Saturday, August 20, 2011

I came to help!

One of the hardest questions to answer is not, "Do you miss your family?" or "What's better, here or there?" It is, "Why are you here?"

Of course, the answer on the tip of every PCV's tongue is, "I came to help!" It's easy to say, has great intent, and conveys the spirit of volunteerism that is America.

Unfortunately, it also implies that there is something inherently wrong with wherever you are and your help is the only thing that will lead these poor uncouth folks to civilization.

Makes us sound kind of imperialistic and egomaniacal doesn't it?

This is the problem with the development language of the day. We talk about third worlds, helping, and problems. It's not uncommon to hear PCVs complain about old wives tales and folk beliefs of their host country. It's easy to assume that because we are from the first world, we know better.

Of course, it wasn't until I started taking graduate courses in development theory and actually being a PCV to realize some of it is how we approach development, how we interact with host country nationals, and cultural relativism.

For instance, first, second and third world terminology comes from the Cold War era [link] and implies a level of democracy and capitalism [link]. These terms are outdated and kind of rude.

Talking about helping implies that there are problems. There may be problems, but what the outsider sees versus what the insider sees is very different. Plus, I wouldn't want some random French guy walking into my home town and telling me we have a trash problem. I know we have a trash problem. As the paradigm of development theory shifts, more and more community development specialists are using asset-based development approaches. Focusing on what you got and how to increase its capacity makes everybody feel awesome.

Finally, we have folky craziness in the U.S. too. Whenever we come in from the cold, our moms and dads immediately wrap us up in blankets and hand us something hot to drink - the popular opinion being that we will get sick if we get cold. Just because we are a highly developed country does not mean we still do not have the same old wives tales as everybody else. Plus, being cold does weaken your immune system. So there.

For me, I came to help! does not mean I came because your country is third world. I came to help because your country is developing and I want to be on the forefront of that field. I want to improve my skill set and return to the U.S. to help us continue developing. I want to learn about different cultures and stretch myself to learn new languages. I want to challenge common beliefs about Muslims and create a safer and more inclusive world. It would have been easier had I learned to say all these things during training, but I can say them now and I am.