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!