international development

What Does “Third World” Mean?

This Peace Corps blogger, Jett Choquette, makes a really good observation about the idea of “third world” applying to systems and structures rather than to people. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past week as I’ve been reading on the history of the first 20 years of Kyrgyzstan’s independence. Relatable to any country that is “developing.”

Connecting the Dots

When thinking about the global community we throw around terms like “third world” or “developing world.” Coming from the first world, I’ve often heard those terms with an undertone of pity. The terms have a distributive property and rather than just being used to categorize a political territory they are used to describe people. And when these terms are distributed to people they usually mean: unhappy, uneducated, dirty, and disadvantaged.

It’s taken me almost 9 months in Paraguay to wrap my head around what “third world” actually means, because the first thing I noticed when coming to Paraguay is that Paraguayans aren’t unhappy, uneducated, and dirty. Actually, Paraguayans are almost annoyingly happy most of the time. The Paraguayan approach is simple: bad things happen, life goes on. It takes only a little time in Asunción to meet several trilingual Paraguayans and it takes no more searching than it does among…

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I’m in my room laying scotch tape over a flipchart sheet of white paper to try and make a white board for class, while my 15-year-old host brother is in the other room playing Assassin’s Creed on his computer and lamenting the temporary outage of 3G internet. Somewhere there’s a disconnect here…

Love your neighbor

WWRD – What Would Randall Do? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself lately. Randall’s what Jesus would look like if Jesus had been a 6-foot-5 American training English teachers in Central Asia. I got to know him recently during a long conversation spanning working in Kyrgyzstan to Uzbek and Kyrgyz cultures to motivation of English teachers and the challenges of development work.

“Jesus didn’t command us to change the world,” says Randall, elbows and knees poking out beyond his desk. It’s covered with photos of family, local artwork and pithy motivational statements.

My mind dwells on just that: changing the world. It’s something I’ve been obsessing over lately, something I’ve been daunted by, wrapped up in, exhausted with. I wouldn’t necessarily have used the words “change the world” because when saying it out loud it sounds ridiculous. But practically, in my thoughts and my general attitude toward development work, that was what I was trying to do. I pictured myself as the agent for world peace. I was a grassroots diplomat. I didn’t have time or energy to waste pumping water for the widow who lives down the street.

“But what is Jesus’ command?” Randall continues, “To love God and love your neighbor.” That’s it. Randall nailed it. Or, Jesus rather, a few years earlier.

So what are we doing here on the other side of the world working in unfamiliar terrain among people we’d never met? Had we left our neighbors behind and abandoned that high calling? Maybe we need to return to the question that follows: “Who’s my neighbor?”

This was asked by a lawyer on the road to Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago, and it elicited one of Jesus’ most memorable parables: The Good Samaritan. In this familiar illustration, a man is beaten, robbed and left for dead. Both a priest and a Levite see the man and pass him by before finally, a Samaritan stops, has compassion and cares for his needs. Jesus asserts that the Samaritan was a neighbor to this man and that each of us are to do likewise.

A good neighbor recognizes those who are in need and does something to help them. It seems simple, but here is where we get lost—we try to define need as the general condition of the world—broken and in pain—and we attempt to do work that we see as alleviating the world’s ills or fixing the world’s problems. But when we make our work so general, our declaration of love in service thins into a transparent sheet, like a single sheet of tissue, trying to catch all the world’s tears as they fall in one, torrential downpour. Our intensity drowns in this flood of need and our flame of passion once bright with fresh and youthful energy is doused beyond any chance of relighting.

So how is it done? How do you serve the world and survive?

Here’s the secret: The work must be done in specific with our love directed toward a person. The need must have a face, a name, a body and a soul. This doesn’t necessarily make the work itself easier. But it makes it possible.

“Who’s my neighbor?”—The one with the obvious need, lying in the path of your life, the one whom you must either stop to help or step over and pass by. What does it require?—A bent knee, an offering of help, a little money, the involvement of others, and continuing to check if they’re doing ok.

What does that look like in the Peace Corps?

It’s buying a few calves for a friend to raise and sell for income. It’s writing a project for a summer camp to give aspiring English majors a chance for practice and inspiration. It’s shaking a homeless man’s hand and walking together to a café for a bite to eat. It’s verbally standing up to a husband when he’s belittling his wife. It’s cooking dinner for some neighborhood kids when all they’ve had that day is bread and tea.

image A good neighbor shows up with gloves and a bottle of fermented horse milk

Back in my conversation with Randall, I’m stuck in the daunting and debilitating task of trying to fix the world’s problems. Here he lifts his hand as if to show the way out:

“It’s amazing really, [us trying to change the world.] We try to do what we’ve not been asked to do and that which we’re not capable of, yet we neglect to love our neighbor which is what we’ve been commanded to do and are actually capable of.”

It’s so much easier to say we’re working to change the world than it is to dirty our knees for a neighbor in need. But we’re not called to turn our eyes to the world. We’re called to love in simple, practical ways—and those are the ways that are truly, desperately needed—the people immediately in our lives.

And you know what’s so magical about this? When we love our neighbors—when we seek their good and show it by helping them when and where they need help, the world does begin to change, one neighbor at a time.