What is the role of the Peace Corps Volunteer in development? This is arguably the most strategic question you will address during your entire Peace Corps service. The philosophical answer to the question is deceptively simple: the role of the Volunteer is to help people help themselves. But what does “helping people help themselves” mean in terms of your daily life and work in your community and your relationship with Counterparts and other community partners? Through what actions will you empower people to build their capacity and make decisions for themselves? How will you know if you are focusing on what the people themselves determine to be important? And how can you make a real difference in people’s lives when your term of service in the community is only two years? These are but a few of the questions that reveal both the challenge and the immense potential of the role of the Volunteer in development.
There is a tendency by all of us from industrialized nations to view development as a finite project that addresses specific needs such as health, education, housing, income, and so on. Certain inputs are supposed to produce quantifiable results during a specific time frame. Often we assume the beneficiaries cannot achieve these objectives on their own and therefore we do it for them. We build their schools and houses, and think that getting them material goods (computers, construction supplies, machinery, transportation means) will improve their lives. What we fail to realize is that development is a process, not a project. It is a learning process in which the people involved are developing skills, knowhow, confidence, and the ability to identify and address their own issues. As a process, development sometimes moves painfully slowly and goes through different phases leading to higher levels of skills, efforts, and achievements over time. When it is working well, it expands opportunities for people to fulfill their basic needs and achieve their aspirations for a better life.
Your role as a Volunteer, then, is to join your community in its learning process, serving as teacher and student, facilitator and participant. As you assist others in building their capacity, you will strengthen your own abilities in ways you perhaps never imagined possible. This manual will help you get started in your work, not by prescribing your exact role, but by describing and demystifying the key knowledge, skills, and attitudes you will need to draw on during your service as a capacity builder and community partner. Composed in the form of a series of Toolkits, the manual offers concepts, ideas, stories from the field, practical exercises, and information sources to help you deepen your understanding of your particular roles in development as you prepare to make a unique and lasting contribution to your community.