Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Peace Corps: my two kopeks (Part 2)

If you haven't already, please read Part 1 of this blog post here:

Now, for people still looking to go into the Peace Corps, I have a few questions for you. First, and most importantly, why did you decide to go the Peace Corps route as oppose to another program that would give you more choice? Is there a particular region you’re interested in working in? And a particular type of work you’re interested in doing? If not, why? If you don’t have something you already want to do or somewhere you want to work, what are your expectations of the program and what made you decide to apply?

So, suppose you’re not interested in saving the world, but you want to join the Peace Corps for your own personal growth. You’re not quite sure where Khmer is spoken, but you’d learn it if somebody told you to. Deconstructing the ethics of volunteerism is not something you do on a daily basis. You don’t have a job, and you’re tired of sitting in your mom’s living room eating leftovers. Is the Peace Corps really what you want to do?

Perhaps. The program will open you up to all sorts of new experiences, skills, and travel opportunities. You’ll eat new foods, make new friends, and learn a new language. For some people, this is just what they need.

But there are a few things to keep in mind while applying.

A large number of Peace Corps Volunteers (In Ukraine, I believe around half) are TOEFL Volunteers, teaching English. As a volunteer, I think this is one of the most effective ways you can work overseas. I’ve heard many arguments against this, but from my experience in Ukraine, people generally want to learn English. Knowing the language can open the door to so many opportunities. As a native English speaker, you are ideal for this position. Most English teachers in Ukraine are not native English speakers, and some of them really don’t speak English well. As a result, many people go into the workforce with an extremely minimal knowledge of the language, and no opportunity to get a job outside of Ukraine. If you’re a native English speaker, you can easily work in almost any country you choose. Wherever you go, there will be some amount of English speakers and some form of English infrastructure. Try applying to a job in Germany or the United States if you only speak Macedonian and not a word of English. Try traveling to Indonesia if you only speak Hungarian. The Hungarian expat community in Southeast Asia is . . . well . . . maybe “isn’t” is a better word. But I’m going a bit off topic.

So, if teaching English is your thing, the Peace Corps might be a great option, but is it the only one? Of course not. There are plenty of other opportunities to teach English abroad that might fit you much better. In Dnepropetrovsk (where I currently live) there are around 200 English speaking schools. Most people who work at those schools probably aren’t native speakers, and would probably love to employ you.
So the difference between teaching English for a private company and as a Peace Corps volunteer? Working for a company probably pays pretty well. You might be able to get $10-15 / hour for just talking to people. It’s really a great option for people interested in teaching. I’ve met a number of privately contracted English teachers in Ukraine who slowly travel around the world, getting jobs at different English language schools. I wouldn’t be surprised to meet somebody who’s lived in 11 countries, traveled to over 100, spends the majority of their time traveling to interesting places, and has never had a problem with money. It’s a pretty good set up if you’re interested in that type of stuff.

If you do this through the Peace Corps, you’ll be living on the Peace Corps budget. You’re not allowed to work extra hours at a job on the side, so your only source of income is going to be what Washington DC gives you. And how much is that? In Ukraine, Volunteers get around $200 each month. So, suppose you pay around $100 each month for rent. You now have around $3 per day to pay for all your meals, transportation, and additional activities.

If you know me, you know I’m a fan of traveling on a budget. But I’m also a fan of working and traveling on a budget. If you work and save up some money, the money you saved up will go even further if you don’t splurge on eating out and staying in nice accommodation. If you’re planning on doing the Peace Corps for the travel opportunities, you need to consider the amount of money you’ll be traveling on.
So besides money, what are the pros and cons of TOEFL? Well, if you’re interested in teaching English in Beijing and have no desire to work on a farm in Nicaragua, then teach English in Beijing. It seems obvious, but if you do this on your own, you won’t risk being put somewhere you didn’t want to be. Additionally you won’t have to worry about the ethics of “volunteerism”. Working as a teacher at a school, you’re certainly not taking away somebody else’s job. You’re having a positive impact on the people you work with, and opening the door to many new opportunities. If you’re interested in teaching English, I’d strongly encourage it. If this isn’t something that interests you, keep in mind that it’s what you may end up doing as a Volunteer
If you’re planning on applying to the Peace Corps, and doing it for your own personal growth, there’s one last thing to keep in mind. Do you care strongly about where you live, geographically? Do you like big cities or small towns? The Peace Corps is a 27 month commitment, so if you don’t like where you end up, that can be a very long period of time. If you’re a city person like myself, you might not be able to put up with a village of 500 people. If you’re more interested in those tiny villages, you might need to get used to taking a crowded metro to work every morning.

