Things I Learned in the Peace Corps, Part II

I’m not religious, but the Quran describes heaven as a place of gardens and flowing water.

I have gained a whole lot of perspective on how to evaluate the effectiveness of aid. It’s really easy to poo-poo the whole aid business, and point to all the failures, but the biggest thing I probably learned is that most aid projects are going to fail no matter what. I think the aid business (or at least people with Big Ideas and Deep Thoughts about the Business of Aid) are looking for the magic bullet aid project, one that will work every single time, but that is impossible. As an agriculture extension agent, the best lens to view our projects is as new business ventures. Even if the goal of a particular project isn’t a cash crop, I think of them as having business implications. If I ask a maize farmer to grow some orange sweet potatoes so his kids can get vitamin A, I’m asking him to divert time away from maize (where he makes his money) and invest time in these potatoes, and hopefully the payoff (in the form of his kids health or food security) from the potatoes is worth his time and effort, or at least more than the money he lost from growing less maize (and, hopefully it wasn’t cheaper to just buy those same potatoes from some other farmer with the money he would have made from the maize) (I’m sorry for all the parenthesis). If I ask a farmer to dig a fish pond, I’m asking him to spend money buying fingerlings, and hopefully some predator or disaster doesn’t kill all the fish (and lose the farmer his time and money) before he can eat or sell them. So once you realize a lot of these aid projects are businesses, you then have to remember that most businesses fail. This is true even in the best of circumstances, and subsistence farmers are not in the best of circumstances. So if you have a project where you try to convince ten farmers to plant fruit trees and two of them stick with it, it’s easy to mock your 80% failure rate, but it is probably more accurate to applaud your 20% success rate.

I also learned it is really important to frame your definition of success properly. Let’s say you give a farmer a couple of goats and teach him some stuff about animal husbandry. You leave and the farmer does great. He breeds his goats and increases his flock and starts making money. He feeds his family and sends his children to school. He buys a TV but it is kinda cheap and it breaks a year later, but whatever, he’s pretty successful. Then in year four his kid gets cancer, and the only way he can pay for his kid’s medical bills is to sell off his whole herd of goats. To make it a happy story, the kid survives. But then you come back in year five to evaluate the long-term effects of your goat project. He invites you into his hut and you ask him where his goats are, and he says he sold them all. You notice his busted television and you conclude he wasted your kindness by selling the couple of goats you gave him for some quick cash to buy a cheap television. So is that guy a failure because obviously giving a guy some goats isn’t a sustainable project five years down the road, or is it a roaring success story because he fed his family for four years, sent his children to school for four years, and saved his kid from cancer, all for the price to you of three or four measly goats?

I learned that aid takes time. One notable thing about the Peace Corps is that we’re here for two years. When you come in you’re supposed to make sure your life is in order so you can dedicate a whole two years of your life to living and working with the same relatively small group of people. Two whole years! But two years is all of two rainy seasons which is all of two growing seasons. Take my orange sweet potatoes project. I’m a huge orange sweet potato fan. I showed up in the village in May. A few months later I went to an orange sweet potato workshop and learned all about ’em. I came back to my village and my host dad and I spent a growing season figuring out this whole potato thing and increasing our seed stock. Then this growing season we started giving out some seed to some more farmers. So when I leave at the end of my service, after two years of potato efforts, I’ll be able to point to five or six farmers who have planted a small field or two of potatoes. I know, from being here, that’s a pretty decent accomplishment, but if I had come here to start the Orange Sweet Potato Revolution, spreading the Gospel of Orange Sweet Potatoes throughout the land, that’d be a pretty dismal failure. I’m not even sure those farmers will stick with it next year. But maybe next fall, now that people have seen those farmers grow potatoes, there is plenty of seed stock, and people have developed a taste for orange sweet potatoes, there will be a hundred farmers growing them, and maybe a few years after that they’ll have replaced white sweet potatoes entirely and no one will ever suffer a vitamin A deficiency again. But I will never know because I won’t be here, and if I had to re-apply for grant funding or something after two years, maybe those grant people would put their cash elsewhere. It takes a few years to change the world.

I learned that to see the benefits of aid you sometimes have to look in unexpected places. This I think about mostly in the context of Peace Corps volunteers not thinking they have an impact. Your impact can be in a lot of subtle ways. At my own site, my host dad kept coming up with and asking me about ideas he had to improve the integration in his garden. I was pretty stoked he was implementing all these things. Finally one day at lunch I discovered that he had a copy of the Integration Manual that the previous volunteer had left behind. If it weren’t for the previous volunteer, my host dad never would have had access to this whole wealth of ideas to improve his garden, but the previous volunteer had no idea she was still having an effect. I hate unsourced aid stories, but I heard of one village that had really good dental hygeine. This stunned the clinic workers, because the surrounding villages just weren’t at the same level. It turns out that years previously, they had a Peace Corps Volunteer that brushed his teeth twice a day, which the villagers could see because the volunteer was brushing his teeth outside. He never talked to the villagers about it, they never asked him about it, but the whole village started brushing their teeth twice a day because they saw the volunteer doing it. So that volunteer had a years-long health impact on the village and he had no idea. When I went to Camp GLOW (empowerment lessons for girls), we partnered with a local Zambian organization that has programs for girls. One of their trainers got her start when she herself went to a GLOW camp when she was a teenager. So years later she was there working to pass those same lessons she learned onto more and more girls every year, which might not have ever happened if some volunteer hadn’t taken her to a GLOW camp. There are a lot more stories like that if you look, and they all demonstrate long-term, positive effects of aid and of individual volunteers that no one is going to think to measure for until you start looking for stories. I learned that aid can matter a lot, even if the number of fish ponds you manage to get dug is pretty small.

There is probably nothing I learned in the Peace Corps I couldn’t technically have learned out of a book or from some aid worker’s blog posts. But after 27 months of living and working on the ground in a developing country, right next to the people who need help the most, I have gained the perspectives I think are vital to really understand the problems people face and to ask the right questions for the world’s challenges.