Peace Corps is not the Greatest International Development Organization in the World.

If Peace Corps gives you nothing else, it gives you time to think. If you leave your 27 month commitment without strong personal convictions worked out extensively in your mind, man, you must have been watching a lot of re-runs of The Office (and West Wing, and House, and Family Guy, and…and…and…). In the immortal words of Fred Quinn, “…not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

As of late, a lot of opinions are cropping up among us PCVs about the worth of our time in this country. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen one group COS (which means “close-of-service”….we use it as a verb…), another is preparing to leave in about 5 months, we’re gone in 10 months, the newest group has hit their half-year mark, and we’re all bracing ourselves for the arrival of new volunteers this month and are therefore assessing our own services…..or maybe it’s because we’ve all just had a lot of time to think. We are constantly examining our worth here. What we want our service to be. What can we realistically do given the situation. How do we want to be remembered in our towns. How do we want to remember our services. All necessary questions, in my opinion. It seems kinda basic, but the importance is there–how can we be effective if we’re not constantly questioning our effectiveness?

There does come a point in self-examination, however, when I think that it’s easy to step over the line and into the proverbial Sahara desert of despair. All PCVs know what tune I’m spinnin’. The “my time here is completely valueless, nothing I’m doing is sustainable, and by the way what am I doing with my life” bit. Sure, there’s some truth to all of this– sometimes, more truth than we’d like to tell our parents back home who all think we’re heroes and/or crazy. And here’s where I will diverge from the Sahara reference and quote The Newsroom (who said I didn’t spend some of my time here watching TV too?)

“[Peace Corps] is not the greatest [international development organization] in the world. But it can be.”

Okay, maybe that’s not exactly what Will McAvoy said. But we’ll run with the spirit for this blog post.

Right now, Peace Corps Morocco has a lot of sad volunteers. I don’t mean pathetic– I mean frowny-faced. We’ve wandered into the Sahara desert of despair, gotten lost, and when we asked for directions, we realized that the people of the disputed Western territories don’t speak the same Darija as us (Peace Corps Morocco inside joke). Many of us have classes that sometimes don’t show up when they’re scheduled. Some of us have lackluster counterparts. Some have projects that started out well and completely tanked. Others can’t even get a project started. Some of us compare our time here to what we could be accomplishing in America (and usually start crying). Some of us stare in awe at the wealth surrounding us and can’t believe we’re spending our time working with “them” instead of the “poor people.” The problems come in an array of colors, shapes, and sizes, but essentially boil down to us feeling completely useless/worthless. Our visions of our Peace Corps selves and our expectations– which we considered to be reasonable– have been shattered by reality.

For those of you who don’t know the nuts and bolts of our set-up, our official relationship is with the Moroccan Ministry of Youth and Sports. We are assigned to dar chababs (youth centers) that are selected by the aforementioned ministry. The catch is that cities that have dar chababs are usually bigger, richer, and more “well-stocked” in terms of associations and/ or counterparts. As a result, some volunteers find themselves in situations where they’re completely ornamental– i.e. teaching English to private school kids for free or finding local associations who are already spearheading every project the community needs. In a truly developing country like Morocco, we live with both ends of the economic spectrum, sometimes simultaneously. It’s hard not to get down on yourself when you’re helping out at a camp taking place on a grassy green campus walled off from people living without running water and electricity. Meanwhile, others run into the problem of complete disinterest towards their programs– i.e. no one showing up to English classes or wanting to build a library in the town. Problems such as corruption, lack of accountability, and an absence of follow-through are also more common than we’d like to admit. Feelings of negativity fester. I mean, come on, we’re Americans. We inherently relate our self-worth proportionally to our accomplishments. Additionally, we’re Peace Corps volunteers. If we’re not working and getting something done, then what the hell are we doing here?

My dad says this should be on a Peace Corps brochure somewhere.

Me, working the Peace Corps stereotype. My dad says this should be on a Peace Corps brochure somewhere.

