By Yan Xu
A week ago, I sat in on a meeting where one of the topics of discussion was an organization (student-driven, new organization, grassroots, etc) that works with communities in Kenya, promoting HIV/AIDS awareness that wanted to collaborate with a club that I am part of.
What went through in my mind was the following: Come on, can they or do they plan to teach their communities anything other than using safe contraceptives? Do these people need to fund-raise, fly all the way over to Kenya and tell people there to abstain from high-risk behaviours for HIV transmission?
Of course, I, intending to tell the members of the executive committee to consider the capacity of science undergrad students to inform Kenyans half a world away, said something to the effect of “what can a bunch of Microbiology students do in a community like that?” All heads in the room turned to me with shock and dismay, and I immediately stopped, not because I was in complete disagreement from the rest of the group, but because I realized I had crossed a personal boundary. There I was, effectively denigrating a well-intentioned student group.
For the rest of the day, 3 questions circled my mind:
- Have I taken “ethicizing” too far?
- Did I belittle the capacity of the student group (almost an unequivocal yes)?
- Would a more fruitful approach have been consulting with this group regarding what type of community outreach they were going to do (then if they told me that they were only going to teach the locals how to use contraceptives, would that then justify my reaction, because I went through the process of consultation?)
A good friend astutely mentioned that being involved in ethical dialogue runs the risk of assuming the position of embarrassing superiority, where we consider our moral stance to be somehow higher because we are examining issues that hadn’t been considered by say, the group that sought to collaborate with my club. Good intentions and careful scrutiny of unintended effects need not oppose each other, but to achieve partnership between the two, we need to first commit to recognizing and validating the good intentions, before we take our theoretical lenses and place one’s well-intended project under the microscope, and recommend how potential barriers to the meaningful change they seek can be overcome.