Peace Corps’ approach to development: It doesn’t have one

Back in April, I assisted Pak Wawan, a member of the inspiring team that holds Peace Corps Java together, to plan 2 sessions for volunteers-in-training on PC’s approach to development and on working with counterparts. As we discussed the organization, I let him know what I thought Peace Corps was doing for Java in way of development: not much. I justified this by saying that Peace Corps’ expectations were way too low to achieve anything resembling ‘development’ (expanding freedoms/opportunities for communities). As volunteers, if we ‘survive’ 2 crazy adventurous years of eating ant-covered sugar and pooping in holes, we’ve made the world a better place.

Now, I couldn’t agree more with Peace Corps’ model for community empowerment.  KNOW the local context (language especially!). Plan inclusively. Invest in human resources. Listen to your community. Projects should be a product of an intersection between community needs, national priorities and the volunteer’s passions/skill set. The process is the product, AKA what happens between A and B is just as important as getting to B.

But while all of this is correct, PC’s goodwill ambassadors’ mission is prioritized above all of this. In Indonesia, while the program is still new and so may be different from other posts, volunteers who begin to think about ‘secondary projects’ in their 1st years are considered ahead of the game. As a volunteer, I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that I have been successful for living with a Javanese family for a year, being able to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia and showing up to school.

I’m halfway through my service!

And that has not actually helped anyone. Surviving the Peace Corps is not an accomplishment, particularly if you’ve gotten into this work with the bar set so low that just surviving it is winning and you live to tell the tale as condescendingly as possible once your 2-year poverty  safari is up and the people in your community continue to live in the same conditions that you saw as only fit for an American backpacker.

It is true that human capital, at the very least, is improved. I used to think that it was common knowledge as to where the largest percentage of investment in human resources was happening – in the volunteers – but I’ve been disappointed to find out that many continue to believe that they are helping others more than they are helping themselves.

Given all of this, what makes me defend Peace Corps isin fact, the cultural exchange portion of it. While development organizations have changed considerably from Rostow-ian disasters in the 50s to structural adjustment’s royal screw ups in the 90s, they continue to lag behind where they need to be in terms of the groundwork that goes into understanding a community before starting a development project, and the space they give to communities to set their own agendas for development.

Cultural exchange is a great place to start, but volunteers need to be pushed to work much harder if they want to be building PC’s development portfolio – and by that I mean, if they want to be advocates for peace. Short of that, we’re cashing in on a very generous invitation by our host countries that provide 2-year visas for us and put in the time and labor to select communities where we can rest our bags, all the while believing that what we’re doing is reducing poverty. It puts the “toughest job you’ll ever love” slogan into perspective; can/should we really love something so minimal? And to pursue this further, is cultural exchange still a job in the year 2013?

During a PC training event I put it this way to a friend: praise for being a PC volunteer, whether from family, friends, our community members, feels like someone handing you a glass of water to clean yourself up after a day rolling in the mud. It’s insulting to think that what’s being done is close to cutting it.

Pak Wawan was great in giving me the space to speak from my own experience and thoughts within the training module sent over by PC headquarters in DC. It was a generous move and not one that most organizations would risk, but PC is excellent at valuing its volunteers. Hopefully, however, in the future this isn’t a message that PC comfortably gives out of the mouths of volunteers but one that comes out of our communities and our national staff because they are our most important stakeholders.


“I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.” -Tolstoy


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