“Make the Story be about the Poor”

2 02 2012

Earlier tonight, I came across a new post from Tales from the Hood entitled, “American Culture 101: More blessed to give than to receive.” It’s a passionate article that links the giver-centric American attitude with the contemporary humanitarian aid industry. Drawing upon examples in current pop culture and American history alike, the author makes the argument (among others) that we Americans love being the giver, and therefore, diminish the role of the receiver, whose role is only “to accept and be grateful.”

Before I applied to the Peace Corps, I had three major concerns. One was personal, one professional and one philosophical. I’ve written about the other two previously, but wasn’t sure if I would blog about the philosophical concern I felt. However, this article provides a clear segue.

When considering moving abroad with the Peace Corps, I was concerned that the experience would be too volunteer-focused and would not adequately emphasize the needs of the community. This is a common criticism of volunteer-based international organizations and isn’t limited to the Peace Corps,  but also extends to my former employer in Argentina and other similar organizations. It’s a valid concern too since the composition of these groups is often young (read: unskilled and unfocused), independent (rebellious), privileged (demanding) Millennials. We– I consider myself to have many of these attributes, as well– require a lot of time, money and attention.

After investing all of those resources into Volunteers, the Peace Corps needs to ensure that we don’t leave service early. This is an understandable reason that the agency emphasizes Volunteer happiness. Another reason is because we are needed to promote the experience, to market their product to all potential future Volunteers. Add in liability issues and the administrative mess that stems from unhappy PCVs, and it’s easy to see how why it can get all too Volunteer-focused.

But what about the reason we are here? What about the communities where we serve? How do they fit in?

One argument is that happy Volunteers will be more productive in their communities, so by focusing on the Volunteer, you are also focusing on the community. I think this is fair to an extent. However, I think there is much more that could be done, on an organizational and an individual level, to increase the emphasis placed on the “receivers” of our efforts.

Globally, Peace Corps could modify the recruiting and application process so it truly examines and embraces the skills that Volunteers bring with them.  That way, Volunteers can be better matched with contexts where their skills are needed, thus substantially increasing the potential for positive impact on the community. And, while we’re at it, it’s absolutely essential that Peace Corps have an in-depth and up-to-date understanding of the specific contexts where it works. Only then can it really benefit the people it aims to serve.

Here in Cambodia, the language used during our training was astonishingly Volunteer-focused. Even the overarching topics of our trainings were heavily geared toward having a positive Volunteer experience, instead of emphasizing having a positive impact on the community. Sessions on community-based change and participatory assessments existed, but were, in my opinion, brief and underdeveloped. This needs to change if the program wants to shift its focus to the local people.

As individual Volunteers, we have the greatest opportunity to overcome the giver-centric tendencies mentioned in the article. We can do this by devoting more of our time to reaching a level of fluency that allows for a nuanced understanding; conducting thoughtful, comprehensive assessments that truly put value on the voices of the community; and putting our interests aside in favor of those of the community where we work. These are the things we could be doing, but most of us aren’t. At least not to the extent we could.

All of this is to say that I think that Peace Corps, as it currently functions, fits the model described in the article I read tonight. Peace Corps, for many young people, is an opportunity to have an adventure abroad and feel good about making a difference. From an organizational standpoint, PC relies on the happiness and safety of the Volunteers. These things lead to an organizational focus that strays from the people who are supposed to benefit from the agency’s efforts: the poor.

As the author of the article says:

We have to make the story be about the poor… We have to fight the urge ourselves, both as individuals and as organizations, to make the real story about processes and pipelines and logistics and budgets and technical standards. Of course those things are all important and we have to do them all well. But they are only means to ends. We have to keep the people we’re trying to help in the forefront of the storyline.

I couldn’t agree more with the idea of shifting the emphasis off of donors and aid workers. The poor should most certainly be in the “forefront of the storyline.” In this way (and in many ways), the author is right on, which is why I chose to share the article. But I’d quickly like to note that the one major flaw I find in the article is that it perpetuates the giver/receiver paradigm, which ultimately disempowers the community in many of the same ways that placing an emphasis on donors and processes did in the first place. Yes, the emphasis needs to be taken away from the donors, the aid workers and the Volunteers; however, we should stop using language that paints this as a one way process where we  give to them.

Regardless, it’s a constant struggle. One faced by Peace Corps, yes, but also by hundreds of other organizations with the best of intentions. And I have to admit, as development workers and Peace Corps Volunteers, it is can be a surprisingly difficult task to look beyond ourselves and make the story be about the poor.

Katie

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7 responses

3 02 2012
Sierra

Yes, yes, and yes!!! Fabulous writing about an incredibly important topic! Thank you, Katie, for your ability to put so eloquently, the very real things that plague my mind every day. Ten outta ten!

3 02 2012
Travis Thompson

You are a wise woman. Thank you for writing this. I agree with you and this is a good reminder to try harder to keep focused on why I’m here. It seems to be getting harder to do as COS draws nearer.

3 02 2012
timkatstravels

Thanks to both of you for the kind words. It’s easy to write a blog post about these ideas though; it’s much harder to live them. Between the hot weather, the language barrier and the temptations of technology, I’ve found it can be difficult to muster up the energy and the courage to focus daily on what’s important here. Hopefully we can all hold one another accountable in the upcoming months and years.

3 02 2012
kbergen

Fantastic post. As you know, I agree with everything you’ve said here. I will say that one of the things I really do like about Peace Corps though is that I think it has the potential to create volunteers who are well-situated to overcome a lot of the pitfalls that come from a “giver-centered” approach (at least more so than NGOs in Phnom Penh, or abroad, or ones where the workers don’t speak Khmer…we get a lot of that in Kampot…). But I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head regarding PC’s own “volunteer-focus.” It’s what makes this feel like study abroad sometimes, and I think it also allows for a sense of entitlement that at best isn’t very flattering and at worst harms the communities within which PC tries to work. Thanks for the article – I love when someone goes after movies like the Blind Side, among other things.

4 02 2012
timkatstravels

You’re absolutely right, Kaija. There are definitely ways in which the PC model has the potential for a less giver-centric approach than many other NGOs. I should have acknowledged that in the post. Living in (generally) smaller communities and speaking the language gives us a head start. A great response.

4 02 2012
Brenda

Katie, this is very thought-provoking, both the original article and your eloquent and personal response. Kind of convicting too. As someone who does a fair amount of volunteer work in and for the church, I know that I sometimes (okay, often) find myself patting myself on the back–mostly internally, I hope, but probably not always. Hardly a Christian attitude, and pride is a difficult challenge. The differences between religion and the Peace Corps is nothing compared to the differences between what I do in my free time and what you and Tim are devoting years of your life to. Your points are valid but you are making a difference in the lives around you, and the fact that you are exploring difficult issues tells me that your awareness will certainly prevent you from making your time in Cambodia a self-centered adventure rather than the gift of self I see you giving. I brag about you guys all the time! Love you and miss you.

6 02 2012
timkatstravels

Glad this was able to get you thinking, and thanks for bragging about us. We brag about you too! Hope all is well with you and Larry. Sending lots of love!

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