I saw a poster the other day that reminded me of the importance of having a deeper understanding of “equity”. The poster showed the situation of three guys of significantly different heights, standing behind a fence which separated them from a ballpark where a game was being played. To be able to look over the fence to watch the game, the left side of the poster showed each guy standing on a block of the same size and height. The shortest guy could still not see over the fence even with the aid of the block so on the right side of the poster, the block of the tallest guy who could see over the fence even without a block, was given to the shortest guy so he could stand on 2 blocks and see over the fence to watch the game. So, though the tallest guy could not get to stand on any block, the shortest guy had two blocks, the middle guy had one, but all three were able to look over the fence and watch the game.
The lesson here is that instead of focusing on an equal distribution of resources (the left side of the poster) in the equality minded approach, the equity approach (right side) focuses on a fair distribution of resources so each person can attain their aspiration. In other words, the equity approach, as depicted in the right side of the poster, noted a deficit in the ability of one of the guys so it sought to atone the deficit by redistributing the resources (blocks).
Good as this deficit approach to equity may seem at first sight, it not only limited the possible aspiration of the three guys behind the fence, it also legitimized the limitation. Their plight of having to stand behind a tall fence to watch the game remained unchanged. I am quite sure they would prefer to be inside the ballpark itself but for the fence. Our approach to IE practice might be caught within the “deficit-thinking” mentality if we fail to see the unequal structures, motivations, and perceptions under which we practice.
While programs and activities to promote DEI abound in the field, when it comes to adherence to equity on the global stage, are we intentional about interrogating the systemic barriers that exist, particularly in our relations with the global south?
A leading organization in the field considers international education as essential for “developing globally competent individuals, and to build leadership for the global community”. I believe so too! And I also believe that we cannot achieve that goal of education for the “global community” if our focus is dominated mostly by our US and institutional interests.
In our partnership relations with HEIs of the Global South, how conscious are we of the unequal power relations? How do we address the imbalance? An international partnership with an HEI of the Global South, can become a form of coercion from a US HEI in pursuit of its internationalization policies. An educational exchange agreement based solely on numerical or cost transactions could in reality grossly disadvantage the Global South partner. As a Third-Party Provider, how do your operations benefit the host community and local students? It is good to provide an opportunity to enable US students to develop global competence, and to fully pay for it, but how can we consciously contribute to building “leadership for the global community” when we ignore the global competence needs of the host community?
As IE professionals, are we aware of the national historical, economic and political contexts (fences) that define our field, and that uncritical approaches to our practice make others in the Global South, particularly in Africa, vulnerable to our exploitation? Is our IE practice consciously aimed at equity that tears down exploitative structures or an equality-driven transactional approach?
It would not be successful international education practice, I think, unless it is committed (in whatever small way) to interrogating the power structures (fences) that define our practice, and to intentionally seek ways to provide equitable access into the global community, to all participants.