Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 208 | Noviembre 1998


Latin America

From North to South: Travel Tips for Cooperants

Sergio Ferrari sends this message from Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff for volunteers and cooperants from the North to include in their luggage when they travel South in the name of solidarity.

Sergio Ferrari

By Sergio Ferrari, a Latin American journalist in Geneva, Switzerland.

Talking with Leonardo Boff is like a "cosmic learning experience," especially when the discussion touches on his holistic vision of the planet and future human potential. Solidarity, in all its manifestations, has a key niche in his overall logic, which is so much a logic of the South.

Nearly twelve thousand European volunteers are currently working in the countries of the South. Many more than that systematically visit countries in Latin America, and to a lesser degree Africa and Asia, as "brigade members," "internationalists," members of sister city and other people to-people projects, or solidarity committees, associations and organizations to offer their services.

Sending cooperants to the South has gained a particularly important place in the sphere of North-South cooperation in the past half-century. In Switzerland, for example, some thirty nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), who have come together in the UNITE platform, are promoting personal exchanges with the most diverse points of the planet.

Some 50 representatives of NGOs belonging to the European Forum, which has 250 member organizations in total, will be meeting in Dulliken, Switzerland, between December 6 and 10, to analyze the pertinence of volunteerships and of the exchange of individuals in development cooperation. Called by UNITE, this gathering will particularly emphasize the further development of shared reflections at this moment in which many essential concepts of the North-to-South-and-home-again relationship require a new depth as we enter the new century already affected by the "old globalization."
How do their counterparts and populations in the South visualize the arrival of volunteers from the North? What expectations do they have of them, what minimum requirements do they want from them? What is the desired human profile of the cooperant? What are the areas and tasks in which the work and exchange can be most effective? These key questions framed Leonardo Boff's reflections in a number of his papers, talks and corridor conversations in the last meeting of Swiss volunteers from UNITE and their local counterparts, held in Camamú, Brazil.

Boff, one of the founders of liberation theology and a university professor who has authored over seventy books, has worked closely and intensely with the marginal communities of his city, Petrópolis. Still one of the intellectual reference points of the Latin American grassroots movement, he is a prestigious counterpart for this conceptual interchange.

Two convictions to start with

"The process that the volunteers should go through even before going to the South is a key aspect," says Boff. "I would dare to say that the first attitude should be one of profound self-criticism, because they come from a continent, Europe, that was our old colonizer."
But, we ask, doesn't requiring this self-criticism run the risk of being too severe on young Europeans who were not directly responsible for this inherited history? Couldn't this requirement of self-blame have a paralyzing effect precisely on the most sensitive people who want to go off to the South?
"This self-criticism has a social function," responds Boff. "It should express a comprehension of the structural inequality between North and South, between the First and Third Worlds. It isn't a sanctioning or a blaming of the individual who decides to go to the South, because the decision to leave the North for the South is already symptomatic. In itself it expresses the decision to `give something back,' once that understanding of the historical inequalities that mark us all has been reached."
Leonardo Boff underscores another essential element prior to the cooperants' departure to the South: education of praxis. "All work with the people should be endowed with certain methodological approaches. I cannot imagine, for example, cooperants from Switzerland coming to work with our peasants, indigenous peoples or slumdwellers without previously familiarizing themselves with the thinking of Paulo Freire. Having a good understanding of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Education as Practice of Freedom and Pedagogy of Hope is a basic condition, because the first and most essential thing is that they recognize and value the knowledge and know-how that is already here in the South."
"The people need knowledge, professional know-how, and the volunteers should socialize—exchange—what they know," says Boff. Those who come can contribute an "architectural" know-how, but without disparaging popular knowledge, in fact recognizing that it is very valid because it has come out of experience and suffering; it has been accumulated and passed down in tradition.

"This mutual exchange is enormously important. Volunteers should also shake off the false humility that they sometimes have, in which they don't talk at moments when they should. They have to share what they bring, yes, but using the forms of popular pedagogy to return people's self-esteem to them, strengthening the dignity of those who were historically massacred."

Four Essential Values

If a constant openness to learning should be an indispensable starting point for all "cooperators," as Boff calls them to give them a dynamic character as social actors, other basic attitudes also exist for the always complex process of coming to earth culturally.

The first one that comes to Boff's mind is "the renunciation of all arrogance." As he explains, "In olden times the colonizers came with their military apparatus. It is essential not to repeat that history with other nuances. The concept of paternalistic and missionary `aid' has to be eliminated. The ideology that should be defended is not that of founding fathers and mothers. If they come to `help' they are of no use; it's better that they stay where they are. If they come to exchange and strengthen mutual knowledge, then Welcome! Renouncing arrogance implies understanding that they bring a know-how that is to be applied but also will encounter a lot of know-how that they can and should learn.

"It is also vital to renounce any spirit of private appropriation. Many come to Latin America to use us as research material. They come to do a thesis or an experiment, and afterwards go back to their countries of origin, leaving nothing for the South. They should resist this attitude of appropriation. And to counter it, they should even strengthen their role as volunteers when they get back home. They should become agents of social exchange when they return, helping see to it that exchanging know-how and culture bears fruit in creating a more holistic vision of the universe, understanding that there is only one Mother Earth and it belongs to us all.

