Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Good Will and Nothing Else? Comments on Too Many Innocents Abroad

I cornered a current volunteer named Amanda* at PC Guinea’s welcome party. Decked out in one of those sundresses that combine African fabrics with American immodesty, she regaled us newbies with fabulous tales of diarrhea, gens d’armes encounters and parties.
“Do you feel like you have an impact?” I asked.
She looked at the floor like she didn’t want to lie, then raised her beer a little and smiled.
“You’ll have a really great time.”
* * *
Robert Strauss, Cameroon’s former Country Director, eloquently criticized the Peace Corps in a New York Times Op/ed on Jan 9th:

“…Too often these young volunteers lack the maturity and professional experience to be effective development workers in the 21st century….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.”

As an “Agroforestry Volunteer” who barely even puttered before arriving in country, I felt uneasy about this very issue. How could I give agricultural advice to a community of lifetime farmers? Perhaps they had not yet discovered the virtues of watering? If not, could anything other than arrogance or apathy drive an organization, ostensibly committed to development, to send me there to suggest such a thing? When, one month in, I uprooted twenty healthy teak seedlings--that would look like weeds to any liberal arts major--my uneasiness and Strauss’s point were confirmed.
Yet his point is overstated. The notion that youth and inexperience preclude effectiveness is based on a lamentably untrue assumption: that the world is far more developed than it was in 1961. “Back then, enthusiastic young Americans offered something that many newly independent nations counted in double and even single digits: college graduates.” Unfortunately, in Guinea, where literacy is estimated at 30%, a college degree is a powerful development tool: critical thinking skills and the scientific method alone make you an asset. Plus, we can compensate somewhat for our lack of expertise through our information access—the fact that we can pay for and use Internet. Google knows what a Teak seedling looks like, even if I don’t.
Another argument is simple practicality. Old professionals would trump young Googlers for skills, making for a more effective Peace Corps. But how many well-paid adults want to take bucket showers and pooh in a hole for two years? At least in the countries that need us most, perhaps only rookies will consent to the conditions.
If we must rely mostly on tenderfoots for our development staff, skills must be enhanced in other ways:

1) More Selective Admissions: As Strauss notes, hard skills, not just good will and interest, should be, but aren’t, requirements for acceptance. “The name of the game has been getting volunteers into the field, qualified or not….What the agency should begin doing is recruiting only the best of recent graduates — as the top professional schools do…”

2) More Rigorous Training:the 9-12 week training at the beginning of service should teach highly specific, technical, skills tailored to the country’s stated needs. Methodology should be hands-on and there should be tests and consequences for bad performance, like a real school or job. Currently, vague tech sessions get lost amid a barrage of culture, language, health and security info.

Peace Corps effectiveness requires other organization changes, as well:
3) Performance-related incentives and disincentives—“Men are not angels,” Madison writes in Federalist # 51. Neither are volunteers. In keeping with our beloved capitalist doctrine, we must use rewards and consequences to encourage good work. Currently, lackluster volunteers and overachievers get the same pay, privileges, and (lack of) chances for advancement. Media recognition, invitations to relevant conferences, or some sort of promotion could serve to motivate capable volunteer and pressure slackers.

4) Partnerships with big NGO’s: Peace Corps volunteers are never going to have technical expertise or funding comparable to big NGO’s. We do, however, offer the best grasp of local language and culture, because one of Peace Corps’ unique doctrines is that we live, not just with, but at, the level of those we serve. That makes us ideal local point men for busy, large-scale development projects. Such partnerships would also give tangible jobs to the many bright, motivated volunteers who achieve little for lack of job structure.

5) Impact Evaluation: “The agency has no comprehensive system for self-evaluation, but rather relies heavily on personal anecdote to demonstrate its worth,” Strauss notes. Quantifying impact in development is hard, but any organization serious about achieving its goals must try. “Perhaps…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.”

* * *
If Strauss were right, and an objective assessment revealed that volunteers generate goodwill and/or broaden their own horizons while achieving no impact, Peace Corps would still be accomplishing two thirds of its goals:

1) Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
2) Helping promote a better understanding by Americans of other peoples.
3) Helping promote a better understanding by other peoples of Americans.

In other words, Peace Corps plainly acknowledges something that Strauss forgets: that saving the poor is only part of the mission. Besides ineffective development workers, we are a cheap diplomatic corps (transmitting happy US thoughts to the poor Muslim countries that might hate us) and a Democratic campaign rally (exposing the human side of poor would-be immigrants to young Americans). That’s not bad for 300 million dollars—half the cost of the Army’s recruiting office. As Senator Christopher Dod, a former Volunteer writes:

Every American of good will we send abroad is another chance to make America known to a world that often fears and suspects us. And every American who returns from that service is a gift: a citizen who strengthens us with firsthand knowledge of the world.

With taxpayer dollar ever more tightly stretched, these intangible goals may still seem trivial. But watching Amanda sob as she kissed her sobbing host mom goodbye, I personally felt how broad and amorphous the notion of “impact” can be.

*I changed her name to remain popular
See Strauss's Article


Blogger Eric said...


I think about my school in Guinea. I was not taking any body else's job. I was the only math teacher in the whole school. The government won't pay teachers, so the PC has to go in and do the government's job.

Which is not how it is in most countries. I agree that an agfo volunteer in a village full of farmers probably won't get much done. But there are other considerations. Imagine the future, when these developing nations need other skills.

Imagine Romania, a far cry from Guinea, but in desperate need of computer skills and capitalist indoctrination. Who better than middle-class Americans who spend too much time chatting online and trading on ebay? Who better to give customer service advice than some stuck-up suburbanite who routinely complains at how he is treated at the mall?

And Guinea will get there someday. That is the hope. That is the vision. And we need a sense of continuity. Keep sending volunteers, trying to make a difference, trying to integrate, and people will respect them. One day they won't need Math teachers or agfo or health. But they certainly can't use a computer geek yet. So just keep sending them over.

And about the comment in the article that English teachers are useless. Well, maybe we might think they are. Whenever my students asked me to teach English, I reacted like they were asking for candy before dinner. It would spoil them to give it to them. But you cannot ignore the fact that they are asking for it. They ask emphatically and repeatedly. They think it's important, and we can give it.

Another thing to add to your list: a more focused, well-planned vision. If I remember correctly, agfo volunteers in Guinea had the vague mission of planting so many thousand new trees. But you weren't given supplies. Each volunteer came up with their own little projects. Why not have a focused project, perhaps lead by a third-year, that worked at the regional level? Someone who could have access to the informational resources the city provides, and also lieutenants in the villages who can muster support for the initiative?

Ahh! More organization in general is what we needed desperately in Guinea.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

What's your email?

10:16 PM  

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