My thoughts on the situation are this. Yes, Peace Corps Morocco could be a more effective machine. It is my personal belief that the development of sites and counterparts would immensely improve the effectiveness of the program. I speak from my own experiences: two of my most successful ventures thus far have been counterpart-based trainings, including a project design and management project that I implemented with my counterpart for our upcoming interfaith dialogue, and a week-long training about the International Youth Foundation curriculum that we will begin in Tameslouht next week inchallah. More trainings like this would be ideal, since they’re both sustainable (buzzword!) and relevant to our work. In terms of site-development, I think that I was handed absolute gold when I was assigned to Tameslouht. I say this because harassment has been null and void, there are a plethora of active associations here, the dar chabab is jammin’, and there seems to be room for my site mate and myself to adequately help out. I know that other PCVs aren’t as lucky. Some people get massive sites where PCVs are harassed endlessly, there’s no work, people aren’t interested in the PCV, there’s no need for the PCV, etc. Unfortunately, Peace Corps Morocco is shifting towards placing all PCVs in these massive sites due to the semi-recent switch to the Youth Development sector (Environmental, Health, and Small Business volunteers were phased out). Again, in my opinion, putting PCVs in towns like Tameslouht– small enough to benefit from the resources that a PCV brings, large enough to sustain them– would be ideal. Of course, I realize that there are only so many Tameslouhts in Morocco, but the point is that a little more site development would go a long way.

In the end, though, no matter how big or small our sites are, how well they were developed, how well our projects are going, or how our counterparts are, our time spent in Morocco is not without value. Two out of the three goals of Peace Corps are cultural exchange. While the value of these two goals is a huge part of why I think my service and that of most others’ is so important, I get the emphasis on the first. However, who is to say that cultural exchange is mutually exclusive from the goal that looks the best on paper (/ our VRF)– a transfer of technical skills? An American who is always on time to teach class, helps students to learn another language, creates a safe learning environment, treats men and women alike respectfully, and makes it normal for Moroccans to interact with and respect foreigners who aren’t Muslim (to name a few examples) teaches these technical skills through example. You won’t be around to see how you helped influence a kid to be on time to an important meeting, or to get a job that required knowledge of English, or to work comfortably with both women and men, or to get a job that required him or her to work with foreigners…but they’re all made possible by your unique presence. Additionally, for those two hours you’re teaching an English class, it’s two hours less that those kids spend watching TV, chatting on Facebook, playing in the streets, sniffing glue, or throwing rocks at dogs. It’s exposure to a native English speaker that the high school students need to do well on their BAC exams (and consequently get into university). For the two kids who show up consistently to your art club, it’s two more kids who get to have an outlet for their creativity. In a country whose public school system doesn’t include art, music, or theater, it’s a time where kids are encouraged, even expected, to think outside of the box.

Moroccans were fine before we got here, and they’ll be fine after we leave. The goal of us being here is not to save anyone, or bulk up our resumes, or have a statue erected in our honor for bringing water to the small town of whatever. In my opinion, it’s for us to help out where we’re needed and do the absolute best we can whenever, however, and wherever we can. 27 months isn’t enough time to witness the results of every action we make, but it’s more than enough time to get something started.

morocco-love-hands

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15 thoughts on “Peace Corps is not the Greatest International Development Organization in the World.

  1. As a soon to be PCV I’ve been reading a bunch of blogs, most of which usally just annoy me but this post was great. Seems like you have the right mindset and less naive thinking than most folks. Keep up the work

  2. My PC experience taught me way more about myself and I went into Africa as an idealistic young republican to try and make a difference in the world. I succeeded in making the biggest difference in myself and working for Peace Corps was the best decision I ever made. Great article and it reminds me that REALITY is still the best teacher for everybody. Cheers !!

  3. Nice thoughts and lots of good reflections here. It certainly echoes a lot of my own experiences as a volunteer in Paraguay (’98-’00). I continue to go back and forth on the value of Peace Corps as an international development organization, principally because (as you note) there are three goals, which in my opinion means that each goal can be done ok, but no single goal gets the focus it needs/deserves. That said, I think Peace Corps is a tremendous entry into the world of international development. I don’t think I could do my current work as well as I do (I currently work for a small, international NGO which I often describe as a sort of well-funded, Peace Corps style project) without having lived and worked in a developing country for 27 months (as frustrating, disheartening, saddening, exciting, exhilerating as those months were to me). Good luck as you continue to carve your path through your service!

