Posted by: Jessica | December 1, 2012

My Response to Esther Katcoff’s “Peace Corps Guilt” in HuffPost

A response to Esther Katcoff’s article in HuffPost:

Esther : I wanted to reply to your article as a fellow PCV (El Salvador 2010-2012).  This may come across as harsh, but guilt is not an effective emotion. As a volunteer it can make you feel overwhelmed, and even paralyzed.  Like you said- where do we even start? Everywhere we turn in our communities there is someone in need. I completely understand your point of view- having had a serious bout of first-world guilt myself during my first year, but it may save you a lot of heartache to realize now that not everyone you meet in your community is motivated  to change their circumstances, or interested in what you have to offer as a volunteer, and you can only be an effective volunteer by concentrating on the 20-30% that are truly motivated/interested. I’m sure you’ve heard of the saying, ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.’ It’s a great metaphor for how PCV service may feel at times. Even if you have years of specialized experience in the area you’re working, (and many PCVs do not), those in your community may not take you seriously, or may not participate (even though they’ve petitioned PC to have a volunteer) for various religious or cultural reasons. It’s tough, especially when you want to serve, but you simply have to focus your attention where you are receiving positive results and community participation.

The most important lesson I learned as a volunteer was this; neither you nor I can change anyone. Honestly. At the very least, we can be an inspiration, and at most the catalyst for change, but we are not going to lift our entire community out of poverty in two years. I say this because I spent many precious days chasing after reluctant community members, trying to convince them to come to small business meetings or fill out a scholarship application when they honestly weren’t motivated enough to do their part, even with an opportunity staring them in the face. Think about it: do all of us born into relative wealth in the “first world” take advantage of every opportunity we have? Of course not!  It may not make sense to you, (why wouldn’t everyone in the “third world” want to change their circumstances for the better? you might ask), but those in your PC communities are only human, just like us. No matter what economic sphere you are working in, there will always exist those people content to just ‘get by’ in life, or those simply aren’t interested, or afraid of risking and failing, and there are those willing to work hard and take advantage of opportunity when it comes knocking. Reading about Occam’s Razor opened my eyes to the power I did have to serve my community effectively, if I concentrated my energy in the right places. Reading Poor Economics and The White Man’s Burden were also helpful in refining my projects. 

For the first 8 months of my service I took it personally when someone didn’t respond to my attempts to ‘help’ them, until I recognized the progress I was making with select community members who responded positively to my projects and classes. When I started funneling all of my energy into nurturing the aspirations of those select community members, something miraculous happened: the guilt started to subside. The members of my community who ‘helped me help them,’ essentially assisted in their own rescue: they stopped themselves from drowning: all I did was throw them a metaphorical rope.  My involuntary early COS (due to security concerns in EL Salvador) further forced me to hone in only on the people and projects that would have the greatest chance of sustaining themselves after my departure.  It was painful, but ultimately productive in ways I hadn’t planned on.

In remittance-ridden countries, (and there are many in Latin America), it’s a frustrating truth that many people want you to do 100% of the rescue (and then continue to keep them afloat), and while it may seem like feeding every hungry child in your community is a moral imperative, it’s simply not sustainable, as you expressed in your article.   It also may create an unsustainable attitude in the host country culture. (It was difficult to respond patiently every time someone in my community asked me what I was going to build them.) Searching for those motivated, self-starting counterparts can be a long process with several false starts, but don’t be discouraged.  When you find them and start to work with them, you’ll see that THEY are really the ones who will change the community, not you, and they’ll continue to do so for years to come because you gave them the chance to realize their full potential; not because you saved them.

Peace Corps is an experience best lived in the moment and processed afterwards. You may not think so now, but just by being present you have already had an impact as a positive woman role model.  I wish you the best of luck in your remaining time in your community: don’t let guilt rob you of fulfilling your own potential in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as a volunteer- it is a humbling, amazing ride!



  1. Thoughtful, response to the guilt article, Yessica. I could not agree more – guilt they say, is the way we make ourselves feel better by not doing something we could or should be doing. Who knows in Ester’s case. Maybe her heart is not really in her service as a PCV. I also agree that you go through a load of false positives before you find a way to funnel your energy so it can be received – connecting with the true counterparts takes patience and persistance. I talk about this is my Anneseye blog in a post called Sustainability Starts with ME. Check it out if you get a chance. And felicidades on your service!

