Murray says that he could not contribute much to the Thais: He was a newly minted undergraduate, what did he know? (Never mind that he went to Harvard, like President Kennedy.) But he learned a lot about government, society, and people. He found that the central government had one set of priorities for villages in remote areas, and the villagers themselves another set of priorities. And the villagers — the people themselves, right on the scene — knew a lot better. They were also better at solving their own problems.
You know what they wanted help with? Water-buffalo thieves. They figured the government should stop them (quite rightly).
Joseph Pickett is an entrepreneur working and living in Virginia. He volunteered in Russia, from 1996 to 1999. He says, “I went in right of center and came out strongly conservative-libertarian.” The reason? “Because I saw up close the physical and moral wreckage that a Communist system brings.” He says he enjoyed his time in Russia “a great deal,” but it made him “much, much more appreciative” of the United States.
He tells a story that he says illustrates the mentality he found in Russia. A teacher he knew was awarded a visa to come to America. “Naturally, I was happy for him, and told a few people. He approached me on the bus one day and said, ‘Joe, please don’t tell anyone else.’” The Peace Corps volunteer asked why. “Because they are jealous and will try to sabotage me.”
Pickett says that most everyone he knew in the Peace Corps was on the left, believing in the power of big government, and ever bigger government, to solve problems. Pickett, as we have heard, went the other way.
Thames Fulton is a business consultant in Chicago. He served in Senegal in the mid-1990s. He and his wife, Mary, met there, as fellow volunteers. They were somewhat conservative — and would become much more so. Thames says, “We appreciated more than ever the value of free markets, the abundance of opportunities we have, our Constitution, our Bill of Rights,” and so on. He recalls that many of the dreamier, flakier volunteers opted to leave their service early. They saw that they could not make a quick, decisive impact. What was in the offing was “hard, incremental work,” as Fulton puts it. Still another group of dreamers, or ex-dreamers, did not leave early but “effectively gave up.”
Some volunteers there were very high on organic farming. The Senegalese themselves, less so. “All they cared about was whether they could feed their children tomorrow.” Fulton lived for a while with a family who had lost two children to malnutrition. And many of the subsistence farmers in the area would have given their right arms to land a factory job: anything that would have provided a steady income.
Fulton emphasizes that volunteers with particular experience and skills can truly help a population in need. He remembers, for example, the son of a Wisconsin dairy farmer, who had a degree in animal husbandry or nutrition and worked like a Trojan. He came up with a rabbit feed, made of local ingredients. “Someone like that brings a heck of a lot of value,” says Fulton.