This week, an article in Foreign Policy titled Corps Concerns, discusses the need of the Peace Corps in the 21st century. The PC advocate in me couldn’t help but want to share my personal response to the issues raised in the article.
The author evaluated the need of Peace Corps base on three main goals of the Agency:
1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Argument: Peace Corps was designed to benefit its host countries with well-educated (if usually inexperienced) young Americans in undereducated developing economies. But today, countries like Indonesia, Panama and Guatemala have a far higher percentage of university graduates than 50 years ago.
My Response: Panama, Guatemala and Indonesia are just three of the 77 countries that Peace Corps serves today. Large majority of the 77 countries today, certainly the case of Cameroon, could still benefit from skills and knowledge of well-educated (if usually inexperienced) young people as myself.
Argument:The Peace Corps is operating in a world where people in even remote regions have exponentially greater access to sources of information about American culture and foreign policy than they had in 1961. People have access to American films and news about American foreign policy from the Internet and TV.
My Response: I was often horrified by what my village friends think of Americans. They ask me questions such as, “Do you have a gun? Don’t all Americans have guns?” or “Can I come to America with you? there aren’t any poor people in America, right?”. We all know what is portrayed in Hollywood is not really America, and I would hope that is not the image of the US that we want to portray. Just as you can’t learn about what life is really like in any given place by watching National Geographic, citizens of other nations also wouldn’t know what America is really like from TV and movies. While each of us may have biased opinion of what being an American is like, the opinions are at least more real than Hollywood’s version.
Argument: While it is obvious that Peace Corps can provide a hugely enriching and life-changin experience, the world is a very different place than it was in 1961. Between 1996 and 2009 alone, the number of U.S. citizens traveling to Africa tripled to 399,000 a year; 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad in the 2008-2009 academic year, up from around 75,000 20 years ago. A lot of those studying did so in developing countries — 13,681 in Africa and 3,670 in the Middle East, for example.
My Response: I studied abroad in college – three times, and each time lasting no more than 4 months. Did those experiences change me? sure. Then I served in the Peace Corps, for 27 months. That’s 6 consecutive study abroad programs at 4 months a session. Not to mention in a completely different environment where there is no group bus and I’m to fend for my own. Are we really trying to compare study abroad experiences to Peace Corps services?
Argument:Trimming the current bureaucratic structure — and perhaps rethinking the two-year commitment — would expand the number of countries where the program could operate and allow the Peace Corps to attract more volunteers.
My Response: Most people don’t have problem giving up one year of their lives to go live somewhere very different. The reservation I’ve often heard from people not wanting to join is because of the two-year commitment. Living without running water/electricity/basic modern comforts, and being far away from friends/families and missing holidays are all good and well for one year, but two years is an entirely different story. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it sure sets those who can endure it apart from the rest. This is what makes Peace Corps unique.
From the volunteer’s perspective, it takes an entire year to really become comfortable with the culture, the language, and to gain the trust of the community. It’s usually in the 2nd year that volunteers flourish. Year one, I knew my ways and I was capable of doing things in my village. Year two, I became the daughter of my village. So far, I have not heard participants of other similar programs claim that they feel like they are the daughter/son of the community they worked with. I hear this from Peace Corps volunteers all the time. Perhaps someone can prove me wrong here.
Et voilà, those are my thoughts as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Take them for what they are worth. As for does the world still need Peace Corps? I think my answer is obvious, but I’ll leave it for you to decide.