The question “what exactly are you working on?” is usually a difficult one to answer for Peace Corps Volunteers. The reality is most volunteers show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to their communities intending to single-handedly lift everyone out of poverty. Peace Corps gives us a vague description of an assigned project we are supposed to work on, which when we arrive almost never seems to match the words that were written in an air-conditioned office in the capital city.
When looking for a placement for volunteers, Peace Corps staff has to try and determine whether or not the organization counterpart has the patience to work with a Peace Corps Volunteer who will arrive knowing very little about their culture, customs, and language. The PC staff has to assess if and how a Peace Corps Volunteer (about whom they know nothing) could contribute to the project, organization, and community. Very importantly, and perhaps hardest to do, they have to assess how the community supports the organization and project so they don’t make the mistake of assigning a volunteer to work for an inept or corrupt organization – of which there are plenty at the local level in developing countries. Lastly they have to find a supportive family with an extra room for the volunteer to live with, in a house that meets the Peace Corps security standards. Peace Corps staff will usually visit a community/project about 3 times (staying 1-2 days at most per trip) in order to determine if the situation could be a good fit for a Peace Corps Volunteer.
This is all just to say that mistakes are often made. Peace Corps Volunteers sometimes are assigned to work with counterparts who are corrupt, inept, or even perhaps who are great but leave soon after Peace Corps Volunteers arrive. Volunteers are sometimes assigned to work with organizations that have broken promises to communities, that have stolen funds allocated for development, that have bad reputations which aren’t visible during a 1-2 day visit but slowly emerge after weeks or months of living in the community. Usually the family that the volunteer is assigned to live with is of a community leader – however often the family has risen to prominence in the community not due to their good works but due to their political connections. For all these reasons and more, my experience has been that usually it is best to set aside all descriptions, plans, expectations and figure it out when you arrive.
Even if those issues are not present, there is still the pure difficulty of overcoming immense communication and cross-cultural barriers to work effectively with your counterpart organization, and the challenge of creating lasting sustainable change (the golden ideal for volunteers) in such a short period of time. Large international aid organizations often fail to achieve this, despite multi-million dollar project budgets; nice U.S. level salaries; large technical staff; and more time than two years. Peace Corps Volunteers receive a little bit of training, uneven support from headquarters, and a ~$250/month stipend which we have to use to purchase any project materials or equipment in addition to covering our basic living costs.
So in the face of these near impossible conditions it’s no wonder that for new volunteers, Peace Corps is often a slow, painful process in which the sweet vision of charging into foreign countries to do good works are readjusted to the harsh reality of whatever situations you face. For some volunteers, simply staying healthy is a success given the poor nutrition and food quality as well as some combination of amebic dysentery, fungal infections, malaria and dengue that is common for volunteers here in the Philippines. Related to staying healthy is staying happy – finding hobbies, activities, anything really to help pass the time. Many volunteers cook, learn a musical instrument, join local sports teams, and read/watch a ton of books and movies.
Building relationships in your community is the next stage of success, and one that some Peace Corps Volunteers never reach. It is an incredibly difficult adjustment to let go of all your preconceived notions of human interaction and learn that here in the Philippines it means something different when someone touches you, asks you a very personal question, laughs at your expense, or borrows an item without asking. It is very humbling to have to ask simple questions such as “how do you eat this?”, or “how does this toilet work?” – and entertaining as hell to locals. For the standard idealistic overachiever that is a Peace Corps Volunteer, it’s often frustrating to feel so helpless in the face of the simple, daily challenges and interactions. It is very easy to withdraw or try to avoid them, until you learn to laugh at yourself and realize that all these strange ways in which you are treated are not because you are a foreigner but because this is how the locals treat each other.
The last stage of success in Peace Corps is successfully working in your community – and it is impossible to do without having built relationships. Many Peace Corps Volunteers are often frustrated when they arrive to their communities because they are so eager to get to work, to feel useful, to start combatting the very evident and visible problems they see that they expect to begin immediately. So they schedule meetings with local government staff, school teachers/principals, and local organizations and propose ideas and projects.
However that is an American mentality, and one that often disengages volunteers when their enthusiasm and desire to get to work done immediately is met with vague commitments, and failure to attend meetings or carry out plans. From the locals’ perspective, they have no idea who this foreigner is, what they want to do, nor why. They are especially confused as to why there is such a rush, as from their view there is always plenty of time. They are more interested in learning more about the volunteer then spending lots of time on a grand idea that a foreigner has had after living in the community for a few weeks or month.
