8-23 Entitlement is a Dirty Word…Or is it?

In my pre-Peace Corps vocabulary, “entitlement” was a dirty word. It was used to describe a mother who thought her child deserved good grades by virtue of being her child or the man that thought his son’s skinned knee required an ambulance. I used it to mean talk about feeling justified into deserving something, when that something hasn’t been worked for. My relationship to this word is changing. Entitlement and empowerment are two very powerful concepts and I’m grappling with how to teach them in a healthy way here.

By virtue of being conscious beings on this earth, we are entitled to basic human rights: food, clothing, shelter, education, pursuit of happiness and health care. By virtue of being citizens of a country, we are entitled to government services including: postal service, health care, education, the ability to pursue business, and responsible governmental oversight of the country.

These entitlements are not happening here. There is a gap between the rights and the reality.

For instance, there is a pressing need for effective education, not just rote learning and memorization but critical thinking skills and student-centered education. It is not being met, partially due to the lack of facilities to train new teachers, so people with no teaching background or experience are being pressed into those roles. When I’ve asked people here about it, the response is lukewarm. Sort of a, “Well, I can’t change it, so why bother.” We didn’t have medicine in the Aid Post for three months and I got the same reaction. I’ve heard the same reaction in regards to the corrupt government. They aren’t even willing to pressure the postal worker to stay at the post office for the entire work day. This, to me, speaks to a disempowered and disenfranchised population.

Part of my work here is to empower people. By empower, I mean to ask for these things in an effective and respectful manner. Teaching people to campaign and petition their government is important. Learning how to address these issues is important to the future of this country. These are services that people are entitled to on every island, in every country. They are mostly services that they aren’t getting here, or are getting in name only.

On the flip side, there are things people are not entitled to but believe they are. There is no entitlement inherent in voting for a candidate. That candidate is not required to give you a new saucepan for your vote. In most countries, that would be illegal. No foreign government is required to give aid to any other government, the aid that is given is an attempt to better the world (or buy political capital). That does not mean that a village is entitled to a water tank or that any individual household is entitled to a water tank. The school is not entitled to new computers because they have a Peace Corps Volunteer. No one here is entitled to my money, so stop asking.

This seems to be related to the culture of handouts. When foreign aid agencies come in and give out free things, it creates the expectation that the next whiteman to come through will do the same. This turns into the ugly side of entitlement. The idea that “I deserve more because I have less than you.” A person can always view themselves as having “less than” some one else, which means they always “deserve” more. This is not healthy, it is not good for the community and it doesn’t assist people in empowering themselves to improve their own lives and the lives of their children. It doesn’t teach people how to plan for future change or work towards a long-term goal.

I would like to see foreign aid focus on grassroots projects meant to help empower people at the village level and through that empowerment to think on the larger scale. I would like to see foreign aid that assists people in organizing their communities towards a common goal. I would like to see aid agencies looking for local individuals to build up into leaders within their communities who can provide the pool from which to choose governmental leaders. I would like to see aid organizations working towards finding sustainable options to solve human rights issues which are based in the resources available to the community.

I guess this is why I’m in the Peace Corps.

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