be the comparison between, on the one hand, all types of short-term postings, including “core” placements by participating organizations, together with all YES internships to developing countries whether made by participating NGOs or other organizations; and, on the other hand, all current long-term placements by participating NGOs. If all types of short-term postings are taken into account, the ratio of short-term over long-term placements mentioned above receives a substantial boost: the current short-term to long-term ratio becomes more than 7:1.

This study did not encompass two other sectors with significant involvement in short-term postings overseas. One is the mainstream Christian churches. Previous research I conducted on how organizations are preparing volunteers for the changing development context in Africa revealed that the churches, too, are experiencing a shift in the length of time for which people are willing to volunteer for assignments overseas. This is driving the churches towards short-term postings (Heron, 2003). The other sector is comprised of Canadian colleges and universities in general. Post secondary education has been increasingly supportive of international experiences for Canadian students. The 93 member universities of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) have carried out more than 2,000 international development projects in the past 30 years, many of these involving short-term placements for students (AUCC, 2004). While AUCC members access federal government internships for their students, a great number of students personally fund their participation in international postings related to course assignments. Consequently, the 7:1 ratio above is clearly a significant under-estimate.

Finally, there is a little-recognized but increasingly significant parallel pathway to international experience that has been evolving over the last ten years or so: internet opportunities for very short-term postings abroad, particularly in developing countries. By very short-term is meant lengths of stay as short as two to three weeks. Included here are websites operated by organizations such as Globe Aware (, Habitat for Humanity (, Global Crossroad (globalcrossroad.com), Global Volunteers ( and Earthwatch ( that offer assistance in what the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper has termed “voluntouring,” combining a volunteer experience with tourism. With headquarters in the United States, these organizations can be contacted from anywhere in the world via the internet (Mejia, 2005). While voluntour opportunities are not restricted to the South, this seems to be the area of greatest appeal. As early as July 2000, Newsweek ran a story about a growing interest in the United States in voluntouring, noting that Cross-Cultural Solutions (crossculturalsolutions.org), an organization that places vacationers on 21-day projects like teaching English to village children in Ghana, had seen demand consistently double from students, professionals, and retirees from 1995-2000 (Klein, 2000). There are other international volunteering opportunities available to Canadians via the internet as well. do-it (do-it.org) in England provides a comprehensive listing of overseas volunteer-sending organizations and other websites, such as Idealist (idealist.org) which claims to list “over 23,000 non-profit and community organisations in 153 countries” (do-it, 2004). There is also i-to-i Volunteer Travel ( which is based in the UK with offices in the USA, Ireland, and Australia. i-to-i claims to have assisted 3,500 people to get involved in volunteer projects in 24 different countries in the one year (i-to-i, 2005).

Thus, the proliferation of short-term postings is much broader than the development sector, YES internships, church volunteer-sending, and post-secondary educational placements – not to speak of schools of social work. More importantly, as is apparent from the foregoing internet discussion, the rather large numbers of Canadians heading overseas in the short-term are not alone in a global sense. Hachey (1998) asserts that with the advent of the YES internships, Canada finally began to catch up to the United States, the UK, and western European countries in making international experiences available to its citizens. Similarly, the AUCC’s international involvement is not a Canada-centric trend, but one that is being replicated by colleges and universities throughout the United States, the European Union, and Australia and New Zealand. In sum, the rapidly proliferating presence of Northerners on short-term postings in developing countries has become a feature of North-South relations, and seems to comprise a new dimension of globalization. This outpouring of Northerners is predominantly white and middle-class.

Ethical Implications

It could be argued that if international placements are so widespread, Canadian schools of social work would be well advised to join the prevailing direction. Proponents of internationalization in universities in countries of the North would argue that such partnerships, of which student placements comprise only one part, “will enrich and inspire us while providing important assistance to colleagues abroad” (Gillespie, 2003, p. 7); that the experience of “culture shock” on the part of students in overseas placements can lead to a new global perspective (Epprecht, 2004, p. 9); and that, in the case of social work, through international placements students “will begin to make a significant impact across the globe” (Rehner, 2003, p. 4).

