Monday, January 28, 2008

Too Many Innocents Abroad?

Recently published in the New York Times Op-Ed was a commentary by the former PC Country Director of Cameroon. I’ve included the text here:

Too Many Innocents Abroad
Published: January 9, 2008
Antananarivo, Madagascar

THE Peace Corps recently began a laudable initiative to increase the number of volunteers who are 50 and older. As the Peace Corps’ country director in Cameroon from 2002 until last February, I observed how many older volunteers brought something to their service that most young volunteers could not: extensive professional and life experience and the ability to mentor younger volunteers.
However, even if the Peace Corps reaches its goal of having 15 percent of its volunteers over 50, the overwhelming majority will remain recently minted college graduates. And too often these young volunteers lack the maturity and professional experience to be effective development workers in the 21st century.

This wasn’t the case in 1961 when the Peace Corps sent its first volunteers overseas. Back then, enthusiastic young Americans offered something that many newly independent nations counted in double and even single digits: college graduates. But today, those same nations have millions of well-educated citizens of their own desperately in need of work. So it’s much less clear what inexperienced Americans have to offer.
The Peace Corps has long shipped out well-meaning young people possessing little more than good intentions and a college diploma. What the agency should begin doing is recruiting only the best of recent graduates — as the top professional schools do — and only those older people whose skills and personal characteristics are a solid fit for the needs of the host country.

The Peace Corps has resisted doing this for fear that it would cause the number of volunteers to plummet. The name of the game has been getting volunteers into the field, qualified or not.

In Cameroon, we had many volunteers sent to serve in the agriculture program whose only experience was puttering around in their mom and dad’s backyard during high school. I wrote to our headquarters in Washington to ask if anyone had considered how an American farmer would feel if a fresh-out-of-college Cameroonian with a liberal arts degree who had occasionally visited Grandma’s cassava plot were sent to Iowa to consult on pig-raising techniques learned in a three-month crash course. I’m pretty sure the American farmer would see it as a publicity stunt and a bunch of hooey, but I never heard back from headquarters.

For the Peace Corps, the number of volunteers has always trumped the quality of their work, perhaps because the agency fears that an objective assessment of its impact would reveal that while volunteers generate good will for the United States, they do little or nothing to actually aid development in poor countries. The agency has no comprehensive system for self-evaluation, but rather relies heavily on personal anecdote to demonstrate its worth.

Every few years, the agency polls its volunteers, but in my experience it does not systematically ask the people it is supposedly helping what they think the volunteers have achieved. This is a clear indication of how the Peace Corps neglects its customers; as long as the volunteers are enjoying themselves, it doesn’t matter whether they improve the quality of life in the host countries. Any well-run organization must know what its customers want and then deliver the goods, but this is something the Peace Corps has never learned.

This lack of organizational introspection allows the agency to continue sending, for example, unqualified volunteers to teach English when nearly every developing country could easily find high-caliber English teachers among its own population. Even after Cameroonian teachers and education officials ranked English instruction as their lowest priority (after help with computer literacy, math and science, for example), headquarters in Washington continued to send trainees with little or no classroom experience to teach English in Cameroonian schools. One volunteer told me that the only possible reason he could think of for having been selected was that he was a native English speaker.

The Peace Corps was born during the glory days of the early Kennedy administration. Since then, its leaders and many of the more than 190,000 volunteers who have served have mythologized the agency into something that can never be questioned or improved. The result is an organization that finds itself less and less able to provide what the people of developing countries need — at a time when the United States has never had a greater need for their good will.

Robert L. Strauss has been a Peace Corps volunteer, recruiter and country director. He now heads a management consulting company.

There has recently been some debate on the merits of his comments regarding PC volunteers. A discussion arose amongst PCVs and their friends and families and I thought I’d jump on the band wagon and add my two cents. Why not, right?

Something that Strauss comments on is about the lack of maturity and experience of recent college graduates. These comments can never be widespread and applied to the general public, but currently in Mali, I would say that he’d hit the nail on the head. With my group of volunteers who entered, the mean age was about 25 or 27, I can’t remember. That means that there were some recent college graduates, but that also means that there were a significant number of older volunteers who had other volunteer or real world experience. I feel like my group had a really good head on its shoulders and that we each brought something to the table. Now, with our new group of volunteers, I don’t know if I feel the same way. Granted, it’s a group of 70 volunteers, and I don’t know them all, but the majority that I have met are right out of college and not to say that they don’t have the skills to apply, but they’re some of the most immature and/or inconsiderate people I’ve met. Honestly, sometimes I wonder what’s going on in the interview process in America. I’m hoping that they’re just new and in a new environment and will grow out of it. Hell, maybe we were like this too, but I don’t think so. There’s still time to see if things will turn around with them, but I do wonder which characteristics are being sought after in regional PC offices in America.

