Wednesday, 8 May 2013

AIESEC: Exporting Labour and Stealing Jobs

This is a response to the AIESEC presentations that are going around classes at Victoria University this week. I challenged one of the presenters with an abbreviated version of this argument, to which she had no response and seemed rather upset by. I would take this opportunity to apologise, but frankly I'm not sorry. If you want to present your organisation in a good light, you had best be prepared to answer criticism of it.

You know who middle- to lower-class conservatives hate? Immigrants, who come into OUR country and steal OUR jobs. Growing up in Queenstown, with a remarkably high immigration rate (particularly from South-East Asia and Latin America), I've heard many criticisms of immigrants ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous. My absolute favourite was one published in local gossip rag The Mountain Scene, which read (to paraphrase): "immigrants get jobs easier because they don't mind working more for less pay, which isn't fair on locals." Immigrants, by working harder jobs for less money, are somehow cheating the system.

While this particular argument (even more so in context) just came off as almost comically xenophobic, there is a valid point to be made here. Immigration can be seen, in rather impersonal terms, as an import of cheap labour, which is wonderful for employers who can then pay less and profit more. However this is ultimately pretty bad for the local economy, as there is less money being paid overall to the working classes (due to reduced wages) and the working classes themselves are now considerably larger (as we have just added a large number of immigrants to the population).

What saves Queenstown's economy here is that A) high turnover from seasonal workers and B) the sheer quantity of low-income service and hospitality jobs mean that even with high rates of immigration unemployment is not that high, C) most of the immigrants who now have jobs (albeit ones with slightly lower wages than before) actually spend a fair chunk of their disposable income at Queenstown businesses, and D)any loss of spending from employees who now have less disposable income due to job competition is more than compensated for by tourist spending. Though immigration and job competition makes things slightly worse off for individual employees who now have to work for lower wages, overall the economy actually benefits from the influx of cheap labour.

Not so in developing economies. Unemployment is typically high, as employers lack the resources and expertise to improve infrastructure. This is where organisations like Finca come in, providing the basic resources needed to help developing economies, creating jobs, building jobs and improving standards of living. This is the micro-economic kickstart that developing economies need to grow from the ground up.

In direct contrast to this is AIESEC (link not provided because I don't like them). AIESEC belongs to an earlier school of development thought that inherits rather too much from the White Man's Burden. AIESEC aims to create "global leaders" by taking university students from developed nations like New Zealand, flying them overseas and having them "work with a local organisation to impact a community based on their needs."

I am such a student, and so today I and my classmates were targeted by an AIESEC presentation. I study International Relations and Religion. Almost at the end of my undergraduate, I am fairly knowledgeable about certain areas of both these fields, and if my knowledge were called upon to improve or enrich someone's life I hope that I would live up to the burden: that after all is the purpose of this blog.

However outside of these areas I am not an expert. I have no qualifications in "cultural education, HIV/AID’s [sic], education, community development, environmental awareness [or] social entrepreneurship." How am I supposed to "impact a community" in any of these fields? What privilege do I have that I deserve to be flown in from abroad to solve these problems, that could not be solved locally without me?

The classic example, brought up today by our AIESEC presenter, is building houses. Nothing is more quintessential of this school of development than that of the student volunteer building houses in areas that need houses built. However the reason that these houses need to be built is not a lack of willing unskilled workers. There are many workers living locally that are just as skilled in building houses, if not far more so, than university students from New Zealand. The issue is a lack of resources. AIESEC sending students to do unskilled labour for no pay is doing nothing but depriving unemployed locals of the chance for employment, when the cost of our flights and "cultural activities" could be used instead to provide resources, employment, and improvements in the standard of living for many.


  1. Too good not to quote. A project based in China you can volunteer with:

    "The project aims to increase awareness of Chinese heritage and culture. You will have the opportunity to experience Chinese culture and educate Chinese youth about the importance of protecting their heritage."

