Wendy Lee is an MPA student at LSE and Columbia University in New York. Before coming to LSE, she spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon in West Africa. In this post, she reveals how that experience has reshaped her views on development.
Just six weeks after my two-year tour of living in Cameroon as a Small Enterprise Developer with the Peace Corps, I entered LSE. What an interesting adjustment.
From the mountainous serene village of Batié in West Cameroon to the bustling English capital, I went from living life in a developing country to studying issues of development at a prestigious institution.
While sitting in the LSE classrooms, I began to fully grasp the value of my service. I did not change the world, but the experience enabled me to weave a level of compassion and understanding when thinking of development issues.
“What is the Peace Corps?” many of my non-American classmates would ask.
The Peace Corps is a US Government Agency that sends American citizens to any of the 76 current Peace Corps countries for 27 months. Volunteers’ skills are matched to needs and they are only sent to villages that request them. The Agency has three goals:
- Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
After a long application process (on average one year), admitted volunteers undergo three months of culture, language and technical training in their country of service. At the end of 3 months, volunteers are dispersed across their country.
Two years may seem like a long time, but it is commonly agreed that it takes the entire first year to master the local language, to gain the trust of community members, and to understand the culture intricacies (in my case, this included how to bargain, how to turn harassment into a bantering session, how to manoeuvre local power structures etc).
It is one thing to study and to read about the stark realities of life with bad roads, lack of plumbing and electricity, over-crowded buses, extreme corruption, death from preventable diseases, HIV/AIDS, yet it takes entirely a different level of understanding to live that life for two years, and to have close friends whose lives are impacted by these realities.
Citizens of the developing world are the people whom we are serving. Number crunching and complicated analyses aside, the core of development policies boils down to these individuals.
Volunteers have the luxury to not be secluded in capital cities and constrained within expat compounds. When some of us eventually find ourselves in a position where security is a real issue and must stay within secured walls, we will still have the perspectives of people living outside those walls.
Furthermore, the process of learning, understanding, and adapting to a new culture shapes volunteers into true global citizens, which serves well in many career aspirations.
Not everyone can or wants to join the Peace Corps, but I believe development professionals should undertake long-term field experiences to gain a deep understanding of the people whom we serve.
Many organisations exist today to provide field experiences for young professionals aspiring toward a career in international development. Understanding the people whom we serve is vital in every profession from medicine to teaching. Why should creating development policy be any different?
You can follow Wendy Lee on twitter @wleerpcv.