Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mistakes and Critiques

It's inevitable to go through periods where you question your service, what the hell you're doing in Peace Corps, whether you should have gone somewhere else…but after going through that several times a month (and sometimes several times a week) I have come to the realization that this venture was, in no uncertain terms, a mistake. Alas, it's a mistake that I can't really do much about now, but it's been a mistake nonetheless.

I was particularly in a funk several weeks ago about the whole thing. I had just moved into my new apartment and was no longer living with a host family. Like all materialists, I had hoped desperately that living on my own again would be the catalyst I needed to start feeling a lot better about my service--i.e. hoping that some material change would make me happy again.

"Well that was stupid," you say. Okay, yeah it was; but I've never claimed I'm beyond stupidity.

So, there I was, sitting in my new apartment, still just as pissed off about things as before; actually, now I was more pissed off because my new situation hadn't really changed anything. The reality of the situation is that it's not my material conditions that were making me unhappy--hell, compared to many of the other PCVs I've got it pretty damned good in Vanadzor. Instead, I come back to the complaint I've made before, which is that the work that I do here is absolutely unsatisfying to me, in every way, shape, and form. Well, in my pissed off state I decided to send off a few emails to some people, and start seriously considering my options for early termination. In particular, I sent off an email to my former field director from when I was working for HRC and Indiana Equality, asking for his advice.

You see, I've begun fearing that not only was this a mistake in terms of me being unhappy with my work, but that I may have screwed myself in the former career that I was working on as a campaign and political operative (the title "operative" is perhaps being generous, but I was moving in that direction). By the time I get back to the US, it will have been four years since I was last on a campaign, in part because of Peace Corps and in part because I decided to finish up a second Bachelor's degree in political economy. The field director I speak of had given me several pieces of advice and opportunities that I had decided against in the past, but in retrospect were spot on. He told me that I shouldn't go back for that second degree, considering I already had one, and instead should continue working with IE if possible, or if not he'd help me find something. He gave me the opportunity to work on the Clinton campaign, not once but twice (yes, I realize she didn't get the nod, but I probably could have transitioned into the Obama campaign). He was right, every time, and had I taken him up I wouldn't be here right now.

I think if he had responded to my email with some options, I very likely would have early terminated at that point; unfortunately, he didn't respond (which worries me even more, but now is not the time for that), and so I've reconciled myself to being here for another year and a half. It's strange, some days, like today, that doesn't really even phase me because I'm in an extraordinarily good mood--I realize it doesn't sound like that from this post, but I am in a good mood today. In all honesty, time does fly here pretty fast. I mean, hell I'm already going on month eight of service, and 25% of my service is finished. But regardless of that, I am certain that I will always look back on this as a mistake. That's not to say there haven't been some extraordinarily good things to come out of it: the friends I've made that I am certain will be there throughout my life; the awesome stories that I have now; the beautiful pictures I've been able to take; the acquisition of a new language; among the most fun and memorable Christmases I've ever had. But that doesn't make it any less of a mistake--at the best a distraction.


Part of what's got me down on Peace Corps is the sense I have that what I'm doing is not really what will make this country better. Armenia's problems go far beyond environmental pollution, health issues, a lack of English speakers; I almost included a lack of businesses, but I actually think the Community Business Development sector does the most good here, in large part because I think what really helps development in most countries is greater access to the benefits of capitalism. The real problems here stem not from these other things so much as they do from severe geo-political problems in the region and endemic corruption (I have the feeling Peace Corps may ask me to redact that last sentence, which is part of my next criticism of this process, but I don't feel it's that controversial of a statement). These are problems I'm not able to have any part in solving, though they are among the most pressing here.

Now here comes my criticism of Peace Corps, or at least my criticism of part of its mission. There are three primary goals of the Peace Corps, as per the Peace Corps Act (taken from the website with my own categorization in bold).

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women. (Development)

  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served. (Cross-cultural exchange)

  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. (Cross-cultural exchange)
Now, these are worthy goals, without any doubt, and theoretically I agree practically in full with them. The problem is with the reality of the situation, which is that Peace Corps is a risk-averse organization. Now, I mean "risk-averse" in a very specific way. Peace Corps is definitely a risk-taking organization when it comes to the implementation of new and different ways of thinking about development. The organization has been at the forefront of implementing teaching strategies for its education volunteers that align with the more radical thinking of people such as Paulo Freire; it's implementing business creation as a primary way of going about development; it understands that successful efforts come from integrating into communities, not flying in, putting people on the ground for six months in the capital city, and then expecting major results (this last has been a part of Peace Corps' uniqueness since its creation). Where it's risk-averse is in terms of coming into conflict with the local political and government conditions that exist, however contrary those are to development.

