When I joined Peace Corps, I did so understanding that I was joining a US Government Agency and being a taxpayer, was expecting that like all US Government Agencies it would be administered with proper oversight to ensure that the money being put into the agency was being properly utilized. I am not one for wasteful government spending. However, on the flip side, my perception of, “properly utilized,” with respect to the Peace Corps was the notion that my government’s money would be spent dumping volunteers in remote locations, setting them up with housing and medical accommodations, and getting them some general work such as a teaching position or work with a host-national organization. Again, being a voting taxpayer and hopeful future Peace Corps Volunteer, this all seemed fine to me.
After joining Peace Corps, and being what I would like to think is a respectable 10 months into my time in-country, I can say one of the stressors of my daily life is the Peace Corps itself. Not the work I do for the Peace Corps, nor the bizarre circumstances that being in-service tends to create, but the actual administration of the Peace Corps organization. Now don’t go jump off the gun thinking I dislike the Nairobi office and everyone there, because that is simply not true. Instead, I believe that what goes on in Peace Corps, and how it is administered in general, leads to many things that cause stress in my life.
A perfect example is the dissonance created when I think I am being “dumped,” somewhere and all of a sudden I am getting calls for monthly reports, or rather, not even calls, but emails (woah, the infrastructure)! The last time I was dumped anywhere, it was in the middle of the Australian bush with some rations and maps and I was told to run. Backup was coming only if it were a life and death situation. I was to have fun. I did. I expected nothing less and nothing more from Peace Corps.
My warning to potential volutneers: if the above is similar to your notion of Peace Corps service, and the notion of being dumped somewhere, beware. Expect to fill out monthly reports and even trimesterly reports that go back to Congress supposedly. I have no problems with either of these things alone per se, but the notion of a Peace Corps monthly report is just unexpected and undesired. I do have an issue with a particular aspect of the trimesterly however.
The trimester report is in an electronic-only format that is incompatible with anything but specific versions of Microsoft Office. I run Linux and other free and open source software only. I do not like having to compromisie my values in computing just to fill out a form. Would you ask a vegetarian to eat a hamburger for bureacracy? I am pretty sure that is illegal. I did fill out their form, but I felt dirty doing so. People will mock me for this. Administration told me to just find a way to fill it out. Go tell a Jewish person to just find a way to worship Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Again, illegal. Am I being dramatic about something others find trivial? Sure. That’s why I signed up to move to the developing world to teach this. It’s something I value and want others to value. I would have put in the extra effort to fill out a paper copy, but they would not print one. Bureacracy is funny.
Then there is the actual organization of the country administration. They say that if you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a minute. I think the same applies for a Peace Corps country office. The entire structure of a country office as I understand from talking with our own, and talking with fellow volunteer friends serving around the world, is that each country is run like a fiefdom, with the Country Director as Lord. I apologize for the Medieval analogy, but it was my focus in university, and I know that some fiefdoms were quite happy and successful, as I have heard some countries in the service are quite happy. I have no particular qualms with our country office.
A Country Director, like a Lord, has the ability to make absolute decisions with minor chance for appeal within his or her country. This is to go so far as one Country Director being able to overturn the decisions of their predecessor as soon as they assume office. Compound this with Country Directors by official policy rotating out of the Peace Corps agency completely every 5 years (8 years with an extension for good behavior), and country programs can potentially be the victim of much turmoil.
Underneath the Country Director are a myriad of positions being filled by a mix of Americans and host-country nationals. Not all of these positions are subject to the same rotation policy as the Country Director though some are. Therefore, you have a mix of veteran host-country nationals who can never assume complete leadership but have much experience, coupled with top-level administrators who circulate through the service. On top of that, it seems that when one position is vacant others are supposed to fill in. However, this depends on an office’s capacity and thus might not always occur. This may sometimes leave volunteers wondering who they should talk to if they have a problem, and often results in volunteers talking to nobody official at all.
Round all of this off with the fact that volunteers are line-items in a budget. I always appreciated being able to go to university and expect service because I knew that tuition covered 80% of the operating budget of the entire university. The university exsited because of the students and therefore existed for the students. To Peace Corps however, it feels like volunteers are just another budget-item, no different from Land Cruisers or toilet-bowl cleaner.
I remember, one of the first controversies I heard about Agency-wide was that budget cuts forced the Corps to cancel the subscription to Newsweek for every volunteer. Supposedly not purchasing one Land Cruiser would have covered the cost for the year for every volunteer. Peace Corps policy states that Land Cruisers must be bought new every 3 years. I would have preferred Newsweek.
Where does this leave us, the line-item volunteers? I was expecting to dumped and ignored, but at the same time hoping Peace Corps treated its volunteers the way Connecticut College treated me as a student. I wanted to be spoiled. First off, many volunteers, myself included, already work under a perpetual stress that possibly are work isn’t good enough or impact-ful enough. Add to this the unknown variable of the country office. Are they my friend, my boss, my mentor, my aid, my health protection? Budgets force them to choose what they focus on, but it is all seemingly at the whim of a rotating Country Director. I am not a fan of variables in administration when my life on the ground is variable enough.
Compound this with a complete lack of communication in the entire country. Several volunteers have left, but nobody has explained reasons why because in many circumstances they cannot. Instead, there is what seems to be a silently agreed upon reliance on the volunteer gossip network, but gossip networks only serve to heighten tensions, especially for volunteers in more remote locations. Yet if we fully understood why people were sent home, I would hope my fellow volunteers and I would work our hardest not to replicate their actions. Learn from their mistakes as it were.
By the time “news,” of an issue gets out, it’s been manipulated by so many hands along the way that we just live in confusion. Some keep working, hoping to go unnoticed. For me personally, this will be a forced atitude change for I spent four years working at Conn with administrators, faculty and students to make impact-ful change on my university campus. Now I will have to learn how to work on my own completely as an individual to be the change I want. I just wish this was because Peace Corps truly promoted complete individual initiative and not because the administration is so tangled volunteers don’t even know who to go to when they do have an issue.