Posts Tagged ‘Peace Corps’
The Peace Corps news of out of Central Asia right now is that the fall crop of Volunteers set to be heading into the Turkmenistan is facing some delays and, possibly, reassignments. Eurasianet has the story here:
Reports have circulated this week that the Peace Corps is once again having troubles in Turkmenistan, the independent émigré site chrono-tm.org reports. An anonymous tipster said that the latest batch of volunteers from the US were supposed to come to Ashgabat in early October, but were delayed, and may possibly even have been reassigned. The current group of volunteers was said to be facing the expiration of their visas on October 1.
For anyone who has gone through the Peace Corps application process, that has got to be painful. For those of you not familiar, the Peace Corps application process takes anywhere from six to 15 months, maybe longer in some cases (mine took 12 months). Then imagine that 10 days before you leave your home in America, your family, your friends, possibly a previous job or your university town, you’ve sold everything you’ve got and re-organized your duffel-bagged wardrobe to reflect the conservative culture of a Central Asian country, and then you get notice that, in fact, the country you are supposed to go to, with the feel-good mission of development and cultural exchange, tells you that you aren’t wanted.
That’s a rough way to ‘start’ your Peace Corps service.
I say this is a familiar story because the same thing happened back in Turkmenistan in 2009. The reason this post relates at all to Azerbaijan is that a significant population of our group of PCVs that came in in 2009 were transplants from a rejected group of to-be Turkmenistan PCVs. Neat, huh? This creates a whole bunch of problems, as delays are wont to do. Not only are logistics all screwed up, but that’s also a decent chunk of money that gets upset (at least, a significant chunk when your budget is small already). When Volunteers don’t get placed in their original country, Peace Corps has to figure out where they can go, or if they’ll just wait for another assignment. Lots of logistics, the job of which I do not envy.
To be sure, Peace Corps Volunteers in Azerbaijan have similar challenges to those in other Central Asian and South Caucasus countries, and probably similar to those of Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide. We have our misunderstandings and miscommunication (and non-communication) with the government here and with the colleagues we work with. And it can be shockingly difficult to integrate with our adoptive communities. Yet, as far as I know, Peace Corps Azerbaijan hasn’t suffered an all-out rejection. When things get rough, the top players are able to step in and cooler heads prevail, allowing Peace Corps to continue the English teaching, the youth developing, and the community economic development, and allowing both Azerbaijan and the US to benefit from our time here. As usual with Peace Corps, however, you have to be ready for anything.
With all that in mind, maybe the new group of Azerbaijan PCVs, set to arrive in a few days, will get some unexpected additions to their crew. Hopefully, though, our friends in Turkmenistan will get it sorted out and those Americans headed to Turkmenistan can continue on their way.
Before we move on from the topic, this is just an addendum to my thoughts on how Peace Corps can help heal from days like 9/11 as we slide past the 10th anniversary of the tragedy. Today was my first day back at the bank after the anniversary. While I am cognizant of the tragedy of 9/11 and understanding of the grief it causes for many, I am not so strongly swayed by the memory of that day. However, it was touching today as my colleagues talked about the 9/11 disaster with respect. Multiple expressed to me what a terrible day that was for the world. One even commented that he was surprised when a friend attended a wedding on Sunday, believing that having a celebration on a day of tragedy is inappropriate. A few others expressed how much they dislike Bin Laden and what he and Al Qaeda stand for.
Whether they say these things because I’m there and because I’m American, I can’t know. Yet, it’s still a reminder that there is such a thing as humankind, where we can feel solidarity with one another and understand each other across borders, across oceans, and across cultures. This is an experience I would like for more people to have.
As I’ve been thinking about this idea, I at first wanted to make a reasoned generalization about Azerbaijanis. And then I thought about it more and I wanted to make that reasoned generalization about Americans, specifically Peace Corps Volunteers. The reality is that it applies to almost everyone: we are all self-appointed experts.
This is not a groundbreaking idea. Nobody is stunned by that brief revelation. Yet, I don’t think most people realize how often we put ourselves in that “expert” position without knowing it (and yes, I’m aware that my blogging at all is me putting forth my ideas in at least a pseudo-expert fashion, which is sort of meta). I also don’t think that we as Peace Corps Volunteers take a moment to step back and realize what we are doing in our roles with organizations in our host countries. I can only imagine how widespread this affliction is in wider world of ‘Development’.
The clarifying example for this tendency is CBT Azerbaijan, Mason’s localized tourism experiment here. I’ll describe it briefly, but you should read more about it here. Mason, while up in mountainous Lerik, next to Lənkəran, had the luxury of lots of spare time to roam the mountains and the small villages hidden within. With his wandering, he started to build a network of contacts in various villages. Eventually, he came upon the idea of Community-Based Tourism as a legitimate business venture for the Azerbaijan tourism industry. With families located in various villages, he could hook them up with tourists who wanted a homestay experience with a local Azerbaijani family (oh, we Western romantics). The finances sort themselves out: local managers get a cut, the families get a cut, the money that comes in stays in these communities. It’s an eloquently simple design.
This is where our self-appointed experts come in. As Mason talks more and more about this project (which has really taken off, by the way), the most common reaction when talking to either Azeris or PCVs or anyone, for that matter, is that Mason gets an earful of how to change things in CBT Azerbaijan. It’s a fascinating moment: “Hey, that’s a great idea! This is how you should change it!” I cannot claim to be innocent of this reaction. Inevitably, the proffered ideas are well-meaning but either have already been thought of or don’t really fit in with the goals and model of CBT Azerbaijan. You can see how this might become a little irksome.
That is mildly interesting. More interesting, however, is that this is almost exactly what we as Peace Corps Volunteers know is the wrong approach to making any sort of constructive changes with our local colleagues and organizations. I remember during Pre-Service Training talking about how to ask appreciative questions and how not to approach improving the organizations we work with. It doesn’t really work as we want, where we would just offer suggestions and have them quickly taken up. Instead, we need to ask questions and build relationships so that these nuggets of advice are not seen as attacks but as little packages of knowledge and experience and trust.
It works for both our Azeri colleagues and our American friends. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we probably too often get in this mode of thinking we are experts (and we may well be!) without taking a moment to ask a few questions and get to know a project before throwing out our advice haphazardly, inevitably leading to frustration. I can walk into AccessBank in Lənkəran and spit out a bunch of advice, but it will likely come out flat if I haven’t already shown an interest in whatever issue I’m pontificating about. Certainly, it’s a well-meaning reaction. Yet, we still have to remember to take that step back from our experience and realize how we are coming off to the recipients of our likely-unsolicited advice. I think it’s pretty clear that this goes for anyone, but since we’re talking about Peace Corps Volunteers whose training contains this lesson, expectations can probably be set a little higher for us in this regard.