Before joining the Peace Corps I really didn’t give much thought to the idea of aid. In my community we help our neighbors and give at the office. Certainly anyone would offer a thirsty stranger water—that is common decency, isn’t it? Where I come from consensus is that people displaced by natural or human-made disasters deserve aid and involvement from the world community. It is our moral imperative to help one another, simply because we are human.
Aid programs with ready-made agendas and pre-set goals are something else. Is Peace Corps an aid organization? Not by my definition. I see a difference between aid and assistance. The Peace Corps offers technical assistance to developing nations. Peace Corps assistance is a collaborative effort between volunteers and their communities. It is not something given away like free soap. Aid organizations like to support material accomplishments, like building a sports court, library, or health clinic. They want photos of identifiable things, something they can show donors, which makes sense—proof of what was done with your money. While worthy in theory, this kind of aid often results in sports courts with no programs, libraries without books, or clinics without staff. The Peace Corps model emphasizes sustainability. Sustainability is more complicated to initiate. A sustainable program takes time to develop and is not easy to measure. Peace Corps Volunteers spend two years in their community for this very reason: to develop relationships through collaboration.
Just before I arrived in Cambodia, First Lady Michele Obama initiated the Let Girls Learn project for Peace Corps. Even saying the words, “let girls learn” is news in some communities. Although the former First Lady gave voice to the idea, the Peace Corps has always promoted equality in education. The Art Club at my high school attracted mostly girls, so when we had the opportunity to bring six students to the Create Cambodia Festival, I suggested five girls and one boy, the most dependable members of the group. My counterpart asked if we shouldn’t have an even number of boys and girls? When I pointed out we would need to recruit two more boys to do that, my partner reconsidered. “The girls should go,” he said. “Girls don’t get to go out from the village often. This may be their only chance.”
My counterpart has taught at the high school for over a decade. Recognition that girls get fewer opportunities showed development in his awareness and growing sensitivity to the student population. To recognize that girls are also clever, and girls should have the opportunity to go to college, that girls should learn, is a major step forward. I felt that the seed I had planted at the beginning of my service had finally begun to sprout. Impatient readers may say this is a tiresome topic, we already know about equality, let’s get on with it. True, but here in my village in 2017 this is the insertion point. We begin now. Once you know, you cannot un-know what you know. As simple as it may seem, this was one of the most profound moments of my teaching experience in Cambodia. It signaled support for an idea put forth more than a year ago: that girls should have a chance, as well as boys, to continue their education. Although I will no longer be in the room to promote girls learning, my Khmer teacher will be. He will advocate for the girls because he can see equal opportunity is good for everyone.
Soon after arriving in Cambodia it became clear to me that Ms. Mighty Mouse would not save the day, or anyone else for that matter. Truth is no one wants to be saved like that. One cannot dismiss hundreds of years of the dominant culture. The conversation about gender equality is ongoing. Those of us who “want to make a difference” in the world can do so only in partnership. That makes all the difference in the world.