A Corps in Crisis? Not so fast Charles Kenney

I’ll be the first to admit that Peace Corps has its flaws. And indeed a model based largely on sending 20-something recent college graduates across the world to good seems a bit flawed in this day and age. After all, Peace Corps was started in 1962 – just after the Marshall Plan and when humanitarian aid for development was country to country cash transfer. Sending people abroad to work in communities was a new approach as was community based development. Policy makers still believed in the trickledown effect back then.

But we’re in a different world today. Both the supply and the demand side of Peace Corps has changed. NGOs and humanitarian organizations are sophisticated. In terms of demand, people around the world are becoming more educated and are attending trade schools and universities in greater numbers. Students strive to be engineers, doctors, lawyers etc in the same vein of past generations of Americans. In terms of supply, the humanitarian aid/development field has proliferated with UN agencies, regional INGOs, NGOs and all other kinds of acronyms working at all levels on issues from food security, micro-credit, youth development, and any other subtheme. While there’s still demand for aid organizations, they become less precious when the market expands and gets crowded. There’s a host of other organizations that do programming areas better than Peace Corps. So is Peace Corps even necessary?

Charles Kenny, over at Foreign Policy, wrote that Peace Corps is still relevant but the model needs revamped. No longer is it relevant to send recent college graduate students to other countries, as their skills aren’t in-demand any more. There is plenty of educated people already in the host countries – with more local and technical knowledge than an American college grad. In addition, the cost per volunteer is ridiculous - $60,000 per volunteer. And other private organizations, Kenny cites, can send volunteers abroad for a 10th of the cost. So what to do? Make Peace Corps into the Fullbright program where the ‘volunteer’ goes it alone, and works for a year and comes back.

While the Peace Corps needs to make some overhauls, turning it into a visiting scholar program isn’t a change in the right direction. Most Fulbright scholars are either researchers or English teachers and neither program will help advance the goal 1 of providing human and technical assistant to host countries. One of the many positives of Peace Corps is that it sends volunteers to far off, remote, and small areas that other organizations and NGOs wouldn’t touch. Researchers are most likely to be working in the major cities within the country and also in universities and not in the campo. This also treats the nationals more as research subjects rather than people. Fulbright English teachers are more likely to work in private schools and universities and have limited contact with the poor communities where Peace Corps currently works thus having little overall benefit.

One of the things Peace Corps does well is that we’re in the communities. Reading over The Listening Project documents (specifically the one on staffing), people in developing countries unsurprisingly dislike it when NGOs come in the community to work, but only stay to work. After a visit, it’s back in the Landcruiser to NGO compounds in the capital city. This creates a perception in the community that local values aren’t important, and creates a disconnect between peoples of the community and the NGO. Especially so, people want to share their community with outsiders who are trying to good (even if it’s not really (Saundra link). PCVs live in their communities for two years. While sometimes they’re in big cities, PCVs usually work in small rural communities that most NGOS wouldn’t touch – let alone for 2 years. Volunteers live in the communities, eat the food, do the dances, and ride the bus with everyone else.

Peace Corps does largely need to improve on goal 1. While the statement is vague ‘providing technical and human assistance’, more and more volunteers are complaining they’re undertrained and don’t receive enough support in the field. The 3-month training beforehand is a crash course of language, culture, country info, med info, safety and security and technical training. We’re lucky enough in Peru to have 3 trainings after swear-in – one 3 or 4 months in to go over the community diagnostic, review some technical stuff and present a few new topics, project workshop that gets into project planning, and then service training that focuses more on the actual project. However, in between that the volunteer is largely alone to find their own information (well, that’s party true – more seasoned volunteers are often a good source for information). And while it’s easy to brush this off as good experience for later on in someone’s career, it’s not good enough to not attempt to put the best projects and practices forward and leave less to chance and fate.

I believe that Peace Corps can improve on their 2011-03-25 013development/Goal 1 while still maintaining the strong aspects of Goal 2/Goal 3. Having training sessions spread out during the volunteers’ service (either by program/region/project) for not only the volunteer but also the community partner can help on technical matters. As well, better coordination with regional government organizations or NGOs for knowledge sharing can strengthen both Peace Corps and partner organizations. Online resources are useful if the volunteers have internet access and the design is easily navigated with minimal bandwidth, but Web 2.0 stuff and heavy bandwidth sites may be too much for rural internet connections and outdated processors.

For me, with a BA in international development and limited job prospects but a huge interest to work and live abroad, Peace Corps was a great step. For me. But in the end, Peace Corps, as is humanitarian/development work in general, is not about us but rather about improving lives and meaningful, positive changes that respect local culture and allow it to flourish. Revamping the Peace Corps model is unnecessary, as Charles Kenney suggests, but at the same time it could still use a shaking up.


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