The opinions expressed in this blog are mine, and mine alone. They do not represent the views of the Peace Corps or the United States Government.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Peace Corps Reconceptualized

Many people talk about how Peace Corps is not what it used to be.  Most volunteers are given cell phones.  We are all expected to fill out a quarterly report with objectives, goals, outputs and outcomes.  Many volunteers have regular internet access and are able to contact people at home quite frequently.  This is not the picture of the Peace Corps of the '60s and probably not the picture many people have in mind when they still think of it now.  It makes sense that PC is changing.  The world is changing.  Internet is available in more places, as is running water and electricity.  So our lives within PC service should naturally change as well.  There is nothing wrong with this.

But PC is caught between its history and its future with no clear direction.  Some volunteers are still doing development work in the way we normally think of it--digging ditches, building agricultural systems and teaching in schools.  But more of us are moving to projects in secondary states of development--working on things like behavior change related to health, educational systems and curricula (rather than first-hand teaching), etc.  There is plenty to do, but PC needs a reconceptualization if volunteers are to be as effective as they could be.

PC is still thought of as the free-flowing, life-changing, design-your-own experience.  But the constant push to monitor and evaluate our impact takes away much of the spontaneity of past PC.  There is nothing inherently wrong with M&E.  In a political climate in which Congress is increasingly hostile toward PC, trying to put numbers to dollar signs is important.  This aspect cannot be overlooked.  However, assessing if people REALLY learned anything from your health talks is difficult.  And ascertaining if people are REALLY changing behavior based on ANYTHING you do is damn near impossible.

To PC's credit, increased infrastructure has meant better training, better safety and care for volunteers.  These are great things.  I have only experienced one kind of training, that of PC Botswana.  So I can't speak for many others directly.  Yet, I have met currently-serving volunteers in Senegal, Mali, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Macedonia, Burkina Faso, etc.  We all have differing views on satisfaction from our experiences.  And within any country, there are volunteers who end up doing a lot of activities and others who don't.  Sometimes it is the primary job site that makes it difficult.  Sometimes it is the village.  Sometimes the volunteer doesn't have the right tools to figure out how to make things happen.  And sometimes we can try until we are blue in the face and nothing sustainable gets started.

Sustainable.  There's that word.  The word everyone talks about.  Sustainable development.  What in the world is that?  From what I understand, the idea is that we help people in our villages build something that will continue when we are gone.  I am not talking about a house or a building.  I am talking about programs, activities, increased learning...whatever it may be.

Peace Corps is great for building world peace and friendship - 2 of its 3 goals.  But it is not very successful at measuring the level of sustainability of its programs.  I don't believe this is a unique situation within PC Botswana.  I think it has to do with PC philosophy within the entire organization and manifests itself in trainings.

In training, we are taught many roles of a volunteer.  We can be a learner, a change agent, a facilitator...blah blah blah.  These are sessions that Washington hands down, so I know every volunteer worldwide is getting the same spiel.  It's like it dances around two words that would change the way each of us looked at our work: community organizer.  That is what we are.  We are community organizers.  When a fellow Botswana volunteer used those words when talking about her service (she had served in Mali before coming to Botswana), a light bulb went off in my head.  Ah hah.  So that is what we should be doing!  I firmly believe that Peace Corps thinks it explains this and explains how to do it.  But it doesn't.  Like my friend said, understanding this would probably result in less volunteers.  Being a community organizer is hard work.  Going into a community, learning the language and trying to help it see things from another perspective in order to cultivate innovative solutions is really tough.

Even with this acquired knowledge of a month ago, I haven't been able to make huge changes in my service.  I have been more active in trying to bring people from different sectors together.  I have urged a more community-based approach to events rather than top-down planning that is oftentimes implemented.  PC says to find the "movers and shakers" in the community and work with them.  It gets challenging when the official opinion leaders are not the ones who actually do anything.  Finding the people who actually want to work means your sustainable development projects will look a heck of a lot different than you thought.  And what if you feel like you live somewhere for two years and nothing sustainable comes out of your work?  How would you feel?  I guess I will find out in 8 months.


  1. I love how smart you are! Proud to 'know' a volunteer and AXO sister who works so hard and puts her mind and soul into it. Questioning what PC Washington does is what all PCVs have been doing since 1961 (no joke - PCVs are not short on opinions, right?) By suggesting changes and taking action YOU are shaping PC for the future: what a beautiful contribution!

    BTW, I have a letter for you I started MONTHS ago still sitting on my coffee table. Know that you are loved and thought of often - no joke.

    They State of FL is super hostile to it's workers too (if that makes you feel worse or better?) ... we will see if the election helps or hurts PC. You should be glad you are missing it. Did you vote via absentee ballot? I read a fabulous post by an AXO serving in Paraguay. She had to spend an entire day getting into the capital city so she could vote. She reminded friends and family not to take voting for granted.


  2. Hi Jenny!

    I appreciate the comment :) I have lots more to write this month but my mom has been here so I have been busy. Want to get back to blogging, though.

    The thought is definitely what counts with letters :) No worries!

    I did vote via absentee ballot. I didn't have to go into the capital city but I did have to try to print it out, find internet, all that was a production for sure!

    Hope you are doing well!