Sunday, July 14, 2013

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:

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