Tag Archives: values

Wrap-up: Being tough, being good

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service, the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps, and issues specific to my sector, country and region of service. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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I’ve talked sometimes with Americans and other foreigners not in the Peace Corps — either over the internet, or as they’re passing through my town. People get this degree of shock when I discuss my everyday life: “That sounds so difficult! So foreign! Props to you for sticking with it, I never could.”

On one level, it’s nice to get credit for doing something hard. Mongolian winters are not easy, especially if you have to make fires to keep warm and draw water from a well[1]. But these conversations also make me feel as if somehow, the other person has missed the point.

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When is the last time you did something altruistic? (This can be as simple as holding a door open, listening to a friend’s troubles, or cooking dinner for your spouse or roommate.) Thinking of the last few occasions, can you name a time you’ve regretted it profoundly? How did these acts make you feel? What resulted from them?

In America we’re accustomed to thinking of acts of generosity as somehow dangerous — as if by giving we must lose something. I disagree with this mindset. The emotional high of altruism, the back-pat we give ourselves when we do something good, and the way it reinforces our identities as “good people” are all motivating, if intangible, rewards. As is seeing tangible results of a good act, even if the subject of the act is unappreciative.

Everyone is capable of altruism, and many people are more inclined to it than they think. It’s true that commitments vary, but that depends in large part on a person’s life circumstances and inherent openness to adventure. Not on inherent altruism or lack thereof.

So when someone pins a PCV’s motivation as “good” or “altruistic” or “a blessing”, when they say “I could never do that!”, they discredit themselves even as they distance themselves from the PCV. They also set aside the complicated motivators both for altruism in general and for joining the Peace Corps (which are often as much about debt, career-building, or adventure as changing the world).

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It’s necessary for a PCV to tough out adverse circumstances and adapt to the unpredictable. But while toughness is a necessary quality, I wouldn’t call it laudable. A determination to “be strong” in the face of anything can lead to self-destruction as easily as triumph.

When people ask me for advice before joining the Peace Corps, I tell them to figure out their dealbreakers. At what point are they willing to quit? This is not to figure out if they’re “tough” enough for Peace Corps. Rather the opposite — to get them to think about what Peace Corps is worth to them.

The worst way to spend two years is one you’ll look back on in regret. To stay in a stagnant or toxic situation because “you’re strong enough” or “you’ve made a commitment” is a terrible waste of mortal life. Why not move on to somewhere you can both enjoy and value your actions?

I’ve watched people go home in the last two years, some of them close friends. I’ve always empathized with their decision to go. I would never, ever shame someone or look down on them for choosing to end their service early; they have probably faced dilemmas I can’t imagine.

But faced with a good few personal nightmares, I’ve stayed. I wouldn’t attribute it to toughness per se, or even to sunk cost fallacy. If at some point in my service I had felt I was neither contributing to my community nor growing as a person, or if my unhappiness outweighed the pull of that growth, I would have gone home. My usefulness at school and in town has fluctuated, but I’ve never stopped learning. So here I am.

So, applicants and future PCVs alike: What is this experience worth to you?

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[1] Note that I do neither of these things; I live in a nice new apartment with excellent utilities and very little furniture.

Wrap-up: Peace Corps and service

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In the previous post I discussed my personal commitment to ethical service, and introduced the Peace Corps for the unfamiliar. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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U.S. Volunteer Agency

As a companion to this section, here is a head-on-the-nail critique of some pitfalls of the Peace Corps as a development agency. It’s about six years old, but the issues persist.

The U.S. Peace Corps is authorized by Congress and funded through taxes; it is a United States government agency. This means that — while it prides itself on being apolitical at the individual level — it is established and organized through diplomatic exchanges between government employees.

Before a country hosts any Peace Corps Volunteers, its government must agree with the U.S. government to establish a new Peace Corps post. Individual sector programs (e.g. TEFL, health, agriculture) are determined upon by the country director, following advisement by a Project Advisory Council made up of PCV representatives and community counterparts, in partnership with sector representatives from the host government. Basically: the program must satisfy the expressed needs of the host country via their government, its needs and opportunities as perceived by PCVs, and the stated mission of Peace Corps.