Now, here’s what I don’t agree with Strauss about. This sentence in particular really bothers me: “..that while volunteers generate good will for the United States, they do little or nothing to actually aid development in poor countries.” After being a Country Director for some time, I wonder what he was doing with him time, other than being a patron in a West African country. It’s the CD’s job to help volunteers promote development within a country. Peace Corps isn’t one of these aid agencies where all of the volunteers are leading lush lives and only hanging out with other Americans. For the most part, volunteers live in the country/en brousse, in a mud house with no electricity and/or running water. There are volunteers who are just here for the cross cultural experience, but there are others who truly want to make some sort of lasting impact, whether it be a cereal bank or millet grinder in their village or building a well and having a training on well maintenance or even helping artisans work on their design ideas for their products. We’re all here for a reason, but I can’t say I understand Mr. Strauss’ reason for sticking around Cameroon if he wasn’t 100% devoted to helping his volunteers. I can definitely say that our Country Director is invested in the work that we do and it’s important. If your boss didn’t care whether or not you were living in West Africa, would you stay?

I will agree that Peace Corps should review and evaluate what it’s doing and what tools of monitoring and evaluation it’s using. It’s the same thing with the United Nations Security Council reform, or less sexy, it’s the same thing as businesses reevaluating their prices for goods – something that Malians don’t often do. We all need to reevaluate our lives and work and what’s going on. Every single person, business, agency and organization must do this to improve. For example, we here are required to write quarterly reports and send them to our APCD in Bamako. Each time I send it, my APCD says, “Great work, I’ll get back to you with comments.” I’ve sent four quarterly reports now and I’ve never received feedback. So, in my mind, I’m doing a great job and I’m one of the volunteers actually invested in being here. If the APCDs were actually reading these reports, they would see that some volunteers sit at their site and don’t do a thing. These are the volunteers I don’t quite understand and I don’t get why they’re here, but it’s their life. These are the same people that complain about the heat and the food and using an outhouse and say that they’re suffering. Um, this is voluntary. Go home if you’re not happy.

One thing that some other volunteers and I have talked about are the benefits of being in the Peace Corps. Most of us are doing this for ourselves or to promote our future careers. I don’t know anyone who says, “Alright, I want to rough it for two years, where can I go?” but I’m sure they’re out there. Currently our benefits include a small resettlement allowance when we return home and an opportunity to join in the non-competitive job pool for government jobs. There are some educational opportunities, but the better ones are available if you start your Master’s before Peace Corps. So, what would be better? My friend and teammate suggested making it a little more like the military. Make it a 4 year commitment and give those who make all 4 years educational benefits, just the military does. I can imagine the applicant pool becoming intensely competitive or kind of thin. Not that many people want to commit 2, let alone 4, years of their lives to development work. But on the other hand, there are those who would love it. Why is the American government saying the Peace Corps is an important agency but not doing anything to get the great development workers interested instead of making it a fun club to be a member of? If we’re trying to improve our image abroad, let’s do it right. An increase in the contract of a PCV would also let them complete more in the time span. Currently, two years isn’t really enough to get anything done. Your first year is spent as a 3 year old trying to struggle through the language barrier, and by the time your second year has rolled around, 9 to 12 months is tough to accomplish everything you want. It’s something PC HQ should think about.

Development doesn’t just happen overnight. Anyone who thinks that needs to take another look at the developing world or take their head out of their ass. I’m not going to lie, there was a point that I thought I could “save the world.” Don’t we all? Growing up in rural, upstate NY and then moving to DC for university, I thought, “Damn, this is just the beginning, now I can do anything I want to and fix anything I put my mind to.” Well, I was right about doing anything I want, but wrong about fixing anything I want. Potable water doesn’t just appear for 1 billion people overnight. Neither does the eradication of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. You can’t introduce literacy and numeracy to a population of 12 million overnight. Hell, it’s tough for most of us to get Malians to wash their hands with soap before they eat. And that’s a 2 year, uphill battle that we win, but what happens when we leave? Why would they continue to spend the precious few CFA they have on soap when water seemingly has the same effect?

It’s a two way street, development. We’re busting our asses to help the people we live with and around to better themselves and their families. But, if they don’t want the help, you can’t force them. Some agencies try that or promise that if they change the agency will give them money. So, what happens? Villages change for 3 months to get a large sum of money and then immediately return to the ways that they’re used to. Behavioral change is a headache. But, in the end, if you can get even a small population of people to change and start believing in something better, it’ll have been worth it. Maybe I’m still young and naïve, but I truly believe that leaving a lasting impression on even one person will have made my two years in Mali worth it. Luckily, I know there is more than one person who will remember me and my hard work.