The reality is things often get done out here not because it is someone’s job to do so, or because it should be done, but because of relationships. People usually shop at a specific sari-sari (little convenience store) because they know the owner – not because it has better prices or products (they all seem to be the same). If I walk up and ask a local government employee to set up a meeting, it might be done or it might be buried under a mound of bureaucracy. However if I bring someone who knows that employee with me, then it will be done quickly. Alternatively, if I begin my conversation by chatting them up and asking about their family, the weather, their holiday plans by the time I ask them for a favor they generally are willing to do it. Coincidentally happening to have bag of small snacks that you share with everyone tends to help as well. From my experience, the most successful and sustainable community development projects that I’ve been a part of or observed are due to using community relationships to build support to try a new idea or project, rather than simply relying on convincing loThe tricky part is relationships take time to build. And it’s hard to be patient and wait when you have the demanding urge to justify to yourself, to the people in your community, to your friends and family back home why you have given up everything and moved to a tiny community in a foreign country. Many volunteers never make it past the stage of building relationships to actually developing successful projects. So when someone asks a Peace Corps Volunteer “what are you working on?”, it is sometimes a very difficult and soul-searching process to admit that you aren’t working on much. That your usual day maybe consists of a few hours of actual “work” in the American sense. To admit that despite the grandiose dreams that you arrived with, sometimes a successful day is one in which you prepared a good meal with your host family, went on a nice run, or had a good conversation with a local friend.
Peace Corps is an impossible job even under the best of circumstances, and often times you are placed in a situation that is very far from the best of circumstances. But with a little patience and perspective, you can begin to understand that work in the Peace Corps is not just the presentation that you give to your organization, or the training that you organize. But that part of your work is to stay healthy, to stay happy. And so when you chat with a group of kids, watch a movie with a friend in town, share a salad you made with your host family, or join a local soccer team you’re actually working to develop relationships. Which if you’re lucky just might turn into an actual community-based sustainable development project.
So with that long-winded caveat, now that I’ve been in Sibuyan for about 2.5 months I finally feel as if I have a decent understanding of what I’m doing here.
The first month was spent mostly getting to know the protected area staff, and trying to develop a good working relationship with my new co-workers. Since we all work, eat, and live near each other there were many opportunities to spend lots of time with them and develop mutual trust.
In addition, I learned about how they manage and operate the protected area, which is in many ways very different than how parks are managed in the United States. For example, the 7 full-time staff here are responsible for all enforcement, education, and natural resource management activities. So the same staff may put on a training for the cooperative that wants to sustainably harvest vines from the multi-use zone of the park one day, coordinate with local police and army to confiscate illegally harvested lumber another day, then collect GPS data and create a GIS map the next.
Part of my learning process including identifying areas where I could help the staff – since about two to three weeks after my arrival, during a tuba (naturally fermented palm wine) drinking session one night, the park superintendent finally revealed to me that most of what was in the project description that I had been sent had actually already been done six months ago by another organization. He had been reluctant to tell me due to worries that the Peace Corps organization would be mad and/or reassign me.
So over the next few weeks we worked together to come up with a new plan. Sibuyan currently hosts the record for the densest forest recorded in the Philippines, and has at least a dozen species that are rare, endangered, and/or found only on Sibuyan Island and no where else in the world. However past research focused on finding new species, and information needed to conserve and protect these unique species (for example, what the population size is or where the species are located inside the park).
My primary project then is to collect information on fauna species found in the park – which includes over 130 bird species, in addition to numerous mammal species (at least a dozen bat species alone), reptiles, freshwater species, and insects.
The staff wants me to collect the information via observation, photos, audio recordings, and interviews with communities bordering the park. So the good news is my assigned project is a good excuse to take several hikes a week into the protected area and look for species to photograph:
However collecting just observational information on their priority, hard-to-assess wildlife is difficult since by their nature the species are shy and there is lots of dense forest for them to hide in! This includes an unidentified warty pig species, four endemic forest rodents, three endangered bats, and several bird species that are vulnerable or possibly found only on Sibuyan Island.
So working with the staff I wrote a grant to purchase wildlife monitoring equipment such as mist nets, mammal traps and tags, and remote cameras. The funding will bring in experts to train the staff in use of the equipment, and provide supplies for extended research trips into the park. And happily a few days ago I received official notice that the grant has been approved!
All the information collected will be used to assist park staff in their quarterly biodiversity monitoring, to promote ecotourism, as well as to educate park visitors and locals.
While project should keep me pretty busy for the next 7 months, there are always small project I try and help the very overworked and undermanned staff with. This includes aiding their quarterly biodiversity monitoring, helping revise the protected area general management plan, and whatever else I can help with.
Hopefully this gives everyone a more specific idea of what I’m doing over here. Of course, it could all change tomorrow as such is life working in international community-based development …