We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
In Tajikistan unofficial ambassador Anabelle Suitor talks about what citizen diplomacy means to her based on her experiences thus far at the Bactria Cultural Center in Dushanbe where she is teaching English.
I and the other girls in our group read an article recently on ‘voluntourism’. The article described the idea of volunteering abroad for your own personal benefit, not to actually make an impact abroad. We had a discussion on the differences between what we were doing and what the article described. Is what I am doing making an impact on my personal career goals or an impact on the lives of individuals and communities in Tajikistan?
It’s undeniable that this experience is benefiting me as a volunteer. However, my benefit is not the end goal. The skills and knowledge I gain are not most important. I’m forming solid and lasting relationships with my students. I’ve added them on facebook, I email them, I tell them to send me their essays for scholarships or application processes and I will give them feed-back. I tell them once I return I will skype them and help them practice their English. In Tajikistan, I’m engaged with individiuals, I’m taking part in something called citizen diplomacy.
There’s a trend amongst volunteers and within the international development community to view the society they want to help as something in need of saving or re-creation. This type of help is offered with a rhetoric that is once subjugating and benevolent. To step away from this model of voluntourism, we need to change the way we see ‘help.’ As individual volunteers it is not our job to change a society. It’s paternalistic to think we can and should change the society we are guests to. We can help individuals, though. And these individuals are the ones who hold the key to maintaing a healthy society.
I can help my students here as I would help students at home. I can help my friends here as I would help my friends at home. I can have discussions with my students and friends here on social and political issues, as I can have discussions with my friends on these issues. As I can disagree with my friends at home, I can disagree with my friends and students here.
In one of my classes we recently had a reading about women’s literacy. I followed this with a discussion on the importance of education in society, which led to a discussion on the importance of educating women, which led to a discussion on the role of women in society. We had a lively debate in English on each of these topics. There were individuals who disagreed with the opinions of other individuals. There were individuals who agreed with the opinions of individuals. There were opinions I agreed with and those that I disagreed with.
I’m sure if I brought these issues up with my friends from home I’d feel the same.
It is not my job as a volunteer to impose my opinions, to impose my remedies on the society of a country of which I am so blessed to be welcomed to. It is my job to grant valuable skills to my students so they can take care of their country, their community, their families, or themselves in the way they see fit.
Here’s an example: We went to Varzob, and there was a large family that came to the pool we were swimming at. One of the other volunteers was in the water teaching the students how to swim, while I was translating the instructions. My place as a volunteer is similar to our place at this pool in Varzob. We gave the kids swimming skills that they could use as they like in the future. They can go swimming in lakes, they can go swimming in pools or they can just decide not to swim. We don’t decide what they should do with these skills, but it is our job to help give them skills that allow them to do what will bring them benefit.
This to me, is citizen diplomacy.