Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Everything in Moderation


Despite the plethora of things that really got me fired up about this article, I believe the author manages to accurately put forth the current struggles of Peace Corps in a balanced fashion. He discusses the two viewpoints from opposing camps, and though most of the people quoted seem to me like pretentious airheads that have outdated or overly sensitive opinions, they do have one good thing in common; they are all trying to make this organization work. This article is pretty long, but it’s worth taking the time to look through.

The rest of this blog post is going to be dedicated to talking about all of the people in this article and why their opinions, for the most part, are ridiculous and invalid. If you are an RPCV who thinks they have all of the answers on how to “fix” this organization, you should probably stop reading now.

Recently, it seems like there are a lot of people (volunteers, administrative staff and otherwise) who are having a hard time reconciling the past with the present. I don’t think anyone should be exceptionally surprised by this as it happens all the time in all career fields. Life is malleable and so are people. Things change all the time, and it seems like the older people get the more afraid they become of needing to adapt to the forward momentum of our society. So the story of old guard versus new guard plays out in the most extraordinarily boring fashion, until progress and innovation ultimately win over tradition and rigid structure. The thing that really surprises me about this particular battle in Peace Corps is how polarized the two groups are. It appears like the best thing these relatively intelligent people could come up with is we need to either make Peace Corps the cultural sharing project it started out as, or we need to completely revolutionize the organization and make it about development projects. Well, coming from the stand point of a current volunteer, all I can say to you guys is: stop. You’re both wrong and those are both terrible ideas. However, there is good news! You can both get what you want and even more importantly, while you’re busy feeling better about being right, current volunteers are winning too.

The Three Peace Corps Goals

This may be a lot to remember, so you might need to grab a pen, but here goes. The three very complicated Peace Corps goals. You ready for this?

1. Help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Phew. That was a lot. I know the language may have a bit difficult too, so let me break it down for you. The first goal is about bringing people who are trained to do something (like public health, education, or youth development) to a country that has requested that skill set so a volunteer go can help out. This gets confusing sometimes because people on both sides of this arrangement occasionally believe having a volunteer means getting/giving money. But that’s not what this is about. In Rwanda we have a few rules for surviving your service, and rule #2 is: Don’t Give Money. Ever. There should never be a need for a volunteer to be a financial source in their community when they are already providing a free service that was requested by that same community. Anything more is simply greedy. This might squash some dreams about Peace Corps becoming a development based agency, but if that’s what you’re looking to be a part of, go join a NGO. Seriously, if that’s your attitude we don’t want you in our club.

The other two goals go hand in hand. I’ve heard volunteers often say that they should be listed as one goal because they feed into one another. This is the cultural part of Peace Corps. This is the reason the program was founded (no, not that supposed “let’s go fight those dreadful Commies” reason, the real reason). It says to go learn how to be someone other than an American. Or a Westerner. Or a gigantic whiny baby who can barely take care of themselves , and see how the other half lives. It says go be somewhere that requires you to really think, and work, and plan, and learn. It says be some place where you can’t just run to a 24 hour pharmacy when you think you’re coming down with a cold, or where you don’t have the means to get food in front of you in five minutes. It says figure out where your water comes from every day. I mean, do you actually know where your water comes from? And saying “the faucet” doesn’t count.

Then, when you’ve done all these things, and you’ve learned some new things, and you’ve come to appreciate life more than any of your college buddies who went on to miserably sit in an office chair from 9 – 5; come home. Try to share what you learned. Show your friends and family how disgustingly wrong they are for maintaining their preconceived notions about developing nations and their so called “plights”. Show that important middle ground that explains how the West isn’t necessarily the Best. We’re not what everyone else should be striving to become. We’re just one of many options, and we have a host of our own issues that developing countries probably won’t ever have, even after they’ve developed.
To say that just because the Cold War ended we need to stop trying to win the hearts and minds of people abroad, is to completely overlook the fact that people will always misunderstand and misrepresent one another.

Hi America. Nice to meet you. I’m your friendly neighborhood Peace Corps Volunteer, which is to say your first line of diplomatic defense against religious extremists and people who are pre-disposed to dislike you without ever having met you. In short, you need me because I do what no other person on the planet does. I make you look good. I make you look good when everyone else is trying to make you look like the most useless and awful thing around (eg. Jersey Shore ). You are a fat , greedy, self-centered, materialistic, stupid, violent, scary, heathen, and I manage to make you come out smelling like roses. Why? Because I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer and I represent and serve my country with honor and respect, so you can become honored and respected by the world.

