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).


Sedative said...

I haven't read it, but this seems like a good read for you now:

I think what you're experiencing is frustration at the impotence of the Peace Corps in terms of the reality of how things are. You may already know it, but remember you're not there to magically change things. You're there to do what little help you can to individual communities.

Your first two proposals sound reasonable, although I can't help but think about how you are, in essence, punishing the populace in need of aid for the crimes of their government. The Philippines is part of the MCA but what about countries which do not follow the US model of government?

Your third proposal is very dangerous. And being from a country where local political warlords are common, I know exactly how dangerous it is. It will bring about change, but will probably cost the life of the whistle-blower. And I'm sure not many PCV's are willing to die for that.

I dunno... but those things you mentioned sound more like the worries of the UN and not that of the Peace Corps (who are after all, first and foremost, only ambassadors of America, not specialized troubleshooters).

Instead of locking horns with unhelpful governments, you should find a sympathetic and honest local political leader and get them to help make the developments started by PCV's survive past their return to the US. Something like targeting localities with good governance but not enough finances to be successful should be a better plan than applying the criteria for receiving aid to the national level.

But of course those are only my opinions. :P

Michele (Razzy) said...

First of all, I hope that somewhere in the future, you will realize that this experience has had value in making you the person you are today and will be. It's something you had to go through, so it's not a mistake. Maybe someday its value will be more tangible when you're further down the road and can look back.

However, I must agree with most of what Sedative said and disagree with much of what you said.

What you are suggesting is to change what the Peace Corps is entirely. It sounds like because you have found the bad parts of their government that you feel PCVs should help the people to change that system. So in other words, you want the Peace Corps to help the people to revolt ... you're removing the "Peace" part of "Peace Corps" entirely.

What you're doing now will eventually ripple out through future generations of that country. You need to look at these changes with a different timeframe. You know you won't be effecting immediate change, but where you seem to feel the change should happen in years, it may not happen for decades. It will eventually happen as the education and development is passed on through these families.

I think it's true that your interests lie more with politics (American in particular) than with what you're doing here. You're bringing politics into an experience that is not supposed to be a political one at all.

I hope that at the very least, your education about this one country, culture, language, people, and its problems will help you later on when you enter politics. If it does, then it was not a mistake.

John said...


See, this is why I like you (among other reasons)--you're a thinking man. So hot right now. :-D

You raise some very valid points, and I'd like to respond.

First, let me say that I realize that I'm not here to magically change things; but that said, I do expect the small things I do to contribute in some way towards the overall development of the country, even if my contribution is barely measurable. As long as it's there I'd be happy. But I don't feel that it is contributing to the development of the country. I feel like I'm teaching people English so that they can leave the country.

Now, to the meat of your critiques.

I want to start off with one of your later comments, which is that the kind of work I'm talking about is more suited to the UN. I would argue that this is true only if we don't view the Peace Corps' mission as primarily centered on development, which as I mentioned some people don't. I think that if you view Peace Corps as a cross-cultural organization with a development component, then my advocacy is not suitable. But that isn't how I see Peace Corps. I see Peace Corps as, first and foremost, an instrument geared towards the development of nations, with cross-cultural components. Because of this, I think the type of work that you would consider as suited to the UN is precisely the kind of work, on a more local scale, that Peace Corps should be engaged in. I argue that PCVs should not simply be "ambassadors of America," as you put it, and that in fact in many areas specialized troubleshooting is exactly what Peace Corps is doing (many of the things being done in Latin American host countries are very specialized). While this is not the case in all countries--Armenia is a case in point, where most of us are considered "generalists"--it is in some. Because I believe in Peace Corps as a development organization, I argue that the kind of specialized, detailed work that other international agencies work on is exactly what Peace Corps should be doing--we will be cultural ambassadors in some way no matter what, especially by virtue of the length of time we live in-country and the integration into our communities.

Now, back to your first point in regards to the punishment of the citizenry because of the actions of the government. I'd like to say, first off, that it's not just the government in many of these countries that engages in corruption, but often the private sector as well. From bribing of political officials to village mayors engaging in cronyism to private sector collusion to maintain monopolies, corruption is endemic in some of these countries. But even where it's not the whole citizenry, I would argue that to continue to work in a country in which you are not make a demonstrable impact is a waste of time, effort, and money. Peace Corps has, in the past, pulled out of countries in which it was making no difference, if I remember correctly. If there are counterproductive forces at work, that aren't working to be solved, and are preventing the organization from making a sustainable difference, then there is no justification for Peace Corps maintain a presence. As I noted, if Peace Corps can demonstrate, with good data, that they are making a difference in the majority of communities they work in, then they shouldn't pull out (without a doubt, it would have to be determined by judging whether that's the fault of the volunteer, or the counterproductive forces). But there would clearly have to be a threshold at which it's determined that the counterproductive forces are siphoning off too much productivity to justify staying. As this is just a general post, I don't know what that threshold would be, but I plan on doing more research into this (perhaps this will be a start of a Masters thesis?) and eventually making a determination on that, but I think the threshold would have to be reasonably high.

To your next point, concerning what to do about countries with a different political system, I don't have a great answer to this one right now. I suppose my answer would be that this criteria should be used in the selection of any new country that PC is considering going into, or returning to. As I noted before, if PC can prove that effects from things like corruption and political/economic opaqueness are not greatly inhibiting its work in a country, they should stay. After all, what this says to me is that those specific counterproductive forces are not the greatest obstacle to the path of development in that country (I tend to view underdevelopment as having many different causes, some of which apply to some countries and not to others). But when it comes to the selection of new countries for PC to go into, I think that there must be a standard for PC to determine whether its efforts will be in vain or not, and that the MCC's stipulations mark an excellent place to go from.