So, from a more self-centered point of view: Is the Peace Corps a good program?

If you’re looking for that new experience and want to make some new friends, go for it. You’ll learn a lot and have a lot of fun. You’ll open yourself up to many different opportunities. If you want to have a say in exactly where you go or what you do, you should consider working or volunteering through a different means.  The Peace Corps is certainly not the only program for people to work and help others overseas. For some people, this might be the best option. For others, it might not.

So there you have it, my two kopeks on the Peace Corps. To put things in perspective, two kopeks is worth a bit less than a quarter of a penny. Therefore, my opinion really doesn’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things. 

The Peace Corps: My two kopeks (Part 1)

Disclaimer: I guess some of this can be a little touchy. I'm not trying to make anybody angry or discredit anything anybody's done. I'd love to hear peoples' opinions about this though, specifically any PCVs.

Working in Ukraine, I’ve met a number of Peace Corps volunteers over the last seven weeks. Ukraine has the highest number of Peace Corps volunteers of all the countries the program works with. Peace Corps volunteers constitute the majority (and possibly the entirety) of Americans living in my region of the country. I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of people about how they like the Peace Corps, the institution, and the work they do. Most of them rave about how great of an experience it is. In my head, I’ve compared and contrasted it to UC Berkeley’s GPP program. Having learned so much more about the Peace Corps and its institutional organization while I’ve been here, I want to put in my two cents (or two kopeks, using the local currency) about the program.

Long story short, I essentially support the aims and goals of the Peace Corps, but I do not support the program itself. Let me explain. I support the idea of Americans going overseas to do work. I support the idea of people learning a new language (for Americans, probably the first foreign language, unfortunately). I support the cultural exchange of ideas and practices. However, you can have all of these things without the institution.  The main argument I want to make here is that people should do Peace Corps like work, but there are many other ways to do this than through that one particular institution.

If people want to go abroad, they will. It’s increasingly common for people to work overseas. If you’re a US citizen, just pick up your passport and walk out the door and you can go almost anywhere you want. If you want to volunteer with an organization for less than 90 days, you can go to most countries on a tourist visa free of charge by just showing your passport when you go through security (That’s how I’m in Ukraine right now). If you’d like to work for a longer amount of time, there’s a bit longer of a process, but it’s still not particularly difficult. Basically, the Peace Corps isn’t your gateway to work overseas, your American citizenship is (and I’m really sorry to non-US citizens who are reading this. A lot of this doesn’t apply to you, but I still strongly encourage work overseas.).

My two biggest problems with the institution of the Peace Corps is the “one size fits all” nature of the selection process and the overarching assumption that any sort of volunteer work is beneficial, regardless of, well, everything.

Applicants apply to the Peace Corps knowing that they may be placed in any field and in any geographic location. This has pros and cons. On one side of the argument, there are certain places around the world that are “popular” places to volunteer. There are certain places people see on TV in the US with particularly high rates of poverty that seem like they need to most help. Africa is a good example of this type of place (I don’t think this applies to a particular country, just the entire sub-Saharan region). While tons of volunteers desire to work on the more “popular” locations, other countries, for instance Kyrgyzstan (Who can find that on a map? Or even spell it?) can use some help, but don’t get many offers. By sending volunteers to any location, you solve this particular problem, but create a new one.

In my opinion, anybody going abroad (i.e. outside the United States) should have some sort of idea where they want to go. The land outside of the US is not one homogeneous location. The problems facing Mongolia right now are incredibly different than the problems you’d find in Benin or Paraguay. People are usually aware of this, and have specific areas of interest. However, with the application process of the Peace Corps, you might have a specialist in North Africa who is fluent in Arabic suddenly struggling to learn Khmer. While it’s good that he’s getting this sort of exposure, and probably learning a lot, I wouldn’t say you’re putting this guy’s skills to their best use.

