How neutral can we really be?

Do you know this feeling that you should “say something”, “do something” but you don’t really know how or what? Well, we often have that. And we believe that although AFS is a non­political organization, as AFSers we should take a stand for what we believe in.

Countries endangered of disappearing from our planet due to climate change, the biggest refugee­crisis since World War II, and increased global and local inequality... the list of challenges the world faces today is a lot longer than that. Yet AFS is holding on to a value with which the organization has come a long way: being non­political. Personally, however, we all have opinions. We know what we consider right and wrong. And xenophobia and racism are in the  wrong” box for most of us, right? From our viewpoint, we’d like to challenge the interpretation of being a “non­political” organization as being “neutral”. As Desmond Tutu once said:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Now, imagine this situation: in solidarity with the migrants entering Europe you share a post on Facebook. Suddenly, you are witnessing the whole depth of the xenophobia currently proliferating in Europe ­ among your own Facebook friends. What do you do? As AFSers we have many friends ­ although acquaintances would probably a more accurate description. They include many different beliefs and viewpoints, and that is a very enriching experience. Nonetheless, different viewpoints can also reach a moment where we struggle to accept what is being written by somebody else. As global citizens we have certain basic beliefs regarding human rights, and find it hard to see them being disrespected. Showing solidarity to refugees fleeing from a inhuman war is one of these basic beliefs. If we see ourselves as global citizens, then every human being is a compatriot. This also means that no matter the country you come from and feel you belong to, if there is a crisis somewhere in the world and human rights are not being respected, you have to speak up when you have a chance to do so. Acting individually against xenophobia and hate ­ even if it’s just in our little online world ­ is important, but our impact can be much bigger if we find ways to work together.

That is why we find the No Hate Speech Movement very inspiring. They have developed a tool allowing everyone to challenge and report hate speech. Their view on the current situation in Europe is the following:

“Online hate speech targeting migrants, asylum seekers and immigrants has increased recently, fuelling tension and prejudice in a very challenging situation for these people seeking refuge in Europe. ... We invite all of you to watch for hate speech targeting refugees and migrants and to react to such instances in the moment they appear. Give counter­arguments, comments in respect of Human Rights, express more solidarity, and refuse or disagree hate speech content very clearly.” (No Hate Speech Movement)

Inspired by such initiatives, we wonder which role our Network could play in spreading such practices and online moral courage. We know, of course, that AFS is a non­political organization for a good reason. The organization is built on the belief that on both sides of any conflict, there are human beings, and the best way to overcome conflicts is by encouraging the dialogue between them. Speaking up, however, can be the starting point for such a dialogue. But, when we stay silent, is there any dialogue being created? So, when we stay neutral and we don’t position ourselves, are we actually encouraging dialogues to happen? That is why we would like to invite each and every AFSer to not look away when faced with all the difficult topics out there ­ the Syrian refugee crisis being just one example. We encourage you AFSers to be political and to actively seek dialogue, in a respectful and culturally appropriate way. Finally, we would like to hear from you: how can we use our organization to leverage the voice of each of us? How we can influence decision­making and use our incredible global network to fight injustices? How can we achieve our mission of a more just and peaceful world while staying true to our value of not taking sides? We’re curious to hear about your ideas.


*Marcelo (19) plays many roles within AFS. Locally, he is the President of Dourados Chapter in Brazil. He is also a national facilitator for orientation. As member of the VolunteerVoices team, he believes in the impact stories can have on people’s lives. He currently also works on a project entitled LAFIL that aims to spread Intercultural Learning within Latin America.

*Rahel (28) is part of #VolunteerVoices and the Swiss Global Education Task Force AGGL. She’s also a facilitator in Switzerland and abroad. In her non­volunteering life she works as incubation manager at Impact Hub Zurich, helping social entrepreneurs venture into the world of creating their own business.