Jacob* runs a little tienda sells just two things: local jewelry and books. Jacob appears much like many of the other store owners in town. I probably passed him many times without really noticing him. The first time I really saw Jacob, he was talking to a couple of enthralled Germans seated on the sidewalk. He gestured emphatically as he described a fictional life with himself as the main character. As I stopped and turned, he told them of how he used to live in the jungle, on his own patch of land. He had tropical fruits in abundance and plenty of yuca (cassava) plants to fill his belly. When he wanted to eat meat, he went into the jungle to catch a watusa or some other jungle animal. Then the Westerners came. He saw that they would pay him great sums of money for the fruit and wood that he owned. So he picked his fruit and cut down his trees to sell in the markets in town. Flushed with pride at how much money he had made in such a little time, he decided to celebrate. He went into town and partied all night, laughing and drinking with old friends and new acquaintances. After a great night, he walked back home, stumbling a little, and found his wife and children just waking up. His wife looked to him and asked, “It’s time for breakfast, could you go to the store and buy some food?” He confidently put his hand in his right pocket, still flushed with his success. But his smile faded when his hand came away empty. More hesitantly, he reached into his left pocket, but once again encountered nothing. His wife said to him, face hardening, “We are hungry. You have cut and sold the jungle that sustained us. Now you have spent all the money you gained. How can we eat?” Tears began to form in the children’s eyes.
At this point, Jacob broke off his tale and addressed us directly: “And do you still think that development is a good thing?” Not having heard the first part of the conversation, I declined to answer. Which turned out to be a good choice, because if I had responded too quickly, I might not have heard what he said over the next half hour. He ranged across many topics, from the ever increasing omnipresence of capitalism, even in the most distant corners of the world, to the nearly invisible psychological damage it does a poor person to see a volunteer or tourist who has so much more. He talked about high-minded aid projects that left people worse off than before, the commercialization of the jungle, and about people who lost control of their land to foreign interests of all stripes. Above all, he cautioned that aid organizations and volunteers can do more harm than good in coming to developing countries, and in his view, hurt more than they help. As he spoke, it struck me that here was a person who looks at the big picture, who wasn’t afraid to have an unpopular belief. Here was an intellectual, a reader, and a strong political idealist, all hard things to find around my host community.
Since that day, I’ve returned to talk with Jacob many times. Sometimes, talking with him can be uncomfortable for me, as his worldview says that I shouldn’t even be here in Ecuador. He raises questions that can be hard to answer about the ripple effects a volunteer has on their host community. However, it’s incredibly important to be conscious of the effects we volunteers have in coming to developing countries, and Jacob keeps me honest in my attempts to do some good in my stay here. Many people have asked me why I like talking to Jacob, when he is so strongly anti-volunteer. My answer is always the same: If we can’t handle listening to arguments against our way of life, then we are not being honest with ourselves. I talk with Jacob because he questions me, and the day I cannot answer his questions is the day that I need to reevaluate my work.
*Jacob is an invented name, in order to protect his privacy