By Kyle Berlin
I currently live in Urubamba, Peru. I’ve been here for more than five months now, and will be here for at least another four. As a participant in Princeton’s Bridge Year Program, I work with an NGO on a variety of projects in rural Andean communities, live with a host family, practice my Spanish, explore the countryside, and otherwise engage in the daily business of living as a North American in Peru.
After reading a November article in The Daily Princetonian about a planned service trip to Urubamba this spring break (“Pilot service trip program to expand solar power to Peru”), I was left with a bad taste in my mouth.
The Princeton project, in coordination with the organization We Care Solar, plans to bring two “solar suitcases” to install in two communities in the region, with the idea of extending light into the nighttime hours, theoretically allowing students to study longer. While the project itself doesn’t sound like a bad idea, the article’s representation of the trip made me cringe a little, both as an incipient Princetonian and as someone currently immersed in Peruvian culture and so-called “development work.” It seemed to fall into the trap of what I’ll (quaintly) call “The Four ‘S’s of Service Sin,” as I see it:
Firstly, and most egregiously, sensationalism. One of the Princeton “team members” suggested that Urubamba lacks running water and electricity. In fact, as I write this, I sit in the heart of Urubamba with the lights on, connected to Wi-Fi and listening to jazz on the radio, as the kitchen sink runs upstairs.
Certainly the Princeton student who alleged in the article that “especially places like Urubamba” lack water and electricity did so out of an understandable ignorance and not as an intentional act of mendacity. But there are far too many cases like this one where poverty is trivialized by its commodification. When the severity of conditions in a place is exaggerated to increase the heroism of outside “helpers” or garner more support for their efforts, we reduce the humanity and livelihood of an entire people to nothing more than a tool for our own selfish and convenient purposes.
Secondly, the article highlighted a disturbing case of what I like to think of as “savior syndrome.” A Princeton student quoted said that most people have no idea “how much help [these] communities need.” I dare this same Princeton student to approach the people in “these communities” and tell them that they have no idea how much help they need. As soon as we see ourselves as singular saviors, rescuing poor helpless people from a life of misery, we are bent away from policy and projects that work and toward those that make us feel better about ourselves.
And, of course, when we see ourselves as superior and saving, a pernicious arrogance that suffocates and a paternalism that never dies are instantly spawned. For example, a Princeton student interviewed in the article wants to know “how they deal with that,” without ever specifying who “they” are or what “that” is. One cannot help but fear that “they” may be an undefined mass of poor short brown people, and “that” is living a life that isn’t the privileged one this Princeton student must know.
Lastly, I was made uneasy by the glints of shortsightedness and simplification I saw in the article’s representation of the project. The solution to a lack of equal and full educational opportunity and its frequent result—poverty—is a lot more complicated than to give a Peruvian a fancy solar light, they study hard at night, before you know it they’re a Princeton graduate and making lots of money as an investment banker! Hooray! Each small project (in this case, two solar lights in two homes) may do good, but we cannot be so shortsighted or deluded as to represent a small good as a panacea for an entire problem.
I want to be clear: I am in no way denigrating, discounting or discouraging the work of We Care Solar or the Princeton cohort coming in the spring. They are aware of a real problem and doing something to address it, and that’s the first step. But there exists a way to tackle poverty, to perform service that doesn’t reduce entire populations of people to caricatures of what Westerners imagine the picture of poverty to be.
There exists a way to help without reducing the dignity and autonomy and capability of those accepting help — for, after all, that is what they are doing — generously accepting help that we want to give. Finding that way isn’t always easy, especially in an environment (a country and a university) that so actively encourages service as a shallow bellwether of a person’s goodness — a seething game of one-upmanship and faux-heroism that is never spoken about but almost universally acknowledged.
I still don’t fully know that perfect way to serve. Perhaps it doesn’t exist. But I would prefer to believe that service is a bit like faith: with a healthy dosage of doubt, much questioning, a great deal of thought and humility and openness to spare, we can tap into something great.
Kyle Berlin is a member of the class of 2018 from Arroyo Grande, Calif. He is currently on the Bridge Year Program in Urubamba, Peru.