Webb (2003) offers a rare alternative viewpoint, arguing for what he terms “local cultural orders of reflexivity” that concentrate on “the raw stuff of interactions, plans and morality” as the ethical core of social work practice (p. 202). Such a conceptualization of practice is incompatible with the linking of globalization (however it is defined) with social work, and international practica in particular, because it relies on the social worker sharing in-depth understanding with local communities. This depth of knowledge, of “being-here” accrues to those who are from the same cultural and linguistic background. Webb’s argument is predicated on the notion of the “encumbered self,” which he holds in opposition to the liberal conception of the “unencumbered” self: the individual whose self exists a priori and who is, therefore, free to (rationally) choose. The “encumbered self”, in contrast, is one whose identity is constituted in and by multiple positions structured through power relations, and is bound by community norms. This is a notion drawn from Sandel (1984) and it resonates with the view of self which I will develop here.

It seems to me that there is need for further discussion about the ethics of international practica from a critical social work perspective. By critical perspective I am referring to an analysis of relations of power that produce social injustice, particularly the operation of historically derived, materially-linked interlocking systems of oppression. This is a perspective similar to that called for in the Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work’s accreditation standards (CASSW, 2005). Following Healy (2005), I include in my understanding of a critical social work perspective both self-reflexivity and a commitment to “co-participatory rather than authoritarian practice relations” (Ife, Healy, Spratt, and Solomon, 2005, p. 14). I suggest that extending a critical perspective to the choice about international practica raises ethical considerations which are all the more urgent in light of the volume of Northerners journeying to developing countries for short-term placements and the brevity of social work practica. To elucidate these considerations, I will examine a number of aspects: Northern motivations for Southern postings, the effects of the globalization on developing countries, the impact of Northern postings on Southern partners, and issues around the adjustment process and learning for Canadians.

Northern Motivations for Southern Postings

What I have traced in the first part of this paper are some of the mechanics of a phenomenon that is now widespread and firmly entrenched in Canada and other Northern countries and a feature of life for organizations and communities in developing countries. However, charting the prevalence of short-term postings does not serve to explain what has produced this phenomenon in the first place. I am not referring to the specific histories behind the various work-study programs et al, or the advent of technologies that make it possible to arrange postings via the internet. Altruism has a lot to do with the advent of large numbers of short-term international placements, of course, and this is, prima facie, a noble aspiration. Adventure and the opportunity to travel are also factors for many people. However, beyond personal motivations, there seems to be something else at work that renders such choices both pervasive and normalized: something more fundamental that invites interrogation from a critical perspective. There are two points I would raise by way of explanation. One is that altruism, like helping, has its underside: that which invokes the altruistic response. Rossiter (2001) explores this in relation to social work, and I draw from her in making this argument. The other point is related: the sense of entitlement to intervene, to help, to act altruistically elsewhere. I shall explore each of these aspects in turn.

What calls to Canadian/Northern altruism are the images of real-life conditions in which the majority of peoples in Southern countries are struggling to survive. Social issues and groups deemed to be in need through no fault of their own – what social work once called the deserving poor – are to be found in abundance in these countries due in large part to the effects of economic globalization processes which will be examined below. Southern peoples in general and particular groups within Southern societies, such as “women,” “street kids” and “AIDS orphans,” may be easily construed as victims without agency, and hence in need of “saving” by concerned outsiders who feel morally impelled to act. Inherent in such a view is the othering that operates when a group of people is treated as an implicitly homogenous category to be acted on. Such an interpretation is enabled by the absence of an analysis of both what has produced/continues to produce social issues in Southern countries, the differential effects of such processes, and the efforts of Southern peoples to negotiate and resist the injustices they face. Even if education programs attempt to impart such an analysis, the portrayal of “Third World” poverty is relentlessly presented via the media and many aid agencies’ fund raising efforts in Canada as a kind of national, or in the case of Africa a continental, deficit: a lack that simply is. This is a portrayal which has its roots in colonial representations, and as such is ingrained in the discursive frameworks of Canadians and other Northerners (see Pieterse, 1992, for an exposition of this point in relation to Africa). Hence this “knowledge” of developing countries is difficult to overwrite with newer, more complex understandings that complicate – and implicate – the position of Southerners and Northerners.

