When it comes down to the brass Peace Corps tacks, I, as a volunteer, was a development/aid worker. Peace Corps is just another shade of aid in the developing world, and I was their pawn on the ground, so to speak. Being a Peace Corps volunteer is, technically, a job, and I was expected to make some difference in the village I lived in (even if that difference is just demonstrating how many shades of red a sunburn can take). So, I attempted to help my village “develop”. I taugh about fish farming to improve protein accessibility and consumption; I taught about health topics like HIV/AIDS and malaria to help people stay safe from these preventable diseases; I helped my neighbor kiddo learn English (HiHowAreYouIAmFine) so he can maybe attend high school some day. These are all like little bitty bites out of the development apple, some, of course, more exciting than others.
But, despite all these little bites, development feels slow. Really slow, and riddled with failure. And here’s something I’ve learned by being in Peace Corps: development has little to do with how smart people are or how much schooling they’ve had. Instead, the successes and failures of development have a lot to do with things we can’t control as one person, or even as a village full of people.
This is, of course, a deep topic. Why does development succeed or fail? I could dedicate my entire blog to this discussion and my fingers would fall apart before I was finished. Today, though, I want to give you an example of why development is slow, and hard. Here’s a story about development from my village, and why it failed.
Back in September of 2014, my counterpart and I decided we wanted to implement a community project aimed at building a community center. The center would have room for shops, meetings and workshops, as well as a covered market space. Currently the nearest infrastructure providing these services is a 1.5 hour walk, one way, from our village. That’s a long haul for a bar of soap or bag of salt.
So, we began having meetings and getting the community together to build a center. What is represented by that short sentence is hours of meetings where my counterpart and I explained our idea and sought input and feedback from the community. This is absolutely rule numero uno for all development work: the project must be the idea of a community member (or at least conceived in a collaborative fashion) and the community has to want the project. Many, many NGOs and development/aid organizations completely miss this. If a community doesn’t want it, doesn’t understand it, or doesn’t see the need for it, it won’t work. End of story.
With our project the community agreed that, after what seemed a natural lifetime worth of meetings, a community center would provide a center for economic activity within the village and the surrounding area, would greatly shorten the commuting distance to basic goods, and would possibly provide a place for people to sell produce, thus improving the accessibility of fresh food in the village. Several of the surrounding villages sent representatives (usually men), and many people attended meetings out of their own interest (usually older women) in seeing the project succeed. After much discussion and detailing of the steps of the project, we set out to begin.
First, we had to build bricks.
For two weeks, a group of villagers and I got together to build bricks. In our village, this meant mixing termite clay and water into a thick clay and packing it into forms. The forms were then dumped out in long rows of wet bricks, then left to dry for three days in the sun.
We made bricks for days. And days. And days. We finally reached around 2.500 bricks and were heading home for the day. I felt jubilant about our project. In a week or so construction could begin, and I could almost see the piles of fresh vegetables that would soon be for sale in our new market. Small scale development was within my grasp!
Then, as I lit my braizer that night, I felt an odd sensation. A rain drop came out of nowhere and landed on my arm. I was stunned. Now? In September? Rainy season wasn’t due for another six weeks. Another drop hit my forehead, and soon a steady downpour was soaking the ground. At first, I didn’t think about the bricks. Then, as the rain continued into the night and throughout the next day, I began to worry. I visited our field of drying bricks and noticed cracks beginning to form, and the once-square edges beginning to soften and slough off. Within a few days, all 2,500 of our bricks lay in muddy, melting piles. All of our labor, wasted.
I have rarely been so dishearted in my entire life. What seemed like a spot-on community project was suddenly back to square one. What’s more, everyone who had helped now feared more rain and the group decided to put off the project until the next dry season. Just like that, all the hard work and long meetings that had built up the community’s momentum was washed away. Soon, only a few people remained interested in the project and before the rainy season was up, it was down to one person (our neighbor).
Jealousy helped play a part in why things fell apart (a post about that soon), as did people’s other obligations and time constraints. But, we could have had it. We were moving in the right direction, and it took one freak event like a rain storm and the unfortunate circumstances of no where to buy a tarp (or money to do it) to protect the investment of our time and energy. When you live in a world like this, where any chance at progress can be stolen from you overnight by something you cannot possibly control, it is easy to believe that progress is a risk. That development is fraught with peril. That growth will only end in loss. Many people in the developing world believe this, and it is this collective attitude that is a major impediment to development. But, as I hope I have illustrated to you, it is not an unfounded or unwarranted belief. It is valid, and it is based in all too frequently occurring evidence.
This problem of development being hard is also why handouts are so appealing both to the giver and to the receiver. In the developing world, there are many, many organizations (NGOs, charities, etc.) that go around handing out free stuff. Often this free stuff comes unaccompanied by anything useful: knowledge, training, accountability, etc. But, free stuff is attractive in one way that had never occurred to me before the Peace Corps: it’s a low-risk option for aid. For the NGOs (or whomever) giving things away, it’s an easy way to put resources into developing areas with little effort. They look good on paper, the people on the receiving end may remember that NGO for the free stuff they gave out – everyone “wins”. For the people receiving those goods, it’s a chance at having something they want or need without the risks associated in getting in through their own labor. If those free seeds don’t sprout or that new toy breaks, it’s no loss to them; they didn’t spend money or time or labor on getting it, so the chance they take on trying it out is essentially null.
This may sound like a good thing (and, I would argue, everyone needs a freebie/leg up sometimes), but in essence it’s not. It creates a culture of dependence. It robs people of their independence and creativity and cultural values by thrusting free, valueless things into their hands. You may read this and think, “Sure, it’s easy to say that when you have all your basic needs met,” (like myself) and you’d be totally right. It is easy for me to say that with a roof over my head and income to buy clothes for my someday (but not any day soon) children. But, it’s also easy for me to say that as a former Peace Corps Volunteer. You can actually see the difference in a village that has been inundated by NGOs, and one that has not. You can hear it in the words of the people who live there; in their willingness to try new things and learn new skills. Self-determination is a big deal, especially when the recent history of a people has been borne out of colonialism and hundreds of years of being told who you are and what you’re worth (as Zambia was, having just reached 50 years of independence last year). Risk and taking chances are, in the long run, vital to the development of a society.
So, development is hard. Really hard. When you think about all the aid money that gets pumped into developing countries and wonder “Why the heck do we still have developing countries?”, I hope this post gives you a little perspective in answering that question. Our village project that I was so proud of failed, miserably, and it wasn’t anybody’s fault. We had good intentions and bad weather. When Rob and I left our village last month, they still didn’t have a shop and the original group of motivated villagers had long since moved on to other things. That is, except for one: our neighbor Tamar. Tamar loved the idea of running a shop and being his own businessman (he already sells many of his produce products door-to-door), and his wife loved the idea of not having to walk long distances for basic goods. Just before we left, Tamar was in the middle of a (rain free) week of building 5000 new bricks. His plan? To build a new, bigger house for his wife and (soon to be) three children.
His old house is to be converted into a shop.
P.S. There’s a good article that recently came out in The Collegian (from Walla Walla University) talking about volunteering and voluntourism. It’s a great read, and I highly recommend it as a follow-up to this post.