  4. I do believe that despite many of the challenges that you listed above, great development projects are possible through Peace Corps framework. In fact, I know that they’re possible because I was a volunteer for four years, and I saw my colleagues do amazing things in the field. I also saw colleagues — good people with every intention of doing good work — who constantly struggled with some of the challenges that you mentioned. In some ways I fell into both of those categories during the course of my time in country. Of course, there were always also a few folks that were content with getting by doing the bare minimum, or that despite having good intentions were easily discouraged by circumstances similar to those that other volunteers were able to push through.

    I would agree that a good deal of strife can be avoided through proactive site development (although my own in-country staff preferred the term “site identification”, stating that while staff were responsible for picking sites with strong potential, the volunteers were the ones that developed the sites). And I’ve heard from several recently returned Morocco RPCVs that they were concerned about the shift to a solely large-city youth development project for some of the same reasons that you stated. Not only is an urban placement not the best match for all volunteers (just as secluded villages are not the best for all of us), but large urban sites also seem like they would lend themselves to having more problems with security, community integration, and other issues. On the other hand, I feel inclined to point out that urban placements can be incredible placements leading to great, necessary projects. But the placements must be developed strategically, with committed partners, and (as you touched on) in the communities that most need outsider assistance.

    I don’t know much about Morocco’s in-country staff, but if you do think that Peace Corps/Morocco is headed in the wrong direction (or at least, is making decisions which prevents volunteers from reaching their potential and are negative to the volunteer experience), you and your fellow volunteers should try to organize some of your thoughts on the matter and present those thoughts and present them to your staff. You can use your VAC, or if your program does a programmatic review (we did ours at the all volunteer conference), you can do it then. You can also include that feedback with your work reports. Hopefully your in-country staff is receptive to feedback (ours was — by the end we were almost feedbacked-out). It won’t get rid of every challenge that volunteers face (obviously), but there’s a lot to be said for not making an already-challenging experience harder than it has to be.

  5. This post was so relevant and personal for me, I can’t even begin to describe how fortuitous it was that it found its way to me. I am currently serving in PC Moldova and struggle with these very same issues (many of us Community Development PCVs have belabored these exact same questions, over and over ad nauseum.) The irony is that I just returned from my first PC vacation to Morocco, and I admit we idealized how different our service would be if we had been posted there instead of here (the grass is always greener, isn’t it?) To read some of the comments and understand that these questions plague PCVs in other countries and throughout at least the last decade leave me wondering what the PC is evolving into, why it’s roots seem to have become less firmly anchored in solid ground. I, too, have consoled myself again and again with the “other two” goals. But when you are currently without a partner (after 6 months of service) and listening to your family agonize back home about how much they miss you, it is really hard some days to stay focused and keep your chin up. Thank you for sharing this – I too blog about the darker side of PC service sometimes and it takes a lot of courage not to always put on the sunny face and admit the doubts that come creeping in when you let your guard down……

    • I feel you on this, though I’m not PC (something similar) and have someone down here with me. Particularly on noting how the idea of cultural exchange doesn’t always necessarily add up. For me at least, cultural exchange is something to be done on an excursion, a getaway. Everyone’s different, but I can’t equally weigh that with the homesickness, sacrifices, and all the other myriads of things that can get you down out “here” (wherever here is for us hah–Ghana at the moment myself). For those who can lay that as the icing and the justification, more power to them. For me though, I came down to get something done, to make a difference, and I think the moment I no longer feel I’m making said difference in a way that justifies everything down here… well, there’s running water, family and friends, and pizza buffets waiting for me hah.

      On the original post and the grass always being greener though… the things I’m reading from everyone show up in the “less developed” areas too. Surprisingly enough, I actually haven’t found them to be more “prime targets” for development work. The lack of reception, motivation, interest, initiative, responsibility, and honesty can make the job difficult enough that I’ve often wondered if I’d be getting more development bang for my buck trying some of the same things back in the States.

      BUT I realize now I’m sounding highly pessimistic! Forgive me. I think what it comes down to is that the endurance required is a different kind of endurance, nothing objective, nothing tic for tac, but something almost self-made. We get from it what we make of it, and hopefully it makes a little difference here and there along the way. And how much we get from it, how hard and how far we take it, is entirely up to us. And that’s ok.