To the contrary, this view of the South as in need is in some respects a comforting one for Canadians and other Northerners, since it eclipses the fact that the impoverishment of Southern countries and their peoples contributes to the economic base of middle-class life in the North: a consequence of globalization processes. The latter perspective could foster an analysis of the mutually constitutive relationship between short-term international postings on the part of Northerners and Southern “need”: viz., short-term international placements may be understood as both product and actualization of the material privilege of middle-class Northern lifestyles which are in turn implicated in the economic exploitation of the South, the very exploitation which underlies the social problems Northerners feel called upon to alleviate. Such an awareness, if fully embraced, could lead to a different sense of self for Canadians and other Northerners, responsibility to take action for global economic and social justice, and a problematization of the rightness of Canadian/Northern sojourns in the South.

To substantially transform the ways in which Canadians are produced to know the developing world is, fundamentally, to produce a shift in conception from an unencumbered to a specifically encumbered self, to invoke Webb’s (2003) usage of these concepts. This entails challenging not only the innocence (of not being implicated and of simply “helping”), but also the entitlement that goes hand in hand with such a perspective. By entitlement I am referring to an axiomatic assumption that Canadians and other Northerners can and should feel welcome to “help” anywhere in the world – it is a right. Pratt (1992), McClintock (1995) and others engaged in critically studying colonialism trace the origins of this sense of entitlement to the era of empire, where it was intrinsic to the formation of bourgeois (white, middle-class) identity. I have argued that this remains the case today (Heron, 1999). Thus, rather than manifesting the rational choice of the unencumbered self, the normalized way that students and others have taken up short-term international postings, now that this option is widely available, demonstrates an aspect of encumberment. In this latter view of identity formation, entitlement is deeply structured in and constituted through the knowledge, discussed above, that Canadians and other Northerners hold about other parts of the world. I am not suggesting that this is all there is to the attraction of short-term postings in developing countries, but that this is a critical view of such postings that tends to be unrecognized, and that needs to be given more careful consideration.

The Effects of Globalization on Developing Countries

To appreciate how developing countries become impoverished through the processes of globalization and how their social problems have been produced requires an understanding of the impact of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) conditionalities which have been applied by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other multilateral and bilateral donors to the economies and social policies of developing countries for almost twenty-five years now (see George, 1989; Bello, 1996; and currently ). Some economies respond better than others, i.e., trade may increase, gross national products may rise, and infrastructure may be developed. However, throughout the South there are similar effects: national economies are “open for business” with transnational corporations which benefit from SAP-imposed low labour and environmental standards; state-run enterprises are abandoned while services and national resources are privatized, resulting in foreign ownership and exploitation for profit of even essential services, such as water supply; national currencies drop rapidly in value producing high rates of inflation; the middle classes begin to disappear, and most people are pushed more and more deeply into poverty; political instability with attendant militarization often ensues; social relations undergo transformation; and, related to the latter, social problems are generated, for example, the advent of “street kids,” unprecedented manifestations of gender subordination, and in Africa in particular – but rapidly taking hold elsewhere – high rates of HIV/AIDS infection. This is a fast-changing situation within developing countries where for most people, including the disintegrating middle classes, daily life is a constant challenge and source of stress. There are exceptions, however, since SAP conditionalities also generate great wealth for a small business/political/military elite. Northern donors’ support for civil society over the last 15 years or so has helped to produce a significant indigenous NGO response to these effects. Local NGO personnel, however, are functioning under the same intensifying pressures that are impacting other people in their countries.

