Peace Corps critics don’t understand our mission

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Photo above: A Senegalese girl talks about girl’s empowerment and the importance of staying in school during an event organized by Seibert.

Part II: The Critics

Of course, criticism of the Peace Corps abounds – even among PCV’s. Most op-eds you’ll read about Peace Corps are less than complimentary, with titles like “Why the Peace Corps is an Affront to the Poor,” or “The Peace Corps: What is it for?” Some critics believe that volunteers are living a carefree vacation life abroad, funded by US tax dollars, with little accountability for what we accomplish.

“If you were trying to design an organization to avoid having a lasting impact, it might look a lot like the Peace Corps: inexperienced volunteers sent to work in near-total isolation from one another, with time limits guaranteed to make their impact only short term,” wrote former Cameroon PCV Gal Beckerman in a 2011 article for the Boston Globe.

I’d argue to the contrary. As I’ve mentioned, modern day PCV’s are far less isolated from one another than ever before. We collaborate, share ideas and write case studies. Resource materials are available on the Peace Corps website. Recognizing the need for greater accountability, Peace Corps has mandated that volunteers fill out biannual “Volunteer Reporting Forms” to quantify our work.

Senegal's coast
Senegal’s coast

Though living conditions vary with each country, Peace Corps is a far cry from vacation. Take Senegal. Would you choose to spend your holiday in a thatched hut in 110 degree weather, taking bucket baths, eating porridge or rice and leaf sauce for every meal, battling recurring skin infections and stomach parasites, struggling to blend into a community where you stand out like a sore thumb? Not likely.

A tiny percentage of the volunteers currently in the field may have been assigned to beautiful tropical islands or cities with modern conveniences, but not the majority. Will Lutwick’s book Dodging Machetes about his 1960’s Peace Corps service in Fiji paints a romantic picture, but not a representative one.

As for the “so little time, barely an impact” argument: yes, two years is a blink of an eye in international development. But I believe that it’s enough time to accomplish the goals of Peace Corps. We can plant the seeds of knowledge for behavior change, kick off a project that will train leaders and increase local capacity (Goal 1), and encourage cultural exchange in both directions (Goals 2 and 3). It’s long enough to make a difference in individual lives.

State Department employee Jerry Withers, who served in Cote d’Ivoire in the 1970’s, says he still considers Peace Corps to be the best thing he’s ever done. He worked to create low cost housing options and turn the old decaying colonial capital into an arts center. “Every day seemed relevant,” he says. “I was not in a rural, classical ‘au village’ setting, but I felt impactful every day.”

Some former PCVs have cited frustration with the lack of resources to accomplish big lasting projects. It’s not as easy as it might be for an NGO, but we do have resources, if we choose to go that route: we can partner with existing organizations or apply for grants.

In Senegal, one Agroforestry Volunteer I know has spent much of his service promoting the cultivation of Moringa, a vitamin-rich plant great for combatting malnutrition. Now that awareness and interest in the idea has grown, he’s helped several villages link up to create a “Federation” of groups producing and selling Moringa. It’s not a national project, but it’s a pretty big project for his region, and he did it as a PCV with a grant.

Lauren Seibert and her host mom.
Lauren Seibert and her host mom.

Why Do It?

In general, Peace Corps is structured to focus on a smaller, more personal scale and that’s not a bad thing. We try to increase knowledge and spark behavior change leading to better quality of life. We are different than international aid organizations and NGO’s – and that’s okay.

This job requires a heavy dose of resilience and initiative to succeed, but I’ve seen time and time again that success can be defined in so many different ways. Hadiel Mohamed, a former PCV in northern Senegal, spent hours and hours working with some of Senegal’s most at-risk youth. She didn’t need to construct something physical. She was building up self-confidence, life skills, and motivation. That personal attention is what defines Peace Corps.

“The heart of our purpose for existing in this place is to help people change behavior to meet the end goals expressed by the country,” said former Senegal PCV Austin Peterson, now a Training Manager. “We are change agents. We are conduits of information.”

In the beginning of my service, I often lay under my mosquito net at night questioning my choice to be here: what I was accomplishing or not accomplishing, project ideas and fears of failure, what to spend time on, whether I was unreasonable in my frustration with certain parts of the culture. Sometimes I would see beauty – towering baobab trees, women in brilliantly embroidered complèts – and I’d feel a rush. Then my eyes would drop to the trash coating the dirt paths and the kids yelling “toubab,” and that rush would disintegrate into a sigh.

A year later, this life remains challenging, but I’ve learned to focus my eyes on the positives rather than the negatives. I see the big smiles of the teenagers we taught at our youth empowerment camp; I see more women starting to cook with Moringa. I’ve stopped questioning whether Peace Corps is “worth it” and accepted that it is if we make it so.

We find niches and fill them. It’s the hardest, but most fulfilling job I’ve ever had.

Part 1 of this article can be found HERE.
All photos provided by Lauren Seibert