9 Myths and Misconceptions about the Peace Corps

The newsfeeds of today are proof enough that anyone with a MacBook, a latte and a half-baked opinion can be an expert on pretty much anything. Including, apparently, a government agency program which they have never researched, never applied for, nor ever served with.

Comments under online articles relating to the Peace Corps are awash with misinformed statements and stereotyped assertions that claim unassailable conclusions about everything from its effectiveness to its worth.

Yesterday Peace Corps rolled out their complete overhaul of the application process. And with that announcement comes once again the enlightened comments in the newsfeeds.

The following is a list of myths compiled and summarized from the comments under this recent Washington Post article about the new changes in how people apply for Peace Corps service.

Myth #1: Volunteers are over-privileged, upper-class white kids.

Fact: While only one-quarter of volunteers are minorities, the Peace Corps has begun an initiative to encourage more to apply including hiring 20 new staff for the Peace Corps’ diversity office to recruit more minorities.

The vast majority of volunteers work hard, humbly serving while growing their own skills in order to meet the needs of their local communities in challenging environments. Volunteers learn a new language, engage a new culture, and learn to thrive away from their old support systems.

Myth #2: Volunteers are just looking for a 2-year vacation.

Fact: How many people do you know who vacation in tiny villages in developing countries? Usually when one goes on vacation, they try to do less work in a more comfortable environment, not the opposite.

Volunteers also give up 2 years of salary potential—that’s 2 years of building up 401Ks, or saving for a house. It is true that volunteers receive $275 for each month served, though this “resettlement allowance” is often quickly used as volunteers search for paying jobs after finishing service.

Myth #3: Volunteers force their presence upon communities that don’t really want the volunteer around.

Fact: Peace Corps Volunteers are invited by the countries and communities in which they serve. Volunteers work directly with counterparts who had to apply and be accepted to host a volunteer in their organizations and communities.

Myth #4: The Peace Corps is a very expensive program and the benefits don’t match the costs.

Fact: The 2014 budget for the Peace Corps is only $379 million. That’s it. Guess what the Department of Defense’s budget is? $495 billion. That’s 1,300 times bigger. If the DoD had the budget of the Peace Corps, it would entirely deplete its annual funds before 7:00 am on January 1st.

At under $400 million per year, or around $50,000 per volunteer, the Peace Corps has huge ROI when it comes to grassroots diplomacy. Even if there were zero technical benefits for served local communities (which is not true), the relational and image benefits make it a no-brainer for the government.

Myth #5: Volunteers spend all their time on the internet and texting other volunteers.

Fact: Volunteers use technology for best practices. Fact: 2014 is not 1961. More students in my village have smart phones than running water in their homes. Technology changes and volunteers must keep up with the technology around them in order to implement best practices and reach as many people as possible.

One really cool Peace Corps Volunteer initiated project that came out of a Central American country was setting up a system where locals could text reproductive health questions to be answered discreetly by informed professionals. This effective model is now being implemented by other posts around the world.

Volunteers today should correspond with their organizations and local counterparts by e-mail, Facebook and text because the locals are using such technology and it allows volunteers to collaborate and be more effective in their work. 

Myth #6: The Peace Corps isn’t doing its job—just look at how effective they were in Ukraine.

Fact: The goals of the Peace Corps are “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 and 3) To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”

No where does it include the goal of host country government reform. Peace Corps Volunteers do not work for the Foreign Service. Peace Corps volunteers do not work for USAID. Volunteers work relationally to promote better understanding, while sharing their professional skills.

Myth #7: Applicants and Volunteers should be in command of administrative processes. After all, the volunteer exists to be served.

Fact: I’ll just include the whole comment here because it’s quite revealing. It’s posted by a “Chuckludlam” which appears to be the same volunteer who sued the Peace Corps.

“The Peace Corps changes to the application process are all about process. The problem at the Peace Corps is all about substance.

Now applicants can choose where they will serve. Fine. But the Peace Corps has fought to deprive the applicants of the information they need to make this choice. To secure documents crucial to applicants who are selecting which country they want to serve in, my wife and I had to sue the Peace Corps in Federal District court.The PC conducts annual surveys of the Volunteers and if you have the breakouts of the survey country-by-country you can rank the countries — best to worst managed. There is no more credible source than the Volunteers. Of course, the PC desperately wanted to deprive the applicants of this vital information. It fears what will happen if the applicants all want to go to a well managed country.

