Kaleb Rogers is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Atlántico, Colombia
It’s October 25th, 2017. I’m sitting in a rare oasis of air conditioning in the coordinators’ office at my local high school, excited to co-plan a new entrepreneurship curriculum. It’s tightly packed, maybe 60 square ft. The two coordinators’ desks occupy most of the space, forming a rigid L-shape that surrounds those invited to enter. Communicating is difficult. The office is sealed by a rusty metal door that clamors every 60 seconds. The phrase, “give me a minute” in Coastal Colombia carries a literal interpretation. The scheduled conversation for this particular meeting is destined to be interrupted by several uninvited intrusions into the office from students, teachers, and even traveling salespersons looking to make commission on their new, hot insurance plan. The conversations within the office are not tranquil either. Multi-tasking is the wrong word, as that would imply some semblance of order. Side conversations between the coordinators will often take priority over whatever matter has been brought to them. When they do speak, they talk at me. My responses usually compete for attention span with text replies. I’m left with only brief moments to make my case, and I must do so in my second language.
It is with this backdrop that the Peace Corps volunteer is told to implement Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), essentially the central philosophy of the Peace Corps mission:
We are not saviors. We are not here to bring outside resources that have no place in our communities. We are not here to lead initiatives. We are here to help recognize and develop existing assets that are unnoticed or underutilized and help mobilize them.
ABCD intends to set Peace Corps apart from other international programs. We are not a voluntourism service, sending office workers to try their hand at construction and padding their egos (and probably taking local jobs in the process). Nor are we an aid or development organization. Much to the chagrin of many community members, a volunteer’s primary objectives center around teaching and offering perspective, rather than aid money or infrastructure projects. ABCD seeks to break the stereotype of western saviours and white guilt. It seeks to empower people to help themselves, thus preserving their dignity. It seeks sustainability, and, 15 months in to my service, using it has been my biggest struggle as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
To (perhaps wrongly) quote Winston Churchill, maybe ABCD isn’t a good strategy for development, but it’s the best one. The ABCD approach goes above and beyond the reach of most other international programs both in its intentions and accomplishments. Moreover, the rote memorization and obsession over its principles during Peace Corps Pre-Service Training (PST) is necessary to quash any incognito white saviors that might be lurking in the trainee pool. If nothing else, ABCD is not doing damage to local populations, as are many other aid and development initiatives. I would however argue, that ABCD is often difficult to carry out in practice, especially when facing organizational, external, and self-imposed pressure to tangibly succeed. It is difficult to be a volunteer that feels like they’re accomplishing nothing, and any PCV will tell you that.
My issue with ABCD really digs into the existential dichotomy of Peace Corps. On one occasion when a local counterpart had cancelled on a workshop we planned for the third time, I lamented to a group of friends What is weak?! I was referring to the difficulty of deciding whether the “weak” path forward was to continue with the project without my counterpart or delaying the project further to preserve her involvement. Pushing forward would make me feel better. I could teach the workshop, check a box, report the project to Peace Corps, publish photos on social media, and feel good about myself as a volunteer. I would be abandoning the asset (my counterpart) portion of ABCD, however. Alternatively, I could delay the project. It might be frustrating. It might fail. But, delaying would preserve my counterparts involvement, enrich the quality of the workshop, and have some small chance of having a lasting effect. The question is, which is weak?
Similar circumstances can be seen all throughout Peace Corps with volunteers teaching classes alone because their counterpart is unreliable, managing large, grant-funded projects without much local collaboration in order to ensure they rise to American standards, and pushing their ideas for progress to quench their thirst for success. The existential question is inevitably, should one do a lot of something that won’t continue when they’re gone or should they do a little of something that might outlive their stay? Or perhaps a more fundamental question, is doing a little significantly different from doing nothing? And even if it is, is “a little” worth two frustrating years of effort and self-doubt?
With this little conundrum in mind, let’s go back to me and my coordinators. As I mentioned, our goal from day one was to institutionalize a new entrepreneurship curriculum. The idea was to have an hour during the school day during which the students could develop a business plan for whatever project they wanted. One year later, I can tell the story two ways.
I started two entrepreneurship clubs at the school collaborating with two local teachers and one local artisan. About 15 students completed the curriculum, which included feasibility studies, basic accounting, marketing plans, etc. Four of the students and one counterpart went to a USAID funded entrepreneurship fair in Barranquilla, during which they practiced pitches, communicating with investors, and promoting their products. They (with two other students from the course) have actually launched their business, and sell their products regularly. The local community artisan is their mentor. At 14–16 years old, these students have a higher level of employment than many members of my community, and they have assembled and sold their products without my assistance. Others members of the club have also developed their product, and we are looking for ways in which they can follow in the footsteps of the initial six.
I was unable to receive a formalized hour for entrepreneurship during the school day. Without structural support, the first club I formed fell apart, with the exception of two students. The second club, which was based in an existing group at the school, was more successful, though it was fueled mostly by my desire for it to exist. The fair in Barranquilla was successful, though hardly a sustainable initiative. The local, more sustainable fair for the rest of the students has been canceled by the organizers, despite the students completing their presentation. The six students that did launch their business often require my persistent pestering to convince them to come together and sell their products.
The telling of these two stories is not in any way meant to highlight my community’s need for a volunteer to accomplish anything. They have accomplished plenty before the existence of Peace Corps and will continue to do so after. Quite the contrary, they are intended to question our purpose in general, and address the difficult question highlighted earlier in this piece. Do we as Peace Corps volunteers sacrifice sustainability for sanity? Do we tell ourselves and others that we’ve accomplished something for our community when in reality it was something we accomplished for ourselves? Do we abandon the A of ABCD in order to push forward toward the image of success? Do we let social media paint us as successful to cope with the fear that we’ve done nothing but fail? Has my work in the school been sustainable? Does ABCD work in theory? Is it used in practice? What is weak?
Edit: The local fair did end up happening and I was able to bring 13 students (perhaps a sign of positivity?).