Monday, March 10, 2008

Having 2nd, 3rd, and 4th thoughts

This whole Peace Corps thing is making me think. This past weekend I was reading a small paperback book the Peace Corps office gave to me after my interview. It's called "A Life Inspired" and is a collection of about 30 first hand accounts of volunteers' experiences in the Peace Corps. Based on the title, I assume it's supposed to be inspirational, to get one motivated to sign-up and go overseas, but I found it's having the opposite effect on me.

Not meaning to offend the authors, but I found a lot of the stories surprisingly simple in their stated accomplishments and lessons learned. Maybe I'm just in a cynical mood lately and I'm being overly critical. But reading how someone found their Peace Corps service made them more patient, less vane, and helped them discover the joys of eating with their hands and bathing under the stars is not what I'd call "a life inspired." After reading about a dozen of these first hand accounts, I was getting more and more discouraged. Many of the accounts seemed to carry a tone of self-importance - like here was this superior American going to the aid of the helpless lowly foreigner. And each carried trite examples of how it was so touching to finally connect with the native people and realize that they are just like "us". Of course they're just like us! They're human beings! They just live in a different part of the world. Sheesh!

And this chain of thought then got me thinking about my own motivations for doing this. My main motivation is I want to help people in the best way I can. But am I expressing some arrogance by thinking I have to go to a developing country to help people? Why not help people in my local community? Do I have some inherent bias or prejudice such that I think people in a developing nation need my help more? Or is it a reality that there is a definite shortage of people in these developing nations with the skills to teach what I know? Or is it just a fact that since I would be "free" labor, it's more economical to have me as a resource rather than hire someone local who might have the skills? And if that is the case, am I then displacing someone in that country who would otherwise be earning some money doing the same job?

I'm not really sure what the answers to these questions are, but it's something I must think about.


Mom said...

How about being a "Big Brother?" or a mentor?

JD said...

Keep in mind the selection bias with that kind of book: It's going to tend to feature authors who are perhaps a little more vain or self-important than the average person, whereas more quiet, humble, shy, or self-conscious types are going to be less likely to contribute.

And in the third paragraph of your post, I think you're overthinking things. The Peace Corps helps people; helping people is good thing. Yeah, sure, you should also volunteer in your own community, but you can do that when you get back. Isn't there some kind of zen wisdom to the effect that you shouldn't be constantly trying to optimize, and that you can just do a good thing and not worry whether it's the absolute best thing you could have done?

Berna said...

Hey Brian,

I agree with everything JD says above and I sent you a long message with some of my thoughts on this question as it relates to my own work.

In the end, I believe that if you think of helping people as a lifelong pursuit it removes that false dichotomy of here/there, us/them and allows you to help in different ways at different times. And there are lots of different people who need help!

Berna said...

BTW, there is definitely a shortage of people with skills in developing contexts. I've heard this repeatedly from individual graduate students, researchers, and even at the institutional level when we make partnerships with other sociology departments.

What they really need is people to come and teach (or go to the U.S. and learn and return) so they can continue to share this knowledge and work towards creating it for themselves.

Colby said...

Hi Brian,

Your Vermont cousin chiming in. A good book to read perhaps would be "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortensen. It's out in paperback right now. It is his memoir focused on his work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It's a reminder that you can do work in challenged parts of the world and become more enlightened about how you interface with local culture. Although his work was not through the Peace Corps, I do believe there are some lessons in his memoir about being conscious about not going into the country with the "American as Saviour" perspective. May help in your decision making. Truthfully, because you are already questioning these issues, you will have a very different perspective and bring that consciousness into your work in the Peace Corps should you pursue that route. And perhaps be more sensitive and enlightened than the people in their promotional materials.

Anonymous said...

The PCVs may have discovered what they are taught in training. The PC work is a lost cause. Everything has been tried and usually failed. Very little is accomplished. PCVs have chosen to live poor when they could have chosen to live well working for foreign service, USAID, CIA, a corporation or whatever and gotten alot more done for the people. In fact, peace corps should be looked at as the last option, with no one willing to pay you to work and live overseas for money.

People with money get alot more done.

Most Americans and especially business people see PCVs are irresponsible. Two years overseas for no money?

A life Inspired sees PCVs trying to justify their work. It really can't be and that is the point. You might consider PC if all other options aren't allowed. In fact, not wanted. It is easier to justify not being wanted first and serving based on rejection everywhere else. The PC work makes more sense.

I would skip PC and see if I could get someone to pay me. You can do more.


Celes said...

I think it's good that you're asking these questions. In the end, you'd be going over there to help, but also to learn and experience something new and different (thus helping yourself). I think you realize you have as much to give in the experience as it has to give you, which will probably make it a more powerful experience for you than any of the people in that book you're reading.