“Before you go out into the field and start asking others questions,” my professor explained, “you should know who you are, and why you are there.” As half the class rolled their eyes at this first lesson which was supposed to be about “organizational sustainability,” I sat and pondered. Why do people want to do nonprofit or charity work? What drives a person to want to “help others”?  I then realized I had missed his point entirely, and had to rephrase the question: Why am I here? Why do I want to work abroad to “develop” the world?

taking a moment to think about how my students feel, sitting in their classroom.

taking a moment to think about how my students feel, sitting in their classroom.

This question was raised by many of my more well-traveled friends, when I announced I would join Peace Corps, a U.S. government entity that we had been criticizing for years. Worse, I’d be in Africa, teaching, as if somehow I could educate the youth of tomorrow to be amazing, but then walk away and watch as everyone forgot my message. Even I had been one of its worse critics, wondering why the U.S. government would think it a good idea to send out young and inexperienced Americans to remote places in the world to “develop” people and “bring world peace.” What on earth could a 20 something straight out of college effectively produce for a community that wouldn’t be 100 times easier and better done by a 20 something straight out of college from that community? It’s taken me some time, but I’ve started to change my mind. Not about our inability to “develop our community” which is hard to define anyways, and doesn’t necessarily capture what the community needs. Rather I’ve changed my mind about our purpose for being here as “international development workers”, or rather mine personally.

One of the biggest challenges with the international phenomenon of development work is that it assumes that in order to become developed, you need two things: First, you must have the resources to change your situation, whether this be money or raw goods, or human power. Second, you must have the know how to use these resources properly, in order to actually improve your status in this world, and make better decisions. The assumption is that with money and expertise to train you to become better, you can have a better life. The second assumption is that a combination of these things has to come from somewhere else that has a surplus of these “development tools,” aka the “developed world,” and therefore is injected into this “underdeveloped community” to solve problems. The equation is something like this:

Development = money + tools + knowhow from developed places = better lives

Can you see the problem with this? Yes. Good, you’ve got it. It’s very patronizing. And naïve.

I once got very furious in a lecture hall when my fellow scholars were in a heated debate of how the developing world needed to reduce their carbon emissions, and band together to find better forms of alternative energy, for the sake of the planet and for themselves for that matter. During Q&A I stood up and asked, as politely as I could, “Does it seem a little unfair that we, the “developed world” feel the need to dictate to others not to repeat our mistakes? How can we tell them not to crave and desire what we have? How can we tell these people not to want material things, just like us?” Despite the negative consequences of buying three cars, or craving plastic crap made in China, we can’t resist. We want it all, and so do they. How come we get to decide? After I sat down, there was a moment of awkward silence in the room, until finally one of the panelists, a professor said, “That is a great question, thank you for contributing. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name, are you a new student?” before dodging the question altogether.

Despite our “best intentions,” often times these attempts at making the world a better place fail, because those heading the projects come in with the tools and the knowhow, but forget one important ingredient. “Culture matters,” said one professor, so many times, that it rang in my ears for weeks on end, as I tried to figure out my new community in Cameroon. Unless you know what they want, and work towards their values, you will never get anywhere. You will miss the point completely, and as soon as you walk away, their lives will go back to exactly the way they were before you showed up. So what can you do?

If my time in Cameroon has taught me anything, it is that I was looking at the equation all wrong, even from the start. It was never about me coming in with my expertise, or my resources. It was never about me coming in and teaching students, or “developing my community.” Rather, over time, my shift became clear. It was no longer me à them. As I slowly integrated into Bafia, it became us. I no longer feel like I must accomplish everything on my own, as an American Peace Corps Volunteer, to shine down upon my community. Instead, I have come to think of myself as becoming part of the community, as a peer and equal. As I learn from my friends and colleagues on how to live in my community, I in turn share whatever I have, to contribute as a member of the society.

I laugh at the irony, as I realize that in some ways Cameroonians live better than we do, with more social supports for everyone in the community, including foreigners. Instead of being isolated and lost as many of my foreign friends have been in America, my new colleagues and friends here have reached out time and time again to me, to ensure that even I can feel welcomed, and part of something more. It has made me realize one important fact about myself: I didn’t come here to develop them. I came here to develop myself. And as I selfishly fulfill that desire, I can only give my new town whatever I have to be a contributor, rather than a burden.

I flashed back to that moment in class where my professor had asked us why we wanted to do development work. Was it a desire to shine down on others less fortunate than ourselves? To boost our egos? If we can break down this image, and realize that no matter who we are and where we come from, our world is becoming more and more connected, we can start to see change. Instead of looking at the puzzle as us helping them, we need to start looking at it as all of us helping each other. We all have problems, not better or worse necessarily, they’re just different. Through these differences can we learn to become better people, and lead better lives.  As some wise traveler once told me, “We are all brothers and sisters on this planet. It doesn’t matter who you help, or where you help, so long as you help someone.”