Development and impact…

A little while ago I was having dinner with another Ex-pat. She works with an NGO and recently arrived in Burkina. She said that while Peace Corps was a great idea for development, she felt that two years was a long time to be away from home but not enough time to really make a difference.

In an ideal world Peace Corps strives to have 6 years of development at a given site with three generations of volunteers and then that site will be “graduated.” Sometimes sites (like regional capitals) are replaced with different sector volunteers such as a site in the northern Burkina, Zogore, which hosted three health volunteers and then a small enterprise development volunteer before the site was graduated.

A member of Senior Management previously worked with the United Nations in various capacities and I asked her about her experience as and with UN Volunteers (UNVs). She said that comparing PCVs and UNVs is like comparing a Lamborghini and a Bicycle. They are completely different.

Frankly, it seems that if PCVs were supposed to implement dramatic development with a greater immediate impact…that we would be given increased funding for projects and higher salaries…

But is an immediate impact truly sustainable? Sure, grassroots development is not supposed to be instantaneous, but if it is indeed community initiated and has a community contribution then it is highly likely that that development will be more sustainable. It’s like comparing a lifestyle change with diet and exercise to going and having gastric bypass surgery. The surgery will give the patient quicker results, but surgery is still risky and invasive, while diet and exercise will result in more sustainable and maintainable weight loss.

I’ve talked about how Peace Corps can sometimes be a frustrating experience and is truly “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love” but here’s what keeps me going…the Peace Corps Experience is PRIMARILY A CULTURAL EXCHANGE.

Yes, primarily a cultural exchange! We live in villages, learn local languages, eat with our hands, live off the grid, pump our own water, bike everywhere, and live in a figurative fishbowl.

2 out of the 3 Peace Corps Goals have to deal with sharing culture. The second goal involves American culture with the people in which we serve, and the third goal is sharing what we learned about the culture in which we served with Americans (i.e. third goal presentations, blogging, tweeting, etc).

So even if things are not moving along in your village, if things are not progressing fast enough…if you are a PCV and exchanging your culture with others…you’re doing your job. As long as you leave your house every day, you’re doing your job.

I was talking with a recently COSed PCV who I truly look up to and she’s now working for an NGO in Ouaga, and she said something that really touched me. She said that she really admired what I have done with my service. Even though things got difficult, I didn’t give up. I found other things to do, and I stuck with it. A lot in my village might not have changed, but I certainly have. You make it work, you work around, you do what you can in your capacity. That’s what being a PCV is all about.

So what if our impact isn’t “dramatic” enough? I wouldn’t trade these two years for anything else.

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3 responses to “Development and impact…

  1. Sara,
    Out of the blue I jumped onto Peace Corps Journals, Burkina Faso and your post was the most recent. I decided to read it. I was a PCV in Upper Volta from 1978-1980, before it became Burkina Faso. I worked as a geologist on a UNDP project. I spent 1 week a month in Ouaga and the other 3 en brousse which varied from Safane, Hounde and finally Batie. I was one of the equipped volunteers being attached to a UNDP which supplied me with a truck and other supplies to run crews of up to 77 workers. I was not part of the recent gold rush in Burkina, as we were looking for base and precious metals to help the country develop its resources. I completely agree with your premise of it being a cultural exchange. In some ways I feel it was one sided as it changed me tremendously. I hope to have left a mark on some of the people I interacted with about our country. I still feel the effects and say that Americans should experience life in a third world country to better understand the ways of the world. I still feel being a PCV defines me even though I rarely tell anybody. I believe that you have been changed but also changed others, especially some of the locals with your presence. These may be baby steps but at least they are movement into a position of better understanding.
    Enjoy yourself as it will ever be in your mind

  2. Perspective certainly matters, both for the well financed aid worker and the pcv living en brousse. In both cases, while we frequently have other ongoing projects, some of the most important ways we contribute are through our daily salutations at the pump/well or in the marche. In an age of easy global communications and exchange of (frequently quite inaccurate) news media, it’s often reassuring (both in country and stateside) to be reminded that in most cases the world over, tond yaa a yembre. Keep up the small interactions that make a big difference. It’s one of the things pc is all about. The fact that you are concerned about your impact tends to indicate you’re doing a good job.

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