In this context it would seem that the outsider position occupied by Northerners throughout a short-term stay in the South should raise an ethical flag that needs to be recognized. Since foreigners, including social work students on practica, are necessarily removed from the day-to-day struggles that envelope the energies and efforts of their co-workers and supervisors, not to speak of the people whom indigenous NGOs are trying to serve or represent, it would appear evident that brief stays by those who come to learn and/or to “help” must inevitably result in a somewhat superficial understanding. Although such experiences may impart a connection to the facts of poverty on a global scale, which Rehner (2004) dramatically refers to as being faced with “the horror of a poverty level they [social work students] could never have imagined possible” (p. 3), this exposure may also unavoidably take on a voyeuristic aspect. What is more troubling is that, due to the anachronistic perception of Southern countries that prevails for Canadians and other Northerners, discussed above, what one “sees for oneself” on a short-term practicum can come to stand for the truth of the a “Third World” that resonates with media portrayals and, thus, actually foreclose deeper analysis of what has been experienced. This is in part a result of the short duration of time spent in a Southern country. Unless one stays for some extended period of time, or visits a country more than once over time, one may know intellectually that there has been a great deal of change, but that knowledge remains at best theoretical. This has been made vividly clear in my research comparing the narratives of 28 Canadian women who have done development work on two-year or longer contracts in sub-Saharan Africa over the last 24 years: 18 women who were in Africa from the early 1980's to the mid-1990's (Heron, 1999) and 10 more who were there from the late 1990's to 2004. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have undergone considerable transformation in that time, yet development workers’ retrospective narratives do not reflect an awareness of these changes unless the person has experienced a particular country either at intervals or continuously over a number of years.

Impact on Southern Partners

Why do Southern NGOs agree to host Northerners on short-term postings? Epprecht (2004) suggests that a primary reason may be funding, since “tied aid” can function in a subtle way, meaning that there may be a perception or indeed an expectation that accepting Northern personnel in some capacity is an unspoken requirement of Northern donor organizations. I would add that a reality for most Southern development NGOs is that without foreign funding they could not function, or perhaps even exist. Consequently, many organizations may perceive that they have little choice in the matter of accepting Northerners on placements. Epprecht notes, too, that there can be other welcome benefits in having Northerners on staff: the cheap labour and skills of volunteers, and goodwill and long-term ties to Northern donors and their countries. Razack (2003) states that Southern organizations hosting social work students on practica do benefit from their skills and fresh ideas.

However, the volume of people from Canada, the United States, the UK and so on who undertake short-term postings in developing countries suggests that there may be an unintended impact on the sustainability of Southern NGOs and communities. The concept of sustainable livelihoods emphasizes people’s capacities to “generate and maintain their means of living, [and] enhance their well-being and that of future generations,” and this depends on “equity, ownership of resources and participatory decision-making” (International Institute for Sustainable Development, quoted in Nelles, 1999, p. 807). Although Canadians and other Northerners on short-term postings may intend to be supportive of sustainable development processes, it is difficult to imagine how the constant turnover of newcomers could be effectively channeled to strengthen Southern people’s efforts towards sustainable livelihoods. Furthermore, it seems likely that certain organizations may be especially singled out to receive Northerners on placements, in much the same way that some are favoured by foreign donors financially. This raises an ethical question about the use of scarce resources, in terms of time and personnel, that are required to support Canadians and other Northerners on short-term assignments.

