It’s not about the money, money, money

25 10 2011

There has been a lot of talk about money lately among the Peace Corps Volunteers and staff here in Cambodia. Two main conversations, which have been discussed continuously since the Peace Corps’ inception in the 1960s, seem to be going on. First, are we volunteers being paid enough to live—and “live well”—at permanent site? And second, are we living at the level of the local people?

In my limited experience, the answers to these two questions are straightforward. “Yes,” the first question, and “no” to the second.

Are we being paid enough to live at permanent site? This question is quite complicated and very controversial right now. All I will say is yes, Tim and I have been able to live extremely well on the money that we’ve received through Peace Corps. We’ve been able to save several hundred dollars in the short months we’ve been here. And we certainly have not been skimping. In fact, we hardly ever think about money. If I want an expensive tea, I buy it. If Tim wants to print 300 pages for his English club, he prints them. We have recently bought a hammock, a chair, speakers, a countertop stove and several DVDs. Plus, I’ve talked before about the clothes I’ve gotten custom made here. Not to mention that last weekend we took an air conditioned bus to Siem Reap, where I did all of my Christmas shopping (in October… pretty good right?). And in Phnom Penh last month, I’m pretty sure Tim and I ate everything in sight. And we still have money left. Plenty of it. This might not be the case for all volunteers, and I understand that. Some might be placed in more expensive sites than ours. Tim and I might be saving money as a couple. And, of course, people have very different standards for “living well.” But for us, the answer is easy: A resounding “yes.” Yes, in the months that we’ve been here, we have found that our stipend has been more than sufficient to cover our costs.

Our loot from Siem Reap - plus a huge pile of herbs and spices not pictured

On to the second question: Are we living at the level of the local people? Absolutely not. As volunteers, we each make $269 a month. This might not sound like much, but consider this: A primary school teacher in our town makes $60 a month. A secondary school teacher might make $100, while an administrator might come in around $150 or $170. Sixty percent of Cambodians live on less than $2 a day. We make 4.5 times that amount. And we make it on a regular basis. We are not affected by the fluctuations of the local market. Nor do we make all of our money in one or two lump sums a year and then have to ration it for months at a time, as do many. We make $269 a month. Every month.

Except the months when we make more. Like this month, for example, when we were given a hefty “settling in allowance.” Or any of the many months when we’ll have to travel to Phnom Penh for meetings or trainings.

And I haven’t even begun to describe the resources afforded to us by Peace Corps. Upon arrival, we were all given water filters worth several hundred dollars. We have brand new mosquito nets. New bedding, mattresses and pillows. A top of the line cell phone. Peace Corps gave us all bikes—some of us even got shiny new mountain bikes imported especially for us. Do my Cambodian neighbors have these things? Of course not.

Do my neighbors have a safe place to go in case of a national emergency or natural disaster? Do they have someone who arranges transportation for them if they fall ill or get injured? Are their medical costs covered? Do they own iPods and laptops and Kindles and digital cameras?

No, no, no, and no. We are truly kidding ourselves if we think we are living at the local level. I do not mean to paint all Cambodians as poor helpless villagers without access to any resources because that certainly is not the case. And there are undoubtedly Cambodians with obscene amounts of wealth. But I think volunteers are living in oblivion if they think that they are living like the average Cambodian.

We spend a fair amount of our money here too

I have heard Tim say it several times, and I could not agree more: “The idea of a living stipend in Cambodia is ludicrous.” It truly is. Seemingly all of the Cambodians in our community are working to live. They are not taking wild vacations or playing the stock market. They are working to cover the costs of food, shelter, medicine and, hopefully, an indulgence or two. Trying to explain the concept of a living stipend to our Cambodian counterparts has been met with blank stares. And if they knew that our living stipend was significantly more than their government salaries, I can imagine we’d be met with a different reaction.

We are an already privileged group of people in Cambodia, supported by a fiscally and organizationally strong agency of the United States Government. Yes, our title is “volunteer,” but we make a substantial salary when compared with those around us. So, as I see it, our title does not entitle us to lower prices in the market or being exempt from paying the full amount at a wedding. And we certainly are not in such a dire position that we need to rely on our Cambodian friends, coworkers or family members to purchase things for us. I know some volunteers do not feel like they are living well, but I can’t say it enough: Given the funds and the resources we have access to, we are living above the local level, regardless of whether we define that as “living well” or not.

We came to Cambodia as volunteers. And while we’re making a respectable amount of money as volunteers, hopefully the spirit of volunteerism isn’t lost. Being a volunteer isn’t about the money— it’s about a willingness to serve, a willingness to put others before ourselves, and a willingness to help those around us. If the amount of money we are bringing in isn’t enough for us, let’s not forget about the Cambodians we are here to serve, who are making, on average, substantially less.

I hope we can all remember why we’re here.

I’m guessing none of us joined Peace Corps for the money.

Katie

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4 responses

25 10 2011
kbergen

Thank you for posting this! I am coming for your Mr Potato Chips.

25 10 2011
timkatstravels

Those are long gone, Kaija. Come on, you know us better than that!

3 11 2011
Susannah

1. After reading this post, I had that song stuck in my head ALL day. Thanks so much. :) 2. I was honestly surprised they gave you guys THAT much, compared to what the locals bring in… as you said, you are volunteers, and while I’m sure it’s incredibly difficult coming from such a privileged country and having to adjust, AND I know you two tend to be pretty good with money in general, I don’t think anyone should sign up for Peace Corps thinking they’ll have easy livin’ for 2 years.

11 11 2011
christinee

AMEN. I’m glad you wrote about this!

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