A question that many Peace Corps Volunteers ask themselves at one time or another during their service is: Is my service making a difference in anyone’s life? When you leave for the Peace Corps everyone commends you on sacrificing 27 months of your life to “save the world” and “help the poor.” But the reality of the Peace Corps is often nothing like this. If I’m being entirely truthful, I spend the vast majority of my day sitting on my computer and reading articles on the internet or watching American television shows. If I’m being even more honest, I have days when I never leave my house because I simply don’t want to deal with Moroccans. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I am constantly wondering if what I’m doing here will make a difference in anyone’s life. Will people in El Borouj remember me after my service is over? Will the projects that I start continue once I have left?
This leads me to the never-ceasing problem of sustainability. Ahh, yes—that big six syllable word that has become the cornerstone of every foreign aid project. It’s the first and the last question that they ask you when you want to start a project: is it sustainable? And why shouldn’t that be the most important question? The point of a program like Peace Corps is not to help the poor. (What?????????? Plates crash to the floor. Something earth-shattering has just been said. . .) Yes, I meant what I said. The point of a program like Peace Corps is not to help the poor but to teach the poor to help themselves. Or in my case, since I’m not really working with that many poor people (more like middle class Moroccans) to teach my community members to share their skills and resources with other people in the community. As depressing as this sounds, the best way to treat your service is to imagine that there will be no more Peace Corps in your town after you leave. All Peace Corps volunteers are trained to run their programs and do their work as if they are the last volunteer to live in their community. The point is, that if Peace Corps were to suddenly not exist, that local people would be able to have the same opportunities and run the same activities on their own.
So Peace Corps has invented this system known as “counterparts.” What is a counterpart you may ask? A counterpart is a host country national with whom you work on your projects, with the assumption that after you leave, this person will take over your work for you and your project will be SUSTAINABLE. In reality, a counterpart is often more like a local friend who just happens to help you do anything you need. They’re not paid and they don’t officially get recognition from Peace Corps—they’re just supposed to want to help you because they care about their community and happen to have immense amounts of free time with nothing better to do. For some volunteers, the counterpart system is extremely successful and leads to not only great friendships but also to the training of locals to do what we do so that the community eventually becomes self-sufficient. For other volunteers, like myself, it can be easier to do things without a counterpart. Why would I ask someone else to do something, knowing that (as often happens) they might not do it, or they’ll do it but not the way I wanted, or that they’ll do it, but three days later than it needed to be done. Why wouldn’t I just do it myself?
Thus we have a Catch-22. Do I do things my way, the American way, knowing that they’ll actually get done and be done the way that I want them to? Or, do I do things the Moroccan way, relying on locals to get things done, even if they’re not done correctly or done on time? Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out the answer to this question (sorry Peace Corps!). I admit that I need to make a better effort at incorporating locals into my project planning and implementation but what if I can’t find anyone to help? What if I know that I’m getting a new site mate in March who will be able to continue my projects after I leave? Yes I know I’m breaking the cardinal rule of sustainability but sometimes relying on no one but yourself is just easier, just more reliable.
Nevertheless I have recently come to the epiphany that I need to change my ways. I think I could accomplish a lot here during my two years while working completely on my own—planning all of my projects and events and implementing them by myself, but what legacy would that leave in my town? If Peace Corps were to suddenly pull out of El Borouj and not send me a replacement that would mean that all of my projects, my classes, and my events would cease. I wouldn’t have trained anyone to replace me in the case of my absence, so no one would replace me. Things would just end. And that truth is simply something I cannot bear. So I have decided to change my ways. Upon my return from the U.S. in January (Inch’allah) I have decided to work harder to find counterparts who I can train to take over my classes, who I can teach how to write a grant application and teach how to plan and execute a workshop.
My boyfriend has recently started doing this and has had mixed results. Yes, he now has a program at his dar chebab that is entirely done by a host country national, but what if that person isn’t doing the program right? What if key elements of how the program was supposed to be implemented are missing? Should he take over and do it himself knowing that this might ruin the sustainability of the project, or should he just let it go and let the counterpart do it the way he wants to? After much discussion we both agreed that the correct answer is the latter—that if the point of a program is to be sustainable, it has to be sustainable, even if that means it has lost a few elements in the process.
Based on everything I’ve said above, the definition of a good Peace Corps Volunteer is a volunteer who does nothing. I know that sounds crazy but it’s true. The best PCV is one who has found community members to teach classes at the dar chebab for them, who has trained a host country national to write their own grant applications so the volunteer doesn’t have to do it, and who has never done a single project on their own. Based on that definition, I’m not being a very good volunteer. But I am going to try to change my ways because I want to look back on my service in Morocco and say, “wow, I really did something there. I didn’t teach, I taught teachers how to teach. I didn’t help anyone, I helped people help themselves.”
New Year’s Resolution #1: BE MORE SUSTAINABLE!