As a member of the Peace Corps, I think most people imagine that I am holding small children with bloated bellies in clinics as they are receiving life-saving medicine, delivering crackling, crisp textbooks or shining, new computers to remote villages, or up to my calves in mud digging latrines or building schools. That is a glamorized, romantic vision of development shown on heartbreaking for-the-price-of-a-coffee-per-day commercials and in heart wrenching movies set in exotic jungles, and it is not what I do.
I might, in my service, do some of these things – and often they are good and necessary things – but none are part of my day-to-day work. My goal as a Peace Corps Volunteer is about empowerment.
To empower communities here to advocate for better schools to be built, stronger education focused on equality and engagement to be offered for both boys and girls, not build a school for them. To have communities understand the reasons for building safe latrines, to encourage that sinks and soap are available, and to understand sanitation as a component of health. Education volunteers might help their school or counterpart write a grant to receive textbooks or a computer resource facility, but the real work is understanding how to use the textbook to encourage critical thinking, engage students with the subjects they are learning, or connect them to the information and opportunities offered by the Internet. In business, Volunteers aim to provide the foundation for entrepreneurship, for leadership, for environmental stewardship, for local ownership and investment and civic engagement – not simply starting a business or NGO. As a health volunteer, our goals are to make sure that the small child in need of life-saving medicine comes in for regular check-ups instead of waiting until a health risk becomes dire, that she can grow up with the information she needs to keep herself and her family healthy, and that she understands how to access information about disease, health services, family planning, and nutrition.
My work in the Peace Corps is about empowering individuals and communities to take control of their own development and recognize their own potential, power, and voice for change. The Peace Corps is about working together, learning together, and encouraging ideas to grow through generations, through asking what could be instead of what is. Not only asking where do we want to go, but where have we been.
Successful development addresses both short and long term problems in a community, but also addresses the context, attitudes, and institutions that allow that type of problem to exist. Sustainable development is about devising a solution that allows a community – not an external individual or organization – to continue to work towards positive change.
That is what the Peace Corps strives for, and by placing Volunteers in communities for two years, we can work to become a part of the community, understand the culture and context in which a development program would exist, and train individuals to build a project together. My goal should be making my role as a Volunteer obsolete – working to help design programs that don’t require the presence of an external organization, a Volunteer, or donor dependency.
It’s all a part of the challenge of community development and empowerment – how do you become an engineer instead of part of the machine? How do you leave a lasting impact but limit your input?
As a part of my first few weeks of work, I am writing about my first days as a Peace Corps Volunteer at my permanent site and about what I will be doing. You can read more about beginning work HERE.