Between Privilege and Poverty: Experiences of Aid Worker Children

By Anne-Meike Fechter, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Sussex

Image: ‘a local education centre in Cambodia where young volunteers teach English’

Children and young people can be affected by mobility in different ways: migrating with their families, moving independently, or as children ‘left behind’. How their mobility affects their life chances and choices is often dependent on their level of relative privilege: their socio-economic status, legal status, national and ethnic identity, among other factors. In the context of young people whose parents consider themselves ‘mobile professionals’, and who often attend international schools during their time abroad, a considerable amount of literature has concerned itself with the question in what ways this experience of mobility might make them more ‘international minded’. This is understood as being open to the world, to new experiences, as well as being able to ‘feel at home anywhere’.

I was curious how this academic tenet might play out among the mobile professionals I was working with, that is, those employed by international aid agencies in Cambodia. I was wondering how- if at all- having aid worker parents might matter for young people’s outlook on life, their understanding of their own relative privilege, that of their Cambodian peers at  international school, combined with witnessing poverty around them- which, after all, was the reason their parents had come to work in Cambodia in the first place.

Based on ethnographic research, what I found was that one of the convictions of young people was, indeed, that their international mobility uniquely equipped them with what they called their ‘open-mindedness’ – a mantra also relayed in classroom activities and reflected in extra-curricular activities. Perhaps ironically, though, some students found that their ‘open-mindedness’ also provided grounds for a sense of superiority, specifically towards their peers at home. As Tim, a grade 11 student with Australian parents, explained:

I think being an international child makes you more… superior. People raised in   specific cultures – they have so many stereotypes. I feel superior to these people… or    more like, privileged. Because I know so much more about the world’.  

Such sentiment was echoed by his friend Sophia, whose parents were originally from the US. By way of illustrated, she recounted that:

            ‘we [at the international school] had this link with a small town in the US- they made a video where they asked us questions. They were just so ignorant. Like they asked us if Cambodia was where the Great Wall of China was. Did we have phones, did we live in mudhuts…. I mean such closed-mindedness! They just don’t have the same perspectives that we do’.

The possibility that their sense of open-mindedness might engender its own exclusions, however, was not necessarily recognised in the discussions we had. As we explored their everyday lives, it also emerged that the open-mindedness ostensibly cultivated at school had to be tempered when it came to negotiating social relationships – for example with some of their Cambodian friends and peers, who they understood to be ‘super-rich’, but with whom one might wisely not raise issue of inequality, poverty, or party politics in Cambodia if they wanted cordial relations to continue.

When I asked another student, Tobias, and two of his friends, if they thought that there was any tension between their parents’ work with an emphasis on social justice and good governance, and the fact that some of their school friends’ parents may derive their wealth on the basis of a disregard of these, they answered in near-unison, ‘yes that’s where we don’t get involved. We bracket that out’.  

Finally, a feature of many international schools is the ‘Creativity, Activity, Service’ programme, where extracurricular activities are completed in order for students to graduate. The ‘service’ component includes volunteering activities, such as contributing to English lessons run by local NGOs.  Engagement in this kind of ‘service learning’ was common among my informants. One of them, Mia, made weekly visits to a children’s home in the outskirts of the city to run craft workshops. Even though she sometimes resented going there on a Sunday, she usually came back happy, in her words, ‘because the kids are so grateful and it’s fun’. While these activities brought them in close contact with Cambodian disadvantaged children, this was often understood- and presented by their school- as an opportunity for personal growth, rather than a reflection of privilege – or indeed linking to their parents’ work, the nature of which often remained abstract. Their service activities, and the insights and impact it generated, were arguably not fundamentally different from the experiences which their voluntourist peers might gather during a gap year.

What does this tell us, then, about the relationship between mobility and open-mindedness, so often espoused by international schools and parents, and echoed in some of the academic literature? First, it is worth being mindful of how a branded form of ‘open-mindedness’ can become the cornerstone of an identity predicated on an exclusive form of mobility, and therefore possibly defeating its object. It may also necessitate social ‘bracketing’, that is, limiting critical political awareness which, to some extent, it prides itself on. One might suggest, in the words of Tim, that living as an aid worker child in a developing country equates to ‘one long gap year’. In this sense, these young people’s mobility may not in itself enable a critical engagement with poverty, or with their own and others’ privilege.

‘Between privilege and poverty: the affordances of mobility among aid worker children’


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