Op/Ed

Rejuvenating the Peace Corps: A View from the Field

Grassroots development is relatively inexpensive, puts money at the most local level, strengthens the community where the volunteers serve and leaves a lovely red, white and blue footprint.

The Peace Corps is officially retirement age. Like a lot of 62-year-olds, it seems pretty set in its ways. Here’s a view from the field on how to rejuvenate this grand American institution.

Many notable Americans as well as people who live in your neighborhood have served in the Peace Corps. Nearly a quarter of a million Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers since 1961. At its peak in 1966, over 15,000 volunteers were serving. Now there is about a tenth of that number in the field, but the number of “Kennedy’s Kids” is increasing again as the organization and the countries they serve in bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to the volunteers that serve for the standard 27 months (three months of training plus two years of service), a small number of Peace Corps Response volunteers are serving. I was one of four Response volunteers in my cohort serving for one year in Rwanda, a country in East Africa about the size of Vermont. “The kids,” as we (two Boomers and two Gen-X-ers) call the 13 Health and Education volunteers, are super-smart, culturally sensitive and speak Kinyarwanda really well. We enjoy serving with them.

Despite a proposed budget for Peace Corps that approaches half a billion dollars, we still make what our host country national counterparts make — so in my case that was about $200 per month, the same as my Rwandan teacher trainer counterparts. We also get a sum of money set aside for us to help us readjust to life at home when we finish our service. Response volunteers get $500 for each month of service, $100 more than the two-year volunteers.

Peace Corps has three goals. Host national government ministries identify areas of need and then the Peace Corps provides them with qualified peoplepower. That’s the first one. In Rwanda, there are two programs, Health and Education. Programs in other countries include Youth in Development, Agriculture, Community Economic Development and Environment.

The second and third goals have to do with cultural exchange. This involves sharing aspects of U.S. culture with host country friends and co-workers while serving, and then telling Americans about our experiences when we return home, either through formal presentations, perhaps at a school or church, or informally with family and friends.

I had an almost daily built-in cultural exchange. My landlord’s 7-year-old son, Manzi, was infinitely curious about the things in my house. He tried my dental floss, shave cream, iron and toaster but, luckily, he never figured out how to pull the pin and depress the handle on my Peace Corps-issued fire extinguisher. He’s fascinated by dinosaurs and asked me, in English, if they exist in another dimension. Manzi serves as a cultural broker between me and his father, who doesn’t speak much English.

From a top-down perspective, Peace Corps is meeting its first goal. Considering development from the bottom up, however, I’ve found it very difficult to engage staff in supporting projects that I and my Rwandan colleagues thought were important. It may seem strange to hear me say that Peace Corps Rwanda isn’t effective at grassroots development, especially since all of the American administrative staff are former volunteers.

Speak to any returned volunteer and they will tell you that one of the most impactful parts of their Peace Corps service was doing a project. Whether agricultural, educational or related to small business, these projects are the legacy of the volunteer who helped create them.

There are two avenues of project grant funding available to volunteers, the Small Project Assistance (SPA) grant through USAID and the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP). Applying for these grants is cumbersome and most volunteers will only be able to get one project funded in their two years because the Peace Corps only allows them to apply in the one-year window in the middle of their service. They may not apply for two grants at once and cannot reapply for a second grant until the monitoring and evaluation are complete on the first grant. For Peace Corps Response volunteers like me, SPA and PCPP funding is unattainable because we serve for about a year.

I believe Peace Corps would be a more effective organization if it “stood on its head” for a while and looked at grant funding from the perspective of the volunteer. Grassroots development is relatively inexpensive, puts money at the most local level, strengthens the community where the volunteers serve and leaves a lovely red, white and blue footprint.

Here are six low-cost suggestions to re-energize the Peace Corps from the bottom up:

  1. Create a database of grant-funded projects done by earlier volunteers. New volunteers, many with the ink still wet on their college diplomas, may not even know what projects are possible to do. Most have never worked in community development, but if they can see what their PCV predecessors have done in different countries and in different contexts, that can spark “What if we did this?” discussions with their co-workers. This also has the advantage of showing new volunteers how projects are written and evaluated, how budgets work, and to learn what community connections are necessary to complete a successful project.

Earlier this year, I discussed raising animals on campus with our dean. He told me what was wrong with rabbits, cows and goats, and he said that raising chickens for eggs would be the best solution for increasing protein in students’ diets. Most of the over 500 students on our residential campus are children of farmers, so taking care of animals is second nature to them. I requested a copy of a successful chicken coop grant application from the Peace Corps Rwanda admin. You would have thought I was asking for plans on how to build a nuclear reactor. It took six weeks for staff to provide me with a successful grant (for raising goats and chickens) and it was so heavily redacted that it was useless.