    • This posting brings back some serious memories for myself during my service and I think every PCV goes thru those same exact emotions due to the extremely limited infrastructure we are placed in with the host country. During my service I met an RPCV Ex-patriot from the President Kennedy era working in Kenya just at the time when I was seriously thinking of quitting PC and just going home. He advised me to ” Make the most out of my work position that I possibly could and try to enjoy life for awhile. You have the rest of your life to punch a work time clock.” And he was very right about the rat race. Everything I LEARNED in my PC tour of duty has served me well for several years and it was the best decision I made to stick it out and finish out my contract. I ” accomplished ” very very little for my host country no matter how hard I tried. Despite that fact , I may very well do PC again later in life. Throughout my later career during job interviews I have fielded alot of questions about my PC work. I have had no problem embellishing at will and making my story better for the TV viewers at home who could never relate to what we PCV’s have gone thru. My biggest personal accomplishment was coaching a rural high school rugby team who had to borrow shoes and jerseys to compete in the national tournament and lost a very close championship match to a rich private school. All I taught the kids was to believe in themselves and give it everything you got. I was very proud of them.
      But Company VP’s may not want to hear that so I speak about my projects that never got funded and explain that my job was to lead by example and do as much as I could with what I was given ( which was nothing ). It was very tough going at times but here 20 something years later all I remember are the great times and all the great people I met during my 28 month government funded trip around the world. I came back a much better American with a whole different attitude and a maturity level that got me hired over other candidates. PC can help you make the rest of your life look like a cake walk in the first world if you let it. Cheers !

      • Thanks for this. Really. I need to hear about the light at the end of the tunnel these days. (Maybe because I am 51 years old….not a whole lot of job interviews in my future but the perspective is still valued.)

  6. Pingback: Morocco – the Grand Bazaar « From Now On I Live Mad

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  8. The great thing about the last few years is how able volunteers are to share their thoughts. Like others, when I was a volunteer, I had the same conversations with my friends. From the comments, you can see voluteers have been having these conversations for decades, too. The problem is with Peace Corps itself. To send young enthusiastic Americans to help was a great idea in the 60s. Unfortunately, to quote the gunslinger, “The world moved on.” Asked at a meeting with one of my senators about how long Peace Corps had been in Jamaica, an rpcv answered “decades.” He asked how much longer we’d need to be there before we finished. The rpcv had no answer. Peace Corps should express to host countries that it’s a partnership, and if the local government isn’t committed, then there will be no volunteers. Peace Corps should also increase the quality of recruiter. I left with no illusions because my recruiter and I talked about these issues at length. When I met my fellow trainees, I was disappointed that many had the experience where they felt their recruiter was merely filling a quota. Finally, the quality of volunteer needs to be increased. During my service in Eastern Europe, tales abounded of less moral volunteers and their relationships with their students…or their relationship with alcohol or the two combined culminating in a summer camp where a strange Masters International volunteer could only lure volunteers to a summer camp with the promise of unlimited booze and plenty of high school girls. Volunteers were involed in bar brawls with black eyes and a Peace Corps staffer sent to hush it up and keep it out of the papers. No volunteer was sent home for any of these events. Volunteers should be expected to live a respectable life by BOTH local and American standards.

    • For what it’s worth, volunteers were sent home for less in Costa Rica, and PC/CR wouldn’t have tolerated what you’re talking about. There were, of course, volunteers that were less than exemplary, and a handful of volunteers that seemed to be along for the ride, but no PC cover-ups of scandals of the type that you mention. Who knows if time has changed between when you and I served, or if there were other factors that made your experience so different than my own.

      I strive to be the type of recruiter (I’m a campus rep) that prepares (not just screens) her applicants for service, that is judicious about giving her recommendation, and that elevates the level of discourse about Peace Corps. But I don’t seek to disillusion my applicants before they get there, because (seemingly, unlike you) I believe heartily in Peace Corps mission. I have seen the amazing work that volunteers do (when properly trained/prepared/placed/supported, of course), and I believe that what we can accomplish as PCVs is the “right” way of doing development – by engaging local communities, building capacities, and taking the route that is slower and more frustrating, but that leads to more permanent change.

      As for the question of how much longer PCVs would have to be in Jamaica, I’m sorry that the RPCV didn’t have a good answer there. If PCVs had been working in the same communities, with the same institutions, on the same projects for decades without progress, I would agree there was a problem. But Peace Corps has changed its programs in all of the countries in which it works in order to meet the new needs that are emerging, and is benefiting new communities over time. In some of the countries in which we work, our progress is complicated by larger economic trends, political issues, and other factors that are outside of the control of both PC and the host country. You say that we should make it clear that if the HC government isn’t committed to PC, there will be no volunteers. And you’re right. But commitment does not equal capacity, and it’s worth asking whether a perceived lack of commitment on the part of the HC government isn’t actually the inability to put forward what PC considers to be commitment.

