North-South Educational Partnerships and Study Abroad trips – Benefits and potential pitfalls

By Maxine Cleminson

Over the last 30 years, Study Abroad trips and partnerships linking schools in North America and Europe with those in low-to-middle income countries (LMICs) in Africa and Asia have become an established and widespread practice.  Their popularity has been driven by a number of factors including meeting curriculum requirements for subjects such as citizenship and social studies; offering students opportunities to undertake community service, missionary, or charitable projects; and even political agendas.  But are they a good thing? This article aims to examine some of the benefits and potential pitfalls of such experiential learning programs.

The history of North-South Educational Partnerships

In the aftermath of World War II, the long and painful process of decolonization began in earnest with former colonies of European countries slowly achieving national sovereignty and independence.  However, for many of the former colonies, this did not make huge differences in the real power dynamic at play. Rather, there was simply a move to a more indirect rule by the former colonial powers through the globalization of economic activity.

The shift to globalized neoliberal politics in the post-Cold War era reinforced rather than revoked the concept of a helpless “Global South” – a term often used in academia in place of the archaic term “Third World” to refer to low income, technologically underdeveloped countries that used to be colonies of rich European nations and are still often viewed paternalistically by their former oppressors (most, but not all, are in the southern hemisphere).  In this political landscape, issues of development became increasingly prominent in the eyes of policy makers in the “Global North” (rich nations of Europe and North America), who commonly implemented North-South partnerships as a favored development strategy.  Thus, from the mid-1980s, education and development goals started to become inextricably linked.  The use of North-South Partnerships in educational contexts became increasingly widespread after the introduction of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), fueled by funding from governments keen to be seen meeting their development goals. 

The benefits of North-South Educational Partnerships and Study Abroad programs

There are several obvious benefits for students in high income countries who participate in North-South Educational Partnerships or Study Abroad programs in LMICs: increased intercultural awareness and the development of 21st-century skills are the two biggest benefits.

Development of Intercultural Awareness

An important theory that is useful in the context of North-South Educational Partnerships is Intercultural Education Theory.  Interculturality, or the bringing together of culturally different populations, has often brought problems, as can be seen in the world today with rising animosity towards migrant groups in many places.  However, there are two educational approaches that aim to counteract the negative outcomes associated with relations between differing cultural groups.  The first, and more traditional approach, is Multicultural Education whereby learning about other cultures in a static, factual way is encouraged in an attempt to foster tolerance.   In contrast, Intercultural Education is defined by UNESCO as going “beyond passive coexistence”.  This is an approach that encourages dialogue between cultural groups to enable better understanding and respect for differences.

The significance of this theory for North-South Educational Partnerships and Study Abroad programs is that they can be considered useful vehicles to promote intercultural awareness.  There is a strong correlation between intercultural education and achieving equity and equality amongst a student body, and these types of programs can be regarded as useful tools for delivering an intercultural education.  Exposing students from high income countries to people and cultures from LMICs can develop their intercultural awareness and increase their empathy, respect, and tolerance for others.

A group of students from the UK enjoying the beach with their host school partners in Cape Coast, Ghana. Photo credit: Maxine Cleminson, 2003.
Preparing young people for life in a globalized world

Education policies and practices across the world have clearly been impacted by the forces of globalization, and this is particularly evident when considering the concept of ‘skills’ in education.  Until the end of the 20th century, school curricula were usually based around traditional subjects with a major emphasis on the development of content knowledge.  However, the forces of globalization from the 1960s onwards, particularly the technological advancements experienced during this period, led to a realization that young people would need a different set of skills to navigate life in the 21st-century.  Initially, these were conceived as ‘soft skills’ – the sorts of things often listed on generic job descriptions: being a team player, having good communication skills, being able to use one’s initiative and being a problem-solver – along with the usual ICT, literacy and numeracy skills.  In other words, the skills needed for life in the 21st-century must be transferable rather than specific to a particular task.

As the forces of globalization have increased, this understanding of ‘skills’ has been repeatedly expanded to include things like intercultural understanding, critical thinking, risk-taking, innovation, and flexibility.  There has also been a dramatic shift in focus towards programs that equip learners with the necessary skills for knowledge generation, acquisition, diffusion and exploitation, and a prioritizing of technical and vocational subjects.  In national educational policies, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects are increasingly given greater priority over humanities and social sciences in an attempt to promote skills essential for global competitiveness. Like it or loathe it, the term “21st-century skills” has been, and continues to be, a dominant theme in educational discourse.