You’re welcome.

To give a more specific example, I had many friends who were brought to my country of service because of a tragic evacuation from Mauritania. These brave individuals went through an unbelievable amount of pain and rage after being torn from their then homes and families without warning, and then chose to continue to serve. One of my best friends was stationed about as far into the Sahara Desert as the organization allowed at that time. One day an Al Qaeda recruiter showed up in his village. His host brother went to hear the discussion and actually defended Americans. He thought my friend was such a good person that he couldn’t possibly believe what the recruiter was saying was true. You don’t get more concrete results than that. By virtue of just living in that village, my friend stopped someone from joining an organization that generally hates all Westerners. That is the driving purpose for Peace Corps and it is still totally necessary in our world. Peace Corps Volunteers don’t make people love capitalism or democracy, we just make friends. We make friends out in the smallest pieces of nowhere because most American’s can’t. Or don’t. Or won’t.

If you are a Peace Corps Volunteer, I don’t see how the goals are ever unclear. You know what to do and when to do it and why you do it because it’s your life. It’s what you do every day. The thing that makes it complicated is reconciling this very important cultural sharing imperative with your first goal while everyone seems to be trying to stop you from doing exactly that. Quite the conundrum, isn’t it?


Now, I know I said rule #2 is never give money, and that is a very important rule, but there are some obvious exceptions. It’s nice to become integrated and make friends and all of that, but joining the Peace Corps also means working. So despite what Paula Hirschoff says, you are not going on a vacation and you (as I clearly pointed out above) are not wasting tax payer money any more than a soldier serving abroad would be. You are working. Hard. All the time and every day. If this IS a free vacation, I want that quarter of my body weight I lost last year back. I want more than one meal a day, and something else to eat besides tiny rotten potatoes during the rainy season. I also want to go to Thailand so I can hang out on the beach with a cocktail for the remainder for my service. If no one is going to meet these demands, Mrs. Hirschoff is officially total jerk . … … … Yep, definitely a jerk.

Anyway, secondary projects cost money. They are also the only reasons (aside from medical) that you, as a volunteer, should ever have to deal with administration. This is where things get tricky. When you make your service about projects everything gets messed up. In-Country administrations become more like road blocks than people who assist you. Your community is often very torn about what they think is important and it can be difficult to find a consensus of community support for any given project. This is where the volunteers are very much on their own and it shouldn’t be like that. This is the only way in which administrations and staff are really useful. They can become facilitators, and be the support volunteers need, but unfortunately they are a government organization, so that is clearly asking for way too much.

If you ask me, (and I know you haven’t but I’m going to tell you anyway) this is the only way Peace Corps needs to be improved. In a lot of ways, I feel the organization has forgotten that it is about the Volunteers and nothing else. Volunteers are about the three goals, sure, but the staff is supposed to be about the Volunteers. If [you] treated your volunteers better, if [you] gave them the support they needed, and if [you] helped them when they felt like they were fighting everyone, from all sides, every day, [you] probably wouldn’t have 1/3rd of them dropping out every year. Just a thought. There are more resources now than there have been in the past, but they’re not always particularly accessible. In fact, sometimes it seems like they’re unnecessarily inaccessible. Why does it have to be so difficult to get money for a volunteer’s project? Over sight? Transparency? Sustainability? Can’t we maintain all of those standards without making it feel like we have to prove we’re Jesus just to get 500 dollars to replace a tin roof on a Health Center?

In the words of our great President: “Yes we can.”

I’ve never fully understood why the volunteer has to work so hard to raise their own money for a project. Sure, sometimes there are government avenues for project based financial assistance, but really, it’s not exactly substantial. The volunteer already does independent work being alone in a village and working to create a positive American image, so why do they have to go solo on projects as well? Projects, by nature, are collaborative. And volunteers, by nature, aren’t good at projects. We’re just really good at helping. I’m going to raise an idea, and I know all administrative members in Peace Corps are going to recoil, put their fingers in their ears and start humming, but the rest of you hear me out. Why can’t volunteers partner with NGOs for small projects? Let’s face it. It’s a match made in heaven. Volunteers have no money, but know their villages and the needs of their villages. NGOs have a bunch of money, but pretty much no idea how or where to effectively spend it. We both work in the same countries. We both have the same desires. We both have half of this beautiful equation that would really make great things happen, so why not? I’m not talking about getting a PCV to work for an NGO, no. That’s not necessary. But what’s wrong with a little collaboration? Peace Corps is supposed to be all about working together with different people, right? I think opening lines of communication between Peace Corps and NGOs could really help streamline money for projects that would normally be overlooked in the ocean of links on the PCPP website. Let’s develop an example for all of you concrete thinkers.