If this can be done successfully, the post will receive funds to pay the local-level salaries of its volunteers, as well as a complete set of permanent staff — including administrative, financial, and technical program-related units; management; on-call doctors; a safety and security team; and support units such as drivers — and employees hired seasonally for language and technical training. While the resulting number is tiny in terms of the overall U.S. budget[1], it is significantly larger than what most volunteer organizations can muster.

Note that the U.S. government, as founder and funder, is hardly a disinterested party. Rather — insofar as any government is designed to protect, organize, and promote the welfare of its citizens and to manage relations with other governments — it[2] is acutely self-interested. It sends citizens overseas, rather than keep them home to benefit the U.S. economy, and provides aid to another country at its own cost. And it swears up and down that its interest is strictly humanitarian, so it cannot derive direct political benefits from the effort — although it hopes to gain indirect benefits from the positive image a volunteer program can create. It looks for instead to garner citizens better suited for its work force, materially in terms of training and work experience, intangibly in terms of the patience, flexibility, communicative ability, and widened worldview that come with adapting to a foreign environment.

A good portion of my generation falls into employment limbo after graduating from college: our Bachelors aren’t helpful, either because they’re not of a practical persuasion or because potential employers are searching for candidates with a Masters and work experience, but lower-qualification employers assume (rightly) that we’ll skip out at the first better offer. Where better for us to go than abroad in an explicitly temporary program, in which qualification requirements are defined by our government and we can earn the experience necessary to be gainfully employed when we return home?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a useful system and I’ve benefited from it. But the benefit comes at risk of undermining the program’s development value and creating an uneven balance between its roles as volunteer aid and means of cultural exchange [3]. One of the more common concerns voiced during my pre-service training? “I’ve never taught before.” In what way does someone who has no teacher training or experience, whose degree is entirely unrelated to education, qualify as a “professional” in the education sector? Three months of training is all well and good, but does it really match PCVs to the level of their host country counterparts? Sometimes it seems PCVs’ most significant contributions are ingenuity and a differing cultural lens — which, while valuable, do not a professional make, and carry uncomfortable suggestions about host country nationals’ own ingenuity and cultural integrity.

However, I can’t speak conclusively on the subject from personal experience. Another advantage of the Peace Corps is its fluidity: its members and staff transition constantly, and its programs and methods are under frequent redesign. There’s something to be said for those feedback mechanisms. I’m told that the majority of this year’s PC/Mongolia trainees have an education degree, TEFL or state teacher certification, or classroom experience. I don’t know if it’s because of the revamp of the application process — which has been shortened somewhat and made more concrete, to the benefit of those with less temporal flexibility than a fresh college graduate — or because of complaints voiced by training staff and self-identified underqualified PCVs, but it suggests to me that the Peace Corps can be made aware of and limit (if not entirely rectify) its vulnerabilities.

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Peace Corps and Cultural Exchange

Whatever my reservations on the technical side of things, I would be hard-pressed to name a better medium of cultural exchange than the Peace Corps[4]. Fully half of our training program was oriented toward understanding the language and cultural norms of our host country, and from the beginning the expectation was set that volunteers adapt, with their community’s assistance, to life as locals live it.

The Peace Corps’ initial language and cultural training is fully immersive and structured toward rapid, practical acquisition. Trainees live with a host family, eat with them, and are taught the chores and customs they’ll need at site. Four hours a day they go to language class, which takes place almost entirely in the host language and is focused on practical tasks: introductions and small talk; shopping for food and clothes; asking for and giving directions; and so on. Trainees are taken out into the community to practice these tasks, and non-English-speaking community members are brought into class for real life conversation. Having experienced this framework, I doubt I’ll be satisfied learning a language in a more standard classroom setting; I learn more effectively through self-created tasks and immersion.

Following this training, I felt well-prepared to dive into local life. My counterpart teachers, briefed by the Peace Corps and previous experience, met me prepared to open their homes to me and show me their everyday lives. I, meanwhile, had been warned about[5] major cultural differences — both work and personal — and knew that the expectation was for me to engage with these differences, not distance myself as a foreigner. This has allowed me to build close friendships throughout my community, with people I’ll miss very much, and experience their home life and traditions.

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The fundamental question remains, then: Should you join the Peace Corps?

