We Are All Self-Appointed Experts
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.