New Prof Studies History of Humanitarianism

Political scientist looks at faith-based NGOs

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Prof. Andrea Paras

Andrea Paras was still an undergrad when she headed to Bosnia to volunteer for a month. It was only five years after the country had been torn apart by war, and she says “it still looked like a war zone. There were ruined, bombed-out buildings and people scarred and permanently injured from the attacks.” It was a big change for Paras, who had grown up in Williams Lake in British Columbia’s interior.

She says it was hard to see the young interpreters she worked with who had few opportunities for the future despite their intelligence and talents. And one other thing niggled at her conscience: “I was volunteering with a very conservative church group, and some of the things they did really bothered me, such as putting Bibles in the bags of clothes before giving them to the Muslim families.”

Paras, now a professor in U of G’s Department of Political Science, had always been interested in international politics, but others convinced her to get a grounding first in a more-established discipline. So she started with an undergrad degree in history from the University of British Columbia, took a year off to live and work in the United Kingdom, then went to the University of Toronto to do a collaborative master’s degree in international relations. There she began to work with James Orbinski, former president of Doctors Without Borders, who got her interested in researching the history of humanitarianism. “We’d sit for hours and have amazing conversations,” she says. “He gave me new ways to think about some of these issues.”

Paras went on to complete a PhD in international relations at U of T, doing her doctoral research on the history of humanitarianism and, in particular, how it crosses the borders between countries. “I was interested in understanding what moral obligations people see themselves as having towards people who live in another country.” Her thesis explored, among other topics, the U.K. anti-slavery movement, which protested slavery in the British Empire in the 1800s.

Looking ahead, she wants to explore the issues of how religious beliefs affect humanitarianism in practice, in part by comparing secular groups such as Oxfam with faith-based Christian and Muslim humanitarian organizations. “In the world outside the West,” Paras says, “religion is very important. It permeates peoples’ lives. Here in Canada, religion plays a very small role in the public sphere. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has distanced itself from faith-based organizations.”

Paras suggests that perhaps that should change. “While Canadian society is generally not very religious, immigration is changing that. The fastest-growing religion in Canada is Islam.”

Currently, traditional faith-based charities are reluctant to apply for funding from CIDA, she says, but these groups may have something to tell us about what’s needed for human well-being. “Development is not just about clean water and better homes. It’s about meeting peoples’ material, social, emotional and spiritual needs.” Religious NGOs, she suggests, can help us all better understand the spiritual needs of people in other countries.

After completing her PhD, Paras spent a year teaching in a women’s university in Bangladesh. “Bangladesh is a very challenging place. I was teaching women from 12 countries around Asia, people on both sides of civil wars and from very different backgrounds. Many of the Afghan women couldn’t remember not being at war.” She says the women saw the opportunity to attend the school – most were there on scholarships – as their one hope, their one chance.

“Bangladesh is in some ways very stressful, chaotic and crazy, but the people who live there are used to things not working properly and they are actually quite relaxed,” Paras says. Leaving the students she had gotten to know was difficult, but the university was “in a state of turmoil.”

Now that she’s begun her work in a less tumultuous place, Paras plans to continue her research in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama. “I’ll be able to learn more about how Buddhists’ religious beliefs affect their charitable work and what models of giving they use,” she says.

After finishing her work in Bangladesh, Paras took a 43-day walk through the mountains of India and Nepal. “My guide invited me to come back to his village. It was an eight-hour bus ride, followed by two-and-a-half days of walking to get to the village – the most remote place I’ve ever been. I stayed for 10 days teaching in the government school there,” she says.

That long walk through the mountains is the fifth “big walk” Paras has done, and she plans to continue the tradition. She also loves to do yoga, play ultimate Frisbee and ride her bike. Cooking is a pleasure for her too; she especially enjoys Indian and Thai foods. “But I’ll have to figure out how to cook all over again because I had a cook when I was living in Bangladesh,” she says.