What Really Works In The Peace Corps

I remember back in ’95 e-mailing Susan Snelson, who was finishing up her tour as a PCV in Poland and asking her how she had become involved in the Peace Corps. In the late ’80s, she told me, she had gone to visit her son who was a PCV in Niger and she decided ‘she could do this!’ and came home to Midland, Texas, where she owned a travel business, turned the business over to others, joined the Peace Corps, and went off to Poland to help them develop their tourist business.

Because she had been in the travel industry, she was assigned to the Ministry of Tourist. It all made a lot of sense to the CD and the Polish government, but they, the Tourist Bureau, had no idea what to do with Susan. They gave her a desk to sit at, and for awhile she sat at it, but the Ministry had no idea who they were dealing with, this woman from Midland.

She began to see that U.S. tourists arriving from the midwest, mostly Michigan and Ohio, were first and second generation, the sons and daughters and the grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants. They were coming to Poland to find their own histories. And these visitors, mostly middle class, had only the expensive hotels available to them, or so they thought.

They didn’t know it, but there was a Peace Corps Volunteer in-country who was willing to make their journey to Eastern Europe the adventure of their lives.

“I began,” she recalls, “working in the historical areas outside establishing tours and started bed-and-breakfast businesses. I finished up my two years by writing a manual on how to develop tourism in the whole country, a manual that was supported financially by the Polish government, Peace Corps, and Delta Airlines.”

We all know, from having been in the Peace Corps, that it wasn’t as simple as she makes it sound.

Having no real job at the Ministry of Tourism, Susan began to warder around the beautiful old town of Warsaw, and she saw all these old buildings in what we might call the historical distract, empty except for an old woman, the mother of a large family left behind by children who had moved away from home.

Susan went back to her office and wrote a proposal for Delta Airlines to underwrite. It was an offer they couldn’t refuse. She could work with the women and have them open their homes to the American tourists, proving them B&B lodging, and a real Poland experience.

She put together three partners: Peace Corps, the Tourist Office, and Delta to sponsor her B&B program for the inner city of  Warsaw. Pamplets were  prepared for people planning to travel to Poland from the US that described the B&B program. She visited the ‘mothers’ living alone in those large, empty historical buildings and instructed them on what the typical American tourist wanted, everything from hot water, clean sheets, to soap.

She created a small industry where women earned income and American tourists had a great experience in a historical city.

“I believe in world peace,” Susan explained. “And it is only through business that people learn they must work together if they want peace. Religion and politics keep people apart, but our economies are global. It is important for the Peace Corps to be involved in business projects throughout the world. If you learn to do business together, you learn to live together. I also know that people who really enjoy the Peace Corps–and I was one of them–make their own jobs. I made my own way and found my own job as a Volunteer.”

Now, I’d say, that’s a successful Peace Corps story.


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  • Right you are, John, about the way Peace C orps really works well. I have of late often opined against the increased attention to “project-based” programming ( a la USAID and other ‘ development” agencies) with its goals, objectives, indicators, elaborate and faulty reporting systems, etc. and the negative attitude toward special placements or programming loose enough to let the Volunteers work at finding how to contribute. Some say,however, that the millennials like structure, goals, need to achieve against standards, etc. etc. Keep in mind that Ms. Snelson was a senior volunteer with experience and skills…..Although, many of us in the first PC groups certainly had to make our own jobs adn we were 22 at that time–and yes, it was a different time. 50 years on and we still don’t seem to have solid answers to basic questions. is that the charm of the PC?

  • If your going to delete comments, then email them and tell them why. It can’t be cause you ‘just don’t like them.’ It’s not like PC pays you.

    I wouldn’t tell everyone I’m a writer and pro writing when you delete writing cause ‘you just don’t like them.’

    You got plenty.

  • I don’t think it should be “either or.” Chris Hendrick’s Senegal is a beautiful example of a incountry website describing wonderful work – work which is very traditional Peace Corps. The brief summary “Legs” is eloquent. I could just “hear” the PCV working in her site, involved with her host country cohorts and coming up with a simple solution to a potentially difficult problem. I want to know what happened next.

    Thousands of PCVs have written hundreds of thousands of such reports over the last fifty years. It is those reports I have been trying to find and cannot. My focus is documentation of what has been done; not for its vague archival value, but because the information is so important. And if the history of Peace Corps activities is fragmented and scattered, on the “other side,” people in host countries remember exactly what Volunteers did and what worked and what did not. PC has been pushing pesticides, including DDT, for fifty years. There should be a country by country, program by program, record of what we promoted and what was the consequence of that. We could probably reconstruct that history by asking HCNs.

    One of the brilliant women in my group decided she could not show one more comic strip of Mickey Mouse boiling water. She developed a Laubach literacy program for prison inmates, introduced it in prisons all over Colombia. We all learned “Each One Teach One.” (My partner and I went into the local jail every Thursday afternoon right after the families and right before the prostitutes!) Emma Gross’s program and that of Susan Snelson should be common knowledge, an integral part of the Peace Corps story. These are creative prototypes.

    The assessment report is devoid of any understanding of the wealth of experience represented by fifty years of cross-cultural trial and error, success and failure. One of the deadliest sections for me was the recommendation that incountry staff had to “manage expectations” of the new volunteers.

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