Principles vs. Principal:
Is There Room for “Pay to Play” in Volunteerism

 by Brian Holler (Turkmenistan 2010-12)

If I had one piece of advice for incoming Volunteers, it would be to focus on the “What is Peace Corps?” section of language training. Like most of my brethren, I’ve spent my fair share of time explaining what an American is doing here. In Turkmenistan, a country that values hospitality above all else, where people will feed and shelter a stranger, the practices of volunteerism and charity are still foreign concepts. People will do anything for their neighbor, but are skeptical of the intentions of someone that has come from another country only to assist their community. In the developed world, formal acts of philanthropy require little tangible reciprocity. Different countries have different cultural norms though; transaction costs may be different. The question is: when faced with more “concrete” operational requirements, how ought a volunteer act?

In Turkmen its “bir el başka eli ýuwýa, iki el ýüzi ýuwýa”. In Russian, рука руку моет. And in English, we say one hand washes the other. In many countries, especially those with high unemployment and low government salaries, hiring practices are distinctly different from those in America. As jobs will often be exchanged for money, similar “pay to play” and under-the-table costs are imposed on other public services, ranging from medicine and education to business.

In the United States, we usually balk at such transactions. We will pony up for an Ipad, concert ticket or new car, but we expect most privileges to come free, or at least for the cost to be more obliquely hidden. A job should be open to all - provided they’ve got the requisite diploma or certification. A woman should be free to develop her land - as long as she has paid for the zoning, inspection and property taxes. And a politician should be allowed to accept a campaign donation - especially if a bill representing his benefactor’s concerns will be on the docket. Even as a Volunteer, I ought to expect nothing in return for my work. But without the occasional thanks and non-competitive federal job eligibility, the fruit of my selflessness would admittedly be a little less sweet.

Thus, when we ourselves are asked for a little “sweetness” in exchange for support, how should we react? Should we write the director’s new chair into our grant for some much needed lab equipment? Should we tutor our counterpart’s insipient brat after work in exchange for their assistance? Ultimately, that’s up to the volunteer. Short of allowing bribes and kickbacks, Peace Corps gives us significant autonomy regarding how to do our jobs.

Although many have learned the hard way of what it means to be seen as the rich American, an unwillingness to work or contribute outside of one’s description of service can be a huge barrier. A strictly Western interpretation of charity can sometimes stymie even the most active of volunteers. When faced with determining an appropriate level of moral flexibility, individuals must make their own decisions. UNICEF works hand-in-hand with dictators. United Way takes a small but significant cut of all donations channeled through them. Mother Theresa accepted money with no questions asked about the source. More often than we may realize, charity is not as immaculate as we imagine. In Peace Corps, we are given the freedom to be our own individual non-profits. Therefore, the prospect of being less effective but uncompromised or more effective but willing to “play ball” can often define one’s service. When working abroad, sometimes the price of efficacy is, for better or worse, more apparent than we think.