October 24, 2005: Headlines: Speaking Out: Development: First Goal: USA Today: Laura Vanderkam says "Peace Corps needs makeover"

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Speaking Out: January 23, 2005: Index: PCOL Exclusive: Speaking Out (1 of 5) : Archive of Stories: October 24, 2005: Headlines: Speaking Out: Development: First Goal: USA Today: Laura Vanderkam says "Peace Corps needs makeover": October 24, 2005: Headlines: Speaking Out: Development: First Goal: USA Today: Laura Vanderkam says "Peace Corps needs makeover"

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Laura Vanderkam says "Peace Corps needs makeover"

Laura Vanderkam says Peace Corps needs makeover

While the Peace Corps commercials talk about development, only one of these goals is about that version of helping. Says Mike Ward, former Peace Corps associate director, "The value is more in cross-cultural exchange." Since the focus is exchange, not development, volunteers are encouraged to live as their hosts do. Eschewing toilets is fine, but the roughing-it philosophy also means limiting access to technology, even though it's sprouting all over the developing world. The Peace Corps does well recruiting IT professionals but needs more engineers, agriculture experts and older, experienced volunteers.

Laura Vanderkam says "Peace Corps needs makeover"

Peace Corps needs makeover
By Laura Vanderkam
"How far would you go to help someone?" the Peace Corps commercial asks.

Rajeev Goyal, a recent Brown University graduate, traveled to a remote mountain village in Nepal to teach. Upon arriving in Namje, though, he learned his students had no time for schoolwork.

The village lacked clean water, so children spent six hours a day lugging it up the hillside. Goyal promised the villagers that if they would build a water system, he would find the money and know-how to do so. He did, raising funds mostly from fellow Indian-Americans. Because Goyal had to hike two hours to the nearest phone every time he needed to contact engineers, though, the project took a year and a half.

On one hand, Namje's watering is a success story. It's the kind the Peace Corps is celebrating as it commemorates the 45th anniversary this month of John F. Kennedy's campaign speech on Oct. 14, 1960, calling for its creation. Since then, thousands of volunteers have spent two years of their lives bettering dozens of countries.

But there's another side to the story. The budget for 7,700 volunteers is more than $300 million a year. For the roughly $80,000 it costs to support a volunteer for two years, a team of engineers could have visited Namje to help lay pipes. But the Peace Corps doesn't work that way. Its primary focus is building cross-cultural friendships. To encourage friendships, the bulk of volunteers still serve in situations like Goyal's — remote, alone, living at the locals' level, eking out progress by patience and wit.

That's too bad. Technology and international politics have changed the world since 1960 in ways that make the "roughing it" philosophy counterproductive. The Peace Corps could better the world quicker by changing its focus.

Longtime goals

To understand the program's methods, you have to know its three goals:

• "Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women."

• "Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served."

• "Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans."

While the Peace Corps commercials talk about development, only one of these goals is about that version of helping. Says Mike Ward, former Peace Corps associate director, "The value is more in cross-cultural exchange."

Since the focus is exchange, not development, volunteers are encouraged to live as their hosts do. "There is a funny volunteer competitive thing about who has to 'rough it' more, and people without electricity, running water, etc., seem to get the most bragging rights," says Sara Armstrong, who served in the Philippines.

Eschewing toilets is fine, but the roughing-it philosophy also means limiting access to technology, even though it's sprouting all over the developing world. It means having most volunteers, "except in a few cases," according to spokesman Nathan Arnold, serve by themselves. Because friendship is primary, many find their projects vague or feature little accountability.

Josh Berger, a recent volunteer, arrived in Mali to learn that his hosts weren't sure what his mission was. While overcoming these obstacles is a character-building experience, isolation, lack of technology and vagueness make service quite inefficient.

That need not be the case. The world has changed since Kennedy's speech. When John Coyne, who runs the website Peace Corps Writers, flew to Addis Ababa in 1962, it was his second time on a plane. Few volunteers can say that now.

Our needs, likewise, have changed. Under Kennedy, we battled the USSR for the developing world's soul. Now there may be a case for Arab world friendship programs, but elsewhere, people need American friends less than they need to stop carrying water six hours a day.

Possible steps

The Peace Corps, with its well-respected brand name, is uniquely positioned to make that happen. Here's how:

Choose sites where technology is accessible. Though it's great that Namje has water, sites near cities can develop faster. Volunteers located near cities could use the global cellphones the Peace Corps should issue them and the Internet access they should be guaranteed, to contact other volunteers or experts.

Some volunteers are this wired. Julia de la Torre, while serving in Moldova, emailed me that technology "has allowed me to create teaching materials and work more effectively as a volunteer."

Charge fees. If groups that request a volunteer must pay something per project, they're more likely to set goals ahead of time.

Staff volunteers in teams. Teams motivate each other and leverage each other's skills.

Hire volunteers with useful skills. Says Berger, "The bulk of us are graduates of small liberal arts colleges. We didn't bring a lot that could benefit subsistence farmers in rural Africa." The Peace Corps does well recruiting IT professionals but needs more engineers, agriculture experts and older, experienced volunteers.

Build in accountability. Peace Corps service is a job, but few volunteers are evaluated on specific metrics, such as how many adults passed a literacy test. Tying the size of a volunteer's post-service transition award (currently about $6,000) to achieving goals would boost efficiency.

Some Peace Corps country programs already incorporate these elements. Most volunteers in Mexico specialize in business development, so they have access to technology. The South Africa program seeks out older volunteers (people listen to elders when they talk about HIV prevention). That's two countries. There are a whole lot more. After 45 years, the Peace Corps should step up the pace.

New York City-based writer Laura Vanderkam is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.





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Story Source: USA Today

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Speaking Out; Development; First Goal

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