November 23, 2010

The Ugly American?

I started this blog to document and illustrate my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa from 2011-2013.

"We tried to point out the fact that we spend billions on the wrong aid projects while overlooking the almost costless and far more helpful ones." (Lederer and Burdick, epilogue to "The Ugly American")

The title of Ugly American is pertinent because it is used to describe U.S. Foreign Policy and the behavior of Americans as they travel and work abroad; however it resonates with me because it is ironically used in the novel of the same title by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick.

In it, the handsome Americans are responsible for the more incompetent and ineffective aid and diplomacy projects: they don't speak the native language, are unaware of local customs, and seclude themselves in large residences and exclusive Americans-only social clubs. The following is a quote from a Filipino Minister to a U.S. Official:

“The simple fact is, Mr. Ambassador, that average Americans, in their natural state, if you will excuse the phrase, are the best ambassadors a country can have. They are not suspicious, they are eager to share their skills, they are generous. But something happens to most Americans when they go abroad. Many of them are not average . . . they are second-raters.”

The Ugly American, Homer Atkins, is ugly in his appearance and rejection of the handsome and fashionable American ex-patriot culture. Homer is an engineer with dirty fingernails and calloused hands; his project that "works" is a bicycle-powered water pump that co-develops with a local counterpart.

Homer's example is key because it reflects the potential of the Peace Corps volunteer: Americans living in similar conditions in communities collaborating towards local solutions to pertinent problems. In the book, Homer addresses his philosophy of aid: “Whenever you give a man something for nothing, the first person he comes to dislike is you.” In fact, the book was disseminated by John F. Kennedy to his fellow representatives in the Senate. There have been questions about the book's influence in a contemporary context (a New York Times review and article in the Christian Science Monitor). And, of course, the relevance of the Peace Corps itself has also been addressed.

As many fellow nominees know, the length of the Peace Corps application process allows a lot of time for reflection. The success of the institution's own assessment and recruiting process aside, I'm more concerned about my own context and projects that I may be involved in. In whatever I do, I hope I do it as an Ugly American.

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