I’m in Ukraine right now because I am particularly interested in former communist countries, I started trying to learn Russian around a year ago and I wanted to be somewhere where I could put that to use, and I took Stephen Fish’s Poli Sci class about the USSR (112C, I’d recommend it, it’s the one thing that sparked my interest about the region) at UC Berkeley. Berkeley’s GPP Program requires that you focus on a specific region and take classes related to that area. Realistically speaking, this is what everybody planning on leaving the US should do, regardless of whether it’s a requirement for your degree. If the Peace Corps took this sort of approach, I think the program would be much more successful and beneficial for participants, as well as locals.

The second part of this problem here is the lack of choice in the work you’re actually doing. Everybody in the US knows that there are different fields people work in. Some people specialize in health care, others work with children, and others run businesses. Each of these takes a different skill set and a different type of person. While the Peace Corps attempts to place you with an organization that you would work well with, there’s the occasional doctor that ends up teaching English or childcare specialist that needs to become an expert in soil conservation. I’m all in favor of having a diverse set of skills, but I feel that within the field of development work it’s important to use the skills you already have to the best extent possible. The aim of the organization is not to teach Americans new things (although it certainly does, and that’s great!), but to help people outside of the country. In order to keep consistent with this idea, it’s important to take advantage of what people already have to offer.

One particular area where a lack of choice within a sector could be a problem is agriculture. Ukraine does not have an agricultural program through the Peace Corps, but many other countries do. If somebody can explain to me why this seems like a good idea, I’d love to hear it. The fact that you would trust a 22 year old with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a Farmville account with a country’s food production kind of scares me. Agriculture is one field where you would want somebody who specializes in something like, um, agriculture, not somebody who applied to the program expecting to teach English in Beijing.

Now, let’s set aside the issue of the lack of agency in your geographic sector and type of work and focus on an idea that’s a bit more controversial, the idea of volunteering. Since this blog post is already getting quite long, I’m going to elaborate on the issue in a later post. Long story short, the lack of volunteers is not the reason there are problems in the world today. In many ways the idea of “Volunteerism” perpetuates issues of poverty. Look at the recent court case in the United States regarding unpaid internships. There’s no real line between “volunteering” and “interning”. While there are many individuals who are willing to work for free, such an influx in free labor causes other people to lose their jobs, potentially hurting the economy. As of last month, there is a consensus among many Americans that “unpaid internships” are not right. So volunteering is good, interning is bad, and there is no clear distinction between the two. I’ll leave it at that.

So while there are legitimate causes that can use volunteers, there are many situations you can wind up in (perhaps the majority of them, but that’s up for debate), where you can hurt a community more than helping it by providing your unpaid labor. If you take it upon yourself to be this type of person, injecting unpaid labor into the workforce, you should have a good reason. You should be working for an organization that seriously needs your help, and not just one that can use free labor.

How does this relate to the Peace Corps? In every way possible. Ethically speaking, if you want to be a volunteer, you should have control over the exact thing that you’re doing. You want to be sure that you didn’t cause somebody to lose their job. You need to know where your organization gets its money, who the organization serves, whether they have connections to the government (which may or may not be positive), to corporations (again, this may or may not be positive), or to any other social or economic institutions. As a volunteer, you should have a clear goal in mind.

If you become a Peace Corps Volunteer, you don’t have this control. You’ll be placed with an organization that does some sort of work that may or may not align with your personal values, and you’ll be here for 27 months. Ideally, the Peace Corps identifies the perfect organizations to work with, and positions you where you will have the strongest positive impact. But pragmatically speaking, is this possible? It could take working somewhere for over a year before you figure out if the organization aligns with your personal values. And do the staff, sitting in the office in Washington DC know the exact work that the organization does, who they serve, who their stakeholders are, and how they implement their projects? Maybe not. And how familiar are the people in the building off of K Street with your own personal morals? Probably not much.

