As MBAEC volunteers, we were required to write quarterly reports about our assignments including evaluations of our organizations, quarterly goals, “personal developments,” etc. The final report was expanded to include some final thought, so—since I have spent considerable time on these reports, and only 2 people for sure have ever read them—I will now publish the following experts.
Professionally, the most obvious thing I have learned is how international development is done. I had only a vague, academic perspective of this sector before I came to orientation and training in July [2005.] While I still do not understand a lot, I have certainly gained a lot of knowledge in this area over the past 15 months. From little things, like the acronyms that are ubiquitous in this field, to how the grant writing process works (including practical experience in evaluating grant proposals.) I have learned how projects are proposed, designed, and implemented through a hierarchy starting at USAID, through various contractors (individuals, NGOs, and for-profit enterprises,) all the way down to the mix of volunteers, locals, an others who actually implement these programs. Much of this has not been learned by direct experience, but because I am now in contact with people who are involved in this sector such as my own MBAEC colleagues, Peace Corps volunteers, and contractors on other projects.
Living in Bulgaria for over a year, means I have also learned a lot about the Bulgarian language, culture, cuisine, history, etc. Not only Bulgaria, but now I also have a much greater understanding of the Balkans and Eastern Europe; I have read books and Internet articles about this part of the world, visited museums, and talked with locals. One of the most important lessons learned is that ethnicity, rather than citizenship, is more important to national identity here, and therefore political borders are a matter of so much contention. Every country in this region has had an empire that extended well past its current borders at some point in history. To a greater or lesser extent, the people of the nations represented by these countries (I say this rather than “citizen” or “inhabitants,” since they all have sizable ethnic minorities) would like to see these “lost territories” back under their control—obviously impossible as most land is under the claim of multiple nations. Previously I had thought that European integration would solve this thorny issue, but now I understand why that will not be as easy as I had thought due to this deeply ingrained nationalism.
Being born to immigrant parents and having traveled internationally on numerous occasions since childhood, (including a total of 10 months during business school) I thought I had a very international perspective (at least compared to other Americans.) However, this experience—living alone a foreign country for 16 months, traveling to other countries from there, and making friends and acquaintances from all kinds of backgrounds—has certainly made me more cosmopolitan; I am now more aware of the greater international issues and of diverse viewpoints.
Above all, I have become aware of just how lucky I am to be born in a highly developed (economically) country. I will be eternally grateful for the opportunities granted me by this happenstance. Even among my colleagues in the 2005 Corps, I have recognized how fortunate I am to possess an American passport; I was able to travel easily to wherever I wanted—which was not the case with my Indian friends, for example. Also, I am grateful that my native language is the language of interchange when two parties don’t know each other’s language; I have witnessed individuals trying to converse in bad English both professionally and in my travels. However, this blessing is also a curse in that there is little incentive for native English speakers like me to learn another language,and—in fact—makes it difficult to find others with the patience listen to our mangled attempt to speak their language when their English is almost always much better.
This being said, I am not more proud of America or being American; in fact, I have become less nationalistic as I have made friends with people from all over the world and sometimes lamented with them about the policies and regulations of our governments that artificially divide us; when on a personal level, we have a much closer kinship.
In regards to international development, in some ways I am more sympathetic to our efforts (and those of other countries and organizations,) but I have also become more cynical when I see how resources are often wasted and the outcome of so many projects seem to be ineffectual. Partially due to these insights, I have decided that economic development, as a career, is not for me.
In a final, and broader assessment of the business, economic, and cultural environment of Bulgaria, I would say the greatest challenge is the low expectations of Bulgarians for themselves and others. For example, most Bulgarians own their apartments or houses (many young people have inherited the residence of a deceased grandparent); this is great, but since most don’t have a car payment either, and services & food are extremely inexpensive, much of their modest salary can be applied to discretionary spending. This means they are happy with salaries that are nearly one tenth of what similarly educated and experienced workers in the US and western Europe make. Similarly, there is a low expectation of government and civic leaders, so corruption continues to be a problem. I don’t what the solution is, as it requires a conscious change by a majority (or at least, as significant portion) of the population; I just find it frustrating to try to help a bright and capable people who are just held back by their collective fatalism.