    • Thanks Anne for your thoughts- I’ll be sure to check out your blog too, and buena suerte!

  2. Loved the article! I, too, was a volunteer in El Sal (1999*2002) and have enjoyed seeing the fruits of my labors via mail, pictures, and Facebook. Yet ultimately, I came away with far more than I gave! Best, sm

  3. I like that you said, peace corps is an experience best lived in the moment and processed afterword. I don’t think we Americans are comfortable with this idea and we are constantly pushing, planning, processing how we can make the most out of time and circumstances. And all too often that takes us out of the moment, unable to just “be”. I think its both our blessing and our curse.

    • Thank you Kari- I completely agree: we are always planning for the future, and often miss the important moments- Just ‘being’ was something that took me a while to be comfortable with, but it is how many cultures function where volunteers work, and it was one of the most important lessons I learned. I’m not at all an expert at letting go of the past and future, but just being conscious of that American tendency makes a big difference in my life post-peace corps

  4. I was a PCV in Uzbekistan from 2003-2005 (evacuated at 22 months for security reasons, too). I agree with you completely – Peace Corps told us that they knew we weren’t effective until our second year when we understood the situation and were integrated into our communities enough, and I have really seen that mantra played out in jobs and experiences since then. I arrived in Uzbekistan thinking I was going to change the world, and quickly realized that those aspirations were hardly going to stand up in the face of hundreds of years of tradition and practice. So, as you said, I started focusing more on people. And especially as a woman setting a positive example. One thing I was especially proud of was that I would run most mornings on the track that our school shared with another school. Lots of my students saw me and would remark on it in class (it was really strange for a female to run or exercise like that). One day, a few of my girls approached me and told me that THEY had started running, and invited me to join them. It’s about the example that we set, not the number of meals we provide.

    That said, I can also identify with Esther’s guilt. Learning that its ok to take time for yourself is an important life lesson, and a hard one – one that I have to remind myself of constantly in grad school. In MANY situations, there is always more that a person could be doing, could be giving of him/herself. Accepting that you give what you can within the larger constraints of your needs as a human being is a major component of self-realization and understanding. She’ll get there – her writing the essay was perhaps part of that process.

    Like one of your other comments, I fully agree that the experience is something to be experienced now and processed later. I would also put out there that even 7 years later, I continue to process my experience. It never stops.

    • Thank you for your response Lesley- looks like we learned many of the same lessons, despite serving in two very different countries!

  5. Link to the original article would be useful?

  6. I just read Esther’s article and feel exhausted! My PCV experience in Colombia (73 -80) was much different as I went down and maintained a philosophy of no expectations. Having been in the same town for almost 7 years also gave me a great deal of perspective without having to return home to reflect. I found that of those PCV’s who came and went during my tenure, those with the most defined expectations (type of work, progress, adaptation, etc.) were the least happy. Those who expected to save the world, or even a few people, suffered the most. Some left before their time because of their level of frustration.. I also came to understand that very little can be accomplished in two years in terms of lasting community impact. Yessica’s approach to fostering a few relationships is perhaps the only way to accomplish this. I was able to accomplish a fair amount because of my longevity and the incredible team of Colombians in the community center where I worked. I enjoyed every minute of my time there. I went down with a MBA and my only opportunity cost would have been incurred by not having had the experience. It couldn’t be compared to any sum of money I might have earned at home.

    • No expectations- I like it! I know I had a lot of pre-conceived ideas about what PC would be like, or how long it would take to build relationships, and most of my ideas turned out to be untrue. The communities we work in don’t need to be ‘saved’- but many volunteers suffer from this idea. I think the time issue is also relevant- 2 years may seem like a lot of time to us, but there were some people in my community who told me they avoided getting too close to volunteers because “they always leave so soon.” It made me so sad, but it also made me think about how short our time really is, and keeping in touch with close friends from my site. 7 years though- I’m impressed! 🙂

      • I was actually entertaining residing there for the unforeseeable future, but 5+ years in I met another PCV. We married with a Justice of the Peace in the Panama Canal short time afterwards and had a baby a year later. I sure didn’t expect that! We came back to the US three months later.