So the Peace Corps takes people who aren't familiar with a certain area and aren't particularly experienced in a certain type f work, and places them with an organization that they may or may not be ethically okay with. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

Check out Part 2 of this post here:

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Семья (Family)

Written around June 16, 2013:
The family I am living with while I’m in Dnepropetrovsk is definitely not a typical Ukrainian family. Let me explain. When everybody is home, there are actually two families occupying the house. The two families run a non-profit organization together, working with orphans in the Dnepropetrovska Oblast (the province). Right now, it is just me and Vitaliy who are here. For the first few weeks I was in Dnepropetrovsk, Vitaliy’s two kids, Daniel and Vlada, were also living here. Yesterday, they left to spend the remainder of the summer with their grandparents. The other family living in the house, as well as Vitaliy’s wife, are all in Switzerland, networking with other organizations and fundraising for their work in Ukraine.
So, how is this not a typical Ukrainian family? First of all, all the kids have been raised speaking English. Vlada speaks some Russian with her parents, but Danny refuses to speak any Russian at all. When we all sit around the table for dinner, the conversation is always in English. This certainly makes things easier for me, but it isn’t the most ideal situation for me to learn Russian. A few other differences between my family and typical Ukrainians: Nobody in the family smokes (which is almost unheard of in Ukraine), and the house is pretty big and nice, even for American standards. My bedroom is a rather large rec-room on the third floor, next to Danny’s room.
Many evenings, me and Vitaliy sit and talk about things. He doesn’t have any interest in traveling to the United States, but he’s really interested in knowing more about it. He asks about where places are in the US and about politics and current events. We’ve had some really good discussions on topics ranging from Putin to universities in the US.
The work Vitaliy and the others do here in Ukraine is really interesting. They run a small non-profit organization that works with orphans and foster kids. There are two main projects they’re working on for the summer. The first is installing new windows in one orphanage. Temperatures in Ukraine can get down below -30 C (-22F), so having thick windows to keep out the cold can be a safety issue for the kids living there. Currently, some parts of the orphanage get unbearably cold in the winter, due to cracks and a lack of quality of the windows.
The second project they are working on is building a football (soccer) stadium at another orphanage. This particular orphanage isn’t the typical orphanage you’d imagine. It houses kids and young adults with severe mental handicaps. These kids will probably never know a life outside of the institution where they live.
I went with Vitaliy and some of his colleagues to here to play football with the kids during my first few weeks here. It was a really interesting experience. We played in a large empty lot next to an orchard. The language barrier was a bit more difficult, as these kids had probably never spoken to an English speaker before, and couldn’t comprehend the idea of somebody that doesn’t speak Russian. I tried to introduce myself and make small talk, and the kids were really eager to talk to me at first, but quickly grew uninterested when they discovered I got lost in the conversation after we went over names and ages. Playing football with those kids was one of my more memorable experiences here. It was also incredibly humbling, given my struggles with the language and my lack of knowledge of football. Vitaliy had to explain everything to me in English on the side, otherwise I would have been completely clueless.

So, tl;dr: I’m really enjoying living here. The people I live with are really great and do a lot of really cool and interesting work. They’re always passionate about helping other people. I haven’t had a big opportunity to practice my Russian (they just prefer to speak English with me), but I have lots of other places where I can do that.

Death by Кров (Fucking myagkiy znak)

Earlier today, I was thinking of an interesting situation involving two Russian words that are really similar to each other.
Imagine this conversation:
“Did you hear about Chris?”
“No, what happened?”
“He was in the hospital in Ukraine and really needed a blood transfusion. After explaining to the doctors that he needed this ASAP, the doctors agreed that they could airlift the rooftop of a house from Western Europe all the way to Ukraine, as long as his insurance covers it. Chris guaranteed them that the insurance would cover it. After they successfully airlifted the roof all the way to the hospital, Chris died. Fucking myagkiy znak.”
Basically, the word Кров means “roof” and the word Кровь means “blood”. There’s only a one letter difference. What makes things a bit more complicated is that you don’t actually pronounce the “ь” at the end of Кровь (called a мягкий знак or myagkiy znak). It just modifies the way you pronounce the letter in front of it. If you don’t want to learn the Cyrillic alphabet half way through this paragraph, you can think of it as blood being “Kroff” and roof being “Krof”. See how that would be confusing?
I can’t think of very many places where you might get those words mixed up, and I really doubt that they would get a new roof for somebody that needs a blood transfusion. But I do think it’s funny that those words are so similar.

I realized all of this a while ago when I saw a sign in front of a store. It said something along the lines of (what I thought was) “We sell everything for windows and blood”. I thought that was a very odd combination of things to sell, so I looked it up and figured out that they actually don’t sell blood (although you could probably find a kiosk on a street corner somewhere that sells blood for 15 griven and keeps it in between the cigarettes and cell phones, but it wouldn't be refrigerated and with consumer protection laws here, you wouldn't want to use it in a blood transfusion).