Thursday, December 24, 2009

Peace Corps-- the grinch who stole development work

During training, one of our many frustrating, seemingly useless sessions was a round robin looking at different approaches to development work. We spent an afternoon discussing religious based work, government aid agencies, different NGOs, and, of course, the perspective of Peace Corps and our goal sustainable development (we stay for 2 years but by the time we leave have trained/inspired enough people that development continues in the community). In Musho, the effects of development present themselves in tangible ways for analysis: fleece sweatsuits that say “World Vision” that are gifted to every child once a year, improved cooking stoves with small plaques that say “Visión Mundial and Cuerpo de Paz,” and, in this merry season, groups of people who come to town, host a “chocolatada” (giving out of hot chocolate) and give presents to all the children. This last item frustrates, and then confuses me, more than any other. First, what grinch would begrudge some malnourished, undereducated, adorable kid his one (or several depending on the NGOs in the area) Christmas gift? Should theories or warm-fuzzies lead our work in the field?
The give-aways that happen here in Ancash are, on a personal level, hard to look down upon. From a theoretical stand point, I reflect and decide, over and over, that improved cooking stove projects that involve gifting the stove itself are not sustainable and have created a culture of hand-outs and dependence in the area. However, last week I sat in a friend’s (as much as a friend as I have in site) kitchen, teaching her daughter bits and pieces of English, I cringed every time I glanced into the corner at their current stove: three rocks supporting a battered pot (I think during Camp Juliette Low cookouts we sometimes built more complex cooking fires). I could easily afford a stove for my friend and I know it would benefit her and her family. Furthermore, I gave gifts of charity donations to my American family members this year; I could have just as easily donated, on behalf of my family, a few stoves in the community.
Still, I often run into people who remind me how impractical and foolish this is. In my region, many communities are dependent on hand-outs. There has been a high level of foreign aid present since the 1970’s (after an earthquake that killed 40,000). In my community, people stop me on the street daily to ask me, what projects are you going to do, or, when will you start giving support? At first I cheerfully explained that I am working on a diagnostic, coordinating with the health post in educational activities and working in the elementary school for the first three months, and will make a long-term plan after that. Soon, though, I learned that both “projects” and “support” are code for free things. My community is hardworking, deserving and poor. The free things they get are usually excellent and helpful for their health—latrines so they don’t contaminate their food by going to the bathroom in the fields, cooking stoves so they don’t hunch over and breathe in smoke, sinks so their children wash their hands more often. However, 40 years of receiving presents (from fleece jackets to stoves) has only taught people to ask for presents, not to prioritize their spending, engage in healthy behaviors, or even make project plans to propose to NGOs. People are taught, from an early age, that if they show up at enough meetings, they won’t go home empty handed. For some families, this is their only option to have any fleece jackets or home improvements. Others have dvd players and huge parties yet cook over three rocks and use a disgusting latrine.
Six months into my service, I can apply for grants to do cooking stove or latrine projects, but I am reluctant to continue this system of rewards and want to look for a new way to develop in this community. My mind is nowhere near made up. For the price of a pair of GAP jeans, I could buy my friend an improved cooking stove. Not doing so seems horribly selfish to me no matter the seeming strength of my theoretical position. My dream is to enable Brito and other women in the community—to teach them how, by devoting a small portion of their farm to vegetables and beans, they can better nourish their children; to show them how to have small businesses or look for loans to finance projects like sinks, latrines or stoves; and that it would cost nothing but benefit infinitely for them to take their three year old out of the manta on their back and play with her for part of every day. These fluttering indefinite ideals might not remain with women for the walk home from workshop or the afternoon after the home visit, yet a stove would be a force for health for years. Any advice would be appreciated, though I doubt I’ll be able to settle this debate during my two years, and only cut short my musings in this post because I know I could continue for pages.
Merry Christmas.


  1. Kait

    You set out the problem well. Has anyone tried the idea of asking for a commitment such as to a pilot project for groing vegetables in return for a promise for the first stove from an NGO when you can apply for them?
    perhaps too pateernalistic and there is the issue of how to figure out which vegetables will grow successfully in your area.

  2. looks like there was an interesting article in the new yorker about clean stoves and development: