Tuesday, August 26, 2008

How to Develop the Peace Corps to Fit a Developing World

Several factors have recently sparked some late personal reflection on the realities and the raison d’être of the Peace Corps. One has been recent conversations I’ve had with volunteer trainees about my year’s experience of being in peace corp. Another is Sthe approaching September’s 40th Anniversary of Peace Corps Bénin.

Further fodder for the fire has been some interesting articles recently written on the Peace Corps. If you find yourself with most Americans thinking that “Gee, it’s nice the Peace Corps exist,” but couldn’t really place your finger on what the Peace Corps does, or is supposed to do, read these. In one, Robert Strauss, former PC Country Director of Cameroon, goes candid on the shortfalls of Peace Corps in his experience. The other "Where to Go Peace Corps," is more of an distanced reporting on the state of Peace Corps.

My own thoughts on Peace Corps are of course subjective to a certain point: I’m in a particular country program, placed in a particular community and work project, have only only been here a year, etc. And at this point I’m pleased with a lot of what I’ve seen of Peace Corps. Nonetheless, I can’t help w/ agreeing with many others about the very real confusion—one might say skitsofrentia—about how Peace Corps purports, markets, and practically sets itself up to be.

This schizophrenia is basically between trying to be an effectual development program on one hand, and in actuality being some type of cultural exchange pragram. The Peace Corps stateside marketing along with the general sentiments of most volunteers will lead you to believe that Peace Corps is mostly valued for the personal experience is gives its participants, and maybe also the warm fuzzies evoked between Americans and their host country nationals. The realities of how Peace Corps is funded, structured, and operated on the ground further leave little opportunity for it to accomplish formidable development work. One problem with this is that many in host country governments and citizens actually suppose or understand Peace Corps to be a development organization dispensing of technical advisors. Another problem is that of legitimacy and longevity: can such a schizophrenic entity continue to exist, looking and being so many things to so many people?

The benefits of cultural exchange, soft diplomacy, and valuable personal experience are not necessarily bad, but in my opinion would be best enjoyed in the context of a Peace Corps program that first and foremost had a clear and coherent development vision, and was structured and operated accordingly.

You can read the linked articles referenced above if you want more polished versions of what people have observed to be wrong. As far as reform goes, I can consider 4 general points that Peace Corps could restructure itself on in order to be a more viable development agency:

1. Professionalizing the program. This first and most important point here involves the way Peace Corps markets and recruits. It needs mature and to some extent experienced volunteers, not 21 year olds looking for an extension to college life or a way to pad their law school application. This means putting higher demands on candidates, and setting higher expectations (and more serious consequences) on them once they’re in. McCain and Obama both have commited themselves to increasing the numbers in the Peace Corps volunteer ranks. Such a development ambition, absent of higher standards and additional funding (discussed below), would be horrible for the program.

2. Providing more resources, training, and support to volunteers. Professionalizing the program doesn’t end with selecting good volunteers. It implies also giving volunteers the things they need to succeed. This can include a lot of things: more technical training (rather than the very “soft” or general technical and cross cultural training we’re often given), with a focus on contextualizing this information to the country and culture and local challanges. Better information and networking systems in things related to project ideas, news of what's happening in the development-domain in a particular host country, and maybe also a feed to development ideas and trends. A more formidable operating/work budget for each volunteer, depending on his or her site and project, would also be a line item in an improved budget. Finally, peace corps volunteers need better accessibility to project funds. Some good projects really do require little or no funding; but many do. All this will take more money for the program. The good news is that Peace Corps volunteers and the program itself is in some sense already thrifty, running on a smaller per-person budget than any other US develepment program. The bad news is that Peace Corps money has been progressively cut in recent years, a trend which at this moment doesn't seem to have much relief in store.

3. Diversifying its programs and projects to fit a diverse world. The Peace Corps is not operating in the same world it was 50 years ago. If it is to be a development program, it needs to increase its involvement in poorer countries and poorer regions. It will also need to diversify its program to fit the diversified needs of a diversified world and even the diversified regions of a country. It must also recognize the variety of volunteers' skills and experiences, and to give them placements and work mandates that match these realities, even if there may be some uncomfortable degree of diversity within the ranks. Various work sites and mandates means leaving flexibility in living and working allowance, training, work mandate, even terms of service. This is already a reality to some extent, but could be worked on more. A volunteer assisting a country's national courts to write a sustainable business pland and living in the country's capital city maybe should not the same living/work allowance and terms of service as a recent college-grad leading school clubs in a rural post.

4. Working harder to create better work partnerships between volunteers and their host-country work partners. Much of a volunteer’s level of success depends on the quality of his or her work site, project, and work partner. Unfortunately, many volunteers have very passive or uninterested work partners who are themselves without a passion or knowledge for what they’re doing, and many volunteers effectively have no work partners at all, leaving them without a crucial resource to understanding and working in their community. This element in some sense depends first on Peace Corp's initiative to professionalize itself and its volunteers, but requires also more professionalism and intentionality on part of the host country.

Having said all that, I I'm still a fan of the Peace Corps, and feel there's alot of potential in the program to be exploited. Whethere this happens, though, is largely a question of Congressional funding, and necessary courage on part of Peace Corps program to define and develop itself.