Your critique in regards to my third point is the one that I think challenges me most, and I am not really prepared right now to answer it, as I need much more time to think that over. As this was simply an initial description of my thoughts, that concern had not crossed into my head in the way you've so astutely argued. I will have to get back to you on that.

I do really like your argument about targeting localities with good governance, but I think that has much to do with changing PC's risk-averse nature. I think PC is often too timid in insisting on going only into countries who are either working towards good governance--even if it's only the initial stages--or are there already, but simply need help from an experienced or trained person. After all, it's possible to conceive of situations in which working in communities only with good governance has spillover effects in incentivizing other communities to move towards good governance--in fact, if you could demonstrate that good governance is the reason for the community's success, I'd argue that it is almost inevitable that PC's work would have spillover effects in a sort of "race to the top."

Anyway, this is not a complete accounting of your comments, nor clearly a finished discussion. Thanks, for making these great points, though, since they help me see the errors in my argument (of which I'm sure there are even more).

Sedative said...

*blushes deep red*

Yes, I view the PC primarily as a cross-cultural organization first, a development organization second. More because, on the primary missions of the PC, you see America mentioned twice. I don't have the same expectations from the Peace Corps as I would the Red Cross, the UNESCO, UNICEF, WHO, or WWF for instance. It seems to me that the PC was created primarily to bolster the positive image of America in less well-developed countries as well as giving PCV's a wider viewpoint when it comes to global issues. I'm not quite that idealistic, heh, so yeah, I view the PC's goals as less than purely altruistic (at least not altruistic in global terms). So I wouldn't expect the leaders to strive to do much impact on the nations they're in. I know that's a jaded viewpoint, but I always tend to suspect anything that was created with nationalistic ideals, rather than international ones.

If you have undeniable proof that the work you are doing is going to line the local head honcho's pockets more than help the people in the area then that's quite a predicament. You have two choices:

a) Encourage the people to demand what should have been rightfully theirs by exposing the official(s) in question; or by imposing new methods of distribution of the aid. The first is of course, as I said, dangerous, since it all points back not only to the PCV's but the US as well. America really doesn't need more of the 'meddling superpower' image, heh, and never underestimate an angered political leader, especially in a remote country. The second is a better way, though harder to implement and will require more financial and manpower investments by the PC (since not bribing the officials in question will more than likely cause them to be uncooperative and even obstructionist).

b) Leave. A more than suitable response in places where the aid is not really needed but what if the community in question really needs it?

I would argue against increased risk-taking as a solution. As Michele said, it takes the 'peace' out of peace corps. The more risk there is, the more likely it will blow up in your faces, regardless of good intentions.

However, I do see your point in working only in countries ready and receptive for development aid. I also understand why it would be very frustrating indeed to know that you are working at something that will only be erased as soon as you leave. It's bad for both the morale of the PCV's and the country in question. But maybe it's just a question of not adapting the right approach? For example, if you know that the crop fields you are helping build better irrigation for will only be appropriated by the local corrupt official as soon as you leave, why not just teach the community HOW to build them instead?

Your teaching English is also not as useless as you think it is. As you've already mentioned, having people leave the country for work abroad is not always a bad thing. The Philippines is an example of a country where one of the major exports is manpower. Previously, this was a direct result of the worsening national economy but the government soon realized the economic benefits of it and harnessed it. They now support what we call OFW's (Overseas Filipino Workers) to the point that there are regular government-sponsored job fairs here featuring work abroad as well as job training, focus on English studies and college courses of jobs in demand abroad, and the beginnings of specialized OFW support in our embassies. It's not a small thing, these workers bring in money and knowledge of different cultures every time they return to the islands (which given the strength of family bonds here, is frequent). Zimster is one of these, and I'd like to hear his viewpoint on this sometime. :P

Anyhow, if you feel your work is not doing much impact to your host country, why not offer suggestions to your supervisors? Or do they not listen to the field volunteers? Which would indeed be a big problem, especially if the people who supervise you are still back in America. :/

Rigsby said...


I've just read you entire blog, comments to the entries and really enjoyed them. You are a very passionate and intelligent young man. Then I hit today's entry. I was entirely taken aback. My immediate thoughts were: (1) he should go back and re-read his first blog entry and refocus on the concept of small impacts made by PCV's causing a lot of future good, and (2) he's really going off the deep end, trying to make the PC something it's not and never was intended to be. The goals and changes you set out are WAY TOO POLITICAL for the PC. I've always understood the PC as a grass roots "for the people" organization that makes a change in people's daily lives for the better, so that the people can then help themselves. Your ideas would be better served by other available organizations. The PC has no "right" to go into the countries they visit, they are accepted as guests.

I was concerned about being the first one to really take strong issue with you, and then I saw Michele and Sedative had already hammered you pretty well...although they appear to be much more tactful than I am, so now I'm just jumping on the bandwagon, instead of repeating those same comments.

My last comment would be...stop thinking about ET. You made a commitment, you're there, so stick it out. "I QUIT" never looks good on a resume'.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peace - my husband and I were pc volunteers almost 30 years ago and are thinking about doing it again. We often disliked the daily grind of our first round of volunteering. The work was almost laughable, we were lost often in the language, people were friendly but only to a point. Looking back on our experiences now, though, we love the unique nature of our memories and the distinct world view it gives us. You will likely have a divergent view from people around you, and that can be an enlivening thing in life. You will likely be more confident and self-sufficient than most, and people will always wonder about that. Whether or not you stick it out, what you are doing on a daily basis now is insignificant compared to the enrichment of your life to come. Best of luck - Susan