On Friday, April 19, the Vassar Haiti Project (VHP) and Amnesty International held a teach-in entitled “Making International Development Work?”. The event, attended by about forty people in the Rose Parlor, featured a panel of two alumni, Debbie Sharnak ’07 and Daniel Boscov-Ellen ’08, and two professors, Chair of the International Studies Department Tim Koechlin and Professor of Economics Sarah Pearlman.
Education Initiative Co-Director fro VHP, Tamsin Yee Lin Chen ’15, said the teach-in was meant to address the misunderstanding of what international development really is. Despite VHP’s work with the village of Chermaitre, Haiti and the dialogues they exchange with village leaders, teachers, and members of the community there, questions about development still arise.
“We are aware that international development and assistance are extremely complex. Over the years, we have come across many challenges ranging from looking critically at the concept of handouts to navigating different cultural topographies,” she said. “Questions without straightforward answers crop up very frequently within VHP, whether we’re looking at the types of non-profits we choose to associate with, deciding where to source food for the village school lunch program, or talking to the women of Chermaitre about their cottage industry ideas,” said Chen.
Because the topic of the teach-in was international, VHP members invited Amnesty International to work on the event as well. “Collaborating with Amnesty was a really positive experience for us,” Chen said.“Between divvying up logistics tasks and discussing the heavy questions of the teach-in together, I feel we formed a lasting connection between the two orgs that will hopefully lay the groundwork for more collaborations in the future.”
Member of Vassar’s chapter of Amnesty International Tzvetelina Garneva ’15 shared Chen’s excitement over the collaboration: “VHP is filled with talented and dedicated individuals so it was clear from the start that they would treat such an important issue with care and a lot of effort, making it an educational joy to work with them.”
The two organizations were ambitious about what the teach-in could accomplish. Chen described the goal of the event.
“[It was to] provide a casual and safe space to talk openly about how we struggle, as individuals and as organizations, with international development issues; bring in a diverse range of perspectives through our panelists; and build a better understanding of the nature of VHP’s and Amnesty’s work,” Chen said.
Garneva concurred, adding, “One of the goals of this teach-in was to understand how we each view international development but also, and more importantly, how our actions may differ from, support, or even go against our beliefs.”
VHP invited alumni Daniel Boscov-Ellen ‘08 and Ethan Katz ’08 after reading their critical analysis called “Justice for Haiti: Beyond Aid and Debt Forgiveness,” published on the Council of Hemispheric Affairs’ website. “We also looked for other alums with experience in think-tanks and NGOs through the online Alumnae/i Hub directory,” Chen said. “We approached Debbie Sharnak [’07] after her ‘Life After Vassar Q&A’ session held at Vassar, organized by the History department in March.”
Before the teach-in began, participants were able to read up on buzzwords like “microfinance” on individual vocabulary sheets provided on all the seats. Once the event began Medical Initiative Director of VHP, Annie Massa ’13, Oversight Secretary and Print Manager of VHP, Lanbo Yang, and Li Zhang ’13 introduced themselves and the panel.
The moderators then started asking the panel questions and encouraging audience participation. These questions included what the term “global citizen” really meant and how people working in NGOs and international development could cope with resistance from those in so-called “developing” nations.
“The reality of the situation is that we came in with about 20 questions for our panelists and audience members but only touched upon the first few,” Garneva said. “Though this can be viewed as a failure, I believe it actually reveals why this event was a success. So many of the audience members were eager to share their stories and experiences with international development so as to try and understand their impact as a ‘global citizen,’ a much discussed term,” she continued.
After the panel dispersed, everyone was invited to form small groups and discuss ideas of development and “global citizenship.”
Chair of the International Studies Department and panelist at the teach-in, Tim Koechlin, also believed the event was a success. “One of my favorite things about my job and VC is that there are lots of these sorts of conversations. [The] teach-in is an excellent case-in-point,” he wrote in an emailed statement to VHP leaders.
Member of VHP’s Education Initiative, Rena Orgura ’16, agreed with Koechlin: “I think that the teach-in went wonderfully. I felt that everyone was so engaged and felt comfortable to express his/her own opinions and thoughts,”
While the teach-in did not solve all problems concerning international development, VHP and Amnesty leaders concur that it was a positive experience.
“We may have only scratched the surface of international aid and its impact,” noted Garneva, “but we also found a group of people who are interested in discussing this issue further, making next year even more promising for these two clubs and for the Vassar community.”