Sunday, January 3, 2010

More Whining About Development Work

I’ll just come right out and say it: I’m probably not qualified to talk about development work. So I’d like to apologize in advance to anyone who’s offended by any inaccuracies or generalities in what follows. But that’s part of what having a public forum like a blog is about, right? Those who are less well-informed (I never studied development, don’t know much about it) and less experienced (I’m writing this with less than a year under my belt in Senegal) can get their questions out in the open. I’m writing this because I need to hear an argument, a line of reasoning, that makes me feel better about the work I and my friends are doing as Peace Corps Volunteers. It’s not that I want to go home; I just need to believe in what we’re doing here, and that’s pretty difficult sometimes.

I've been uncomfortable for a while now. Initially, when I realized that something was bothering me, I thought it was the amoebas. And it was, for a few days. But I took the meds , stopped pooping water, and started eating solid foods again, and the feeling didn’t go away. When I was finally able to pin it down, it came to look something like this: there seem to be at least three very different ideas of what good development work looks like, all of which are present in our lives and competing for our energy and resources. The first is the Peace Corps model of sustainable development, based on the transfer of skills and knowledge. The second is the perception villagers have of what our role should be. The third is the one that compels me the most, and I’m not sure where it comes from or what it’s based on. All I can say now, by way of introduction, is that it doesn’t seem to have a lot in common with either other model.

The Peace Corps Model

You may be sick of my disclaimers by this point, but it's probably important to say it again: I'm not an expert on development work. I'm not even an expert on Peace Corps development philosophy. All I have is what every volunteer has: a couple months of training and a year or so (at this point) of experience. But that's pretty much all any of us has to work with, as far as I can tell.

In the Peace Corps development as I was taught it here in Senegal, the emphasis is on the transfer of skills and knowledge to the Senegalese. Techniques in anything from making neem lotion to grafting fruit trees are passed from the Senegalese trainers in Thies to the new American volunteers. These volunteers pick up enough technical knowledge and ability to communicate in local languages to be able to pass on that knowledge to the people of their villages. That's part of what, in theory, should make our work sustainable: we're not just handing out mosquito nets and improved seed varieties, we're teaching people how to use them properly and telling them how they can put their hands on these things by themselves. The backbone of being a good Peace Corps volunteer (or even, I suspect, of being a good national Peace Corps program) is therefore the attempt to put yourself out of a job. If a string of volunteers has done well in a village or sub-region, they have eliminated the need for any other volunteer to follow in their footsteps.

Another cornerstone of the Peace Corps philosophy I've been exposed to is the importance of being able to quantify results. The Peace Corps community in Senegal as a whole has a plan of action, with goals and criteria for success based on numbers. How many school gardens are being established or improved? How many farmers are being trained in advanced permaculture techniques? How close are we to 100% mosquito net coverage? The regions and sub-regions have similarly outlined documents. And finally, each volunteer is expected to report on their activities every quarter using a format that emphasizes this type of statistic. At least in the health sector, we all have numerical goals to meet. I mention this because it might come as a surprise to some people: after all, the pop culture image of a Peace Corps volunteer is probably a lot closer to a pot-smoking, guitar-playing, lazy Americana-drop-out than is quite accurate. My work objectives as a volunteer are in fact clearer than they were as a college student.

The more I think about and experience this vision of development, the less comfortable I am with it. But for now, it's enough to say that the Peace Corps model of development work doesn't look anything like the average villager's vision.

The Village Model

One of the first steps in community-based development work is finding out what your community wants and needs. What are the perceived difficulties of daily life as they pertain, in my case, to health issues? What are the most common diseases or health problems in the village? What do people think causes something like malaria? Often, the next step in community-based development seems to be correcting peoples' answers to these questions. We have to talk people out of their more ambitious goals and correct their notions of the causes of health problems. All health volunteers are primarily educators, not healers. But say we're actually lucky enough to get down to some work.

Here's an example of the way some people in my village envision the role of their Peace Corps volunteer.

The volunteer I replaced had a lot of success with neem lotion, a plant-based insect repellent that is produced with the leaves of a tree found all over my village. She collected money from everyone in Ndiago to cover the expense of the soap that's also a main ingredient of the lotion, made a million and a half bags of the stuff, and distributed it. I thought I’d build on her success by pushing to make it a community-driven progress. Now that it’s widely recognized that they can reduce their risk of contracting malaria, I thought, surely the people of the village will be eager to learn to make neem lotion themselves. It would be a way for women to make money in the rainy season, and the technique is so simple that it can be passed from person to person without a whole lot of fuss. I was excited, because it seemed like I had an opportunity to teach a skill rather than give a hand-out.