We won the lawsuit and will soon publish the country rankings on PeaceCorpsWiki. We also had to file an appeal with the PC to secure the country-by-country breakouts of the early quit rates — another crucial measure of the health of a specific country program — and we will be publishing these on PeaceCorpsWiki.

Applicants are consumers and if they go to a restaurant they get ratings. If they go to a college, they get ratings. They get ratings of professors. They get ratings of everything, but if they are asked to spend two years of their lives in the bush, the PC doesn’t give them rankings. If the PC refuses to post this information, every applicant should put their application on hold until they get the ratings they need to make an informed choice.

Going to a badly managed country with a high early quit rate — why would any applicant do that? Would they go to a restaurant rated for having bad food, bad service, and occasional food poisoning?”

The strangest thing about this comment is the part that says, “applicants are consumers” and the part where commenter Chuckludlam compares applying to the Peace Corps to choosing at which restaurant to dine. The last time I checked, going to a restaurant was about being served, not serving others. It would be pretty strange if a restaurant invited you in and you told the server to sit down and then you went back in the kitchen and cooked him a meal. But that is the type of service true Peace Corps Volunteers are doing every day.

Volunteers are not consumers. Volunteers are, well, volunteers. This doesn’t mean volunteers shouldn’t work under good management and that the Peace Corps doesn’t need reform. We’re not heading out in the “bush” in order to suffer.

Yes, the Peace Corps must become a better organization and a safer environment for Volunteers. Yes, staff must become more competent. Let’s keep in mind, however, the words of a certain someone close to the Peace Corps: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” We as volunteers and applicants should not adopt a view of entitlement.

Myth #8: Country rankings and early quit rates are the perfect litmus test for a Peace Corps country.

Fact: The rankings that you hear about are based on surveys submitted by current volunteers. These volunteers take a survey that asks questions like, “are you satisfied with your country director” and “how well-prepared were you after the training period.” Host country staff go through changes and bad management doesn’t always translate through organizational memory. Rankings change year to year even within the span of 2-year contracts.

Early quit rate means the percentage of volunteers who do not finish their 2-year contract in that country. The spectrum of reasons why volunteers leave early is wide. Some go for medical reasons, some don’t enjoy the work, some have family matters in the states to attend to.

Additionally, no one is saying that service in each country is equally as difficult. Everyone’s situation is different and each volunteer will encounter unique challenges.

One of the “Core Expectations of Volunteers” is that volunteers “serve under conditions of hardship, if necessary…” Many volunteers simply do not count the cost before signing up, or don’t realize going into it how difficult it can be. Putting applicants totally in control of how they serve and under what conditions would only fuel the attitude of entitlement.

But many leave for reasons outside of their control. Our post recently had an amazingly successful and wonderful volunteer leave his contract early to go home and care for his mother. In the rankings system, he would be counted in the so-called early quit rate. The numbers that “don’t lie,” also don’t tell the whole truth.

Myth #9: The Peace Corps is an out of touch bureaucracy more interested in perpetuating its existence than improving how it functions to serve volunteers.

Fact: The Peace Corps as an agency and Peace Corps Volunteers are not the same thing. Too often critics equate the failures of the “bureaucracy” with ineffectiveness of volunteers. The real work of the Peace Corps isn’t the bureaucracy but the feet on the ground.

Yes, there are problems with the Peace Corps as an Agency. Yes, it needs to change. But we must separate the operations of the organization from the work volunteers are doing when it comes to evaluation. Just because there are things that can improve within the organization doesn’t mean individual volunteers’ work is ineffective or not worthwhile.

The Peace Corps staff at my post repeatedly state that they exist for us as volunteers. That is their job. There are things that need to improve, and volunteers regularly voice their opinions and the Country Director and Director of Programming & Training are addressing those issues with sincerity and competence.

They know and have stated that the new application process gives volunteers more control over where they go, and therefore they as staff need to work better to make their post attractive and successful for future applicants.

Fact: Reform is coming

When it comes to large organizations, change doesn’t always come about as quickly as some would like. But reform is coming as evidenced by the sweeping changes made this week.

For those who comment and voice their uninformed or poorly concluded opinions the best advice is 1) be patient 2) come to this with the attitude that things aren’t always black and white, and 3) understand that volunteers are in this to serve and do their best to fulfill the mission of the Peace Corps to civilly, humbly and respectfully “promote world peace and friendship.”

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