  2. Hi Babbage. I see that you have some quite strong views on the nature of volunteering. For sure, these have been pointed out to AIESEC before. What I think you may be unaware of is the way in which these internships are constructed and how the organisation works. AIESEC aims to create future leaders who have a greater awareness and understanding of the world around them. The way that this is achieved is by fellow AIESECers around the world creating opportunities for students to have an intense cultural experience. The internships that we offer are created by local students in that region in collaboration with local businesses and NGOs. It is not a need imposed upon the community by unaware foreigners but rather one that is offered by locals and freely accepted by locals who identify a relevant value. The organisation agrees to having interns come into their community in the knowledge that they are enthusiastic youth, not necessarily experts.
    The key aim of the internship is two-fold.
    1) To contribute to a community
    2) To create a cross-cultural experience for the organisation, the community and the intern
    3) To develop more internationally aware youth
    The organisation was originally founded after the second World War and the group of students that founded it believed that a key way to prevent further conflict was to create greater cultural understanding in youth. This originally took the form of study tours but they soon identified the more useful form of professional internships and volunteer exchanges to create this experience.
    Have you travelled abroad Babbage? I'm sure you will remember what an eye opening experience it was and how it changed your perceptions of another culture. AIESEC aims to give a long term cultural experience to open as many eyes as possible and to break down cultural stereotypes. I'm sure you will agree to the myriad of ways that travel broadens the mind. This is the purpose of AIESEC exchanges.
    I agree with you that in many cases the nature of volunteering is flawed. I also know from what I have seen from past participants in our programmes, testimonials from organisations and others involved in the process that we are creating more youth with a global mindset who have higher ambitions for the world around them and I don't think that is such a bad thing.

    1. You raise some very good points Fiona. I have travelled overseas, most recently to China to study at CUPL, and I would agree with you that intercultural dialogue is essential for leadership in an increasingly globalised world. Based on conversations I have had with people who have taken part in AIESEC programs I am also aware that you do offer some great opportunities to young leaders.
      However my issue with AIESEC's programs is that while AIESEC is presented, as it was this week in my University, a program that provides great benefit to communities in developing nations, the people who actually do benefit (from intercultural dialogue, by becoming more 'internationally aware') are students from developed, privileged countries. For these students, I am sure that AIESEC provides great opportunities to grow as future internationally aware leaders. But I question the actual economic and social benefit that local communities experience.
      The project you ask for volunteers on in China, which I mention above in a comment, is a great example of this. The benefits to students from New Zealand and other such countries going to China and learning about Chinese culture is huge, especially given growing Sino-NZ economic and cultural relations. While studying in China I took part in many cultural activities and participated in the CASS conference on NZ-China relations, all of which as you say were eye-opening experiences.
      However do you really believe that my learning about Chinese culture in some way makes me uniquely qualified to "educate Chinese youth about the importance of protecting their heritage?" Do you not see even the smallest relic of the White Man's Burden that we, as student volunteers, must go to a country to tell the locals how best to approach their own heritage?
      Cultural exchange is wonderful for those who take part on both sides. But AIESEC's programs are certainly not as beneficial to local communities as they are presented to be.

    2. I think the bottom-line of this discussion is that the ideals of AIESEC and their implementation by individual committees in different countries can differ at times.

      Obviously, volunteerism is flawed. Especially when the money put into unskilled labour (volunteers) could have been more productively used on local businesses.
      However, that is not the foremost point of AIESEC, as mentioned above by Fiona.
      AIESEC is about providing an experience encompassing personal growth and a certain impact on the environment the person is question will go to.

      Even with AIESEC operating across the globe, I understand your accusation of "White Man's Burden". Especially with regard to this specific exchange, the description is obviously more than flawed.
      Nonetheless, I would not go as far as generalise from this one exchange to the whole of AIESEC.

      Overall, AIESEC encourages students to become proactive and engaged. It allows many to learn new skills so to become more valuable to their own community and possibly make an impact for the better wherever they decide to go.
      With 86.000 members and tens of thousands of volunteer opportunities, internships, etcetc, some negative experiences are inadvertently going to happen.
      AIESEC's programs can be beneficial, but the "how beneficial" is something AIESEC is trying to work on. The debate about quality control has been raging for quite a bit and my take from it is that as long as positive experiences outweigh negative ones by a wide enough margin, AIESEC keeps the right to be called valuable to most of its members and their environement.
      Your local presenter should have been more critical about AIESEC's goals' implementation.
      However, reducing AIESEC to "exporting labour and stealing jobs" is too simplistic and ignores the positive aspects of AIESEC. One such aspect is to be aware of criticism and taking it seriously.

  3. Nice and logical. Hello from Middle Ural, Russia! =)

  4. Hello,

    I also have my concerns about the work that AIESEC does, but what worries me even more, is the fact that it fails to respond to any kind of danger that the participants face in their "experience".

    Even if you died, they wouldn't bother with telling your family. To me, travelling and trusting people that know nothing about accountability or even responability, is very dangerous.

  5. Hello,

    I also have my concerns about the work that AIESEC does, but what worries me even more, is the fact that it fails to respond to any kind of danger that the participants face in their "experience".

    Even if you died, they wouldn't bother with telling your family. To me, travelling and trusting people that know nothing about accountability or even responability, is very dangerous.