On “building a constituency for development in the US…”

Where is that idea from? None other than Mr. Nick Kristof, whose Teach for the World concept has invited criticism, praise, skepticism, and enthusiasm alike. In case you missed it, he proposed the creation of a program that would coordinate one-year placements for [young] US citizens to serve as teachers in developing countries. If your initial response to this idea was the same as many others who thought the idea echoed a long-standing, government-run program (the Peace Corps), Kristof wrote on why his program differs. The major differences? Duration [one year instead of 27 months], who would be most able to join based on life circumstances [high school and college grads instead of mid-career professionals looking for a change], and, to a certain degree, who would benefit the most [the volunteers instead of the host country, at least to a degree].

Kristof admits that those who would benefit from this program most immediately would be the US citizens who experience life in a developing country, expanding their world view, meeting new people, and cultivating an understanding of what life is like overseas. As Mac Odell, who commented on Kristof’s article, noted of his Peace Corps experience and continuing work overseas:

People who have not had these experiences frequently greet me when I return home with, “Welcome back to the real world.” My reply, “Guess what? I’ve just come back from the real world. We live in an insulated bubble here. For the vast majority of the world’s people, that is the real world out there.”

I wholeheartedly support Americans spending time in developing countries, seeing how the “bottom billion” live, and meandering off the tourist paths that are so easily followed during travel overseas. My own experience spending a few months in Kenya, both in the rural area near Kilimanjaro and at an orphanage on the coast near Mombasa, was an incredible learning experience. I got to participate in an interesting research project, give health presentations at a local school, and feel as though I gave something back to the people who shared their lives with me during my time there; listening and learning the stories of the many people I met was probably the greatest gift I gave, though, rather than my application of my technical skills. As my departure date neared, I finally understood why so many people have said that two months, six months, a year, all probably wouldn’t be enough time to get ingrained enough in the country and its culture to truly understand how I could have contributed with the greatest impact.

Most will follow Kristof and his many critics, and acknowledge that a Teach for the World program would benefit US citizens more than those overseas. But what about the countries where volunteers would serve? What would they gain? Perhaps the long-term benefit would be this “constituency for development in the US” which Kristof describes as “crucial in the long run.” He could be right: Teach for the World may well cultivate an appreciation for the challenges of day-to-day life in many countries, and returning volunteers will use their experiences as motivation to volunteer again, learn technical skills they can apply overseas, raise money for worthy causes, and become donors themselves. All wonderful things. But I still question the need for a new program, and question where the funding would come from for this project, given the current state of the economy and size of our budget deficit.

Why not promote programs already on the ground, providing year-long experiences? Teach for All aims to bring the Teach for America model to countries overseas, providing opportunities for educated youth to share their gifts and talents in their home countries. Global Health Corps provides year-long placements with organizations already working on the ground in countries throughout the world (and a friend who is currently completing her time as a fellow in Malawi has raved about the experience). World Teach places volunteers in villages around the globe to teach in elementary and secondary schools, though they do charge a fee. And perhaps that is the biggest criticism: many existing programs either require an advanced level of education, or are financially out of reach for otherwise qualified candidates.

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