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Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

ND graduate explores dangers, benefits of international service

Daniella Papi, a 2000 Notre Dame graduate and social entrepreneur, presented a lecture on the importance of language, perspective and learning in the context of international service Thursday night. Part of the Dean’s Fellows speaker series, the talk centered on Papi’s experiences in Cambodia and the lessons and perspectives she obtained from her years of service work.

Papi, the founder of the educational travel organization PEPY Tours, said an important step in international service is reframing the language and vocabulary currently used to describe service work. She said words such as “villager,” “aid” and “development” often convey power dynamics and connotations that project an unequal relationship between communities and volunteers.

“Our vocabulary needs to change,” Papi said. “If I’m a volunteer and you're a beneficiary, I’m already in a position of power. Instead of it being, ‘Hi, I’m here to help you, in a language I don’t know, place I don’t know,’ it should be, ‘Hi, I’m here to learn from you.’”

Papi said some of the problems within development work stem from the ways we learn about service work. Papi said simplistic fundraising tactics, such as televised pleas for donations, provide the public with the impression that development work has simple solutions to complex problems.

“Our fundraising channels actually become our education channels,” she said. “It causes huge problems. … Often times, our efforts become solution-led instead of problem-led.”

Papi said a fundamental problem in development work involves believing material agents, such as money or infrastructure, rather than human agents are the solution to development problems. Papi said her time working and serving in Cambodia helped her understand how many of the often simplistic solutions stemmed from a well-intentioned but often misplaced desire to provide a solution without focusing on the particular problem or community.

“One of the things that I learned was that we shouldn’t be investing in things; we needed to invest in people,” she said.

Papi said in order for more effective leaders to change and engage in meaningful service work, there needs to be a fundamental shift in mindset from intending to save a community towards wanting to learn from it.

“The question shouldn’t be, ‘How are you innovating; how are you uniquely solving this world problem?’” she said. “It should be, ‘Who’s shoulders are you standing on? Who has tried to solve this problem before you?’”

Papi said in order to take action and learn how to become an agent for service, people must engage in frequent personal development by becoming self-aware, understanding their culture and becoming open to learning. Papi emphasized that engaging in meaningful service work requires recognizing how personal and global development are intertwined.

“If we are constantly focusing on ‘saving the world’ as an external things to ourselves, that is what is going to cause problems later on,” she said. “Personal development and global development are entirely interlinked. If we’re not willing to look at ourselves, we’re not going to change the world.”