Tuesday, March 2, 2010

We Are All Jake Sully

Katya and I were discussing science fiction movies the other day when she happened to mention “Avatar.” I recently had a chance to watch the movie (in 3-D!) here and I really liked it. Of course, as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), I like any movie that touches upon the themes of colonization and missions.

Katya said “good things: negative portrayal of colonialism, positive portrayal of environmentalism and respect for the planet as an interconnected ecosystem…bad things: the colonist is the savior? wtf, there was nothing he did that a native couldn't have done, his skills had nothing to do with being a colonist. Hence it's just to relieve white guilt or something. It would have been more powerful if they'd saved themselves.”

I couldn’t help but let escape a self-disparaging laugh at her critiques of the movie. “No, the colonist helps the natives save themselves…like Peace Corps Volunteers,” I explained.

Katya continued by discussing exploiters versus exploited: “if the exploited become friends with the exploiters, it’s bad news- they just open themselves up to get hurt more…but this is an area where I think “Avatar” got it right…the happy ending is that he completely gives up on making peace between the two groups, chooses the not-engaged-in-evil-activities group (aka the colonized people) and the happy ending is that they get rid of the colonizers, not become friends with them.”

I responded by pointing out “You realize that as Americans trying to engage in development, we are him.”

Katya said “You’re him earlier in the story because you work FOR the government that also engages in exploitation which seems a little naïve.”

Ouch! I realized that she had a point though, as Peace Corps Volunteers we are all Jake Sully. We are that group of under-funded (and underpaid) researchers that seeks to find out as much about the other culture as we can. Meanwhile, the military sits on an enormous budget provided by corporations and wealthy investors that will stop at nothing to exploit the foreign territory. We are the good face the government can present to the world, the cheap publicity tricks they can employ to justify its meddling in other countries. Our reward is cultural understanding, the military’s (and hence its backers’) is lucrative resources. Why do you think the U.S. government spends 30 times as much on its defense budget as on its development one? We struggle to maintain our independence from the exploitative government, in spite of promises of greater social status and our dreams coming true in return for selling our souls and assuming a government job.

The good news is that there is a middle path. Katya told me that she hopes “to be a different him [Jake Sully] – not a savior, just an extra person in the fight. The leaders should be FROM the countries the movement is for. There’s a difference between being an ally, and thinking you know enough to LEAD someone else’s movement.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’m conscious that as a PCV I technically work for the U.S. government. I resent that the Peace Corps belongs to the same superpower which is responsible for the majority of the abuses happening in the world today. That isn’t to say that I haven’t been able to make a positive impact in my community, but as the movie “Avatar” suggests, that only happens through disassociation with my status of “exploiter.” I don’t mean the negation of my U.S. citizenship or pride in my country, rather the renunciation of the accompanying condescension that is part of being born in the rich world. I think that all of us development workers from the “Global North” carry into the “Global South” unconscious feelings of superiority that our economic system is better, that our political system is better, etc.; that’s why we are rich and they are poor. The sooner we eliminate those prejudices and seek to understand the other culture – like Jake Sully –, the sooner we can be of help. As a PCV, this is what I’ve struggled with – trying to do good but being an outsider; trying to mix my priorities with those of my community. Some things they didn’t realize were important for their lives, while there were other things that I was clueless about. It took a year for me to be fully accepted into my community (lucky Jake, it only took him 3 months!), to achieve that status where I could bring my understanding of the outside world and use it to fulfill their needs and to advance their priorities, not mine. It’s a balance but we’ve found it.

1 As a matter of fact, PCVs are no longer allowed to have work for government intelligence agencies for a certain period of time before and after their services. This policy stems from the Peace Corps’ early history, during which the CIA infiltrated the agency with spies whom would report on the happenings in their communities to the U.S. government. Hence, in most Latin American countries, the natives assume that their volunteers are U.S. government spies.


Katya said...

