Friday, February 12, 2010

Does Peace Corps Help Turkmenistan : Yes & No

by Nate Truitt, T-9
This is a response to the question we posed in an earlier posting.

Yes and no, depending on who you ask.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned in Peace Corps was that, by and large, people in other countries are quite content with their way of life. Of course, they have problems and complaints, as do all of us. But they also place a high value on the attitudes, ideas and traditions that under-gird their day-to-day existence.

With very rare exceptions, no nation thinks of itself as desperately in need of foreign assistance. To the contrary, when people think of how foreigners or foreign organizations might help their own country, they usually define the word "help" in very narrow terms.

This is so evident to me today, that I find it hard to remember what I thought before my Peace Corps service. I think it went something like this: of course Turkmenistan is a poor country, suffering from X, Y and Z. I, as a member of a great nation, inherently understand how to solve X, Y and Z, so therefore I will be a great help to Turkmenistan.

I may have "helped" Turkmenistan, but it was certainly not in the way I had naively anticipated. To the extent that I did help, it was by responding to the narrowly expressed needs of people in my community (English courses, summer camps, after school clubs, etc.) If we asked many of them, "Did Peace Corps help Turkmenistan?" they would answer, "Yes," because Peace Corps responded to their own personal vision of what Turkmenistan needed.

If we asked, on the other hand, teachers of the Russian language whether Peace Corps helped Turkmenistan, we should not be surprised if the answers we received were less enthusiastic. If we asked the U.S. State Department if we helped Turkmenistan, we would surely receive yet another answer. If we asked only ourselves if we helped Turkmenistan, we would receive an entirely different - and probably wildly inaccurate - answer.

The reason, of course, is that each entity or individual has its own, highly-subjective definition of what "help" means.

To conclusively answer the question, "Did we help Turkmenistan?" you would need to do one of two things, neither of which is possible:

1. Identify an objective, irrefutable measure of "help" that would be valid to all perspectives. Occasionally, the international community puts forth candidates for this measure - "education," "capacity building," "felt needs," etc. - but the fact that they change with the years should make us suspect that they, too, are heavily rooted in subjective judgments.

2. Quantify our "helpfulness" according to each individual's criteria, and calculate our total average "helpfulness" based on an aggregate of every individual perspective. This is theoretically possible but extremely tiresome even to contemplate. It might perhaps make a fun drinking game.

In the meantime, it's much easier, and close enough to the truth, to say that we did help Turkmenistan . . . at least according to some people.

(The author served in Turkmenabat from 2000 until Peace Corps was evacuated in September 2001, then returned to help restart the program, serving from 2002 to 2003.)

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