      • Hi Christine,

        Let me caution you on making assumptions about my commitment to Peace Corps just because I’d like to see it better managed. I have participated in every single opportunity presented to me to promote Peace Corps including going to DC for the 50th events, the lobbying of my legislators as part of that, producing/hosting a radio program for the 50th anniversary, and participating in every campus visit that has happened around me. I’m also a returned Response volunteer, so I felt the work was done well enough that I signed up again. It’s because I care about Peace Corps that I would like to see it improve.

        There are some excellent recruiters. As I mentioned, I thought mine was great. A volunteer who was assigned to a village near me actually had the same recruiter and was an outstanding volunteer. I have no reason to suspect she sent anyone less than 100% ready in her five years. The recruiter who invited me to speak when she visited my grad school was really well informed and gave good presentations (and was great on the radio program). That said, my PC group was large, but there were at least as many people who said, “I had no idea it would be like this” as who said, “Wow, I totally had a good understanding of what I was getting into.” Of course larger than both groups combined were the folks who just didn’t comment. All my info is anecdotal, but I think (or hope?) we can generally agree that better recruiters will mean better volunteers.

        My assignments were good. I had great directors. I had people around me who wanted to do things. Most importantly, in both cases, someone at the organization passionately wanted a volunteer. Some volunteers went to organizations that just wanted the prestige of having an American working there. They made no effort to help them with housing or community integration. They had no work for the volunteers. Some of these volunteers got themselves reassigned. Some of them found happiness through secondary projects. Some of them got angry and let it eat them up, but refused to go home because of the stigma associated with ETing. (What do I tell everyone thinking of Peace Corps? It’s ok to decide it isn’t right for you and come home. I saw too many people miserable because they thought otherwise.) These organizational problems start with the host governments. It might be solved as easily as sending 20 volunteers to a country because there are that many good sites instead of 20 being sent because they have to go somewhere. PC in country plays a role, too. In my later assignment, I felt like the local staff was much more interested and involved in what volunteers were doing (and were hugely supportive of my work and my host organization). I’ve heard of country directors who have a strict policy of “no one quits, and no one goes home early.” I don’t know if it was their personal preference or because they’d get trouble from DC if folks left.

        I believe in incremental development, too, but development should first be built on consensus with the local community. That’s the community at large, not a host organization or even a particularly motivated teacher. For development to work, everyone has to be on the same bus at the same time going in the same direction. The local community should not feel like it’s something forced on them. There shouldn’t even be a local displaced because of the volunteers arrival. Things like that generate negative feelings that can cause problems for the volunteer.

        Maybe much of this can be solved in DC. I am mostly convinced that Peace Corps is fueled less by anyone or anything in DC and more my sheer force of will on the part of volunteers. It’s terribly easy to find examples of failings in the DC office. My favorite: In our country, the currency lost half it’s value. The contract for housing was in dollars, but when the inflation hit, the host families were expected to just make do with less. This happened at the peak of the Peace Corps budget. One person with PC stated that the entire PC budget was in local currencies, that it isn’t actually ~$370 million, but trillions of local currencies. When I replied that I suspected that Peace Corps’s annual budget was made of US dollars and asked what the housing allotment was for my country, I was told that information could only be gained via FOIA request. It’s that kind of “circle the wagons” mentality that I suspect has held Peace Corps back.

        Lastly, and more academically, the leading global development principle has changed several times since Peace Corps was created. Analyzing Peace Corps, you see neither the best nor worst practices taken from them. It’s more of a hodge podge. I’d suspect that it’s a result of occasionally someone being on staff who knew and cared and other times, someone more in line with the stereotypical political appointee.

        The bottom line is this: There is no system that can’t be improved, and Peace Corps can and should do better, if not for the host country nationals, then for the volunteers.

        To Quinn: Sorry for hijacking your well-written post!

  9. Pingback: A Moroccan Perspective (ad-libbing The Newsroom) « From Now On I Live Mad

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