Week 0: What am I doing?

Generally, when I mention that I’m leaving the states to live in Guatemala for a year, people are curious and ask what I’ll be doing there. So, I tell them I’m doing Peace Corps for a second time. If they’re really curious, they’ll ask me what type of work I’ll be doing. Having had experience so far with explaining Peace Corps work and experiences with people, I know they don’t want any long or detailed response, so I just say that I’ll be “working on a project funded by USAID.” And perhaps say something about agriculture and child malnutrition.

Now, there are actually people who really want to know what I’ll be doing for the next year. This is probably the most awkward explanation I give because honestly I didn’t really know myself what I would be doing.  Essentially, I knew the following key things:

1. I would be living in Totonicapán, with a host family, for 12 months.

2. I would be working with the regional staff of the Secretary of Food and Nutritional Security (SESAN).

3. The project I would be supporting is called “Zero Hunger Pact,” a nation-wide initiative funded by USAID’s Feed The Future program, which seeks to tackle Guatemala’s high rate of child malnutrition (about 50%, with a much higher rate in rural areas). It seeks to do this through strengthening local agriculture ad education and other developmenty-sounding things. The initiative seeks to reduce chronic malnutrition by 10% over the next four years, and by 25% over the next ten years.

4. I am part of a team of 5 people, each working in a different part of Guatemala. We are all RPCVs who completed 2 years of Peace Corps service in another country prior to this.

5. We all have the same job title and job description. This says we will be supporting the establishment and improvement of Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) systems for this project. That basically means keeping track of how the project is being implemented (monitoring) and whether or not it is having its intended outcomes (evaluation). This is the job of SESAN, and we will be helping with that.

Aside from these 5 points, it is really ambiguous exactly what I’ll be doing on a day-to-day basis. However, on Monday I participated in a conference call  with the other 4 people working on this and a couple staff members in Guatemala and DC. I learned a little bit more specifically about where the project is at and where we fit in. I got the idea that we would be working very closely with the government employees in our respective regions, that the Secretary of Food and Nutritional Security wanted PCRVs to work at the national office, but Peace Corps is not allowed to put volunteers in Guatemala City so they developed these regional capitals as sites. I also learned that my counterparts in the agency are all Latino, working in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala. It gave me a few things to think about.

Part of the “development bureaucracy”

Wow. So, the reason that I am so supportive of Peace Corps in the first place is due to its inherently grassroots approach. It resists the project of colonialism as best as you could possibly hope from a US government agency working overseas. It works in countries and communities exclusively by the invitation of those governments and community members. It trains its volunteers to be conscious of the worldviews, realities, words, thoughts, and desires of the stakeholders whose lives we impact as a foundation for our work.

Is this still true? Is this still the work I am doing? Or am I positioning myself to just be a cog in the gears of the “international development” machinery, providing the means by which old white men in rich countries tell people in marginalized corners of the world what the problems are, what they should aspire to, and how they should go about doing it? This is a radical departure from Peace Corps work.

It is directly related to the whole idea of “Monitoring and Evaluation” because it begs the question of who decides whether an intervention or program is “effective”? What are the metrics? Who gets to decide? Generally speaking, you have people from rich countries designing programs and budgets which impact the lives of people in resource-poor countries. The ideas for these programs come from people in rich countries who decide what the priorities are. Then you have more people from rich countries evaluating whether or not the were effective. At what point do the people receiving the services/impact get to have a voice in this process?

This is not a matter of radical social justice, it’s just a good systems-based approach to providing valuable services. People like capitalism because it ensures a product that is of value to the consumer. A company produces a product, and only if it is a quality product will the consumer purchase it. Thus, the company is always held accountable to the quality of its products by the consumers, who have a voice – they speak with their wallets.

“Development” projects, NGOs, government agencies, and other not-for-profit service providers, however, do not function in this way. In this sector, The people receiving the product or service are no such voice. Not-for-profit organizations get their funding from governments, foundations, and donations. That is to say, they get their funding entirely from people in rich countries, provide a service to poor people, and are accountable to… people from rich countries.

Let me sum up in these two horrible vectorized flowcharts:

Forprofitsector title=

VS

For-profit: As you can see, in the first graphic, the consumers of the product have mechanisms for providing feedback, such as their consumer dollars and reviews and word-of-mouth. As a consequence, if your product or service sucks, people won’t buy it, and you’ll go out of business. Employees will stop gettin’ paid, and investors will be upset.

Not-for-profit: In the second graphic, however, where is the place for feedback from the people receiving the services? The agency performs evaluations of its own programs and reports back to the people providing them with money. All the NGO needs to do is make itself look good to its funders, and it will continue to survive. There are not always mechanisms for the organization to be accountable to the people it serves. If your product or service sucks, you create marketing campaigns with pictures of smiling poor people with their solar water filter thingies. People continue donating and employees keep gettin paid. 

Even with hybrid social entrepreneurship models like Tom’s shoes, they are still only held accountable to the tastes of their rich consumers. If the recipients of their shoes in third world countries don’t like or need those shoes, it really doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is that consumers in the US get to look and feel good with their purchase.

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification, but that’s what blog posts are for. It’s not nearly this cut and dry, and I certainly don’t blame anyone in particular for this problem. The people who word for USAID and Peace Corps and Tom’s shoes generally work ridiculously hard for all the right reasons and have the best intentions.

However, it does raise the critical question of how we better incorporate the needs and feedback of stakeholders in this process, if it is not built-in systemically? I like to cogitate about these high-level mental masturbatory issues, so it’s been on my mind in the week leading to my departure. Of course, I am not working for an NGO, I’m working for the Guatemalan government. That adds a whole other level of corruption to the whole problem, and will probably spawn more blog posts in the future.

Whose side am I on?

Another fun fact I learned during the conference call is that neither my host family, nor the people in the office with whom I’ll be working, speak the local language. Excuse me?

Where there is tension between indigenous and latino people in Latin America, I have to be pretty open that I tend to sympathize more with the indigenous people. This could be partially just due to conditioning- white liberals like me who study anthropology love watching movies like Avatar and get off on living in a utopian fantasy world where we can believe that even as we are caught up in the nihilistic material existence we call America, slaves to consumerism with no way out, that somewhere in the world there are some loincloth-garbed noble savages living in harmony with nature, unspoiled by our society’s fall from grace.

This is a silly idea and I make fun of it, but I’m not going to pretend I haven’t been affected by it. I learned how pervasive of an idea it is in our culture when I lived with the Embera for 2 years in Panama and so constantly and consistently fielded the most silly questions and uninformed (and unsolicited) opinions from rich white people when discussing the community I was living in and the people there.

Anyways, it seems from what I’ve read and heard that these tensions are especially strong in Guatemala, due to a long history of systematic and hideously violent oppression, a long and gruesome civil war, on top of the 500 years of racially stratified subjugation that exists in every Latin American (read: American) country. I felt that living in a small indigenous community in Panama, spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week there, with all of my social interactions being with the community members, helped me be able to develop an empathy, friendship, and trust with the people there. But in Guatemala, whom will I be living with? Working with? Associating with? Hopefully it will be a diverse group, and I won’t just be in with a small group of minority Latino clique in a part of the country that’s almost entirely indigenous. It might present a challenge when it comes to earning that confianza which is so important.

With all that said, and all these apprehensions I’ve had on my mind, I am indeed excited and optimistic and feel privileged beyond words to have the opportunities I have.

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