  1. Allow crowdsourcing of funds to support projects. Strangely, Peace Corps does not allow volunteers to crowdsource funding. Most two-year volunteers are digital natives and crowdsourcing is natural to them. Peace Corps recently shut down a project by my nearest volunteer neighbor, Sandra, who was trying to purchase expandable shoes for her primary school students, some of whom were outgrowing their shoes too quickly and had to resort to flip-flops. Her dean ordered her students to go barefoot rather than wear plastic sandals. This didn’t sit well with the big-hearted volunteer. She did a little research and found a company that makes “shoes that grow” so that students could adjust the straps and not have to pass on their shoes every time their feet grew. She connected the dots to create a useful project. She solicited funds from Rotary International, family, friends and friends of friends back home. When the Peace Corps Rwanda country director got wind of it, he reminded her of the Peace Corps policy, asked her to cancel the project and to return the over $6,000 raised to the donors.

There is no better way to tie in the second and third goals of Peace Corps in real time than in trying to do a project such as Sandra’s. Americans do want to help others in distant places, but often don’t know how. Imagine how wonderfully educational it would be for Ms. Smith’s third-grade class in Bridport to raise funds to support a volunteer’s project. This funding avenue should be opened now.

  1. Create a ‘Friends of Peace Corps.’ Many returned volunteers have created groups that raise money to support projects in their countries of service proposed by current volunteers. For example, The Friends of Peace Corps Thailand, my first country of service over three decades ago, has raised $137,000 over the past 20 years. These funds have been used to support nearly 150 projects. PCVs propose a project and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers can fund them based on project type or location.

Unfortunately, there is no “Friends of Rwanda” group. Also, some have served in countries that no longer host volunteers, but are in a position to help. Peace Corps or the National Peace Corps Association could create an umbrella fund for returned volunteers who want to support projects proposed by current volunteers, regardless of country or program, which bypasses SPA or PCPP funding.

  1. Allow Peace Corps Response Volunteers to apply for grants immediately. There were four of us in our Peace Corps Response cohort, the youngest of whom was born during the Nixon administration. All of us are former two-year volunteers and we are all experienced in our fields. Unfortunately, the Peace Corps grant funding model does not accommodate us because it is geared toward two-year volunteers, who cannot apply for a grant during their first six months of service, as they are getting settled into their jobs and communities, or during their last six months, as they are getting ready to leave. Since grant applications are reviewed quarterly and volunteers cannot work on two grant-funded projects at the same time, this means that it would be hard to do more than one project during the normal two-year service. As most Response volunteers serve a year or less, this model does not work for us and it makes applying for a grant, doing a project, and then evaluating its success almost impossible. Peace Corps should allow Response volunteers, who need less time adjusting cross-culturally and to new work schedules, and who have expertise in assessing community needs, access to grant applications as soon as they are settled in at site.
  2. Give PCVs access to and practice with mini-grants. To give new and Response volunteers a chance to see how grants function in their community, one-time small grants of up to $200 should be made available to them after a month of service. For an Education volunteer, these grants could be used for weekend leadership camps, entrepreneurship competitions, guest speakers or field trips.

Not every volunteer wants to do a grant, but for those who do the wall that they have to scale to access SPA or PCPP funds can seem daunting. Mini-grants would get volunteers the hands-on experience they need to tackle something bigger or get them to realize that grant-funded projects are not what they want to do at their site.

  1. Connect PCVs in Neighboring Countries. Peace Corps has a wonderful program, called World Wise Schools, that connects host country students to U.S. school children. However, language levels, different school and vacation schedules, set-up time between teachers, and time differences can pose a problem (Kigali is currently six hours ahead of New York and nine hours ahead of California). I tried WWS during my first service in Thailand, but I just couldn’t make it work with a school in Woodbridge, Virginia. While connections such as these are infinitely easier to do in the digital age, I didn’t attempt a WWS connection this time around because we were reminded of the program in March, just as students at my school were about to go on break.

It would be great if volunteers could connect to other volunteers in neighboring countries. Four of the seven member nations of the East African Community have Peace Corps Volunteers. My students would really like to meet their age peers in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya in video chats and for competitions such as debates, which are popular in Africa. The desire to do this is there and it costs almost nothing.

Are the best days of Peace Corps behind it? No, but change is necessary. Those of us who served know that Peace Corps is a superb expression of American goodwill but refocusing it to look at development through the eyes of volunteers is vital to rejuvenating the organization. The Peace Corps promotes invaluable shared work bridging cultures and helps us remember that, despite differences, we are all one human family, or as the Rwandans aptly say, “Turi kumwe” — “We are together.”

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Tim Hartigan has served in the Peace Corps twice, most recently finishing up his service in Rwanda in July. He trained pre-primary and primary school teachers for the Rwandan Education Board at Kabarore Teacher Training College. Hartigan, who resides in Buffalo, N.Y., is a graduate of Dartmouth College where he majored in English.

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