NGO Smiley in Rwanda wants to donate money to a village school, to improve the education of underprivileged children. So, they put their feelers out to places around Rwanda where they can reach. This usually means places they can drive to, which usually indicates places with paved roads, which will probably lead them to a district capital, which to their tastes may look like a village. But it’s not. So say they discover the Musanze High School, and decide they’re going to ask the school what they need. The headmaster enthusiastically explains they really need laptops for all of their students so they can word process documents, improve their knowledge about computers, and have access to more information from things like the internet. The old desktops in their computer lab are very slow and not all of them work anymore. “Brilliant!” The NGO thinks. “What a perfect project to help all of these under privileged students in Rwanda!” But wait. If you take a turn toward the northern road and ride it until it turns from pavement to dirt (it’ll only take about 3 minutes) and continue between 17 – 20 kilometers you’ll arrive at MY village. You’ll know my village because the buildings are made of clay or cleverly disguised mud-bricks. The students are wearing school uniforms hand-me-downs from about 6 generations ago because their families can’t afford to buy new ones. They don’t wear shoes when they walk up an awfully rocky hill to school. Their classroom has a wall painted black (the black board) and maybe 50 desks crammed in tight rows from wall to wall. They don’t have electricity. Their computer class consists of drawing a computer and its component parts on the board to teach children how it works. If you want your NGO to really change someone’s life, you could come to my school and build a project with me. My headmaster wants a lot of things, but he mainly wants someone to sit down with him and tell him what he is doing is as important as any district capital that is already receiving a ton of money.

But today this kind of collaboration isn’t possible. Staff members hear the word ‘NGO’ and go into anaphylactic shock. It’s kind of ridiculous.

Wrap Up

In the end, I don’t know how misleading the goals of Peace Corps actually are. According to the article, Will Dickinson evidently found them to be incredibly deceptive because he wasn’t always involved in development work. To that, I have to wonder what part of “two thirds of this job is cultural exchange” escaped him. The goals are pretty straight forward. Maybe he listened to his recruiter too much. I could write an entire novel titled “Lies My Recruiter Told Me”, but that’s never turned my attention from the realities of Peace Corps goals.

The main problem with volunteers is we’re usually relatively disgruntled because of how administrations seem to really enjoy throwing wrenches into our plans. Even Beckerman, the author of this article, admitted to being frustrated with Peace Corps Administration on the regular. It’s unfortunate and ineffective that we all can’t be friends. I’ll admit that my own feelings towards my Administration have, on several occasions, afforded no better term than vengeful . First and foremost Volunteers spend a good portion of their day dreaming about Cheeseburgers. Secondary to that, they dream about Peace Corps staff saying “Yes” to them. Way too often, it’s just a dream. I don’t mean to say all projects should be automatically approved and no work should be involved in getting support or money, but it doesn’t always need to be an uphill battle for Volunteers to get resources to people who need them. In Rwanda, we have enough hills. I don’t need Staff members adding a thousand more to my plate.

I only named one solution to the real problem in Peace Corps (bridging the gap between the volunteer and the administration), but I’m sure there are several others. The main point I wanted to get across is we don’t need to divide. Peace Corps is so delightfully unique in its ability to be a grassroots organization and a program of cultural ambassadors. We are the only people who do what we do, and it would be nothing short of a tragedy to try to shift that balance more in one direction than the other. Our work is effective. If administrations are doing their jobs right you are replaced at your site when you leave and new volunteers can sustain your projects, or you can train community members or counterparts to sustain your projects. It doesn’t require a lot of thought; it just requires the will and conviction to keep moving forward.

We, Volunteers, are always trying to do our best. It’s never easy, but we’re trying. Isn’t it about time everyone else tried to meet us half way? Isn’t it about time you believed in us? Helped us? We’re not asking for absolutes. We’re just asking you to try. We’ve been patient, and we will continue to be so, because we believe in this organization and, as always, we want to help. That’s all.