Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Slippery Slope You Can Chew On

I'm about to drop mind bombs.
Aside from actually saying something like that out loud, you might ask, why would Emma make such a philosophical threat? Well, it's been a while since I've written a blog of social relevance (I've yet to write one in-country) and I think it's about time I rectify that situation.

This topic is a fairly obvious one and is hardly original, but it's important nonetheless - especially in my current situation. It came up during our 'Fireside Chat' with Country Director, Mike Koffman, and has been on my mind ever since. By the way, I hope the rest of you appreciate the famous historical reference above ... I, myself, was tickled for days. In a word? Awesome ... but I digress ...

So what were we discussing? Among other things, it was our roles and responsibilities in the Peace Corps and, on a similar note, what this would mean in relationship to sustainable development in the developing world. The question posed to us: How did we want our two years to affect our community as, we hope, integrated members of it?

With this line of discussion came the topic of NGO 'gift giving' vs. long-term projects based in and by the affected community (like Peace Corps). Now, don't get me wrong, it's a step in the right direction and I'd never take away the significance of volunteering in the developing world (whether it be for one month or twenty-seven) or investing in it by striving to fulfill their needs ... but this topic has come up quite often amongst volunteers, especially when we run into various short-term volunteers in-country.

Example: a volunteer comes in for six weeks to build a forward-thinking, modern contraption that they deem necessary for the community. Said volunteer goes home, having spent just enough time to scratch the surface of the surrounding culture - never really giving themselves enough time to assess whether the community really wanted, for example, a solar-powered large-scale oven, and whether it'll go unused once they've left. There is no real long-term thought applied, when it comes to the community benefiting from the gift.

Next, a big NGO moves into a community that practices Open Defecation (OD) and builds a top-notch, large-capacity latrine and leaves again. It's more likely the latrine will never be used or fall into disrepair (rendering it useless), than the community suddenly realizing the error of their ways and becoming a shining OD Free example to the surrounding area.

Similarly, boreholes that are donated by organizations and built by out-of-country volunteers share the same fate. When it breaks (which, eventually, it will), who will fix it? And, with what money? If it was a gift to the community, who truly owns the borehole and will they ever care about it, as a result?

This is the slippery slope between doing a good thing and doing a sustainable thing. In the Peace Corps, we may not ever have a big-scale secondary project (ie. building a borehole), but we may spend two years laying the foundations for the community to want a borehole - in which case, the next volunteer can hopefully facilitate the process even further.

I understand that long-term volunteering isn't for everyone - it's also not feasible for a number of people - so charity, in the form of gift-giving, seems like a better alternative than doing nothing. But is it, really?
Is coming into a community, judging their poverty based on outside, Western standards, and throwing money at them in the form of outside ideas and influences really better than doing nothing at all? In the end, do they end up becoming the same thing?

If the latrine is left unused ... if the solar powered oven abandoned  ... if the borehole spoiled ... all because the community was detached from the entire process, did we really ever do anything at all for that community?
And what's the alternative? Are you 'damned if you do, damned if you don't'?

This occurs within the Peace Corps, as well, in the form of secondary projects and grant writing (tapping into NGO resources). Now, while the community usually pitches in a decent percentage of the money being donated - thereby involving them and increasing the likelihood that they'll 'own' the project - if no time is spent creating a relationship with that community, assessing what they think they need, and investing in their ability to sustain the project once you've left ... you've effectively done nothing more than provide an shiny new thing. Which is what they expect from the 'rich American,' anyway.

This is exactly the opposite of the Peace Corps goals and a dilemma we all have to grapple with - it's easy to fall into the pattern of thinking that 'things' equals success.

This isn't to say that grant writing, secondary projects, and things like boreholes are all inclusively evil or something to be avoided - they are, in fact, needed. But I've begun to realize why the developing world is having such a hard time developing on it's own ... and why the Peace Corps is such a stellar organization (Shout Out!) and heavy, long-term responsibility.

Two years is, when you think about it, a relatively short amount of time in the grand scheme of things ... but, if used correctly (which is all on an individual basis), they can help create long-term change within communities at a 'human' level.

Teaching a family about hand washing may only change the children's habits, but those children will teach their children the importance of washing hands and, suddenly, there's one, significant, sustainable change within a community.

The key is in using judgment to assess priorities - both ours and our community's - and, while no one is perfect, understanding how what you do affects the community is the first step. There's a lot of introspection involved in Peace Corps service ... a lot of stepping back and realizing who we are here to help ... and that it's not really us who needs to 'save' them, but they need to be able to help themselves.

We are in the business of human stability, in human development, and it's definitely something that takes a lot of thought. It's a big responsibility and a little daunting, if I'm being honest. It's clear that NGOs have started to change their behaviors, spending their time and energy on long-term education projects that focus on behavior change, but there's a long way to go.

For my part, I'm really interested in working with NGOs (maybe facilitating some behavior change, haha) so that we can help ourselves help each other. But, for now, I hope I've given you something you can chew on ... cause it's been on my mind a lot ...