I may be late to the game on this, and maybe it’s because of my current position as a PCV, but it seems the conversation has heightened lately surrounding third world/first world dichotomy and more specifically the American attitude towards “helping” or “giving”. A lot of this attention has been frustrating, and as I talk in circles with various other volunteers attempting to pinpoint what exactly about this conversation seems so arbitrary, I usually find myself more confused than when I began.
There have been some blog posts published by Peace Corps volunteers recently condemning other volunteers for their martyr-like attitudes towards the Peace Corps and Morocco. To them saying things like “I just want to help the children” or even saying “I want to help” at all is a diminishing statement to a society that doesn’t need help. They denounce other volunteers who post pictures on their facebooks or update their status and blogs regularly talking about their successes, stating that people who do this are using their community members and students to make themselves feel better, and nothing more. I have various objections to these posts, especially ones where volunteers go so far as to call their colleagues “assholes,” most likely because the volunteer they describe as posting pictures online and updating their blogs about success stories describes me. This blog is filled with pictures of my students and my work. I could sit here and defend myself, and write extensively about how I update my blog so I can do what I think a travel or work blog’s purpose is… updating family and friends about you know, my travel and my work. Seems pretty straight forward. I’d also like to think that we as volunteers are mature enough at this point to let each other experience our services as our own without judgment, but you know, in my small village, I see my kindergartners smear each other with boogers and spit and use the bathroom without washing their hands and think “I could help them learn about spreading germs”. Sorry if that offends you.
I think development work is a very delicate thing. There will always be people who think it’s an unnecessary imposition, people who think it’s the single most important thing to keep our world united, and thousands of people who’s opinions are somewhere in the middle. It would surprise me if we as the world, even we as America, come up with a unified opinion on how to distribute aid.
Today, I came across this video:
And it frustrated me. Why? Good question. I asked myself the same thing, and after some contemplation, I feel as though all of the various ideals that generated confusion and frustration have started to untangle.
This video suggests that most problems in the first world are due to items and experiences third world country people can’t have, and are therefore not “real” problems… such as cell phones, cars, computers. And then goes on to advertise for “clean water” in rural, impoverished areas, which doesn’t make sense that all of your examples aren’t about water, but whatever, that’s not the point.
As a white female who doesn’t cover her head, I stand out in basically every community in my region as a foreigner. The amount of times kids come up to me on the street asking for money or candy or pens is excessive. And it’s the same kids! Day in and day out, the same handful of children follow me and my site mate around Issafen asking for money. If we’re walking with Moroccan women, they don’t ask (as it’s a shameful act that their parents probably wouldn’t appreciate them doing), and even though we always say no, they are always persistent. They don’t ask Moroccans (women or men), just foreigners.
While I understand the basic good-heartedness of aid programs and while it is AN option to show up in a fancy car with a film crew and with money and free things to give away to the village children, instead of teaching them skills and competencies, this only associates said foreigners as people who give away free things, and thus our role is set in society.
But this isn’t entirely true… only about 5% of Issafen youths have this stereotype in their heads. I’m sure it’s bigger in different areas, but because of the positive history of Peace Corps volunteers here, the community is usually very respectful to our differences.
So what is the issue? I’d say one of the biggest lessons I learned coming here was that money does not equal happiness. I don’t mean this in the obvious way… such as not having a mansion or an iPhone or a 401K. I mean that our perception in America of “poor” relies so heavily on monetary value, that we forget basically everything else that contributes to a happy life.
If anyone that’s not a Peace Corps volunteer knew how much the average person in my community makes, they would immediately say that person is POOR. Capital letters, stand up and say it loud enough, POOR. But if you compare this to the national average, then the average of the province, then look at how things are priced and the rate of inflation…. These people are not poor. They are actually incredibly comfortable. They can put food on the table every day, three or four times a day. Their kids are warm in the winter and have books and supplies to attend school with. No, they may not be able to buy cheese or peanut butter, but that’s also because they just don’t sell it here.
I hear Moroccans in my village complain about ridiculous things all the time! “Maggie, while you were peeling the skin off the chickpeas, you missed a hair-like piece on one of them, and if there is any skin on the chickpeas I can’t eat them.” And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. We will always find people, in every country in the world, who find reasons to complain about their problems. If you give a complainer a cell phone, then they will most likely just find a reason to complain about that too.
I think aid organizations who help bring clean water to communities are awesome. I think Peace Corps volunteers that use their service as more of a learning experience than a work experience are just as validated in their involvement as people who want to “help.” But the more we think that money is the ultimate tool to fix the world’s problems, the less the world sees us as equals. It’s not about being better, it’s about being different. There are things I may be better at than Moroccans, and there are definitely things they are better at than I, but instead of judging or throwing money at problems that really have nothing to do with money, we can share our strengths and learn in return. We shouldn’t be afraid to say “I helped this person, this group, or this community to achieve *fill in the blank*” just as we should recognize when they help us to better our understanding of culture, acceptance, and new skills. Sharing knowledge with each other is an incredible thing… we shouldn’t forget this by focusing on what we think money brings to the table, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of categorizing it as “help.”