Yesterday the New York Times ran an op-ed piece entitled “Too Many Innocents Abroad” (will we never tire of the travelogue puns?) by Robert Strauss, a former Peace Corps volunteer, recruiter, and country director who argues that the Peace Corps’ tendency to send young college graduates with no relevant technical experience to do development work is not only ineffectual but also “a publicity stunt and a bunch of hooey.” He says that the Peace Corps is not rigorously selective because it believes that having lots of unqualified volunteers twiddling their thumbs overseas is better than the potential PR crisis of dwindling ranks.
The article went out on the Northern California Peace Corps Association’s listserv, prompting an assortment of responses that covered most of my reactions:
1. He’s right that Peace Corps definitely needs better evaluation systems, in just about every possible regard. Program relevance, project success, site selection, country-level administration (How many tears could that have saved in Senegal? Let’s not talk about it.), volunteer productivity, host country needs… Like all distant bureaucracies, the Peace Corps administration does what’s easiest and cheapest, which usually means whatever’s been done before, regardless of how effective or efficient it is.
2. Strauss was a Country Director. Did he do anything about this problem, like encourage secondary projects or collaboration with established NGOs, or did he just sit around and bitch like all those young, unqualified volunteers do? Letters to Washington don’t count—DC just wants us all to shut up and not cause any trouble—so action at his country’s level would have had the most chance of creating some actual change.
3. Development is only one of the three goals of the Peace Corps. The other two are cultural exchange, both inwards and outwards, and they are just as valuable, particularly when considered on the very local, individual level where volunteers work. Our focus was on community integration, and as a result Peace Corps Volunteers were respected in Senegal for actually living in villages and speaking the local languages—something that was unimaginable to many of the urban Senegalese that I met. I can understand skepticism about being a PR tool of the American government, but is it really so wrong to try to counteract the current image we’re projecting to the world?
4. There is nothing wrong with Peace Corps being as much for the volunteers as it is for the host countries. It is a life-enhancing and even life-changing experience for the volunteer. That in itself has value, but, what’s more, many volunteers continue to seek out or create socially conscious work after service, both in the U.S. and abroad.
5. “Enjoying themselves” is not exactly how I’d describe the daily reality of Peace Corps service. It’s much more complicated than that, and usually involves at least twenty different swings between “good,” “boring,” “hilarious,” and “if I have to chase one more sheep out of the garden, I’m going to start screaming uncontrollably.” I may have drunk a lot of bad Senegalese beer on the government’s dime, but it definitely wasn’t a two year vacation. Even the laziest, most truant volunteers I knew initiated projects and did development work.
6. I was exactly the type of volunteer Strauss is complaining about: a 22-year-old film major sent to tell lifelong farmers how to farm. And I didn’t accomplish much for my “customers” in my primary assignment, seed extension. Of course the villagers knew that I wasn’t a farmer—but they also knew that the information I attempted to communicate in broken Pulaar came from my Senegalese program director, who did know what he was talking about. Also, there were my secondary projects. I helped the village women’s group organize itself, start producing income, and open a savings account. I revived and prodded through to completion the well construction project that the previous volunteer had worked on.
And I was an independent woman who did weird things like not beat animals and move to a foreign country for two years to share in other people’s lives. I was a novelty and a poor excuse for a village woman (no husband, couldn’t cook), but I was also a friend and a family member and, every so often, someone who instigated just a little bit of progress. We built a fence next to the new well, and the volunteer who replaced me is helping the village grow vegetables there. For that one tiny village, that’s development.
A 55-year-old agricultural engineer with decades of farming experience would have looked much better on paper, but with the (non-existent) budget I had, learning the language along the way, working with people who were functionally illiterate, I doubt he or she could have managed to “deliver the goods” all that more effectively. Change of any sort comes very slowly in the village, but “good intentions and a college diploma” got me through two years and allowed me to have some small impact in Senegal.
I agree that Peace Corps would definitely benefit from more rigorous, focused recruitment for reevaluated and restructured programs. In a way, my ruffled feathers show that I’m buying into the mythology, the idea of Peace Corps as an unassailable bastion of good intentions. But what I object to is not Strauss’s criticism of Peace Corps the institution but rather his lack of faith in volunteers’ ability to accomplish positive change despite the institution—and in the value of those small changes as “development.”