24 August 2011

The Issues We Face, Part 2

The second half of my manifest on the manifold obstacles of serving in the West Indies continues today.  On nearly a daily basis, we PCVs in St. Kitts and Nevis deal with some societal beliefs that are all too often in direct conflict with our goals or plans of action.  Some are popular misconceptions, others are just different philosophies on how to deal with life.  But so many, whatever the source or reason, are actually detrimental to the development of a burgeoning society – take this first one, for example:

A problem that plagues many of the isles of the West Indies, and especially their nonprofit service organizations, is the lack of a spirit of volunteerism.  For reasons that of yet escape me, it is highly uncommon for a West Indian to volunteer his or her time to any cause, without the promise of some form of compensation.  Now, this isn't to say that the islanders here do not believe strongly in good causes; many work tirelessly to see positive social and economic change in their country, and do so out of national pride or a sense of duty to their fellow man, not unlike in the United States.  The difference?  Here, one is expected to be fairly compensated for these efforts, whether in the form of money, goods, favors, connections, travel, whatever.  No one believes it is fair, good and right to do these good works just for their own sake.  This has two practical offshoots, then, that radically affect our work here.  The first is that it is exceedingly difficult for nonprofit organizations, whether small or large, domestic or foreign, rich or poor, government or non-government, to organize workers and service providers without racking up a hefty bill in goods and labor, which certainly limits their ability to do simple things like spread awareness of their cause, their existence, and their own services.  The second thing I find very troubling: when actual volunteers like myself do make ourselves available to these nonprofits or community groups, we are often initially looked on with suspicion.  The prevailing thought is, "Why are you helping me for nothing?  Clearly, though I don't know what it is yet, you are angling to gain something though helping me."  And, in all fairness, why would you trust someone who is unwilling to tell you what he or she stood to gain in working on your project with you?  Why would you put your trust in someone who is clearly willing to withhold important information from you?  And without the ability to size you up, sometimes people would rather work without the risk involved.  At best, when organizations are able to move past this initial misunderstanding, often these same organizations have so little experience coordinating with volunteers, that they are unsure how to go about utilizing their services, leaving us PCVs to do menial tasks that would better be handled by someone without our specialized training.  This might all seem a bit of a stretch, and I don't know for certain the relevance of this outside the Eastern Caribbean, but you might be surprised to hear how common these obstacles are to volunteers starting out here.  For my part, I was lucky to be placed at a nonprofit who had hosted PCVs before, and thus were more or less prepared for my arrival with a handful of projects for me to work on at the outset.

One difficulty my institution is not set up to deal with, however, is the under-education of so many unemployed persons and, yes, even employed people here.  The literacy rate is lower than it should be, considering the free public education available island-wise through primary and secondary school, and even tertiary education facilities available on-island, some of which are affordable for lower income families.  With all of this said, then, there is no excuse why primary schools are graduating students where at least half of the lowest-stream sixth grade classrooms are still under-literate.  In my time here, I've learned a very interesting but also very serious tidbit: it is a commonly held misconception that, when youth reach a certain (though distinctly undefined) age, their ability to learn to read diminishes.  This means that, despite the plentiful signs around primary schools with pithy sayings like, "You're never too old to learn to read!" there are still wide swaths of people who will not attempt to teach one of the graduated sixth graders how to read.  Basic literacy as a supplement to secondary school remedial curricula is, to my knowledge, not included at most high schools.  Aware of this as a widespread problem, we volunteers are trained to approach under-literate students and work with them on basic literacy skills, like letter recognition, phonics, etc.  While I have not got to use this myself yet, I won't be surprised if the need presents itself in my time here.

One challenge that particularly affects my everyday work at the NSTP is the oversight of utilizing strategic planning in everyday operations.  That is to say, most nonprofits we volunteers are assigned to do not engage in common business planning processes, like identifying human, monetary, and other resources, and matching those up to community and operational needs in order to better serve their stakeholders and clientele.  This is common practice in commercial businesses and nonprofits alike in the States, and many other places around the world.  I have heard it said that the culture in the West Indies is such that, compared to other Western cultures, people here put more stock, and awareness in the present, as opposed to the past and future.  So while businesses in other countries maintain historical industry and enterprise data from the past, in order to better predict market conditions and client actions in the future, the islanders tend to put more consideration into questions like, "What are we doing right now that is working?  What could we be doing right now that we are not?"  And while this tends to be effective towards immediate problem solving, it does precious little to address resource management, a skill that is oft overlooked by government institutions, private businesses, and nonprofits here in the Caribbean.  For example, a problem that plagues the NSTP is a lack of incoming funds with which to improve the quality and availability of services that they offer.  That's natural; everybody is facing the same dilemma, all around the Caribbean and all around the world.  However, rather than do one of two things to relieve the effects of the problem, i.e. discuss and plan alternative ways to supplement the limited income they do receive so as to expand programs, or else prioritize the existing programs so that the little money that does come in goes to the most effective programs first, instead the typical m.o. is to spend the money on a needy project just as soon as it is available.  This means that the NSTP is left virtually penniless about 99% of the time, leaving no room to introduce new programs or even continue to operate all of the existing ones.

I hope that you can now better appreciate some of the challenges we PCVs are equipped to handle, albeit perhaps begrudgingly, on a daily basis.  It's not all bad, of course: as I mentioned a few times during PreService Training to my fellow volunteers, all of these problems, potential and real, would be magnified a couple times over if we had to learn a foreign language on top of all of that.  So there are many things to be grateful for, not least of which is the ability for me to type this message and send it off to you, my readers, from virtually anywhere on island.  Yay Internet!

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