Two years ago today, 69 Americans stumbled into a hotel outside of Mongolia’s capital, dizzy with the sleeplessness of a 30-hour overseas trip. They had made a 27-month commitment to serve as volunteers on behalf of their government.
In a month and a half, the first wave of those Peace Corps Volunteers will close out their service and make the long trip home.
As I wrap up projects, prepare gifts and goodbyes for friends, and look toward the future, I search for a narrative that will give me closure. Some of this process is private, subject to experiences I haven’t shared on this blog. But the blog also ought to to come full circle, and dedicated readers deserve a wrap-up.
I end this chapter in the same spirit I began it: the story of the young traveler who seeks adventure and knowledge of what goodness people can achieve. It is in many ways a callback to my first few posts.
When I first considered Peace Corps, I mulled briefly on “good deeds” and my own capacity for them. I was thinking rather of the heroic running-into-a-burning-building, bestowing-perfect-wisdom-unto-The-Youth brand of goodness. I didn’t have a framework for what “good deeds” constituted.
Peace Corps, like many volunteer organizations, calls good deeds service. Service, sister of serve, a verb with heavy Christian connotations of good works and a greater peace. It’s funny the parallels emphatically non-religious organizations have drawn in the noun. I find I like the term “service” better than I do “good deeds”. Service is not an inherent quality but a simple, witnessable act of giving back to the world.
Everywhere, someone is always in need and someone is able to give. Need is a fundamental condition of mortality; excess is intrinsic to happenstance and self-promoting ambitions. To even the balance, you can give when you have excess: to be generous with your money, possessions, time, love, or wisdom. I have this theory that if everyone were to give whatever they could, whenever they could, we as a world would be, not able to eliminate hardship, but sufficient to alleviate suffering when it comes. Of course people differ in their ability to give, both in material circumstances and in their belief about sufficiency vs. excess; but it would suffice to inspire a fundamental, if limited, commitment to service.
My experience in the Peace Corps has solidified my commitment to this philosophy. I have a suspicion that most people can give more than they realize, and benefit from the act of giving. It’s proved true for me. I came to Peace Corps seeking to test my limits, physical, emotional, and technical — was chagrined to discover I did have them — but discovered that self-awareness and a commitment to growth allowed me to keep learning and giving within my limited means. I have given two years of my time, but I have gained a lot of relationships and learned a lot about myself and the world.
For a volunteer worker, there is this obligation to — not goodness, precisely — but to growth and change. You commit to asking, What is the impact of my choice? This can and does lead to a degree of cynicism (what effect am I really having here? screw it, I’m just going to skip the extra Sunday class and spend a weekend in the countryside) but it’s also allowed me insight into my motives and values. It’s allowed service itself to become a value. I hope to keep asking myself this question as I move forward into the next stage of my life.
Principles of Service
This series is about my experience with Peace Corps Mongolia as it reflects my identity and values, particularly those of adventure and of service.
Service, especially foreign development work, is not as simple as throwing money or energy into the nearest charity. These articles, along with their associated links, examine some of the problems of short-term “voluntourism” trips. As the second article notes, there is an entire field of research dedicated to impact assessment and ethics in development work. I would share a few principles that I, personally, have learned to hold myself accountable for.
1. Do no harm. It may sound improbable that work designed to help those in need could end up doing harm. But — as the articles above explain — without guiding ethics and solid methodology, service projects can become not only ineffective but exploitative, existing for the feel-good of the volunteers over the needs of the population served. Problems that can occur from a badly-designed aid program: dependency on foreign money or the skills of foreign professionals; displacement of the local workforce for foreigners who are more skilled or willing to do it for free; issues of continuity and relations between aid organizations and target populations, from ineffective projects that seek to perpetuate themselves to orphaned children traumatized by a lack of constant presence in their lives; and misconceptions that all people from the aid-giving country are wealthy, ignorant, or evangelical.
Individual responsibility: Research the organization you want to donate to or volunteer/work with. This article gives a commonsense idea of what to look for; this one gets into the financial nitty-gritty for the more dedicated.
Organizational responsibility: Make an honest effort to work yourself out of existence. Develop an effective process for needs assessment, project design, and impact assessment. Set appropriate qualification standards for hiring volunteers and employees. Hold yourself accountable: Publish the results of your impact assessments as well as financial reports so that potential donators and volunteers can see the results of your work.
