I think most Peace Corps volunteers who maintain a weblog eventually write a post explaining why they decided to serve. Putting into words what motivated me to leave everything behind in the United States and live in Indonesia for two years is difficult. I can barely explain to myself why I wanted to join the Peace Corps; so explaining “why” to others is especially difficult—nearly impossible in Indonesian. I may not be able to say exactly why I came to Indonesia but I can say why I didn’t come to Indonesia: I didn’t come here to ‘help.’
During our extended staging my cohort and I were fortunate enough to have some excellent impromptu facilitators who filled our days with sessions about Peace Corps history, international aid work, cross-cultural understanding, gender issues, and some basic TEFL tips and tricks. During one session a facilitator wrote a quote on the board that has had particular resonance with me during my first four months of service.
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
A seemingly good reason to join the Peace Corps is a desire to “help.” But helping isn’t always what’s best for a community. Peace Corps places significant emphasis on the sustainability of a volunteer’s work in his or her community. Every project a volunteer works on or starts during service should run just as well and easily after the volunteer leaves. If a volunteer is the sole reason any progress is made with education, agriculture, economic development, or any sector Peace Corps works in, then once that volunteer is gone everything will return to how it was before the arrival of the volunteer, and often to the detriment of the community.
Furthermore, the idea of “helping” implies a hierarchical relationship between the one being helped and the one performing the helping. Without addressing issues of capacity and confidence ‘helping’ really doesn’t do any long-term good for either party—it creates dependency. And I don’t think most people would be very receptive to the idea of an outsider, a foreigner, someone who knows nothing of local customs or culture, coming from thousands of miles away just to “help” them.
Nonetheless, I still sometimes read things written by people who plan to join the Peace Corps, or who have just accepted their invitation to serve, and they will list one of their reasons as wanting to help, or give back. But why help? Why give back? The question “but why…?” is a perennial favorite among toddlers, but there is some insight into asking such a question ad infinitum. Eventually, in regards to questions of human motivation, the answer to “but why…?” will be answered by something like, “Because it is in my [or their] self-interest.”
An individual’s self-interests are always put above everything else (exceptional cases excluded, i.e. parenthood). Humans do not, at least in the short-term, do things which are not in their own best interests. Not to say people are selfish. People often want what is good for others, but not when at risk of their own welfare. Good for others, best for self. “True altruism cannot exist,” is a tired and worn-out trope; but it’s one which, I believe, has some truth.
For someone to cite a desire to help as their primary motivating factor to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer is, under good circumstances, naïve, and misleading otherwise. Time and time again, throughout PST, we were told to check our expectations, to be prepared to adjust our goals, to plan for disappointment. The truth is, as a volunteer, I cannot help the people of Indonesia. My time here is short, my skills are limited, my energy is finite, and there’s simply too much work to be done. To join Peace Corps and plan to help people is a great recipe for disappointment pie.
And this is where the second part of that quote comes in. “If… your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Meaning, when two people have intersecting self-interests, there is significantly more impetus for cooperation and teamwork. People can do good things for others, but not at the risk of putting their own well-being in peril. It’s when two, or more, people share the same motivations that progress can be made, sometimes great progress.
So when I am asked about why I decided to join the Peace Corps I list out the usual benefits: career development, graduate school opportunities, learning a new language, experiencing a new culture, traveling and seeing the world (well, seeing Southeast Asia at least). But when I ask the same question of myself I still struggle to put it into clear language. I think about how much I am getting out of this experience and how imbalanced it seems with what I can offer to Indonesia. I try to align my desires with those of my counterparts. More English speakers across the world is certainly in the US’s interest and therefore mine.
Even though I struggle to answer the question, “Why do you want to be in the Peace Corps?” I am still absolutely confident in my decision to join. And after all the long and circuitous elucidations as to why I did or didn’t join the Peace Corps I am certain of one thing: I didn’t come here to help, I came here to make friends.