So we got together, talked about it, and I taught about 30 women how to make the lotion. A few women took it up, made batches themselves, and sold it. But after a while, their work came to a standstill. When I came back from a mandatory three-week training in a city a few hours away from Ndiago and asked around, it didn’t seem like neem lotion was widely available. Many people in my village thought that neem lotion made by the Senegalese women would not be as effective as the stuff I could make for them. My white-person-from-prosperous-America-juice was the missing ingredient. Many women said they had trouble getting the money together themselves for making a batch even one small enough for their families alone. One of these women lives in my compound. The day after she claimed that she couldn't raise the 400CFA needed to make another batch of lotion (about one American dollar, by the way), I watched as she bought earrings for 500CFA in the market. The money was there, but it was there for something else.

I was upset. After all, I reasoned with people, I would be going home after a couple of years. Ndiago will probably have one more health volunteer, but in even the best case scenario the village would be on its own for rainy seasons after 2013. If no one in the village had practice and expertise with making neem lotion, what would happen once the magical white people stopped showing up? Shrugs all around. I left the conversation after making it clear repeatedly to pretty much anyone in the village who would listen to me that I would not be making and passing out neem lotion myself. It was up the village now. A couple women picked up the project and I'm hoping to expand it next year. But still, what went wrong? Why did the village's picture of what their volunteer could and should be doing differ so much from my own? Given the difference in opinion, what should my next step be?

I don't feel that I have the tools to really answer those questions. I don't know anything about anthropology or development theory, as I said before. But my gut sense is that the problem revolves around education. Few adults in my village are literate. Few have had anything but the basics of primary school education. Teachers and health post workers don't come from the village: they grow up in Dakar and Thies and Kaolack and other cities, where they're raised and educated in urban environments of privilege. These guys don't count. They have enough money to buy mosquito coils and DEET products and other deterrents. The people I needed to convince to make their own neem lotion, the poor majority of the village, were the people least likely to understand why neem lotion was important, why they were capable of making it themselves, how it was that the white girl wasn't using America magic to make the stuff.

What's a village volunteer to do? Try again next year, spending a lot more time talking and teaching. That's fine, I'm willing to do it. Of course. And I'm definitely not saying I should have caved and made everyone neem lotion. But what I can't get over is the daily message I got during the rainy season, both implicitly and explicitly: I had failed Ndiago. I had not met the village's expectations. I wasn't their Aissa , their very own white girl with magic and resources and clever, easy solutions. I was a foreigner, with a foreign agenda, with goals and criteria for success that didn't look anything like theirs. And of course, I'm the only person in the village on malaria prophylaxis. Malaria doesn't threaten me or my kin or loved ones in the States. If it did, would I be able to embrace the Peace Corps' model of development work, or would I also be afraid that neem lotion wasn't enough, that I couldn't make it well enough to keep the people I love alive?

As with every country with volunteers in it, the Peace Corps was invited to Senegal. Americans and Senegalese worked together to design a program that addressed Senegal's specific needs and development goals: for example, we have more agricultural volunteers than some other West African countries, and no volunteers working in teacher training. Communities in Senegal invited volunteers to their sites through a lengthy and thoughtful selection process. Because of all this, I feel like I have a constituency: primarily the 200-odd people living in Ndiago, secondarily the 1,000 or so people living within the cluster of villages of which Ndiago is the center. The Peace Corps is not my constituency. In my heart, I am not accountable to anyone in the office in Dakar, or anyone in the office in Washington, D.C.

And Now For Something Completely Different

So what am I left with?

I think the role I envision for myself as a volunteer is a combination of the Peace Corps philosophy with a strong punch in the face of social justice added to it. The emphasis would still be on transferring skills and knowledge, but instead of pushing things like neem lotion and pit latrines as sustainable development measures, I want to talk about them as temporary compromises. They're all right for now, because realistically speaking this country just doesn't have the political clout to lobby for affordable and safe anti-malarial medicines for children living in endemic areas, or the infrastructure to bring sanitary facilities to villages with no source of running water. But when we accept things like neem lotion as solutions to problems that are rooted in the unequal distribution of wealth or the total failure of the Senegalese government to abide by the social contract, then we're cheating the people we're here to help.

