Thursday, February 7, 2008
I read with interest the recent op-ed pieces regarding the Peace Corps. I would like to make a few comments, from the point of view of a 52 year old volunteer with many years of agricultural and community organizing experience.
1 – Regarding the question of bringing in more volunteers over the age of 50 – it´s a great idea. Older volunteers walk into a community and for the most part have instant credibility, irregardless of credentials. Most of us have, or have had, spouses, children, or businesses, and have experienced all the ups and downs associated. Most of the people we work with will have had similar experiences, certainly with regards to children and families. Even teaching volunteers will have plenty of interaction with other adults, administrators, teachers, and parents. They will all be curious about the older volunteers life – why did you decide to come here, where are your children, where is your spouse, how is life different here than in the U.S. – the questions will be sincere, and limitless. Younger volunteers are often seen (sometimes unfairly) more as adventurers, looking for a little fun and experience before starting a life back in the US.
One caveat – pay special attention to language acquisition for older volunteers! During training the older volunteer should be offered full days and weeks of language immersion – it is likely safe to assume that he or she has extensive, or at least sufficient, technical expertise.
2 – Specialists vs Generalists: This question is as old as Peace Corps itself! There is really only one answer, which is of course, both. There are no guarantees that a specialist can adequately teach, adapt to a new culture and a somewhat lower standard of living, or adapt to the realities of lowered expectations. Conversely, there is no reason to expect that a generalist, fresh out of college, can not apply themselves and quickly learn pertinent skills that will ultimately assist their communities. The most important skill of any volunteer is flexibility – the dogma of specialization rarely has a place in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer.
A successful PCV will be a multitasker par excellence, for the reality is that in any given month (say, for an AG volunteer, like myself) we may speak to a group of 40 to 50 about food security and nutrition; a group of 14 or 15 about specific pest problems on specific crops; we may spend an hour or two once a week teaching English to whoever shows up. We may be asked by the local health center to prepare a talk about domestic violence, or birth control. We may spend a grueling day, or week, digging fish ponds or building terraces on hillsides way too steep for conventional farming. We may spend an evening talking with a local women’s group about community banks, or about the best way to market the delicious jam they create from local fruits. And of course, many of us will take gulps of time for continued language training, either in the privacy of our quarters, or, even better, on a street corner sharing a cerveza or a platter of horno.
However, the most important work we will do is to share our humanity, our common bonds. To rejoice in small successes, and to flounder a little over our failures. To take a short walk along the coast with a neighbor, or hike in the mountains with a group of children who are thrilled beyond belief that you agreed to go with them. To admit to our new friends our fears and our questions, and our concerns, and to soothe them when they admit theirs, to us. Not a week goes by when I don’t wonder at least once – what the hell am I doing here? And without fail, I receive 10 or 15 affirmative reasons, every single week.
Former volunteer, recruiter, and country director Robert L. Strauss is, very surprisingly, looking at Peace Corps through a very small lens, if one is to be guided by his recently published opinions. Without a doubt, Peace Corps, like all agencies, should be in a constant state of examination and retooling. Also, without a doubt, Peace Corps is an incredibly successful concept and organization, by any standard of measurement. And it cannot be ignored that the ENTIRE annual budget of Peace Corps worldwide amounts to less than 2 days of war expenditures in Iraq. Let’s have some serious conversations about the real problems in America’s foreign policies – and less carping about Peace Corps, one of the best tools America has ever had to improve its image in a world that simultaneously grows smaller yet farther apart.