This year at Brandeis, I took a sociology class entitled “Gender, Sexuality, and Globalization,” which explored sexual identities, gendered labor practices, sexual practices, and queer and feminist social movements from a transnational perspective. In this class, I had the opportunity to read critical perspectives on the employment of non-profit and non-governmental organizations as vehicles for social change. I have learned through that class and through my own personal research how NGOs serving the global south that are based in or funded by the global north frequently bring their own interpretations of social issues to the places that they serve. Unfortunately, because of this, the work of many non-profit organizations in the global north involves entering countries in the global south and essentially instructing local populations on what they should do to improve their own countries.
For example, international NGOs dealing with LGBTQI+ issues often utilize a Western understanding of sexuality or gender when serving non-Western communities. In a study I read for Gender, Sexuality, and Globalization, “The Queer Time of Death: Temporality, Geopolitics, and Refugee Rights,” (2014), Sima Shakhsari writes about how international human rights organizations frequently view sexuality as a “fixed universal sexual identity” (Shakhsari 2014, 1005). However, individuals being served by these NGOs often have an entirely different narrative of their own sexuality. Non-profits and NGOs can thus be both positive and negative forces of social change.
When searching for an internship with a focus on international development and human rights in the non-profit sector for this summer, it was important to me that I keep in mind what I have learned about the role of non-profit organizations in the global south. I found that American Jewish World Service, the non-profit where I am interning this summer, has a vastly different approach to their work in the global south. To me, AJWS’s strategy of providing grants to human rights advocates in developing countries, where activists on the ground can make a difference, is extremely effective. With a focus on marginalized people and communities, AJWS utilizes local experts who can identify and implement social change in a way that they view as being most beneficial to their community. This, combined with AJWS’s advocacy in the US government to adopt laws and policies that benefit people in the global south, is why I believe that AJWS’s model of social change is particularly beneficial. I admire AJWS’s unique approach as well as the values that motivate their work, and this is consequently why I am so delighted to be interning with them this summer.