Saturday, September 29, 2007


One of the primary reasons I elected to join the PC was because of its unique approach to development. That is, that PC actually puts volunteer development workers on the ground for two years in a community and teaches us the local language. Also, it is secular, and we work entirely in countries where we are explicitly invited by the host government. This means that we are guaranteed government support/cooperation, and we do not force our work upon uninterested or unsafe communities. Theoretically without some of the most common barriers we can maximize our productivity.

Though I learned a veritable TON about Int’l Development at Skidmore, CIDH and LSE (more than I ever thought possible really), I always felt like an imposter, having never had the chance to actually work in international development long-term. Sure, working on the ground for a month in Lima with Cross Cultural Solutions was a great beginning. It gave me that first addicting taste of international development work, but I needed a longer-term test. It just felt so hypocritical to gab on about development without ever living in a so-called “less-developed” country.

So here I am, finally fulfilling that desire. I’m thrilled to have such a concrete background in all things development related, from its champions, its skeptics, and its worst critics. Thanks (in part) to a revelationary (is that even a word?) course at LSE, “Complex Emergencies” with Dr. David Keen, my idealistic acceptance of all humanitarian work as ‘good’ and ‘beneficial’ was pretty much shattered. If you’ve never heard of him, check him out. His and his colleague’s perspectives on humanitarian work and aid work in general is disheartening to say the least, but totally changed the way I wanted to approach and to work in int’l development. The point is, that because of this academic base, I feel like I am better able to grasp the complexities of the ‘problems’ I see all around me.

One thing I have observed here in Senegal is the negative long-term effect of foreign aid—governmental or not. I’m not criticizing all aid orgs outright, (clearly all NGOs and humanitarian orgs are not made equal) or proposing that the more ‘privileged world’ should not help poorer countries to develop. What I am saying (and there is plenty of great literature out there to back me up) is that the constant flow of NGOs and IGOs and all the money they bring with them, takes away from government accountability. Granted I can only speak from my observations in a very specific place over just six short months, but it’s true. Talking to Senegalese about development projects, there are never any discussions about getting funding from the government, or about why Senegal’s education system isn’t better, or why the power and water cut out 8x a day. Instead people say that it is better to ask one of the many development orgs in country for help or for money. Maybe that’s because they actually get things done-build wells, give school supplies, bring in guest doctors and nurses, sponsor causeries and trainings etc. But that doesn’t change the fact that their presence makes governments unaccountable. And that’s what Senegal needs the most: large scale projects, sweeping educational reform, infrastructure, and economic diversification of its major industries. None of those things can come from USAID, or UNICEF, or AfricaCare. They are going to have to come straight from Abdoulaye Wade’s office.

It’s dependency.

People have become dependent on aid orgs, and will wait and wait forever for things instead of organizing and doing it themselves because they know that eventually, some foreign organization will come in, fund it, and do the work for them. And in the short-term that makes a lot of sense: “Do we tell the NGO in the next town over that we don’t have a clean water supply and have them build a well for us this season? Or do we wait and wait and wait for the Wade administration to come in and do it?” I mean which would you choose?

On a large scale, the more sustainable path to development is clear, but as a PCV, the work of other development workers sometimes makes our work that much more challenging. Most foreign development workers waltz in for a few weeks at a time. They stay in nice hotels, eat in restaurants, barely interact with Senegalese people, get their work done, waste much more money on living comfortably than necessary, take some heart-warming pictures and a few tear-jerking memories back home to impress their next date and then return home feeling selfless and proud. And they should! The very fact that they care enough to come down here, or “help” at all shows tremendous courage and compassion. Unfortunately, its been making a lot of our work more difficult.
Why? Because we don’t have any money.

One example is a friend of mine down south who is in a very isolated part of southeastern Senegal. She recently met a couple in her area that received a grant to come to Senegal and do development/health work. They are pouring out money for projects all over the place. They leave in 5 or 6 months and then who is going to be there to pick up the pieces when the projects they shoddily created fail? My PCV friend. Because there is no way that they can know the culture and the community well enough to know what projects will crumble and what projects will self-sustain. Most likely, whatever they do will fail. It might sound cynical but it’s true. Even after two years learning the ins and out of our communities, many PCV projects fail.

What about the two guys I met who had started their own NGO and were bumming around the country distributing mosquito nets using funds from friends, churches and schools at home? They were here for a few months and won’t come back for another two years. They gave no thought to enforcing “good mosquito net behavior.” Like the fact that most people only sleep under them during the rainiest season, and they don’t re-impregnate them, and most of the ones I see have so many gaping holes in them their practically useless.

And how about my other PCV friend’s village that just wants her to buy them a car so that they can transport women in labor to the nearest health post? They don’t care about her re-opening the health hut and training health workers to run it and hold educational health talks. They want money for a car. They’ve seen other groups come in and give similar sums for wells and schools etc. and they want a piece of that action. They’re not interested in some young, rich, white girl preaching at them about washing their hands with soap or how to make ORS.

Bottom line is that ultimately, all development/aid orgs should be working to be out of business, or at the very least to eventually adapt to a new location, or project. Not exactly a sound business model. And certainly the Peace Corps isn’t doing that either. After all, we’ve been in Senegal since 1963!

But our work has not gone unnoticed. A couple times I have passed people in markets and they have shouted things like “American? I like Americans better than Europeans. You learn our language and you live with us like family.” And this even before I have a chance to answer. (By the way Senegalese usually assume that all Americans are PC). Although PC isn’t perfect in its development approach, maybe those small interactions mean that what we’re doing, regardless of how ‘textbook sustainable’ it is, is worthwhile?

Certainly other approaches are equally valid and sometimes even more beneficial than the work we do. But as someone who actually lives here and struggles to convince my community that every conversation we have about hand washing is part of my work, it is defeating to be the “little guy” up against the “bling” of other foreign aid orgs. I just wish there was some way to instill all the aid orgs here with the aspiration for all projects to be sustainable.

I guess at the very least, I am satisfied that I am part of an organization with a mostly sustainable approach to development.

Now if I could just get some funding….


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