Burning Garbage

On my walk home tonight I walked past a burning, plastic garbage bin.  I could only shake my head as I saw the plastic dripping off of the green-plastic which had doubled-over as it melted.  It’s common for people to burn garbage here, as there aren’t a lot of places to get rid of it.  I sincerely doubt it was hooligans that set the garbage can on fire.  Most likely it was a normal guy who lit some garbage that was next to the bin, which was next to the street.  It’s just how things are done.  Now, keep that image of the burning garbage in your head for a minute.  Hold that thought.

While remembering the trash can incident, here’s a story that I think every PCV has heard (we were told this during orientation):

Jill is a PCV in Bermuda and she works hard to build a library for kids in her village.  After all the effort, she finally gets a nice little library going.  It’s got books, videos, and even a small space for a conversation club.  Jill is very careful with the library, so she made sure to clean it all up before she left for vacation for a month.  When she got back, the library was in shambles.

Or at least that’s something close to what we were told.

The moral of that story is that Jill did everything herself.  The villagers weren’t involved or invested in the library, and so it was left to just fall apart.  While it might have made Jill feel good about helping her community, a more sound approach, we are told, is to work with the community to help them build what they want.

This is development.  It must come from within.

And herein lies the problem of development agencies all over the world.  Money is just being thrown at first-world, hip social issues, often times with complete disregard for the issues that aid beneficiaries really care about solving.  Thankfully, for the most part, Peace Corps is nothing like that.  They send people, not money.  It’s grassroots.

When most Peace Corps Volunteer arrive in country, they don’t fully understand the lesson from the story about Jill, the fictitious PCV.  They see the discrepancies between their Peace Corps country and America and they feel a sincere urge to help.

Most PCVs in Azerbaijan are pretty shocked when they see the way garbage is dealt with here.  Garbage is usually burned in someone’s yard, dropped on the street, or put in a designated place on the street where it’s picked up, only to be burned elsewhere.  I was really shocked by this.  I thought to myself, “Now here’s a place where I can really make a dent.”  I  joined the PC Azerbaijan Environemental Committee and thought about ways to work on this issue.

In some of my classes at my school, I’ve talked about the garbage problem.  I told kids it’s not a good idea to throw garbage on the street.  When students replied, “Isn’t that what people do everywhere?” most were surprised to here that in some places, people would be very offended if you just threw down a candy wrapper on the street and expected someone else to clean up.  I’d tell them that they can easily just hold on to the wrapper or put it in their pocket until they come to one of the 10 (or so) trash cans that I’ve seen around town.  The most common response here is that they’re aren’t enough trash cans around, to which I’d always reply, “You’re right.”  (To put the idea of only having 10 trash cans in perspective, Ujar has around 12,000 people.  You can walk from on side of the city to the other in about 45 minutes.  Most of the bins are located within 5 minutes of each other in the city ‘centre.’)

This brings me back to the burning trash can I saw on my walk home tonight, and the larger prospect of development in Ujar, in general.

When it comes to garbage, sanitation, city beautification, or whatever you want to call it, there is something missing.  I wish I knew what it was, but I don’t.  How can such a dichotomy exist?  How can people burn garbage bins after expressing a disatisfaction with a lack of places to throw away their trash?  It seems crazy to me, but not as crazy as it used to.

In my early PC days, I think seeing that burning plastic might have really gotten to me.  I would have thought (and I know it’s not a very cool to say) “What a bunch of idiots.  How could they do something like that?”  Then, as my PC service progressed, I would have thought “Maybe I can talk to people about being responsible with their trash and I can solve this problem.”  And in the stage I’m at now, I’ve come to the conclusion, “They must not care.”  And if that’s the case, then who am I to come in for two years and try to “enlighten the locals” and then just leave and go home?  As much as it kills me, garbage is not a priority for people here.

I really don’t think that this post has been a rant from a bitter PCV, as I think some might see it.  This is merely the conclusion that I’ve come to.  I think it’s honest, even if it’s somewhat harsh.  I felt good talking to my students about being proud of their city, and in turn, keeping their city clean.  When they recognized that there was a lack of infrastructure to take care of the garbage problem here, I felt like it was a step in the right direction.  Maybe if there was a place to throw away the trash on every street, we’d see a cleaner Ujar.  Tonight, I simply came to the conclusion that there is a much deeper problem than a lack of places to put trash.

Then again, even with all the trash burning and littering I’m convinced Azerbaijanis pollute less than Americans, so what am I even worrying about.

UPDATE 19 May:  I came across this New York Time article about the exact problem I was talking about.  It’s about a youth movement in Pakistan which aims to clean the streets.

“The major problem people have here is that there are no bins,” said Murtaza Khwaja, a 21-year-old medical student.

Actually, the problem was deeper. A long-term cycle of corrupt, weak governments interrupted by military coups has caused Pakistan’s political muscles to atrophy, leaving Pakistani society, particularly its poor, hopeless that it will ever receive the services — education, water, electricity, health — that it so desperately needs.

“People say, ‘This is nice, but things will never change,’ ” Mr. Khwaja said, pointing to a hamburger seller who he said was particularly pessimistic. “There is a hopelessness.”

Despite the hoplessness, these kids see something they don’t like and they are doing something about it.  That’s where it starts.


3 responses to “Burning Garbage

  1. Great post. I share your frustrations with how trash is dealt with in Azerbaijan. When we were camping in Lerik last week a group of men, after sharing a nice meal in the pristine mountains, simply set their rubbish on fire.

    But you make excellent points about development: if it isn’t organic, it’s not going to work. First people have to care.

  2. Jeff,
    Great post and it’s funny reading this while thinking back to when I first met you and some other AZ5’ers in Nabran.

    The issue is how to mix developmental aid with local sweat equity so that there are sustainable, long-term gains. That is why Greg Mortenson(http://bit.ly/NguoT) and Muhammad Yunnus(http://bit.ly/r2tOx) are so unique, because they found methods and means that ensure their communities keep those gains and progress from there.

    That is also my main critique of Peace Corps. As an RPCV I highly valued my service, but I don’t think it is good value for money. The annual budget is 312 million dollars, and while that is a pittance for the US government, it adds up to almost a billion dollars in 3 years. For that we could find fewer people willing to move to those countries(with their families if necessary) and live there permanently. Even after 2 years we are considered outsiders by many(as you know), and these sorts of changes in a town/city take a generation or two(or more). They would then have a real stake in the community as it’s their new home(especially if a family came), and the community would see that. This would mean that PC would be older overall, but that wouldn’t be a negative either.

    Anyway, just my two cents on the issue and I know PC does good, but I want it to do better. Another good read on the topic is Dambisa Moyo’s ‘Dead Aid'(http://bit.ly/3qgkW) on the effects of developmental aid in Africa. Enjoy your last leg, have some Xash for me ;), and have fun traveling or a safe trip back home.


  3. Michael Lewis


    Always enjoy reading your posts. I like this one in particular. Especially the part where you describe your change in outlook over time.

    For the record, I don’t think it sounds bitter at all. Instead, I’d say it’s quite insightful . . . and positive. Helping others starts and ends with others . . . I mean, who in this world really likes to have stuff pushed upon them?

    Anyway, some time after you get stateside and decompress and reintegrate and such, it would be cool to grab a drink. Have a great end to your adventure and be safe coming home.

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