What Peace Corps taught me about sustainable development
I left for Africa at the age of 22.
What was supposed to be two years turned into nine, as I became increasingly invested in the unique challenges and opportunities I discovered around me.
Working in the field of community economic development, the notion of sustainability became a constant presence in my life.
Equipped only with naiveté and a strong desire to be a part of something positive in the world, I began my time in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso.
For two years, I lived and worked in this community, implementing small-scale development projects.
Following this and a year of humanitarian work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I transitioned from a very grassroots experience to a more administrative role.
As the Peace Corps Director of Programming and Training in Guinea, I worked on a national level to design programs and train volunteers to implement projects that were rooted in principles of collaboration, capacity building and, of course, sustainability.
Returning home to Michigan last year was an opportunity for me to make sense of this tremendous experience; one that challenged me to question, grow and adapt beyond what I sometimes thought was possible.
So I’d like to share with you what I’ve come to understand about the notion of sustainable development – or at least so far.
The first – and perhaps most difficult – realization for me was that sustainable development is humility.
What I considered my first successful project as a Peace Corps Volunteer was a young women’s empowerment camp teaching goal setting and leadership.
Within a year, some of these same young Burkinabé women had become pregnant and dropped out of school.
So I learned quickly that sustainable development is not just organizing a camp and passing out certificates, but also providing tedious, thoughtful, on-the-ground presence and support. When setting up a women’s microcredit group, for example, it was important to be just present “enough,” so as to support but not control the process.
I personally also had to shift from pity to empathy in order to work in some of the poorest countries in the world.
I regularly felt guilt, and even shame, about my relative privilege, especially when I first arrived.
While very real and well intentioned, I realized that these feelings held me – and hold us – back from connecting with others as simple human beings.
However, sustainable development is not “tough love” either. I often struggled amid so much need to know how and when to help.
I worried about fairness and, if I helped, who would help when I was no longer there.
I came to discover, though, that helping doesn’t follow a formula; at times you just help because you can and you want to. So when your buddy Harouna has an infected toe, you just make it better.
Sustainable development is not a linear process. Congolese families in the village of Mumbolo had farmed for generations, but lost everything to conflict.
I found some families even attempting to farm with their bare hands. So despite deep farming knowledge and rich soil, families were forced to stand in line to collect seeds and tools – and start over again.
In other words, sustainable development is messy!
Money is stolen, cars break down and aquaculture ponds are built without fish.
Yet a lot of these issues arise because we force this incredibly complex process of human progression onto a timeline, with projects more closely aligned with donor priorities and requirements than actual need.
Furthermore, sustainable development doesn’t work if we only consider need.
In fact, there are countless tales of failed development projects rooted in genuine need, like the women’s center-turned-cow shelter in Telimélé, Guinea.
By only examining “need,” we neglect to consider a community’s rich culture, history and existing resources.
Sustainable development is recognizing and appreciating the values of those around you.
The people with whom I worked shared a common understanding of and pride in certain social norms and protocol. For example, no matter how little one has, she will always offer something.
She will walk over two miles early in the morning to deliver guinea fowl eggs (before you’re even awake!) because she’s grateful for what you did and this is what she has to offer.
No, you didn’t rescue her from poverty. And yes, she does want many of the amenities you and I enjoy.
Perhaps most importantly, though: she wants to be recognized as a human being rather than a project or an objective.
Sustainable development is human connection. When I visited my dear Ma Fati in Burkina Faso seven years after my Peace Corps service ended, I was greeted with “Ma Biiga Waame,” or “My child has come.”
In both a beautiful and sad way, not much had changed since I left. Except, of course, that Ma Fati now uses a cell phone!
And so, sustainable development is embracing both human and natural progression together.
My favorite place in Guinea, the town of Dalaba, has an incredible cement lookout structure actually built around a massive old tree.
This offers an interesting contrast to the University of Michigan’s recent $400,000 relocation of a Bur Oak tree, making way for an expansion of the Ross School of Business.
Each represents a strategy to reconcile the commitment to preserve what is with the desire to be bigger and more.
While neither strategy is better per se, I believe firmly that the best solutions are not necessarily the most costly, or even innovative.
Rather, sustainable development is oftentimes simply making connections, filling in gaps and sticking around to see things through.
I found that there are many people who can explain why something can’t be done, and far fewer who try to make it work regardless.
As a Peace Corps Program Director in Guinea, I felt envious of the intense experience I knew Volunteers were having, and also skeptical of the efforts of large-scale institutions like the World Bank.
However, I came to realize that sustainable development is not just the “right approach,” but rather the combined potential and imperfection of many different efforts.
After all, Peace Corps Volunteers can’t fix crumbling bridges in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the World Bank doesn’t offer on-the-ground support in far flung Guinean villages.
The beautiful thing, though, is that – wherever and whoever we are – we don’t have to be everything, but we do need to do something. And luckily, we have the incredible privilege to even take a different direction when we feel limited by our current path.
This is what brought me to the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute: a desire to promote sustainable development through enterprise, as arguably the strongest institution in society today.
Perhaps I’m approaching this new experience with as much naiveté as that 22-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer I once was – but perhaps that’s exactly where I, and we, ought to be.This story was originally published on the Erb Perspective Blog, under the title "Sustainable development and my path to the Erb Institute"