Friday, July 10, 2009

Development work

Although I have only been in Nicaragua about 5 months, I feel like I have already learned so much about international development work. Before I came here, I always thought that the money that Westerners donate to those “save-the-children” funds, traveling brigades of doctors, church mission groups, and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs - referred to as ¨non-profits¨ sometimes in the US) always went directly to where the need was, and it was used just as they would hope. With these donated funds a village would have new latrines built, a child would be sent to school, a woman would have a tumor removed…and their life would be great. The Westerner could then feel a little better about themselves, feeling as if they had really done something.
When I first arrived at Peace Corps and we began our development training, we were told that as Peace Corps volunteers, we were different. Rather than coming in from the outside and handing out money and resources sporadically, we were working from the bottom up. We began to learn about the importance of community integration, learned about community analysis tools to decipher what the community actually wanted, needed, and could make happen. We learned that our Peace Corps service is not about us. It is not about accomplishing something that looks nice on a piece of paper or on a resume, rather it is about giving Nicaraguans a hand-up, not a hand-out.
As I’ve been in my site for the past three months, I’ve seen several development projects from foreign countries pass through, and I can’t help but see them through my new “Peace Corps lens.” Is what they’re doing sustainable? Is it what the community really needs? Does this really help the citizens advance and develop or does it just further reinforce the fact that when foreigners come to visit, they arrive with full pockets to disperse their riches among the population? I am often approached in my site and throughout Nicaragua being asked for money, or when I am involved in projects, people think that I magically have the power to produce funds to make it happen. I feel like most Nicaraguans have a little speech memorized in which they go on and on about how they come from a poor country, they have little education, they need our help…After explaining to them that Peace Corps give technical rather than monetary assistance to its countries of service, they look at me with a rather confused and non-believing stare. What? An American without money? I don’t have much patience now for their practiced “sob story.” That may work on someone who doesn’t live here, but I know better now. These people may be poor, but that does not mean they are helpless. I have met some of the smartest people I know here in Nicaragua- they are a loving, hard-working people who do not deserve our pity or our hand-out. They deserve our cooperation and respect.
I have seen many medical brigades, student groups, church missions, and NGOs come through Nicaragua. They are usually here between 1-4 weeks, building latrines, seeing patients, giving out soccer balls, building basketball courts… They come, they see, they build/see a few patients/teach a few kids how to play volleyball, and they leave. Although I don’t want to sound like a complete killjoy since these groups ultimately do good work and many Nicaraguans benefit, but ultimately they are not sustainable and do not train or involve Nicaraguan nationals as much as would be desired. If Nicaraguans were educated in how to raise money and carry out these projects, perhaps these foreign brigades wouldn’t be necessary.
I don’t want to make Peace Corps and my role here seem superior to what others here are doing- it all has the same goal in mind: development of Nicaragua as technically capable and healthy country.
Now that I’ve been here some time – being the only Westerner in my town surrounded by Nicaraguans, it is quite easy for me to also look at these traveling development groups from the perspective of a Nicaraguan. I can just imagine them thinking, “Have you gringos gone crazy?? Go home to your nice carpeted, air-conditioned house… get some pizza delivered! Why would you ever want to waste your time down here helping us poor Nicaraguans when you have a way better life back there?” I vaguely remember why those gringos do it though- a feeling of satisfaction from the work done, perhaps a feeling of guilt for all that they have in life, a true passion for helping the less-fortunate…. After all, it was some of those very feelings that prompted me to join the Peace Corps. How is it that I have changed?
Well, I’ve realized that not all development work is equal. Conducting a full community needs analysis is really necessary if your project is going to have the desired impact. Sometimes, just giving someone a hand-out actually hurts them in the long-run. They learn that money and resources will just come to them if they wait long enough and look poor enough, rather than striving to become educated, involved, or employed, effecting positive change in their community.
I’ll give you an example from my life here. All the girls on my volleyball team (there are 12 of us) do not own tennis shoes or anything resembling them. Most of them practice in sandals, flip flops, or slip-on plastic shoes. I desperately wish that we all had good shoes since this would make practicing less painful for them and also help us play better as a team. Extra-curricular activities are non-existent in Nicaragua, so for many girls this team is the highlight of their day and their only reason to leave their house. I could probably write a letter to Nike or some other sports supplier to request that they send us some shoes or funds, but on the other hand, that could have negative repercussions. I would be looked at from that moment on as the American who got free shoes for her volleyball team (and this wouldn’t be a good thing). I would go from being Penny the Peace Corps Volunteer to Penny the Walking ATM. Nicaraguans wouldn’t understand that Nike feels it should give these shoes out of the goodness of its heart (not to mention tax breaks). They just see a rich Western corporation giving hand-outs again; and they are not shy to open up their hands. In my town I would be hassled, gossiped about, and solicited until I gave out more shoes to every child in Nicaragua. A better way to go about this I’ve realized would be to have the girls raise their own money for the shoes: selling food, putting on a dance… Or show them how to write their own letter to Nike requesting money. When they have ownership of the project, it is more meaningful for them, increasing their self-esteem and self-respect.
So, while I do value the hard labor that these traveling groups and NGOs do in Nicaragua, I’ve also realized to look with a more critical eye at their projects. Are they seeking sustainability? How do they decide on a project? Who does the actual work? Is their host country involvement? Is the host country paying part of the cost? If I donate to any NGO or charity in the future, it will also be with this in mind.
On that note, if any of you reading my blog enjoy donating to a development organization, I suggest that you check out the Peace Corps volunteer projects that you can donate to through the Peace Corps website. It´s called the Peace Corps Partnership program. (see website at - ) Peace Corps volunteers from all over the world can solicit funds through the website for their local projects; HIV/AIDS programs, deforestation education programs, adolescent clinics, seed banks… As I mentioned before, Peace Corps gives us no monetary support, so we have the option of using this tool, Peace Corps Partnership, to help raise money. These projects are being undertaken by volunteers who have integrated into their communities, live among the populous and have chosen the project with the help and support of host country nationals. I strongly encourage you to check out this website, since in my view (biased as it may be) I think that these grassroots Peace Corps volunteer projects are some of the best places your money can go to.

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