Sunday, May 9, 2010

On development, empowerment, and my responsibilities as a Peace Corps Volunteer

A few months ago, Texas in Africa wrote a post on celebrity humanitarianism. As fan of U2’s music, performance, and politics (I refer to the band’s general political outlook, not Bono’s specific policy stances, because I don’t much care for Jeff Sachs), I cringe a little every time this comes up. From the abstract of Riina Yrjola’s original article on the subject:
The article argues that, while Geldof and Bono do push for economic changes for Africa, the spatio-temporality of their imaginaries and interpretations on Africa elaborate a colonial imaginary by (re)producing Africa as a specifically Western project and calling. By repeating and circulating the vocabulary of humanitarianism as a moral duty in combination with the engagement in power politics, these discourses not only serve a purpose in the maintenance of hegemonic Western activity in Africa, but are also instrumental in constructing consensus for the existing world order, where the global South is, and remains, in a subordinate position to the West.
I haven’t had a chance to read the whole article, but the above paragraph eloquently clarifies why I feel such revulsion when Bono talks about this issue (in contrast to the joy U2’s music brings me). Bono’s heart is in the right place, but good intentions are not enough (the author is an RPCV) if a development actor's actions worsen a situation or entrench bad conditions.

It’s an important thought to keep in mind as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Our communities do not exist so that American volunteers can develop professionally and as individuals, see the world, and get some culture, even if these things are personally rewarding and motivate many PCVs (myself included).

Not all Peace Corps projects are successful, and I expect to blunder through my share of failures before I succeed. It’s incredibly scary to step into a community as a development worker knowing I’m stepping into a minefield of problems I might exacerbate. No matter how small my projects, I have a responsibility to ensure positive outcomes, and I don’t know that I’m qualified for or deserving of that responsibility. If anything I work on perpetuates or worsens a problem, fosters dependence, or creates negative unintended consequences that outweigh positive progress, I might as well go home now.

How will I attempt to avoid these pitfalls? Before I start any projects, I will conduct a variety of community needs assessments. As per Peace Corps philosophy, all of my projects should be planned in collaboration with my community and implemented in partnership with members of the community. Ideally I will merely be a facilitator for sustainable projects, a mentor and capacity builder for my already-quite-capable counterparts.

Post script: Last week, after I had written the above, Texas in Africa wrote a series of posts about the “savior complex” versus the “empowerment paradigm” (her final post on donor governments and aid politics is also worth reading).  As dictated by Peace Corps philosophy but also my own beliefs on development, my job should be defined by many of the elements included in her empowerment paradigm. It all boils down to a core Rwandan development value, embodied by the oft-heard phrase “kwiteza imbere,” or “to better oneself.”

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