Now, one can argue that this risk-averse condition is necessary for Peace Corps to function. Peace Corps does, after all, maintain a long-term presence in countries that necessitates working with host-country governments and government officials, and its volunteers are working within communities. Perhaps it doesn't have the same capacity for risk as the US State Department has in a country, whose nationals are working out of the embassy and are, in many cases, more important to the host country government than are Peace Corps volunteers. But then, should it necessarily maintain its status as a development organization if its risk-averse attitude makes it so unable to challenge the counterproductive forces that exist in countries? Some people would argue that no, in fact, Peace Corps should not maintain its status as a development organization (though perhaps they don't make the argument on the same basis as I've laid out).

I would, however, argue that Peace Corps is a uniquely situated organization with great potential for developing countries, but in order for it to be truly successful it has to be more open to taking risks. The problem comes in part, however, in how the US government has traditionally distributed its aid throughout the world. Until recently--and still to some degree--the US government has distributed its aid without regard to how well it would be spent, under the auspices of maintaining friendly relations with countries so as to advance the national interest. While Peace Corps has been somewhat outside of this process, in that its goal is not so seemingly utilitarian, it has suffered in some ways from this same sort of thinking. It has gone into underdeveloped nations without much regard for how the structures of those nations may be counterproductive to the work it seeks to do. That would be fine, if its goals only related to the second and third ones I mentioned; after all, you don't need to be an incredibly effective development organization if you are merely trying to introduce other societies and Americans to different cultures and further cultural understanding.

But Peace Corps does--and I would argue should--view itself as, in part, a development organization. Here's what I argue that Peace Corps needs.

  1. Peace Corps needs to follow in the footsteps of the US Millennium Challenge Corporation in demanding that the countries it goes into either follow, or begin the process of adopting, certain standards of transparency and ethics in government. The Challenge Corporation demands that, in exchange for aid, the country should be taking steps to improve its accountability to its citizens; that it moves towards a process in which elections are free and fair; that it puts in place and adheres to anti-corruption efforts throughout all levels of government and the private sector.

  2. Peace Corps should make a broad assessment of the countries it's working in to determine if they follow these standards, or are taking real, sustained efforts to adopt them. Peace Corps should strongly consider pulling out of those countries in which its work is hindered by counterproductive institutions unless it can prove, with econometric data, that its work is making a significant improvement on the ground regardless. It should then refocus its mission towards countries that are benefiting from the US Millennium Challenge Corporation's aid, as those countries are ostensibly in line with, or moving to align with, the requirements for that Corporation's aid.

  3. Peace Corps should allow its volunteers to help in implementing projects that are focused towards improving government accountability, stemming corruption, and promoting democratic structures in the country; not just these, but in general projects that are right now considered too controversial. Peace Corps volunteers should be able to take greater risk in relation to the possibly counterproductive structures that exist within their communities, whether those be political or social. Ostensibly, this would take some of the burden off Peace Corps' argument that its need to work with governments over the long-term prevents this type of work; after all, if a government were to complain about PCVs shedding light on corrupt structures, and threaten to expel Peace Corps from the country, this would simply expose the lie that the country in question was taking real steps to improve its accountability to citizens and the world.
This type of risk-taking nature is absolutely necessary for Peace Corps to be an effective organization, and for its volunteers to feel like the work they're doing isn't all going to naught. I tell you, most of the time I just feel like I'm teaching people English so that they can get jobs outside of Armenia and never come back. I'll grant, the money in remittances that are sent back would help families here, but that's been happening for a while now without any significant improvement in this country outside of Yerevan. I reject the argument that Peace Corps has to be risk-averse if it wants to be effective--I argue, in fact, that Peace Corps' risk-averse nature severely hampers its ability to be effective, as much of its money and effort is wasted by counterproductive forces. If Peace Corps wants to continue holding onto the goal of being an effective development organization, it can't continue to insist on working within structures that are inhibiting its effectiveness. It is an unconscionable waste of time, effort, and tax-payer money, and is absolutely disheartening to its volunteers (or, at least, this volunteer).