As often mentioned and emphasised, PROJECT-E’s main objective is the empowerment of women through education. While it is an Austrian NGO founded and still run by European students who have volunteered in order to make this mission come true, the institute itself is located in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In providing a TVET education in hospitality for young women, we do have to consider the background of the young women as well as the location they are in and the culture that comes with it.
This is especially important as TVET itself is an educational programme introduced by Western development organisations and is thus based on the Western educational system. Along the way of them getting their education, locality and culture are going to inevitably affect them and shape their learning process. Some difficult questions that comes with this train of thought are: How do we educate, being a Western NGO, without enforcing Western values and methods of learning only? In what ways do we make sure that we are taking the country of choice – in this case, Ethiopia – into consideration while providing an education for individuals from that specific area?
The problem that many Western-based educational (and other) institutions in the Global South face, knowingly or unknowingly, is their negligence of the social context that they are in when they choose to operate according to their own culture, norms, values and understandings only. They are then blindsided to an array of other ways and possibilities of reaching the people they are working with or educating. When it comes to learning, cognitive skills are developed according to one’s educational background, which is bound to be different from place to place. In Western education, for example, the chunking and categorising of information is valued and taught from a young age on. This may not be the case in other education systems, leaving the Western educator to be baffled when trying to teach in a context where similar methods of learning do not exist. The educator may then be evaluating the students upon criteria that do not apply to the respective place, institution or area. That evaluation can therefore not be regarded as a valid determination of the students’ cognitive ability, which may be excellent when it is manifested in a way their education system has prepared them for. What we are avoiding, thus, is a complete ignorance of one’s context when educating in a different place. A complete and exclusive embrace of Western methods and norms could lead to a trap that many have been unable to avoid: namely, cultural imperialism.
Cultural imperialism can be described as the cultural hegemony of powerful nations, meaning Western nations, as they impose their culture on non-Western nations and through which they end up determining the central norms and values globally. This, in turn, standardises the way societies ought to function in all, and thus also non-Western, parts of the world. Many international organisations working in the Global South succumb to this unknowingly. And not surprisingly so, since, through imperialism and colonialism, Western Eurocentric norms have been introduced in non-Western countries and have been enforced on people throughout many centuries. Hence, Western viewpoints have become normalised and this is continuously perpetuated by Western hegemony.
PROJECT-E, understandably, wants to avoid overlooking an issue like this. As we strive to empower women through education, we understand that empowerment can take many different forms. What it generally comes down to is “choice” and the power to make one’s decisions comes with a sense of autonomy, an understanding of oneself and one’s context. The life skills training at PE helps the young women at the institute towards achieving exactly that. Through education, the women get a chance to be independent and to be an example for other women in a similar situation. They can only be an example when their education is one that honours their social context, their culture and their perspective. Most of the staff members at PEHI are locals, which allows the students to have teachers and social workers that understand where they are coming from in many instances. The volunteers that the institute has regularly are all more than happy to try the local food, learn a few words in Amharic and adapt to the students’ needs while also sharing their own culture with them. This balance between educating from what we know and from what the students themselves have to offer is fruitful, as it allows for the girls to grow in their own ways while adding to their knowledge consistently. They are empowered, while still holding on to their cultural identity.
Written by Ruth Makonnen