The Ironies of Peace Corps

I was kicked out of Peace Corps.    Or, rather, my  position was closed early.  This happened because I was caught  DOING MY JOB.  No kidding.

I’ve been thinking of addressing this for  a long time.  It was a “bittersweet” experience, as they say.  I has been planning  to write about this, and  a recent college graduate  who has been thinking of  joining Peace Corp, thinking about an assignment in southern Africa,  was wondering about the experience.

Peace Corps is NOT in the  development business.  In fact, there is really no articulated mission statement that Peace Corps  promotes.  All they really use are sound bites and promotional slogans (“The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love,”  “Life is Calling, ”  that kind of thing).  In fact,  during out very brief stateside training for ombudsmen (none of us were teachers in my group, we were either medical professionals,  accountant/business development  specialists, or technical assistance providers), we were told that  when Peace Corps was sending  the first volunteers in the 1960s, volunteers were given ‘anti Communist’ (with a capital ‘C’) training, but told virtually nothing about  the  recent history of the country they were going to.  It was up to volunteers to learn on their own—and it still is.

This wouldn’t matter at all except that VSO—Volunteer Service Overseas—the European equivalent of Peace Corps, and the Japanese Volunteer  ARE  development volunteers, and see themselves  as such.  More sophisticated?  Less naive?  A more articulated mission?

In fact,  a high per centage of PCV  return to go to graduate school,  their own personal missions more defined, and with a more sophisticated view of what it means to volunteer and provide value as a human being to other humans.

Because I had  gone on a safari in Tanzania about 15 years before  volunteering, and had  gone to college  because of what I wanted to learn about the world, I did have a clearer view of my own role.  I was not going to  bring enlightenment or change things.  I kept telling my counterparts (I had 2 junior counterparts, and one at my  government grade level—unusual, as most volunteers  have just 1) that it was their country.  I could offer the pros and cons on decisions, but  ultimately—they had to make the decisions.  That said, it was because my  ‘grade level’ counterpart left unexpectedly for ‘further training’ in Israel, I was thrust into the politically sensitive position.

Peace Corps Volunteers are not supposed to be in politically sensitive positions, but  that’s what I was assigned:  to be a town planner  in the largest city   in Malawi:  Blantyre.  Briefly, I uncovered some major corruption that involved waste of water infrastructure.  It was affecting  economic development (job creation).  I got threatened by a Host Country National because I  sort of exposed his scam, and he happened to be a government employee.  He actually called the  Peace Corps Country Director, and threatened my life.  So, they sent me home. Only a few people knew the reason I was being sent home.  I has seen 3 medical personnel who had come in with me—quit—due to frustration at not having any resources, and no counterparts to train.  What kept me going was my counterparts.  They knew what was going on, but it would have been their lives on the line.  It was easier for ME  to say, “ The emperor isn’t wearing anything!”

I wrote about this for a paper I delivered to the African Studies Assoc. in the 1990s.  The German aid organization, GTZ, had donated the water infrastructure for both Blantyre  and Lilongwe, and there was plenty  available for  residential housing  AND  industrial development.  I mean, there was, before the Asians (mostly from West India) built their lavish housing over it.  I asked the British ODA (Overseas Development Authority—their USAID), who had been administering the town planning departments for Malawi, why they had allowed this…& never got a straight answer.  While they were ‘coordinating’ services for the Government of Malawi, it was inferred that the Asian business people had paid off the Malawi Congress Party.  But since this is inferred information, & there are no real records, it’s hard to tell.

So, in the process of looking for infrastructure maps, and not approving  illegal development plans, I sort of stumbled over how this worked—or didn’t— for the citizens of Malawi.

My  local alumni group, the Chicago Area Peace Corps Assoc. does not keep Returned Volunteers.  It is mostly a networking group for  recently RETURNED volunteers, those looking for jobs, or life partners.  They can be very insensitive to cultural differences, and I shudder to think how they  acted in the countries they served in.  For example, they  planned a volunteering event not only with a religious based organization, but on a Jewish Holiday.

It was another irony.  Most  Peace Corps Volunteers are Christian.   We nonChristians are used to accommodating the rest of the world.  A fellow Jew emailed me about how they planned a volunteer event on the first night of Passover, and it started a whole big defensive thing including the   politically correct responses as well as some rude ones.  Well, what can you expect?

I found, when I served, that  most PCV did not have a view of  contributing to the betterment of the world, but  were looking for adventure, or a spouse.  Peace Corps Volunteers are regularly assualted, raped, sometimes killed.  Granted, the ‘Third World’ is NOT a safe place, but Peace Corps Staff tends to brush off the negatyive.

The prospective volunteer asked if I’d do it again.  I told her that if I could swing it economically, I would.  Where else are you going to get an all-expense paid trip to live overseas, complete with health insurance—if you have virtually no overseas living experience. There are companies that ‘acculturate’ corporate employees who  are being ‘assigned overseas, but generally, they live in middle class enclaves with servants. There is nothing like living in  the communities, living with regular people , bargaining at the market.  You learn about yourself and your role in community affairs. You learn what works and what doesn’t.  Well, you can if you want to.  Or you can insulate yourself and hang with ‘ex-pats’ and ignore your hosts.



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