Students & Campus
15 March 2021

Doing Good: What Does It Really Mean?

Twenty-one interdisciplinary master students are taking a closer look at what "doing good" really means in terms of international aid and development. Their Thought Project, which will have six separate editions, covers many global themes to find out how much "good" the international sphere is really contributing to the world. Claudia Seymour, Senior Researcher at the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP), is convener of the project and relays the importance behind the initiative in this interview. 

Where did the idea for the Thought Project come from?
This Thought Project has emerged in the space created by unprecedented times. The uncertainty, fear, hardship and terrible loss that so many people have been forced to deal with in the last year have also provided new spaces for thinking about things differently. We have been given a chance to see more clearly all that doesn’t work in the world; all that we could do in other ways. There is tremendous possibility in this moment to re-vision and re-create a world that we have the capacity to make real. But to realise the possible, we need courage of a concerted and collective kind. We need clear thinking and hopeful pragmatism. The young Graduate Institute scholars who are at the heart of this Thought Project are offering exactly this through their original writing, podcasts and film shorts.  

Is this part of a larger educational project?
In autumn 2020, I taught a new MINT course entitled “On ‘Doing Good’: Ethics, Power and Privilege in International Engagement”, as part of my ongoing efforts to contribute more critical and honest reflection to the international aid and peace industries. The course was a bit of an experiment, an interdisciplinary exploration into how we as individuals act in the world, the assumptions we hold, and the fundamental incongruities embedded in industries purportedly dedicated to “helping” and “improving” the lives of others. By immersing ourselves in diverse critical literatures, watching films and reading fiction, we went deep down into difficult questions about power, privilege and positionality.

Creating a safe space for personal and group reflections, this class allowed us to think differently about how we work in the world, and to take the time to better know and understand ourselves. It was uncomfortable and often bleak, but something happened in this process of thinking deeply and listening intently. From within and from each other, we heard something new and unexpected, something that started to sound like hope. The journal entries, podcasts, videos and papers produced by the students throughout the course were visionary and grounded—exactly the kind of thinking the world so desperately needs right now. The Thought Project thus brings their reflections to a wider audience so that we may reflect and act collectively.  

What will students take away from their participation?
The last year has been especially hard for young people, raising big existential questions that earlier generations have not had to grapple with so acutely. Yet, with courage, our students keep showing up. Our class and this Thought Project have given us the space to think about things differently. The young scholars whose work is being showcased in each of these six special issues are deeply committed to making this world a better place to live for us all. They are modelling how critical enquiry, balanced with the hard skills of empathy and deep listening, can be generative and can lead to more meaningful and effective international engagement.  

As a researcher, what has this experience taught, or what is this experience teaching you?
Many years ago, in a remote village in the highlands of southeastern Burundi, a young farmer—a father, a survivor, a person toiling to find enough food for his children to eat that day—smiled disarmingly at me after I introduced myself as a researcher. He replied: “I hope you will find what you are looking for.” This Thought Project offers me the chance to keep my search going, now in the company of brilliant young scholars. From the Maison de la paix in Geneva, the Graduate Institute has such enormous potential to shine a leading light of engaged, ethically-grounded scholarship across the world today. I feel very privileged to be part of that effort.

Learn more about the Thought Project