Sunday, May 22, 2011
the cynicism of a development worker
Last week, my Peace Corps training class got together for our Mid-Service Conference (MSC in Peace Corps’ acronym happy lingo), a landmark that represents the halfway point of our service. The idea is that by the time you reach the halfway point, most of the bumps and bruises that come along with moving to a foreign country will be behind you. The first year of Peace Corps is there for you to get acclimated in your new community, run through some trial and error on your projects, and start to hone in on what works best for you. The second year is to solidify the work you are doing and make it sustainable. After ten weeks of Pre-Service Training, a year in the field, and a handful of other training sessions we’d attended, further trainings are a bit redundant. That’s why MSC is set up just as a chance for us to come together and reflect on our time so far with Peace Corps staff and friends.
You might think that the tone of a room filled with people who have given up their lives for the last year to help communities on the other side of the world would be overwhelmingly upbeat, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. In stark contrast to the optimistic, starry-eyed discussions I vividly remember from when we first got here, the current mood in regards to our work is often jaded and tired. Idealism has turned into realism and, at times, cynicism. We slam the concepts of charity, foreign aid, and especially short-term “voluntourism”, and question whether our impacts are even being felt by our communities. I was actually hesitant to write this entry because, even though these things are natural to the seasoned PCV, I feel like it might be misunderstood by someone who’s never walked a mile in our shoes.
So what happened? Why such a drastic shift in attitudes? There could be any number of reasons, I suppose. We’ve been here for so long now. We miss our homes; our families and friends. We’re tired of being outsiders. We want a decent, sand-free meal. We’re frustrated by any number of the differences that are the norm for both Uganda and Ugandans, but would be unimaginable in America.
I guess these would be the easy things to point to, and I would never completely discount any of them. Things can wear on you pretty quickly when you’re on your own the way nearly all of us are. But I think there’s a deeper reason behind the cynicism. Simply put, it’s because we still care. As a friend and I were just discussing, most Americans aren’t used to failure. We came from a country where you are expected to achieve, and all of the tools are there for everyone to make that happen. We PCVs came here with grandiose ideas about the work we were going to do and the impact we would have, and yet despite our good intentions and our American university degrees, we have all faced daunting failures. Usually things just don’t work out the way we’d hoped, but sometimes there are failures so epically catastrophic that the only possible conclusion to draw is that everyone would have been better off if we’d never even attempted the project. Everyone wants to see their efforts bear fruit and see that things are getting better. Unfortunately, for many here it can be difficult to see. It’s something that none of us was used to, and it’s definitely taken its toll.
What gives me hope, though, is that we’re still here. Not one of us has given up, and despite any bitching we might do, I know that each one of us is going to go out there and keep working for what we believe in. We aren't perfect. We get worn out and retreat within our own safe little American circle. We complain to each other because we're not sure outsiders will really understand and sometimes you need to vent. We make jokes because sometimes you just have to laugh. In the end, the people I've met through Peace Corps are still some of the best people I've ever met, and I feel incredibly lucky to count them as my friends.