2. Understand the needs and interests of the people you intend to serve. For example: it’s pretty pointless to give a school a bunch of fancy computer equipment if they don’t have reliable electricity. Likewise, an institution without a bathroom needs an outhouse more than a fresh coat of paint on the walls. This extends to the mores of the community: for example, if central heating is seen as a luxury rather than a basic need, it might not be the first area you target (though you might hope to work up to it).
Individual and organizational responsibility: Do formal and informal needs assessments before designing a project. Seek input from the population being served, both the people who will receive benefits and local professionals who will assist with or have experience related to the project.
3. Design projects with a deliberate eye to those needs, and to the interests and abilities of your community. This ties into, and goes beyond, the second principle. Help with access to power before you give equipment; but also, employ local workers where possible instead of bringing in foreigners.
Individual responsibility: Seek out work that relates to your professional skills and talents, but be sure you aren’t displacing local workers. Don’t attempt work in the name of good if you aren’t qualified for it — donate instead, or seek out your qualifications first. Look into the research and ethics of the organization you’re interested in, especially with regard to impact assessment and project design.
Organizational responsibility: Design projects according to needs assessments and with local input. Seek long-term impact. Enlist individuals who are qualified in their fields, and hire locally as much as possible.
4. Don’t just give; empower. This is called “capacity-building” in development jargon. Basically, don’t just give “stuff”: work on the skills and employment opportunities of the people you want to help, and allow them to take ownership of the work designed for their benefit. Hire locals. Do a practicum or training for local doctors instead of doctoring in their place; work with teachers on methodology techniques instead of putting a foreigner in the classroom; establish long-term, trusting relationships with youth and cultivate their potential as peer leaders. Don’t just write a grant; train people seeking aid in grantwriting and local fundraising. Invest in projects spearheaded by locals that will run themselves after the foreigners leave. Instead of giving money outright, hire someone to do work in the field they seek employment in, so that they have a starter fund (for qualifications or a buffer while they seek employment) as well as relevant work experience. It’s not actually that hard to add an empowering element to volunteer projects, even those projects which are fundamentally materials-based.
Individual responsibility: Seek organizations and projects that build capacity.
Organizational responsibility: Design projects with a capacity-building element.
This may sound pretty complicated. It’s true that effective volunteer work is not as simple as it looks on the surface. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t offer your time and money — just take the extra hour to make sure you know what you’re giving to.
An Overview of Peace Corps
The U.S. Peace Corps is a government development organization with two-year programs in 65 nations and 6 sectors: education, health, youth in development, community economic development, and agriculture. It has three goals:
1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Most people with a Bachelor’s degree and volunteer experience are qualified to apply for Peace Corps. The application process used to be about a year long. The new process still involves applying about a year in advance, but you apply for a specific date and receive your invitation within 2-6 months. Invited applicants must undergo medical and legal screening.
A Peace Corps tour lasts for 27 months. The first three months are for language and cultural training; the remaining two years are spent at “site” — a town with a designated co-working agency or institution. The Volunteer is given linguistic and cultural tools to make relationships within the community, assigned a primary sector from which he or she must devise projects, and explicitly given the freedom (and expectation) to engage in additional community work that aligns with the above three goals.
In my next few posts, with this in mind, I’ll take a look at my experience within the Peace Corps framework, and how it’s worked out for me.
 54 Volunteers remained in country at our close-of-service conference last month. However, of those 54, a few went home prior to the first official close-of-service date; several will remain in Peace Corps Mongolia for a third year; and an additional handful, though formally closing out their Peace Corps service during this period, will return to Mongolia for work. Those who are leaving will exit the country in several waves over the course of a month, which is why some of us are closing service several weeks ahead of the 27-month mark.
 As the tourist industry grows, kids in my community have begun to come up to foreigners and ask for money. These kids’ parents might not be wealthy — might very well be unemployed — but someone in their extended family has access to extra meat and dairy, and someone in their extended family has a compound or apartment they can share in a crisis. Families stick together here. Most kids don’t lack for physical security. They are not employed by their families as beggars. They just want to buy chips or ice cream at the corner store and they think foreigners are rich. Tourists don’t necessarily realize this (though they can certainly ask their local guides!) but it is the responsibility of foreign development workers to discourage these kinds of perceptions.
 A maxim of volunteerism: The foreigner always leaves. The ethical organization figures out how to turn that dynamic into a strength.
 Traditionally. Peace Corps Response is a shorter term of service designed for emergency response and pilot programs.