On “church groups”, sustainable development, and human goodness

It was a Monday afternoon in La Concha, a tiny town in rural Nicaragua.

I was sitting in the park after Spanish class with a few of my fellow Peace Corps trainees — Rishi, Matt, and Josh — when suddenly we saw a strange sight: a group of ~50 white people, all in bright white group t-shirts, almost none of whom spoke Spanish, and all of whom were flocking together in bunches in this tiny park. They approached us speaking English, and we asked them about their group. We learned that they were to be here in La Concha for a week, “spreading the Gospel”.

After we were farther away from the group, my friends and I discussed our feelings about the group. Matt mentioned the harm that some Christian groups are doing in Uganda, where they are preaching that homosexuality is “bad” and thus bolstering the terrible homophobia that exists there. We then entered a larger discussion centered around the idea of sustainable development, and where these organizations fit in — a conversation I found difficult and intriguing.

Rishi and I agreed: Watching the group felt like looking into a mirror. I found myself annoyed by the loud speaking of English in clusters, disrupting the culture of the pueblo … but alas, when I’m with other Peace Corps volunteers, I tend to do the same thing. I felt irritated by the girl with the big expensive camera around her neck … but, ironically, as a photographer I’m often that person myself. And as much as I disdain groups like this that come for a small amount of time, make little to no discernible or sustainable impact, and then leave feeling like they’ve made a huge amount of difference in the world and like they actually understand the people and culture … that’s also pretty akin to what I’m doing myself. Sure, Peace Corps service is for a longer length of time and is very intentionally focused on the sustainability of the projects we work on, but isn’t there still a little bit of patronization present just in the mere act of coming here temporarily and working to “improve things”?

I’m left with this question: Is it inherently problematic to go to a developing country to “help” them? Is my merely being here implying that America is somehow superior to this country? Sure, we have more GDP, but is our way of doing things really inherently better? What does “better” even mean?

Rural Nicaragua, viewed from the window of a public bus.

A few days later in Spanish class, as we were talking (in Spanish) about the Nicaraguan cultural norm of being late for everything, I grew curious about the effect of that constant tardiness on Nicaraguan economic development at large. I don’t have statistics, but I would hypothesize that if Nicaraguans are constantly late for and/or flake on engagements, surely that must take a toll on the amount of work that gets done and the amount that is produced in the country, and thus on the national GDP per capita (standard of living).

But then a new question emerges: Is “increasing GDP per capita” the end goal in the first place? Is increasing it worth changing a part of a long-standing culture that has other benefits (like people who are actually pretty happy and aren’t crazy stressed out and anxious, like in New York, for example)?

Despite all of these moral dilemmas, I have to hold out hope that something authentically good is coming from my experience here. I often wonder about my own personal gains from the Peace Corps, and how I could turn them into a force for good in the world, possibly making the negatives of development worth it. When 100 middle-class people volunteer in the developing world, gain insights there, and then return to their home countries, how much are those insights worth, in aggregate?

As a volunteer, I know I will become more of a global citizen and a better spokesperson to fight stereotypes of the developing world and educate other Americans. That’s got to be worth something, right? The personal change that occurs when a person travels to a developing country and personally confronts the massive wealth disparity as well as other cultural differences, combined with how that person can educate others, both formally and informally, must be considered when considering the value of “voluntourism” … right?

A week later, Rishi and I returned to the topic of “church groups”, this time discussing this question:

“Which is more important to create a beautiful world: intentions or ends?”

With all the current global turmoil, I personally value a person’s intentions first, because if we could convince everyone to care about others and want to do good, we could then have a conversation about what are the best *means* of doing so. Therefore, with the church groups example, I could say that at least it’s beautiful that those teenagers are leaving their self-absorbed lives to go do something they think is really important, regardless of whether or not I actually agree with their values.

Rishi disagreed, saying that since they are not making the world better (according to his values), he does not respect them. That if Uganda is now more homophobic because of a church group, that’s net harm, regardless of the group’s good intentions. That “the means don’t justify the ends.”

I told him we’d have to agree to disagree. I personally believe that having a world of people trying to do good things for the sake of others–even if some of them are contradictory to others–is much better than a world of everyone just doing their own thing in a cubicle somewhere and not daring to think about others, or expand their mind, or care about something other than themselves. Would more thoughtful and sustainable projects be preferable? Absolutely. But I maintain that the most important thing is to think bigger than yourself and do something you believe in.

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This article was originally published
here as part of my Peace Corps blog, sophia en nicaragua. Follow more of my adventures at http://www.sophiaciocca.me.

Also — have thoughts on these ideas? I’d love to hear them! Please feel free to comment below and start a conversation.

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