The real goal of development work might look like this: not only can one person in every compound in Ndiago make neem lotion well, but also that every person in Ndiago can imagine the day when their risk of dying from malaria is the same as it would be if they had been born in the United States. I would never ask my family in the U.S. to use a pit latrine or accept an unreliable source of water which would need to be filtered and treated before being totally safe to drink. So why should I ask my host family in Senegal to do these things? All we can do as Peace Corps volunteers is encourage the people we work with to take baby steps. But I think it's also important to say that certain things about daily life as I encounter it in a village in Senegal are utterly unacceptable. Compromises are short-term solutions, stop-gaps, band-aids. They're not truly long-term sustainable development options. Say Peace Corps and all the other aid agencies in the country just went crazy and built latrines in every compound in Senegal. That would be an incredible solution right now, at the beginning of 2010. We could be proud of ourselves for that. But if the people are still using latrines 20 years from now, if no one is crying out for plumbing and hygienic facilities and waste treatment programs, then the program will have been a failure. And every Peace Corps volunteer, every aid worker who built a latrine or raised money for them or did a health talk on latrine maintenance, every single one us us; we are all implicated in that failure.

Furthermore, I fear that the emphasis on sustainability in development work is making us lose sight of the forest for the trees. In the end, if there is no solution to a problem that meets the criteria for sustainability, it is preferable to enact a non-sustainable solution than to walk away from the problem entirely.

To me, these points are axiomatic. They either are or rest upon the principles and opinions that led me to want to be a Peace Corps volunteer in the first place. Almost a year after arriving in Senegal, I'm beginning to find that they are not compatible with the way Peace Corps itself functions. They're not fully contradictory with the established institutional philosophy of development, but they certainly aren't comfortably reconcilable. At least, I haven't figured it out yet.

I was warned recently about making the perfect the enemy of the good. That is, about despairing of achieving perfection to the point where I’m incapable of working for anything less. But how do we ever honestly decide what it is to be be “good enough”? How far short of perfection should we set our sights? How will we ever improve ourselves, learn anything, feel worthy, if we don’t first acknowledge that our reach exceeds our grasp, and then work to extend both?

When I first came to Senegal, none of this bothered me. I honestly believed that we didn’t have to think about the big picture. Someone else had picked out this village for me, these 200 people. Someone else taught me everything I know about being a health volunteer. I tried to be a tool, a conduit, a machine that went on monthly baby-weighing tourneys, distributed mosquito nets, seeded pepinieres, taught the women to make neem lotion. I thought I could do the job in front of me and find peace of mind on this small scale. But it’s not working that way right now.

Love and guts.


  1. I think they should buy the deet products. I don't know about the lotion. Is it as good? Is it something to export? Maybe you should try selling it to the US. If it's better than deet the market is big. Like mosuqitos, etc., but does it work on bedbugs?

    Malaria is a disease like AIDS, etc. and has 100s of billions thrown at it by the US government and Gates who got all that money sent to Africa. A common argument to disease is; with all the benefits like free drugs, free health care and free housing, etc. is it mistake NOT to get the diseases? It's also cash for the country.

    Development worker? Is a person who's paid no real money and living in poverty a development worker? Is the worker in fact like the disease? A worker's value is $57,000 a year. Like development work has anything really changed in incomes? The country is still poor, still needs billions in free money, the worker is still poor and needs 10s of thousands a year to do the job. Is PC really neo colonialism making the country poor, keeping it poor and making more money giving them money to keep them poor? It's been 50 years and everyone is still poor. They wanted to double the resettlement allowance like they doubled and tripled aid, but that bill didn't pass and everyone is still poor.

    'Compromises are short-term solutions, stop-gaps, band-aids..'

  2. I agree with the other poster to some extent, PC's idea of what is sustainable may still not be the best model, but will be better then others. I don't think I would even call a PCV a "development" worker so much as a moderately trained volunteer. Development workers have much more training behind them and are treated better, sometimes with perks like those shiny Land Rover's that you see in the city with westerners in gumboots. If anything, we, as PCT/PCV's are a stop-gap measure and closer to being "educators".

    The only quantitative analysis that matters on a personal level is those small incremental gains ( 50 more girls in school, your village women made twice as much as last year, the children in the village seem slightly better off then last year) and your own personal growth. Villagers may expect miracles while you are simply expecting to get through your year with your dignity intact- A dichotomy exists between perception and reality. Remember that you are not expected to play Jesus.. you are there to use every ounce of your love and limited skills to give hope and dignity to your community, and in the end, that will be what is remembered most about you.

    I'm headed to South Africa in 2 weeks. Do I think I will drastically reduce the AIDS rate there? No. Can I get at least a small handful of adults and youth to take responsibility for their sexual health and the health of their community and start to take better care for the Orphans that the disease leaves behind? Probably.

  3. Jessie
    I feel your pain. Progress is always slower than the activists want. If even two women are making and selling neem lotion you are making progress. Help them with the selling of the neem. Sell me some I'm going to Utila next month.
    Okay one more platitude and then I'll stop. Life is like soccer. Most of what you try doesn't work. You have to keep trying new things. If you quit trying you will surely lose in soccer and in life.

  4. Thanks for your enlightening, thoughtful and articulate blog.