"In addition, it is indispensable to have a very clear willingness to incorporate into our societies. They are not coming from abroad to invent everything anew, to start from scratch. They should come to integrate into a community, into the dynamic of a process that is already underway.

"Given this, another key attitude, an essential one, is being open to enriching oneself through difference. This doesn't mean the same thing as promoting inequality, which is a constant temptation, because deep-down they think that `black is inferior' or that `peasants don't know anything.' The richness of human nature lies in difference. It is expressed in a thousand ways. Our entire Western culture has a terrible time coexisting with difference. We have to become comfortable and happy with difference, to learn from it. Difference complements us.

"This doesn't mean negating the fact of being Swiss, European or from the North. Negating it is bad. They will always be Swiss, European or from the North. The important thing is to transmit your own richness. I was recently in Switzerland and found myself admiring the profoundly democratic sense of that people. It is the most direct democracy I know of, and perhaps the only one of its kind. We should know about these things in the South because the basis of our struggle in Brazil is to move beyond the current representative democracy, which is delegated, non-participatory. We want a participatory democracy. It is important that those who come from Switzerland communicate their experience to us. We know there are problems in Switzerland, like anywhere else, and there's no reason to hide them, but citizenship is a social reality that has been won there, and we should know about that. The difference between the volunteers and us is important. They don't have to hide their identity. Interchange enriches humanity. It will also be important for them to take a little bit of our 'Brazilian flexibility' back to Europe, but without ever forgetting to communicate to us what is it that makes you what you are."

In a mutating world

In such a deep and dialectic way of thinking as Boff's, the global, planetary parameters cannot be ignored even when it comes to analyzing cooperation and solidarity. And the advice is not long in coming:
"The picture of the world has changed. Certain facets of the North-South discourse have become somewhat relative. We are increasingly moving toward a new phase. Some 80% of the world's business is done North-North, between wealthy countries. Latin America is barely part of this cycle, with its skimpy 3%. This shows us that we cannot fall into the trap of the economic globalization discourse, which is the sophism of the powerful. They understand globalization as the homogenization of capital's interests.

"But the globalizing dynamic is also creating the material base—communication, technology, greater intercultural exchanges, etc.—for a world in mutation. This can't be denied. Some data of political conscience are being universalized. Certain basic human rights—to life, to education, etc.—are already part of humanity's collective consciousness, as is the need to take care of this planet, to respect spirituality, to acknowledge the wisdom of indigenous peoples and respect the great cultures' fight for recognition. Today everything is being rethought.

"Based on this reality, `cooperators' aren't coming to the South to `help' the needy, to implement an almost economic concept of cooperation. They are coming to bolster another kind of globalization, one based on the responsibility of human conscience. Thus is born another kind of solidarity, another kind of globalization, one not tinged with competition, with the market, but rather one that establishes links of fraternity. Walking hand in hand, enjoying the gains of others, suffering with the suffering of others. It is essential that this walk be made by two. That they come from the North to the South and that we go from the South to the North. Establishing two-way streets.

"This implies strengthening another concept: we aren't Swiss, Brazilians, Argentines... We are citizens of the Earth and we share similarities and differences. Our diversities are wonderful, but we should all defend our common goals: the planet, a more participatory economy, greater equity. This gives the volunteer another, almost mystical perspective. The struggle today is to be able to have dreams for humanity."

Two challenging tasks

"People often come to the South with the idea of `helping the economically impoverished.' But in Brazil, in the whole South, there is a political poverty that is even more significant than the economic one. This offers a new challenge for the `cooperator': to collaborate in political enrichment, to help create the Brazilian people, our peoples. In our countries we have masses of survivors of the turbulence that our continent suffered some 500 years ago, but we do not yet have a people. And this explains, for example, how the President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, could be reelected. The birth of a people happens when communities begin to emerge. If there are no communities, there can never be a people. A people is the sum of coordinated communities with joint tactics and strategies.

"The volunteers should collaborate in the creation of political richness. They should not hegemonize the process, but should help strengthen society, should be our allies. This is a great demand from an increasingly global society."
It is unimaginable for Leonardo Boff to conclude these reflections without looking upward and sharing a request, a mandate, a demand from the South to the North. "I want to reinforce a key concept: the need to promote a different kind of information in the North—alternative, truthful information. Information is much more than just facts. It should be communication, a way of socializing ideas in a world in which the culture of silence predominates. Communication links humanity; it speaks of another project, one that is trying to build a planet based on solidarity. We have to push communication, promote it, filling all the existing gaps and niches.

"Each and every person who goes to the North, and each and every one who spends time in the South, is a fantastic source of interesting, curious, new elements. Information should be moving; it should go to the heart. It should make use of the testimonial. The volunteer, as a person who endorses by offering living testimony, legitimates another reality, promotes a different kind of information, one which forms the basis for solidarity on earth."

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