Is the Peace Corps still relevant?

I recently had a chance to reflect on “the bigger picture…”

4 months after saying goodbye to one another at the end of PST in Okahandja, the 31 members of Peace Corps Namibia Group 43 met together in Windhoek last week for our “ReConnect.”

Sitting in the formal training workshops and the informal story-sharing, it dawned on me how rarely I think of myself as being one of the thousands of PCVs currently serving around the world. My identity has transformed from the short-lived “American Peace Corps Volunteer” into the more permanent “LED Specialist at the Arandis Town Council in western Namibia.”

Only when surrounded by other volunteers and our support staff, did I remember the large institution that brought us all together in the first place. Unfortunately, that realization came not from hearing a lot of uplifting examples of Kennedy’s “noble vision” but from hearing about the morale-busting challenges that many of us are facing precisely because we are here as part of a big organization. Peace Corps is a large (but under-staffed and minimally-funded), rule-infused government bureaucracy that partners with its host countries’ own large, rule-infused government bureaucracies. Not surprisingly in such arrangements, even with the best of intentions, things can go wrong. We find ourselves incredibly alone and isolated, reliant on no one but ourselves, with even our own institution telling us to “suck it up” and “play the cards we’ve been dealt.”

Too often…    young women and men must guard against daily harassment from their own workmates; young men and women confront inflated egos of ill-placed authority figures in their own host organizations; and all of us must stand up to some degree of local inquisition over just why we’re here. Too many of us are fighting the incessant feelings of being under-utilized or even un-utilized and wasted, abandoned or ignored by both the people we serve and the people upon whom we depend for support and assistance. I call these the “people-challenges.” Add to that contaminated water, power outages, leaky roofs, strange ailments, lost medical records, unidentifiable insects, incomprehensible behavioral norms… It’s enough to cause many to throw up their arms and call it quits – and no one would think any less of them. As Group 43’s village elder, I was tempted to warn my younger colleagues that they’re going to find similar people-challenges most everywhere in their lives – this isn’t unique to Namibia or even to the Peace Corps. But they don’t need to be told that – they’re sharp enough to understand this on their own.

This isn’t to claim that ReConnect was a gripe-fest. It’s simply to expand the interpretation of Peace Corps’ old motto: “The toughest job you’ll ever love!” It is tough, and often not in the ways we first expected. From our first contact with Peace Corps, expectations were set about the water, the electricity and the bugs. But no one ever said, “oh, and you’ll also turn around one day to find that we don’t always have your back…”

The week allowed us to vent our frustrations, receive consolation in learning we’re not alone in facing such obstacles, brainstorm new mitigations and recharge our batteries. I can’t predict whether any of us will choose to leave their service before our two-year assignment, but I do know that many (particularly the younger members of our team) are girding themselves. “I am not a quitter!” was a common refrain. “I’m not here for Peace Corps – I’m here for myself and my new community.”

Some of Group 43 - same sunset, different hilltop than those practicing yoga
Some of Group 43 on the last night of ReConnect – same sunset, different hilltop than the few of us who enjoyed Travis’ yoga session.

With all that as background, it was nice to come across this article by Holly Robinson that provides an outside perspective on whether or not Peace Corps makes a difference.

I, for one (now as in insider), firmly believe that Peace Corps does matter: for all parties involved. I am grateful – and my colleagues are grateful – for this incredible opportunity that Peace Corps has brought to our lives.

PCVs and RPCVs – what do you think?

American Taxpayers who fund our efforts – how about you?

Author: Chris

Until recently, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Namibia focused on Community Economic Development. Before that, I was a high-tech executive, small business owner, consultant and business broker.

7 thoughts on “Is the Peace Corps still relevant?”

  1. Okay, buddy, I gotta wipe the tears from my eyes to get this typed.
    Holly Robinson’s writing about her daughter Taylor’s experience is so consistent with every aged RPCV I’ve come to know over the years. And though your current PC experience is (thankfully!) a bit more urbanized than that of “Jenabu,” and your hair just a shade or two whiter than your peers, I swear that the “heart-and-soul” of the young PC volunteer proudly described by her mom is precisely that of the friend (you, that is) I first met in high school.

    Over the past 6 months, I can’t imagine that your ears haven’t occasionally been inexplicably ringing. Because I couldn’t be prouder to speak of you, in so many conversations, that “my best friend is a PC volunteer in Namibia, and …”

    Is the PC still relevant? Oh my, perhaps now more than ever. Our unsung PC heroes are unseen, far far away from the mud-slinging trash being numbly viewed by American eyes glued to iPhones. But our unseen unsung PC heroes are quietly, humbly, effectively, and selflessly changing our world. One well at a time. And one town council meeting at a time.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I appreciate this expression of empathy and your understanding compassion for, “the morale-busting challenges that many are facing”. Your words meant a lot to me this morning.

  3. I for one grew up in the Kennedy era and while I never joined the Corps, I believed then and now it was more than a noble experiment. It was a necessary way to show the world that Americans are part of the global society and we do care about what happens in that society. Your sacrifice for the welfare of the people in Nambia represents much more, to me, than your two years in country. It represents Americans reaching out to the world and vice-versa. It will have a significant and lasting effect for many years to come.

    1. Thanks, as always, Jim! I’ve always felt that I’m the lucky one. We learn so much more from other individuals than from institutions, yet those bodies are the vehicles upon which we are able to make such connections. I appreciate Peace Corps for getting me here, and for the wonderful people it has helped me meet…

  4. Our must be tough getting the support you need, to be effective. But the small trajectory of change had lasting affect. I’m proud of you for starting on the path. Each day a new opportunity to show we care.

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