Peace of my mind.As Peace Corps director, I was dismayed and saddened to learn about the negative experience Ryan Cooper details in "Good News First, Bad News Never" [March/April 2012], because the Peace Corps is dedicated to improving volunteer support and the effectiveness, consistency, and efficiency of operations. Mr. Cooper's article fell short, however, because he failed to provide a complete picture of the Peace Corps of the twenty-first century.
The author does himself a disservice by unfairly dismissing the Peace Corps 2010 Comprehensive Agency Assessment as a public relations ploy; many of the reforms it prompted address his criticisms.
One of my first actions as director was to call for this first-of-its-kind, top-to-bottom analysis. I felt that after fifty years it was time for a good hard look at our operations. That is why I created a team of former and current country directors, and development experts, to lead the assessment, working with every post where volunteers serve.
The first action we took as a result of the assessment was an annual review of our entire country portfolio. We just completed the second review, using a set of clearly defined, rigorous criteria and data to look across our global presence. As part of this review, the organization takes a deliberate, evidence-based approach to inform our strategic decisions about potential new country entries, allocation of resources across countries, and possible country program reductions and graduations.
Next we created a new training program. This program standardized training and established global indicators to better track the impact of volunteers. Before the program, Peace Corps volunteers worked in many different project areas within six sectors in seventy-six countries around the world. Through work with countries, universities, and other NGOs, we have "focused in" on a manageable number of project areas.
We're also reviewing whether these are the technical areas that are most requested by our host countries; that they are projects evidence has shown to be the most effective in delivering results at the community level; and that they are projects volunteers can succeed in with the time they have in-country.
The Peace Corps also worked with Congress to codify several existing reforms and better support volunteers in the field, including hiring a victim's advocate, expanding sexual assault training to volunteers and staff, and establishing whistle-blowing protection rights for volunteers.
Our top priority is making sure that all volunteers are safe and secure, and the agency works hard to ensure that volunteers have a productive service that is beneficial to them and the people in the communities they serve.
Aaron S. Williams
I served as a Peace Corps education volunteer in South Africa just before the author. The problems he experienced with his schools (poor teaching, corporal punishment, etc.) are endemic to the country and not just his site.
But Peace Corps volunteers aren't sent to countries with happy, working education systems. We are sent to places that need help, which means having to deal with unusual and often very challenging situations.
Cooper accepted such challenging possibilities by taking on his Peace Corps assignment. He should have read all about them when he prepared his application--or did he really just join the Peace Corps to avoid joblessness or to put off paying student loans, as he alluded to early in his article?
Cooper should not have expected his supervisor to read his mind when he said no to a change in living situation. He should have tried to find more creative solutions to helping students at the school instead of simply giving up and spending more time at other PCV sites. What about after-school clubs? Tutoring? Did he try alternative behavior modification efforts to deal with misbehaving students who knew he didn't use corporal punishment?
This story just highlights what I consider to be the biggest problem in the Peace Corps: many of the volunteers are young college graduates who are working at a real job for the first time in their lives, and they do not have the strength for the challenge. Instead of working through it and learning and growing from the experience and accepting some of the blame, they just complain.
Via Web comment
I was a volunteer in South Africa from 2006 to 2008. I was sixty-four when I went, hardly a fresh, wet-behind-the-ears college graduate. My experience, though, with nongovernmental organizations, not the pitiful education system, was much like Cooper's. I had to go to Botswana to purchase Setswana-language materials, since we had been given none--instead, we had a series of three instructors during our training, each with her own unique way of using an easel and a paper pad. As an older volunteer, learning Setswana was extremely difficult for me, especially with the dismal state of the training. And then I was sent to an urban area where almost everyone spoke English and I had little to no opportunity to use Setswana on an ongoing basis. (I mention this only because my lack of language skills became an issue later.)
For nearly two years I lived in my little bubble, ignoring or forgiving the Peace Corps and offering emotional support to as many volunteers as I could. I overlooked all the shortcomings of my site and really loved being there. However, when a difficulty arose with my NGO's manager, I was verbally attacked by my director for my "American" ways and lack of language skills and left a month later, having fulfilled my commitment, bitter and angry. I am disappointed and angry to this day when I think about my experience.
I went with a full arsenal of skills that would clearly have been best utilized in a new, developing NGO. I made this clear in all my writing and interviews. I was sent to an international NGO and had nothing to do but data entry. It got worse, but that tells enough about my experience for you to get the idea. Everything about Peace Corps South Africa was a mess, in my experience. Most volunteers with whom I've spoken agree that we shouldn't even be in South Africa.
I met, worked with, and still maintain friendships with several South Africans. (They call me "Soul Mom.") The South Africans weren't, with notable exceptions, the problem. The problem for me was the total lack of support from the Peace Corps itself.