I want to talk about the Peace Corps, my little part of it, as I see it now.
To talk about now, though, I’ve got to go back and talk about then. The early sixties were (I understand) heady days for us as a country. We’d concluded what seemed like a successful police action in Korea under the auspices of the then-still-exciting United Nations, we were following our most charismatic president, and fears about the Soviet Union had (somewhat) diminished with his handling of the missile crisis and Khrushchev’s rejection of Stalin and Stalinism. We hadn’t yet come to know the horrors of Vietnam or the culture wars what would tear us apart.
We were on top of the world, and in that moment we still thought that we could save it. It speaks to the spirit of the times that an offhand remark on the steps of the Michigan Union during the campaign generated enough public excitement for Kennedy to create an entirely new and radical kind of development and diplomacy organization. The idea behind the Peace Corps is still appealing—we send bright, young all-American college graduates off to the poorest corners of the world and let them use their new-gotten know-how to improve lives abroad in the same way they’d soon be improving them at home. It’s a kind of beautiful optimism, a faith in forward progress that hadn’t yet been stymied by stagflation and internal surveillance and decades of proxy wars.
Sending young white kids (at the time and still, mostly, now) to lift the benighted peoples of the Earth from their backwards poverty sounds chauvinistic. Fair. But in the economic development sense, the motives were altruistic (the United States pretty much never stands to gain directly or indirectly, unless we’re talking very indirectly from the development work volunteers do), and the ‘Peace Corps Approach to Development’ kept and keeps the organization from being imperialistic or homogenizing or even as patronizing as you might think.
The thing that set us apart and still sets us apart from most everyone in development is that much-vaunted-in-training ‘approach’. The central tenet of the Peace Corps philosophy is that everything we do as volunteers comes from the people with whom we work. Most of our training isn’t technical; it doesn’t deal with well-digging, it doesn’t teach us to plant crops or to operate machinery or to take water samples or build dams. Most of our training is on tools to explore a society, to build community consensus, to suss out ideas, hold evaluative votes—the point is that we don’t come in with ideas about what anyone should do. We try to get our community to recognize their collective needs and then to connect actors to achieve them.
Example: my bioreserve has a reservoir. Because of upstream erosion and the nature of dammed rivers, we have problems with silt accumulation. We’re filling up the basin with mud and sand and gravel. In another part of the Reserve, we have problems with erosion because builders extract sand and gravel from riverbanks and destabilize the sides. A volunteer’s job might be to find and connect the builders and the park authorities, solving two problems by making a connection that might not have seemed obvious at first (since two different authorities deal with the two different problems and might not ever have communicated otherwise).
All that development-type work falls under the Peace Corps’ First Goal, which is “To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.” Whether or not a majority of volunteers were ever technically skilled is beside the point, since the technical skills aren’t the thrust of it, and, more importantly, since material development is only one third of the Peace Corps’ stated mission. Second Goal—“to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served”— and Third Goal—“To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans”—are about personal diplomacy.
It’s hard for us to understand how real that must have felt, how important, back in those early days. Before we had such easy access to images and information about the third world, before the internet and JSTOR and even before we had broad print literature or societal interest in the places those first kids went. If the average American knows little about Colombia now, when it’s been the news for decades because of the FARC, imagine the kind of unknown (for them) those first volunteers were walking into, the kind of opportunities for low-level cultural exchange that were so much rarer and more difficult to realize.
I mention Colombia for a reason. Those early volunteers were heroes. They signed up for something untried and untested, a trip into the unknown without even the illusion of safety. We lost kids our first year. And our second. The first two perished in a plane crash along with the twenty-eight Colombians unlucky enough to be with them. The Peace Corps has lost 292 volunteers out of 210,000 in 52 years, which, if you count all active servicemembers makes being a volunteer, over time, slightly more dangerous than joining the US military between 2003 and 2010.
Our organization was a grand dream, but it didn’t grow the way it should have. Second Goal should have been a way to project an image of ourselves as something other than warmongering hyperconsumers.
Third Goal should have been a force to counterbalance our arrogant and destructive foreign policy, with all the volunteers from South America and the Middle East coming back and crying out, Hey, don’t shoot! Volunteer numbers should have ballooned. We cost a little less than $50,000 a year to keep in the field, compared to the $1,000,000 we spend on a soldier in wartime. The Peace Corps’ annual budget is a drop in the federal ocean. Our dwindling numbers meant that Second and Third Goal returns never came in the way that they should have, and the only thing to look at, when the time came for successive congresses to tighten the belt, was our First Goal performance. Which has been compared in politics and in the press to that of other development organizations, and not in our favor.
