As Chris Hedrick (Senegal 1988-90), a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford where he studied political history, and who is today the CD in Senegal, mentioned in his ‘comment’ on this site that it is the PCVs who make the difference, not the HQ staff in D.C. Chris wrote on July 29:
As always, the real work of the Peace Corps is being done every day by Volunteers in the field. For example, my Volunteers have led the way in Senegal with innovative approaches to preventing malaria and distributing bed nets. They have provided an example that has now been adopted by the government of Senegal and USAID and is saving hundreds of lives here. See: http://pcsenegal.org/malaria/index.html
No particular help from Washington, and none needed but outstanding work by dedicated Volunteers which my Senegalese staff and I do our best to support, as has ever been the case.
There are a few other examples of what PCVs in the field achieve in the Report Aaron Williams told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he planned to do once confirmed, i.e., an “agency-wide assessment of the Peace Corps as means of strengthening, reforming, and growing the agency.”
Now what we have to remember is that most (if not all) new Directors come riding in D.C. wearing a white hat and with pistols blazing just as if they were John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, ready to clean up the ‘mess’ at the Peace Corps.
God love them. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and it should be applauded. Even with the five-year-rule (and we’ll get to that regulation in another blog) the arteries do get stiff at any agency in the middle of middle-age. What we all have to remember is that the Peace Corps isn’t an agency in D.C., but is Peace Corps Volunteers working on their own in the developing world.
Even in this unreadable document–the new comprehensive Report to the Director– there are examples of why the Peace Corps works, and has continued to work for 50 years.
One comes out of Namibia where two PCVs developed Health Education Response (HER) software that has, according to the Report, “revolutionized health education in Nambia.” The HER software is designed to provide health information through mobile phone-based text messaging, permitting the program to operate throughout the country.
The system works because it permits people to ask questions they could not ask directly, and also gives a way to provide information in a non-threatening way.
Health information is distributed through mobile phones to a pool of Peace Corps Volunteers who handle health-related inquiries, including HIV/AIDS and birth control. Set up in February 2009 it had by June 2009 handled over 2,300 text messages from more than 300 people per month.
My guess is that these two PCVs weren’t any sort of highly trained experts, but just tech-savvy, as most college grads are; they understood what could be done within the culture, and came up with the idea that solved a major problem of getting information to a rural population.
In another bracketed paragraph in the Report there is a comment by Ambassador Mark Gitenstein in Romania. He explains why the Peace Corps works in Romania, and why it will always work.
“One of the greatest strengths of the Peace Corps is its ability to complement U.S. interests overseas without compromising its independence….A more direct advocacy of U.S. policy interests could jeopardize the Peace Corps’ significant contribution by undermining its credibility and independence in-country. So, the Peace Corps, by its very nature, operates very differently from the U.S. mission.
Embassies work with contracts and colleagues primarily in the capital city. Volunteers work with people in villages and small towns whom would otherwise not interact with an American, let alone the United States government. The positive impression Volunteer generally make as a result of their work and service effects, dramatically enhances our ability to build friendships and partnerships abroad.”
Yes, there are bad PCVs. Yes many PCVs need direction, support, and encouragement, if not a quick airlines ticket home. God knows, none of us were perfect overseas, or even very good at what we did, but we were there for the long haul, and our hearts were open to new adventures and new friendships, and we cared, and we were willing to learn, and that was all understood by the host country nationals who became our friends.
For the most part we were just kids growing and trying to find our way in another country and in our own lives, and those of us who were older, who carried into the developing world the baggage of a lifetime of hard work, had the wisdom of those experiences, and wanted to share what we had learned from good and bad and hard times at home.
We had a few skills; we adapted ourselves to the Third World; we went to work in the most surprising ways in new nations and new cultures, and, I think, from the ways we were accepted, we were appreciated for what we were trying to do.
Tomorrow I’ll tell you about one of those small, unnoticed successes by a PCV, a woman who came to the agency from the most unlikely of circumstances, and proved again that Shriver and the handful of others in the Mayflower Hotel were right in what they crafted out of nothing, those simple Three Goals of the Peace Corps.