Has the Peace Corps passed its “Use By” date

Having known and worked with “volunteers” in the Peace Corp since its beginning in the 60’s and working in a number of developing countries it is clear that there has been a significant change in both the volunteers and also in the country in which they work. In the beginning, the United States was learning about the under resourced countries, their needs and where the US might play a part. Simultaneously, the US needed experienced personnel to support this effort.

Thus, the Peace Corp played a significant function in building up a cadre of individuals with international experience, particularly in the developing world. It was/is a learning experience for all parties. Today that world has changed dramatically. Other countries are active in providing many of the needed skills and services that the US identified through a difficult and less than well developed process.

Today the under resourced countries have many of the same needs but at a different level. They have risen on the learning curve, become more aware of what is available and from whom such needs can be met. In many instances the demand for the level of competency, even in small villages has been raised. The ubiquitous cell phone and social networking has identified possibilities.

Many resourced countries are responding by bringing in professionals as both volunteers and financially compensated beyond subsistence levels. Health care is an excellent example as is agriculture. Unfortunately, as we see in the United States, the health profession has its own demands and recruits nurses and others drawing from some of the developing countries. Expecting to fill such needs in the under resourced countries at a level sufficient to effect change requires more than an appeal to volunteer, particularly at a time when many of these individuals have significant demands of families and incurred debt. “Any help is welcome” is not a response.

And, in spite of small, inconsistently staffed programs, the Peace Corp persists in recruiting young, inexperienced, individuals with more enthusiasm than knowledge to operate in a level not much different from when the original volunteers entered service. They are joined in the field by many NGO’s that have similar purposes and driven, similarly, more by energy than experience. The Peace Corps now offers volunteers “debt forgiveness” for monies incurred in getting a college degree. For 20-somethings” with few job prospects and a notch on a resume, this becomes attractive, at least for the US individuals.

One is reminded by an old recruiting slogan, “Join the Navy and See the World”. Times have changed; many young persons have traveled globally on their own either for recreation, a short course or guided experience, or part of a volunteer organization. The original Peace Corp idea of cultural exposure has lost its significance particularly where there might be interest in crediting this experience for employment or further education.

Some Peace Corp volunteers are given basic assignments like teaching English, a way many early travelers earned the money needed to live abroad. That too has had standards raised and there are increasingly more in-country citizens who are multilingual and would enjoy being part of such a program. The idea of “cultural exchange”, “friendship” and similar idealistic program goals in a digital world, again has changed.

What is even more problematic is that other countries that tend to provide more professionally experienced individuals are now on the ground with access to resources not readily available to the Peace Corp.

In the scheme of international donor organizations and the funding by the United States, the Peace Corps is a “gesture” and within the error bar of a foreign aid budget. Perhaps the US government might become serious and put sufficient resources to a revitalized and repurposed Peace Corp or add a small piece to the major funded projects of USAID and just eliminate that annoying itch in the program budgets

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