The problem, though is, that those comparisons are apples and oranges, as nonsensical as they are inappropriate. We’re volunteers out alone in the countryside with, if we’re lucky, occasional small cash infusions from USAID. When Congress sees that we’ve been operating in a country for decades and wonders why it still isn’t developed (or maybe it’s suspiciously too-developed), that’s nonsense. If I’m going to help Mexico, it’s going to be a couple people at a time. A group of kids who go to college because I pushed them that way or a school that gets attended out in some rural village because a volunteer puzzled out a work schedule. We make very small, very human change. Sometimes there are big projects and some volunteers manage to transcend all logical bounds to their scope of labor. But in the majority we’re not building bridges or dams or highways—the major stuff of development is never what we were supposed to be doing in the first place.
Somewhere along the line, though, the powers that be decided that we ought to comport ourselves more like a “real” development organization. Now we’re in a pickle. I am given to understand that we were doing a bad job reporting what we were doing. The only record of a volunteer’s activities during his time in service was his DOS, a two-or-three page summary that he wrote himself. Even if you’re proudly not achieving conventional development advances, you need to know what you’re up to. I’ve got no beef with that. We needed better reporting. We still need better reporting. But I think we got a little lost along the way.
Here in Mexico, we have a project framework. It’s got an ultimate goal (the “Purpose”), which is that “Mexican organizations and communities will effectively address climate change challenges and improve the management and protection of their natural resources and biodiversity.” Under that, it’s got all kinds of goals, objectives, and indicators: how many people trained, workshops attended, technical manuals created, eco-technologies implemented. For the Small Project Assistance grants we get through USAID, we respond to another set of objectives and indicators set periodically. Right now we’re in Sustainable Landscapes, which has to do with reducing emissions and creating carbon sinks through land management. Some of our goals and indicators come from a generic set that headquarters created for consumption and use worldwide. All of it looks a lot like what I imagine populates the documents and datasheets of USAID or any other big development org. And apart from that it’s not all that straightforward, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. There is just one problem.
I mentioned earlier that Peace Corps had a central philosophical tenet to its approach to development, a guiding, unifying principle that set us apart for decades. That everything we do, every step we take in site from the first day to the last comes from the people themselves. The assumption upon which that tenet rests, the assumption that goes counter to how development has been run since people started doing development, is that we the representatives of the so-called First World, we don’t necessarily know better than the people we work with, we do not assume that we can transplant our way of life into another country, and we know that everything we do has to be born from and filtered through the history, people, and culture of our host country. Whereas somebody else might read Friedman or Malcolm Gladwell, the idea is that we read Octavio Paz.
So much of development has been a story of abject failure (see, for example, our statebuilding in Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam) because we assume we know better, we assume that our developed status means we can fix problems everywhere by making them more like us. Peace Corps, whatever else it’s gotten wrong, Peace Corps doesn’t do that. Which means that all this pantomiming of ‘legitimate’ development orgs, all the goal-setting and indicators, they take us dangerously close to a place that’s antithetical to our sense of self as a body.
My Dad was the best man in General Motors at running body shops for at least a decade. Maybe longer. When he told me about how he’d turn the worst shops in the company into some of the best, he’d always talk to me about indicators. So one day, I asked him why. He told me that once you create an indicator, even if it’s something they’d never thought about before, they respond to it. If a piece of a given car body wasn’t fitting, day after day, he wouldn’t (or wouldn’t just) harangue his guys to measure better. He’d create a whole set of tools and indicators to measure it from start to finish. Once they were there, posted on the wall, people began to respond to them.
Whether or not you also tell him about our approach to development, when you take a volunteer during training and tell him that he ought to be working on climate change, then when he gets to site, intentionally or not, he’ll be thinking about climate change and designing projects around it (especially since our nearly only source of outside funding comes from those Small Project grants I mentioned). Directives from central command have made things even clearer. We report our activities quarterly in a long and bureaucratic form tailored to the same indicators from the plan. Come up with unrelated activities and you’ve got to mark down glaring goose-eggs in category after category.
Also with direction, we set up a Monitoring, Reporting, and Evaluation (MRE) task force. At the time that struck me as great, because philosophical doubts aside, the whole reporting system is a little bonkers. Unfortunately (and inevitably), the herculean efforts of my fellow-volunteers are resulting in a set of tools that will make it easier and ever more mandatory to fit our activities into the project framework.
The most egregious flaw is that it’s all directed at First Goal. Two-thirds of our mission, the two-thirds that we do better than anyone else, they’ve fallen by the official wayside. The only things we could report to the public that we and nobody else does like us, there are no tools for their reporting, their recognition, their dissemination.
I’m doing what I can for Second Goal in person and for Third Goal on this blog, but neither goal is as supported or emphasized or institutionalized enough. Returning volunteers should be giving group conferences, should be presented to the public, should talk regularly to Congress, should be supported post service as RPCVs in the interest of Third Goal. Above all, Peace Corps official should be leading that charge instead of pretending that the organization is something it’s not, never will be, and was never meant to be.
We might not have known it at the time, but we made a kind of a start of it at our All-Volunteer conference with our storytelling workshop. I’m going to keep working on it.