LensShift Focus: June 2018


neocolonialism foreign aid inequality wealth racism culture stereotype natural resources voluntourism

Did you know... that there are new resources added to our library every week?

 We wanted to highlight what our focus has been over the last few weeks of June-- thinking about how colonialism continues to play out in modern times. Sound interesting? Below you’ll find a summary of the key highlights of pieces that were added to our library last month.


POWER STRUCTURES | While the overt colonialism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has faded, the power structures created by those colonial powers continues today. Much of the modern power and wealth imbalances between nations have their roots in the economic systems created during colonial times when the colonizers owned and controlled the production, management, distribution, and export of natural and cultural resources, and the colonized people became the low-wage labor force for the owner class.

Many people have tried to explain the multiple causes and effects of the economic and social power imbalance of the modern world. Some claim that they have the solution to extreme poverty, and by creating specific, focused, development plans, on a case-by-case basis, the international community can work toward a better economic future. Others debate the merits and deficiencies of foreign aid and remittances, their use for humanitarian efforts versus economic growth, and the influence of corruption in countries with high rates of poverty. In some people’s minds, the lack of good governance and accountability are at the root of many problems. The mismanagement of revenue, particularly in countries that have experienced great windfalls from resource extraction, is cited as prime cause of ongoing poverty in those same countries. In addition, when societal forces promoting less government (sometimes referred to as economic neoliberalism) remove support structures for those affected by systematic bias, an even greater economic and power imbalance can arise.

CULTURE | ‘Traditional culture’ has become something of a commodity in former and/or current colonial nations in areas as disparate as reality television or youthful slang or holiday icons. This idea of ‘traditional culture’ can be used to form a sort of “nation-brand,” where some aspects of an area’s traditions can serve to create the identity of an entire country or region of the world. This can occur even when those cultural traditions play a very minor part in the everyday reality of a place. The question arises whether members of colonizing cultures and their descendants have a moral right to ‘borrow’ from the cultural traditions of those who were colonized, particularly in the case of “cultural appropriation,” when there is no consideration of the effects on the culture with less power. Is it cultural abuse when a visitor usurps the story of a host community to make it all about themselves? A common narrative of the global south centers not on the real people and interesting communities encountered, but instead about the trials and tribulations of someone from the west; making the story a prayer of gratitude for the westerner. Finally, some traditions perpetuate potentially negative stereotypes, and necessitate thoughtful consideration about who is being harmed, whether the tradition can be made less harmful by rebranding with a more sanitized backstory, or whether that is just a coverup for an unsavory and less sensitive past.

ECONOMICS | Recent studies have shown that western countries and businesses extract several times more resources and wealth from countries of the global south than they return to those countries in the form of wages and foreign aid. In 2016, the imbalance between economic output of the global south was estimated at over ten times the input from foreign aid, investment, and labor costs due mainly to dramatic growth in income inequality with the global north. Also, while the United States is a major contributor, and despite the beliefs of the majority of Americans surveyed that over a quarter of the US national budget goes to foreign aid, even the US allocates a very minor portion (1% of $4 trillion in 2014) to international assistance. More recent remarks from the current American president provoked conflicting responses to whether it was exploitative or refreshingly positive for western businesses to look toward African markets as a source of wealth. The jury is still out whether any new influx of investment will continue the trend of exporting profits or keep the benefits for the communities.


Stay tuned in July for our focus on voluntourism; we plan to launch both a stream and practical guide related to it! If you’d like to get a jump start on the topic, here are a few thought-provoking resources to get you in the mood: 

What's wrong with volunteer travel? Using personal experience as a volunteer to explain how volunteering out of sympathy can create more problems than it solves.

The Reality of Voluntourism and the Conversations We're Not HavingAll volunteers should be mindful of their impact and critically consider who and where they will impact before embarking on volunteer trips.

20 Crucial Questions to Ask Before Working for a Social Good OrganizationThe questions prospective volunteers should ask themselves before volunteering with an organization. 


LensShift is looking for somebody to join our team as a Communications and Social Media Fellow. Know somebody who'd be a good fit? Here's information on the role and how to apply (deadline: July 27th). We'd appreciate your help in getting the word out!