  7. Love this line (because it resonates so well with my own Peace Corps frustrations): “For the first 8 months of my service I took it personally when someone didn’t respond to my attempts to ‘help’ them, until I recognized the progress I was making with select community members who responded positively to my projects and classes.”

    It’s funny – being back in international development (11 years after COSing), I need to keep reminding myself that relationship building and change don’t happen at the pace I WANT them to happen; to be effective, the relationship building and change can’t be all about me.

    • Thanks for your comment Brian- I would even go so far as to say that change in particular is not at all about us as volunteers, but rather is generated almost entirely from the community, as it should be. I learned a valuable lesson when I asked my community what all the unused tiny huts were near the houses. They told me that about 10 years ago an NGO came in and installed composting latrines in many houses. Then they said that they didn’t like using the latrines because of the smell, so they all stopped, and salvaged the roof and bricks for other household projects. To me, it’s a perfect case of aid being forced on a community who didn’t ask for it. The NGO didn’t even stay long enough to teach the community how to maintain the latrines. Aid and other initiatives like Peace Corps can produce great results, but only when there is patience and a willing collaboration on both sides.

  8. Yessica, I am heading to El Sal in the spring to do civil affairs work with the US military there. I really appreciated your insight on your experiences in contrast to Katcoff’s personal experience in Paraguay and would say from my own experiences that guilt is indeed a poor motivator. I am guessing from being a father that maintaining a positive outlook with all the glaring needs in the El Sal PC field might be akin to making the most of your time with your children instead of focusing on all the time missed to deployments, work obligations, and other negative detractors. Guilt rarely if ever will take us to a place that allows us to be effective contributors. The other thought that came to mind after reading your article was the saying that school teachers spend 90% of their time on 10% of their students (the naughty ones…or to apply it to your situation, those who can’t be or don’t want to be helped) while the 10% who want to advance are not being given enough attention. Your blog helped reinforce this notion to focus on those really seeking to better their situation and I will keep it in mind as we deploy. I just wanted to ask you how you might do things a little differently in regards as to where you would concentrate your efforts if you went back to El Sal to get the most of your time there? Thank you and have some great holidays!

    • In one word: Youth. Concentrate on the youth. El Salvador is a young country (only 1/3 of the population remembers the civil war that ended in 1992). They are a very receptive group; I worked with some very inspirational youth that made tremendous efforts to continue their education and be role models for their peers. Without a doubt, they are the force that will shape the country’s economic future over the next generation. Best of luck in your time here: without a doubt, El Salvador is a great country to work in as an American.

  9. Hello Yessica I hope all is well, my name is Sandy, I have to say i appreciate you time and your articles. In regards to helping those who want to be helped you hit the nail on the head. If i may quote the french poete Lafontaine ” Aide toi le ciel t’aidera” meaning help yourself and heaven will help you. I can speak from experience through my line of work, where we often try to provide the proper tools to people and they refuse to put it to good use. Although it’s not encouraging, but we’ll be doing a disservice to those who want the help if we use that as an excuse to give up. I really commend you on your commitment to push forward. I’d like to ask you have you noticed some gang activities in the area and if so, in what capacity do you think we can bring a positive impact in regards gang activities in El Sal?
    Thank you for your time-

  10. Very good article on the guilt feeling. Methiks her heart might not have been in it because she mentions the modern day things quite a bit,ipod,etc.My daughter was just invited to the PC in Vanuatu,South Pacific Jan. 21014. As a mother I worry alot but I see alot of spirit and joy in poor people. They lead simple lives and are somewhat close knit in their communities where as here in America we tend to live a more isolated existence albeit comfortable one. Mary

  11. Thank you so much for your response to Esther’s article. I was not a volunteer in Peace Corps, but recentky in an international relationship in a “3rd world” country, living there off and on for 3 years. Your comments give me ease and rest as we’ve ended our relationships and I can see culture differences and lack of motivation for growth and change contrasted with a strong desire for change contributed to the end of our engagement. Peace & Blessings. Namaste.

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