North-South Educational Partnerships and Study Abroad programs are often touted as excellent opportunities for students to develop these 21st-century skills to supplement their education, particularly because many schools still rigidly adhere to traditional subject/knowledge-based curricula. According to the US Government, Department of State, the advantages of participation in Study Abroad programs are clear:

By studying abroad, you will experience new perspectives, learn how to navigate different cultures, work with diverse peers, and communicate in other languages … these are the skills that will prepare you to solve the world’s toughest challenges, make you more competitive in the job market, and transform you into a responsible, engaged citizen.

US Government, Department of State

The potential pitfalls of North-South Educational Partnerships and Study Abroad programs

While the benefits of North-South Educational Partnerships and Study Abroad programs are undeniable, this is because these benefits are nearly always viewed from a single perspective – that of the students in high income countries.

Postcolonialism, power, and representation

In the words of academic Vanessa Andreotti, postcolonial theory is “not a theory that gives you the answers, it is a theory that raises lots of questions.”  Put simply, it is a way of understanding the world that takes into account the impact of colonialism. It highlights that the way we know and understand things today reflects the domination of European and North American culture and often excludes the voices of those in the formerly colonized and oppressed nations of the “Global South”. Furthermore, for postcolonial theorists, knowledge goes hand in hand with power – if European ways of knowing are hegemonic it is inevitable that those with this knowledge have power over those who do not – the two are inseparable.  

This has significant ramifications in the context of North-South Educational Partnerships and Study Abroad programs based in the high income countries of Europe and North America. Historically, most of these sorts of partnerships have been initiated, planned, funded, and led by the partner from the high income country, who has been viewed as the knowledgeable partner with the expertise to fulfill this role.  Consequently, the other partner, typically a low income formerly colonized country, is unrepresented in decision making and is often seen as the passive recipient in a donor-recipient relationship.  This lack of voice and representation means that there is an imbalance in power.  Unfortunately, some Study Abroad programs and North-South Educational partnerships, particularly those with service or charitable aims, can unintentionally reinforce stereotypes and attitudes that mimic colonial power relationships rather than action the positive change they perhaps intend.

Taking students on a 10-day trip to ‘make a difference in the lives of poor people’ reinforces the “White Savior” narrative as brutally satirized by the @barbiesavior instagram account. It enables people to ignore inequality because they have participated in activities that make them feel like they are not part of the problem. Overlooking the agency of people in LMICs and the efforts that they are making to improve negative situations in their own countries is harmful and perpetuates colonial stereotypes.

The white savior industrial complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

Teju Cole

Rather, students in high income countries should be encouraged to critically examine their privilege through a postcolonial lens; a viewpoint that prompts them to question the exploitative foreign policies of their home countries that have led to the disparities in development between the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’.

Partnerships: A problematic definition

One of the difficulties faced when reviewing North-South Educational Partnerships, is that the term ‘partnership’ itself is loaded with tacit expectations.  In an educational context, the term partnership is often applied to any situation in which educational institutions forge a link, over-stretching its use to the point where it has become a catch-all term.  However, as discussed already, it is hard to review North-South Educational Partnerships without considering the power imbalances inherent in a postcolonial setting. 

The use of the term ‘partnership’ sets a high expectation for there to be equality between the involved parties.  However, does using the word partnership to describe an educational link mean that the stakeholders must have equality?  For example, should students from LMICs return the favor and visit their educational partner in the high income country to undertake community service? After all, even the wealthiest nations on earth have huge inequality and impoverished sections of the population that would benefit from charitable endeavors. Yet this question itself raises lots more: Does a partnership have to have equality to be effective and meaningful?  Is equity preferable to equality?

Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire.”

If asymmetric power structures are inherent in North-South Educational Partnerships and disadvantage the partners in formerly colonized LMICs, then maybe we should be looking at them from the perspective of asymmetrical benefits, too.  Possibly, the only way to create an equitable partnership is to have unequal (but mutual) benefits. However, yet again it is vital that this is accompanied by discourse to help participants in high income countries “unlearn their privilege” – a phrase coined by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of the world’s leading postcolonial theorists.

To conclude…

North-South Educational Partnerships and Study Abroad programs can be immensely rewarding and beneficial. However, to be truly effective and to bring the benefits to all partners involved, it is imperative that these programs engage students (and organizers) in meaningful discourse that helps them to challenge their assumptions and unpack their privilege.

Follow the GCED Solutions Blog

Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.

One thought on “North-South Educational Partnerships and Study Abroad trips – Benefits and potential pitfalls

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: