This blog entry is a bit off topic. I have returned to both Peace Corps and Jamaica, this time as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer. So, now I’ve been a garden variety two-year PCV, a Crisis Corps Volunteer and now a Response Volunteer. So, what will be next? Today I was talking to a host country national named Patrick who works for JAS (Jamaica Aids Support) and he gave me an idea for a possible answer to that question.
I met Patrick at a multi-organization meeting that my agency ran. Patrick asked me the usual questions about Peace Corps: specifically what is Peace Corps and how does it work? I explained that it is an agency of the U.S. government that places volunteers in developing countries. I told him that we received living allowances and that most volunteers are placed with NGOs to do capacity building and such. I told him about the three goals of Peace Corps.
Patrick was impressed and asked if there were a Peace Corps program for Jamaicans to travel to the United States and reciprocate the three goals. I’ve had encountered other people in developing countries where Peace Corps serves who have expressed similar sentiments.
It is a question that is a bit difficult to answer. You definitely do not want to come across as an ugly American who believes that only the United States has all the answers. After engaging in such a conversations I too ponder why it is that I have this wonderful opportunity to come here and offer my services while learning about the culture and then returning home enriched by my experience while the people I serve realistically do not have a comparable opportunity.
Sure there are exchange programs that bring people from foreign countries to the United States for cultural exchange, but they are for people from other 1st world countries. If people in developing countries are fortunate and exceptional they might have an opportunity to come study in the United States. Someone from a developing nation who is educated and has some skills, but is lacking in wealth or connections (someone who is an average person such as myself) would find it difficult to come to the United States to do something similar to what I am doing here in Jamaica.
The United States has plenty of agencies doing community development that would be well served by someone coming from a developing country that could offer other ways of approaching issues that these agencies address. Many inner cities in the United States have the same problems and challenges as countries in the developing world. It would be eye-opening for all involved if people from the developing world were brought to the United States to serve much as Peace Corps volunteers do in their countries.
It would be Peace Corps in reverse. Imagine someone from a developing country who has lived their whole life in a sustainable way out of necessity coming to the United States to help capacity build at an agency that is newly addressing issues of sustainability in somewhere like the midwest. People from the third world could come to the United States, share their culture, and show us that life can be lived without two cars, a large screen TV and etc. They could help create community gardens, beekeeping and goat raising projects. Reverse Peace Corps Volunteers could help us remember that the United States was founded by immigrants representing many cultures. They could teach language classes in our schools.
This Reverse Peace Corps I propose could work under the exact same goals as the Peace Corps. Potential Reverse Peace Corps volunteers would have to have a certain level of education, skills and abilities. They would have to be willing to serve in parts of the United States where people may have never heard of their country or met someone who looks like them.
One idea I had for this Reverse Peace Corps volunteer program would be have a counterpart who worked with a volunteer have an opportunity to then come to the United States and work with that same volunteer at a United State’s NGO - this time the counterpart would become the volunteer and serve for two years and the RPCV would be the host country counterpart working for an agency as either an employee or intern. For this to work partnerships with American agencies would have to be formed to place RPCVs and their counterparts with agencies that request such a program. One brilliant aspect of this proposal is that the RPCV could basically act as the trainer for the Reverse Volunteers service in the U.S. The RPCV would be able to offer cultural, language and technical training and support to their counterpart who would now be the Peace Corps volunteer.
Consider how powerful a program this could be. It would definitely reinforce the third goal and also provide many more opportunities for the transfer of skills and ideas for all involved. It would also help ensure that RPCVs were bringing back their expertise in development work to be put to good use where needed while bringing an added element of the Reverse Peace Corps volunteer who would have the opportunity to give back to people from the U.S. for what the Peace Corps volunteer provided him and his country. I often hear host country nationals express the wish to be able to do something in return for what Peace Corps did for them, and this would be one way to do that.
I am sure some may scoff at this idea. They will state many reasons why it would be impossible, but I am sure that 50 years ago JFK and Sargent Shriver had many people tell them that the Peace Corps was impossible or frivolous. Peace Corps has a legacy that has now extended past 50 years.
To me this Peace Corps Reverse proposal could be the next step in maintaining the relevance of Peace Corps in the future. The gap between the developing world continues to shrink. We have now been thrust into a more and more global world. It is very important that the people of the United States do not fall into isolation. Countries that we once looked at as backwards and Third World are now out-competing us in many areas while the United States turns more inward and we are more and more becoming a divided country that is unwilling to accept the diversity of cultures that was once celebrated as the melting pot that made the United States. The exception to this is the type of people who are people who join Peace Corps. Others do not have the same kind of experiences either because of choice or because they are unable to. With Peace Corps Reverse, Peace Corps could come to them.
Think about a young RPCV fresh back from serving in someplace like Ghana coming home to work at a Head Start program in a rural community in the south … and coming to America to work two years with them is their Ghana counterpart who was a pre-school teacher in Ghana. Or an agriculture extension volunteer who served in Central America coming back to a serve in an USDA extension program or to work with 4-H or FFA and they bring along their counterpart who has knowledge of more sustainable farming practices, but then is also able to experience for two years the big Agribusiness model of the United States. This kind of service would open a lot of interesting dialogue and learning opportunities for all involved. The cultural exchange would be incredible since you would have a RPCV who would be basically a bridge between the two cultures.
Suitable partnership agencies and communities would have to be found. It would be a bit more complicated than Peace Corps placement as you would be placing a RPCV and their host country counterpart with an agency and in a community for two years.
This idea would show that the United States is willing to reciprocate and that we in the United States recognise that we do not have all the expertise or all the answers.
I believe it would not be too difficult to administer such a Reverse Peace Corps. There are already agencies in place that with some additions could administer such a program. Americorps is the main possibility. RPCVs could continue their service when they come back to the U.S. as Americorps volunteers, but with the added bonus of doing it with a counterpart from their country of service. It could be a partnership that would strengthen both Americorps and Peace Corps by creating more opportunities for both agencies.
This idea all came to me in a rush, as ideas often do when you are a Peace Corps volunteer. It basically incubated from the time I spoke to Patrick to the time I reached my apartment and pulled out my laptop to write this out. I asked Patrick if I could take full credit for the idea that he actually planted in my mind. He said that of course I could, but I actually give credit to all the host country nationals who showed equal or more interest in me and my culture as I did with theirs and who sincerely said that they wished they could serve as Peace Corps volunteers themselves.
I hope that people who know more than I do and are the movers and shakers of development work will read this and run with it. You can even claim it as your own idea, after all JFK was not the first to express the idea of international service opportunities for Americans, but he is the one who made it happen.