About a year and a half ago, shortly after I had arrived in Colombia, a question was posed to my group of volunteers. “What is development?” Over the course of the next two hours, we talked through the many different definitions of the word ‘development’ and what it can mean in various contexts and to different people. In the end, the purpose of the session was to enlighten us as to the philosophy and approach to development used by the Peace Corps. Peace Corps defines development as ‘any process that promotes the dignity of a people and their capacity to improve their own lives.’ By working within a human capacity building framework the focus of the work is on the development of people instead of things. This approach to development focuses on helping people learn to identify what they would like to see changed, use their own strengths, and learn new skills to achieve what they believe is most important. Development work is said to be sustainable when a community is able to continue on its own, without outside support. The Peace Corps sees sustainable development as a process in which people learn to build on their own strengths to address their expressed needs.
My work here as a TEL Trainer is to work alongside Colombian teachers to help strengthen the English program in an effort to help them meet the nation’s bilingualism goals. My work can be very slow, at times inefficient, and occasionally frustrating for myself and my counterparts. So I am often asked by both people back home and locals, “Why don’t you just teach the English classes yourself?” If I am being completely honest, half the time I have to bite my tongue from shouting, “I WISH I COULD!” It would without a doubt be easier for everyone involved (myself, my counterparts, and the students). But I remind myself that it would not be sustainable and it does not fit with the Peace Corps approach to international development. And at the end of the day, those are two of the biggest reasons I decided to join the Peace Corps.
Two years is a really long time. There were times at the beginning when I wondered what I had gotten myself into and whether a shorter program would have been a better choice. Now that I am settling into my second year, I can say hands down that the two year timeline is essential for the success of this program. I spent my first year getting to know the culture, my counterparts, and building relationships within my community. Now, in my second year, I was able to hit the ground running and am better prepared to help my teachers build on their strengths to implement change that will have lasting effects long after I leave.
I recently came across a story that has gone viral online written by a young woman recounting her experience with ‘voluntourism’. You can read the story here. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything this young woman says or the manner in which she chooses to phrase it, I do agree with her overall message.
This is a debate in which I find myself falling into the gray area. I have always lived my life with ‘the starfish story’ in mind. You know the story. A kid is walking down the beach picking up starfish that have washed ashore and throwing them back into the ocean. A man stops him and says, “Why are you wasting your time throwing those starfish back in, there are thousands, you’ll never be able to make a difference!” The kid tosses another starfish back in, looks up at the man and says, “It made a difference to that one.” I may not be able to change the world, but whatever small difference I can make is worth a shot. On the other hand, when choosing to go abroad for volunteer work it was very important to me to find an organization with a development philosophy that was sustainable and focused on human potential.
Unfortunately, I do not have an answer. Maybe, there is no right answer. I can only hope that people continue to volunteer, aspire to make positive change in the world, and with every good deed, have only the best of intentions.
I leave you with a quote from the article above that really resonated with me:
“I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to — who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.”
Until next time……paz y amor.