With the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination having recently passed, some news outlets used the occasion to take stock of one of his most important legacies, the Peace Corps.
Ryan Rommann served as Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia from 2009 to 2011 and recently wrote a provocative essay in The Guardian on Peace Corps, drawing on some data and his own personal experience. He suggests that the model is in deep need of revision. Having been out of the Peace Corps for more than a decade, it is unclear to me if Ryan captures the contemporary reality. My sense is that volunteers are much more connected to home, to each other, and to information than they once were. That certainly has its advantages in terms of the ability to tap in to knowledge, and I imagine that it has transformed the paradigmatic notion of your solo Peace Corps volunteer isolated in a rural village. I also gather, from following Peace Corps Ecuador and some interesting programming from a country director in Senegal, that some country directors are making great strides to try and shake things up, with more professionalism and teamwork. Still, Ryan raises some important points. Read on for more details.
Ryan writes that the Peace Corps remains in countries far after they appear not to need the Peace Corps:
Out of the 68 currently active countries, 20 countries have high human development, 29 have medium human development, and 19 have low human development on the UN’s Human Development Report. With stressed budgets and so many countries in need of assistance, it’s regrettable that limited resources are allocated to countries that have already achieved the Peace Corps’ first goal.
He laments the level of training of your average volunteer:
According to its own 2010 assessment, approximately 85% of the agency’s volunteers are recent college graduates with little or no professional experience. While a college degree was sufficient to qualify as expertise in the 1960s, it is not satisfactory now.
He suggests that monitoring and evaluation needs a major overhaul:
While many development organisations are moving to programme evaluation based on randomised control trials, there is a complete absence of empiricism in the Peace Corps. This is not for a lack of measurement opportunities, given that 76% of volunteers work in education, health, and economic development – sectors perfectly apt for quantitative analysis.
Some of this rings true from my experience, but I’ve been away from Peace Corps too long to know how true these observations are. It’s hard to imagine the Peace Corps being able to attract people with many more qualifications and experience than your typical college graduate, though I recognize many PCVs have considerable skills. If PCVs are being paid anything like the $200 per month I received ten years ago, then the money (along with the paltry readjustment allowance) just won’t allow people with kids or mortgages to make a go of it, unless they are near retirement, have already amassed considerable savings, and their children are out of the house.
Once you get in to the world of commitments, relationships, and possessions (which is the standard arc for professionals as they grow up), you cannot do Peace Corps. That is why I think Peace Corps attracts the young like me fifteen years ago, because we are idealistic, are not tied down, and don’t own property. That means your typical volunteer is still largely going to be drawn largely from the pool of recent college graduates with whatever mix of skills are educational institutions are producing.