A related but crucially important point is that the volume of short-term Northern personnel would seem to limit Southern peoples’ opportunities to claim or retain some epistemological space in which to analyze issues in their own terms. Nimmagada and Cowger’s (1999) study on Indian social workers’ ability to indigenize knowledge acquired in a Western-derived training program demonstrates that there is considerable agency operating, and that cultural imperialism is resisted. Unfortunately, individual acts of resistance do not change the epistemological onslaught that Shiva (1993) has so aptly named the monoculture of the mind. The presence of innumerable Northerners operating from a Western knowledge base, broadly speaking, furthers this monoculturation process. Yet when learning is discussed in relation to international social work practica, it is framed in terms of reciprocity. This is, no doubt, a valuable aspect of such practica, but attending only to mutuality omits, even obscures, the existence of North-to-South information flows, who is learning what from whom, and, indeed, the reality of whose knowledge is deemed to truly count. Rather than opening up issues that need to be grappled with if Canadian and other Northern social work students are to avoid adding to the imposition of Northern knowledge on Southern organizations where they are placed, the claim of reciprocity then becomes another story that secures Northerners’ innocence.

Adjustment and Cross-Cultural Learning

These concerns also have implications for the justifying short-term postings in terms of cross-cultural learning. It is widely assumed in social work literature that cross-cultural engagement and learning are attainable results of international practica (Sachdev, 1997; Krajewski-Jaime, Brown, Ziefert, and Kaufman, 1996; and Horncastle, 1994). However, some writers from other fields suggest otherwise. For example, the report of a research project carried out just over ten years ago under the auspices of CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency) regarding experiences of North-South partnerships from the perspectives of African development NGOs notes that staff in 170 indigenous NGOs in five countries in east, central, and southern Africa expressed considerable frustration with short-term volunteers, particularly those on learning placements: “Especially upsetting was the fact that most of the Northerners coming to the South lacked basic understanding of and respect for, local cultures and customs” (Muchunguzi and Milne, 1995, p. 19). Referring to international work-study programs, Epprecht (2004) comments that the standard wisdom used to be that overseas stays of six to twelve months were necessary in order for students to have a meaningful outcome: periods of less than six months were deemed liable to produce a resentful or patronizing response to the culture of the host country. Epprecht goes on to affirm that this is consistent with his own observations and experiences, stating: “...anything less than two years seems to avoid the emotional separation from home that is so important to cross-cultural learning. If the tunnel is too short, the light at the end of it remains critically distracting” (p. 24). The Muchunguzi and Milne report above also supports this conclusion: “...it takes at least six months just to gain a basic understanding of the setting they are in” (p. 42). This is consistent with the Parfitt’s (1998) assertion that ex-patriate nurses working for less than two years in developing countries may not have made all the mental adjustments that are needed in order to function effectively in the overseas context. Contrary to the arguments usually put forward in defense of international social work practica which chart the adjustment process of Canadian or other Northern students in positive terms, in light of these comments I would suggest that from the perspective of the host placement organizations the experience may be less optimistic.

Indeed, Razack’s (2005) study of 18 Canadian students who participated in international practica suggests that, although students do learn a lot, if the principal motivation is the acquisition of cross-cultural skills, ironically, the result can be that Northern superiority is reproduced. An explanation may lie in the convergence of factors that have been discussed here: the way in which Canadians and other Northerners are produced to think of Southern countries in anachronistic/ahistorical terms, in conjunction with the lived experience of a new context which does not require a letting go of one’s own frame of reference because of the relative brevity of stay. This, of course, is the case with a social work practicum of only three or four months in duration. What can also be detected inhering in the notion of cross-cultural learning is the same innocence that surfaced about assumptions of reciprocity in respect to other kinds of learning noted above.

(How) Do We Proceed?

It may seem from the arguments presented here that the ethical response for Canadian schools of social work would be a cessation of all international social work practica. However, I am not urging such a conclusion. Not only is this impractical, given the present acceleration of internationalization in Canadian academia, but my own personal history of involvement in the South demonstrates to me what such an exposure can contribute to the development of a critical perspective of the kind discussed earlier. At the same time, however, I strongly propose that the ethical challenges of the current juncture call for a more carefully thought out, and possibly restrained, response to the complexities, benefits, and potential harm of adding to the onrush of short-term Northerners to Southern countries. Elsewhere I have argued that the rapidly-changing sub-Saharan Africa context demands a different kind of preparation for social work students embarking on international practica (Heron, 2005); here I want to engage with Razack’s (2003) point that both preparation and follow up work with international practica students is crucial to critical learning. First, however, I will situate the possibility of this learning in the context of the international commitment of the schools of social work that engage in overseas placements.