Wow, if I'd known I was going to be quoted, I would have used proper punctuation!

To add to what I've already said, I was talking with Scott about you and the previous things you've written- and about the Peace Corps. I said that, although Peace Corps volunteers do make some difference, the Peace Corps doesn't address the underlying reasons for underdevelopment in the countries in which it operates, and never will. That's because many these underlying issues are cultivated by the US to benefit itself at the expense of these countries. Scott pointed out that he didn't think the Peace Corps would prevent you or any of it's volunteers from any given project, but that's not the point- the point is that the whole system is set up to ignore those underlying causes- things like the "economic hitmen" described by John Perkins (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confessions_of_an_Economic_Hit_Man), support (tacit or outright) of pro-US dictators, funding of foreign wars, the contracting of gangs and guerrilla or paramilitary groups by US corporations to kill union leaders (a big problem here in Colombia), or the use of free trade agreements or bullying to force countries to allow environmentally disastrous mining operations-- operations which provide huge economic benefit in the form of gold to US shareholders while saddling locals with huge health, environmental, and economic-in the form of livestock and crop damage-detriment (as I saw in El Salvador).

The Peace Corps works toward development, but it's very system is set up to address only the smallest hurdles to it. It's not that internet or learning accounting aren't important, or that you're not making a difference in the lives of the people who live in your town-- it's that the way the organization is set up pretty much guarantees that your projects and your influence will never exceed "town-wide" in scope.

Katya said...

I'm leaving this as a separate comment because my first was so long. Just a little tidbit about CIA involvement- that suspicion definitely is not limited to only Latin America. A former coworker served in the Peace Corps in Ukraine, and he said he often came up against the suspicion that he was CIA (as he put it, because he wore a suit and could type with all ten fingers).

PoojaV said...

Actually, I agree with the Peace Corp´s small-scale approach to problems. Read the book ¨Small is Beautiful.¨ It discusses how development must happen on a small-scale in order to be effective and transforming through generations. That´s the same idea as microfinance, work small in order to make a big difference.

Peace Corps as an organization does have a world of problems; the following are three related ones.

1. The process of site development is carried out poorly. Whether or not you make an impact in Paraguay has less to do with your capacities and more on where and with whom you´re placed. If you are hard-working and you´re community wants to get work done, you can do a world of good. It doesn´t matter how ¨guapo¨ )hard-working)you are though, if the members of your community have no interest in working.
2. The budget is determined by the U.S. government and Washington is all about numbers, numbers of how many people capacitated, numbers of how many vaccinated, etc. It misses the point. Right now, for example, there´s been a large push to expand programs throughout the world. Peace Corps Paraguay has to, ¨sí o sí,¨ increase the number of volunteers in the country. Paraguay already has one of the biggest programs in the world. There are too many volunteers as it is! Send volunteers to countries with less-developed programs and more actual development needs!
3. Peace Corps programs are completely skewed to reflect the U.S.´s political interests. Why are there more than 200 volunteers in Paraguay and fewer than 50 in most African countries? The number of volunteers doesn´t accurately reflect countries´ necessities. At least in Paraguay, people have enough to eat. I can´t say the same for many other countries that don´t have Peace Corps programs.

Those are just a few of the many critiques I have, but I will have to sit and think about the rest.

PoojaV said...

Let me clarify that the former comment was not a contradiction of your argument. I´m a huge fan of ¨Confessions¨ and do agree that the governments along with the populaces of developed countries are responsible for creating a system in which poor people and ¨underdevelopment¨ exist. In the face of that, are the small-scale contributions of Peace Corps changing anything? I think so. I don´t think we´re that effective a development organization in practice, but I think the theory is good. I think groups like Yunus´s Grameen Bank know how to apply the theory successfully. I also believe that it´s not a single solution problem, but rather one that requires a multi-pronged approached. You need big-scale actions as well, such as public-private partnerships and sincere commitments by world leaders and governments.