Headlines | 07.10.10

The Role of the Peace Corps

by Albert Yan, 2010 APAICS Intern

We’re not in the Cold War anymore.  We are twenty years past the Cold War and now live in a multi polar world where the United States is only a mere player on the world stage.  The Peace Corps is not a propaganda tool of the United States and does not serve to ‘boast about how wonderful America is.’  The Peace Corps is also not a non-profit organization.  Rather, it is an agency within the federal government of the United States, and thus, is placed on the same level of organization under the Executive Branch as the Department of State.  Many are surprised to hear that the Peace Corps is still functioning and operating—but as our world has dramatically changed over the past twenty year, the Peace Corps has also taken on a startlingly immense transformation to address the important issues of development in our current situation in 2010.

The Peace Corps can only operate in countries in which it is in invited to lead operations—thus, countries such as Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Angola, Laos, Egypt, or Vietnam, do not have Peace Corps Volunteers.  The Peace Corps is truly dedicated to community initiated and community based approaches—thus, projects that fall in line with what critics of the Peace Corps label ‘propaganda’ and ‘ineffective and wasteful ’ are simply not a part of the Peace Corps’ agenda or action plan.

President John F Kennedy built the Peace Corps in 1961 to promote world peace and friendship among all nations in the world.  He envisioned three goals that have survived through the 49 years of the Peace Corps’ existence.
1.    Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2.    Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3.    Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

While the Peace Corps does focus on international and community development, the mission emphasizes a need to incorporate volunteers and their experiences abroad into the daily lives of Americans to facilitate a two way flow of ideas between communities—not simply a uni-directional push.  The Peace Corps recognizes that volunteers have rare and valuable experiences that they can bring back to enrich the domestic communities in America.   It is this specific “Third Goal” that the Peace Corps is working to enhance to bring more Volunteers into spreading and imparting their knowledge across the country.

Since beginning my internship at the Peace Corps, I have learned an immense amount from operations at Headquarters in Washington DC.  My department, the Director’s Office for Private Sector Initiatives, connects interested groups, people, parties, organizations, communities, or companies to contribute to implementation of community-initiated projects led by Peace Corps Volunteers.  The Director’s Office of Private Sector Initiatives does not use taxpayer money, but allows private citizens to become a part of international humanitarian projects through donations to specific on-the-ground projects.  With the goal of giving Americans the opportunity of owning an international philanthropy project specifically directed towards helping a community, my office functions to connect Americans living within the United States to Americans working abroad for the betterment of humankind.

The majority of my department is comprised of returned Peace Corps Volunteers.  Small conversations often turn into mini story-telling sessions where return volunteers share their exciting stories and experiences from abroad with eager ears.  One of my co-workers was a volunteer in Georgia, and was evacuated during the civil unrest a few years ago.  My other co-workers volunteered in Mirconesia, Morocco, Madagascar, China, Mali, and Kenya.

Projects I have worked on include those in the fields of Education, Public Health, Small Business Development, Gender issues, Sanitation, Technology and IT systems, HIV/AIDS Awareness, Youth Development, Food, Agriculture, Environmental topics, and Community Development.  Specific projects include well reconstruction and repair, latrine construction, HIV/AIDS education centers, maternity clinics, library construction and acquiring of books, school house repairs, solar panels, textbooks, safe drinking water, and personal hygiene workshops.  My experiences at the Peace Corps have spanned the entire spectrum of humanitarian aid projects, providing me with invaluable insight into what makes a development project run smoothly.

One of the most important components of a project is its final report—with which I specifically work.  We value long-term sustainability of projects, long after a Peace Corps leaves after their two year service within a community.  Peace Corps lives by a mission of upholding bottom-up community development that truly focuses on need, desire, and motivation, rather than the haphazard distribution of government funds or rents that actually hinder community development.  Our work focuses on ensuring that the final results of projects fully reflect and fulfill the original goals that were envisioned at the outset of the project.  This is to make sure that money for cement for a tenth latrine was not siphoned away to buy a moped or used for items that would take away from a full impact of the original project proposal.

We also aggregate best practices and learn from suggestions offered by Volunteers in order to ensure that all our future projects and potential project leaders have the best and most-informed insights before they undertake immense projects.  Effectiveness and efficiency are the key to implementing community projects, and as such, we can learn from projects that may have struggled to extract lessons and form processes and frameworks that would function in a more effective and efficient manner.  Peace Corps does recognize that all communities are different and that the Peace Corps Volunteer is in the best situation to understand the needs of the community—so we do not trespass on the firm beliefs of Volunteers.  However, we do strive to provide the most valuable resources to Volunteers so that all projects are top-notch in quality from the planning stages to implementation to completion.

Problems the world and struggling communities face change each and every day.  Bureaucracy, organizational structures, hierarchy rules, and leadership may change, but one variable remains constant. Regardless of how contorted, twisted, or confusing the world may become, development philosophy stays rigid as a tenant of humanitarian aid and philanthropic assistance.  With my experience at the Peace Corps, I am absolutely certain that I will incorporate humanitarian aid and international philanthropy into my career plans—the impact of each of these small projects is not ‘small’ or ‘insignificant’.  A human life made easier is a human life with more potential to accomplish great feats.

Albert Yan is a 2010 APAICS Summer Intern placed with the U.S. Peace Corps. He is currently studying Political Science & Violin Performance under the Honors Dual Degree Program at Northwestern University.

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We’re not in the Cold War anymore. We are twenty years past the Cold War and now live in a multi polar world where the United States is only a mere player on the world stage. The Peace Corps is not a propaganda tool of the United States and does not serve to ‘boast about how wonderful America is.’ The Peace Corps is also not a non-profit organization. Rather, it is an agency within the federal government of the United States, and thus, is placed on the same level of organization under the Executive Branch as the Department of State. Many are surprised to hear that the Peace Corps is still functioning and operating—but as our world has dramatically changed over the past twenty year, the Peace Corps has also taken on a startlingly immense transformation to address the important issues of development in our current situation in 2010.

Read More