As far as principles of service go: the Peace Corps does not, in its present incarnation, do harm to the communities it engages with. If its effectiveness and ethical clarity is hampered by diplomatic interests, it is also staffed by people aware of the intricacies of development service who do the best they can at their jobs. PCVs are taught the basics of ethical volunteer service and each country post does its honest best to prepare them for their work.

Is it the most effective, valuable volunteer work you could do? Probably not. As an organization it is hampered by its own hugeness and versatility; volunteers end up in sites that have no use for them, or that are actively disinterested in their stated work. Volunteers are accepted based on demand from the host government and Peace Corps post, which means that some are underqualified or would be of better fit in a different sector. The organization itself takes a generalist “grassroots” approach, putting the burden on the volunteer to determine what most needs to be done at their site. This slows down the actual work, as volunteers spend six months to a year just getting their bearings and finding projects.

But all of this is not to say the experience is without value — although I continue to question whether it is as valuable to the host country as it is to individual volunteers. Many volunteers carry out successful projects (whether a teaching stint, a summer camp, a fulfilled grant, or something more concrete) and all of them return home with cross-cultural and professional experience for their resume. It’s good training for development work, if not the most effective development work itself, and opens doors for future aid workers and teachers to do more good in the future.

Keeping in mind all of the above, and assuming you’ve laid to rest any practical or ethical qualms raised therein, I would ask you three questions.

What do you hope to achieve? If nothing else, the Peace Corps is good at implanting one reality of development work: You aren’t going to change the world in two years. Your community will not undergo a complete overhaul during your service. Your most cherished projects may be entirely unappealing to the counterparts you find, or unsuitable to your community. What, then, are you willing to settle for? What is the minimum you will be content with? And what beyond that is most important to you?

What motivates you? Peace Corps service is not easy. At some point you will — maybe rightfully — question whether it’s a valuable use of your time and skills (or, conversely, whether you are valuable to your community). You’d better know ahead of time why you’re doing it, whether that’s concrete — loan forgiveness, practical experience, the lump sum at the end of the job — or less tangible — altruism, learning about a new culture, building relationships across the world. And you’d better be sure that your motivators continue to match up to, and make worthwhile, the work you’re doing.

What are your dealbreakers? I’ve missed a wedding, a birth, two college graduations, and a whole bunch of birthday and holiday celebrations. I’ve struggled with a sense of ineffectiveness at work. I’ve had mental and physical health issues. Some people have lost family members and been unable to get permission (or finances) to attend the funeral[6]. Others have gone home due to health problems, untenable work situations, or safety issues at their site. You have a right to draw the line and leave the Peace Corps without shame when the costs mount, but it’s good to know ahead of time where that line lies.

I question aspects of my time and experiences in the Peace Corps, but I don’t regret my decision to join. I would encourage you to do your research and be certain where you stand before you apply, but I would not caution you against doing so.

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[1] Last year $410 million out of almost $4 trillion.
[2] Note that I’m not speaking here of any particular individual or organ of the many bureaucracies that have put the Peace Corps into place: when I speak of ‘the government’, I’m talking about the aggregate of decisions made by a huge body of people who range from altruistic and highly informed to actively disinterested, whose opinions often clash, sometimes irreconcilably, and who are necessarily influenced by the people who vote for them, or pay them, or fire them.
[3] This is especially true for TEFL, which has acted as something of a catch-all for less-qualified applicants. I’ll get into this further in the next post.
[4] Insert mandatory line griping about the lack of Kazakh training for people going to Kazakh sites, which may or may not ever be rectified.
[5] And would have experienced firsthand, if I had been going to a Mongolian site or lived with a Kazakh host family.
[6] Peace Corps only grants emergency live in case of the loss or illness of immediate family — so grandparents, aunts, and uncles don’t count.

Wrap-up: Introduction

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[1] will close out their service and make the long trip home.

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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.

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Service

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.

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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[2], 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[3]. 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.

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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.[4]

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[5] 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.

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The rest of the series:
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

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[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] A maxim of volunteerism: The foreigner always leaves. The ethical organization figures out how to turn that dynamic into a strength.
[4] https://www.peacecorps.gov/about/
[5] Traditionally. Peace Corps Response is a shorter term of service designed for emergency response and pilot programs.