Johnson (2004) has asserted that progress along Healy’s 1986 continuum of internationalization is desirable for the international involvements of schools of social work. At one end of Healy’s continuum is “tolerance,” in the middle is “responsiveness,” and at the other end is “commitment.” Commitment entails: (1) a well-articulated program of study and independent work; (2) an international practicum program with “adequate preparation;” and (3) a school-maintained program that has a specified purpose and accountability. I would like to add a fourth category to the continuum, that of “critical commitment,” which would include: (1) the development of a shared, critical analysis of North-South relations within the Canadian school of social work intending to support international practica; (2) a periodic review of the ethics of participating in international work as a school; (3) the development of long-term, reciprocal partnerships with Southern schools of social work in respect to international practica; and (4) the creation of effective critical learning for limited numbers of students participating in international practica. The first point is necessary for all the others. Only if there is a shared analysis that is critical in perspective will there be a basis for ethical reviews of the school’s international work; a commitment to the model of long-term, reciprocal relationships with Southern partners as the basis of international practica; a conceptual foundation from which to develop a curriculum that supports critical learning on the part of students who embark on international placements, and an appreciation of the reasons for limiting their numbers – an act which in and of itself begins to reverse the actualization of entitlement that normally inheres in student choices about practica in Southern countries. This paper has hopefully demonstrated that the international context for social work practica can and does change rapidly, necessitating period reviews of the appropriateness of such placements and their structure.

Like myself, Johnson (2004), Polack and Chadha (2004), and others have written about the kinds of topics that students should be exposed to in order to develop their global awareness and/or and prepare them for international placements. These include colonization, globalization, Third World debt, and identity and diversity and anti-oppressive practice theory (Heron, 2005). What Razack is proposing, however, seems to me to be both a significant departure from the usual pedagogical approach, and a key way forward in supporting not only the development of a critical analysis, but also challenging the entitlement that I have suggested underlies and enables the Northern proclivity for short-term postings in Southern countries. If, as noted above, there is a danger of international practica, by virtue of their relative brevity, contributing to a hardening of perspective rather than a critical analysis, and of cross-cultural learning solidifying a Canadian/Northern sense of superiority, it would seem that a pivotal moment lies in deconstructing, rather than simply de-briefing, students’ understandings of their practica experiences following their return. Such deconstruction could take the form of at least two courses to be completed following the international practicum. An advanced seminar on globalization, including the colonial roots of current processes, would have more meaning for students at this point, and provide an opportunity to reflect on some nuances of the practicum experience that might otherwise remain unexamined. An advanced course on identity and diversity, with particular emphasis on critical race theory, would also seem to be especially relevant. The aim would be to enable students to critically interrogate their own positioning in relations of power in their practica, and similarities to and differences from how they are positioned in Canada. This learning, in turn, could strengthen the probability of students developing more critical awareness of how a sense of entitlement may have pervaded and shaped their responses to cultural differences and other challenges in the Southern context, and their motivations for going in the first place. In other words, students may begin to deeply internalize an understanding that in quite particular ways they are encumbered selves, and to perhaps move toward an appreciation of the limits of their engagement in, and corresponding knowledge of, the Southern country of their posting. This, then, opens up the possibility of creating new, more genuinely critical meanings from their experiences.

There are no guarantees, of course, that such learning will result. However, in light of the ethical issues outlined here, it seems that if Canadian and other Northern schools of social work are to continue to chose to arrange for international practica, they face a moral imperative to find ways of doing this that minimize the negative impacts for peoples and organizations in the South, and increase the chances that those students who pursue international practica do become more critically aware as a consequence of these experiences.

References

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Barbara Heron, Ph.D., can be contacted via e-mail at: bheron@yorku.ca.
 

 

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