Peace Corps just announced its biggest single reform since its inception. The headline news of course, is that prospective volunteers will now be able to choose their country of service. The application process will also be simplified and shortened, and emphasis will be increased on recruiting more young and minority people.
These changes were announced a few days before my inaugural blog went up on the NPR website. I bring this up because the post has gotten a ton of attention, some of which has been negative towards me personally and towards Peace Corps. In its first 24 hours, it got over 20,000 views as well as 2,700 likes and 150 comments on the NPR Facebook page.
I should have anticipated it, but as we all know those that bother to comment on blogs generally do not have anything nice to say. I’ve been called (to paraphrase) a privileged white idiot who needs to get off her high horse.
For the most part I’m amused that anyone cares enough to write hateful things about me on the internet. Part of me is even a little bit flattered. But there are two legitimate points that have surfaced in peoples’ comments that reflect broader criticisms of Peace Corps as a whole and are worth mentioning.
Some people accused me of benefiting from white privilege. Whiteness in Nepal is practically synonymous with beauty. So yes, I benefit from white privilege on a daily basis. Non-white foreigners are treated very differently here. I will never know what their experience feels like so I cannot try to speak to it, but it’s no stretch to say that racism in Nepal - especially towards black people – is overt and deeply upsetting.
Peace Corps’ new reform includes an emphasis on recruiting minorities, which is a hugely positive change. There is the perception here (and probably in most PC countries) that all Americans are white and speak English as a first language. One of Peace Corps’ three goals is to teach host countries about American people and culture. They already know Hollywood. They need the bigger picture.
Secondly, my blog sparked a lot of conversation about the efficacy of Peace Corps for development. One person in particular accused me of being a voluntourist. Peace Corps is many great and wonderful things, but I would not call it a development agency. But neither would I say we are voluntourists (which despite being illegal in Nepal is very common here). The one undisputed advantage we have over pretty much every comparable program is that we really integrate. I can’t tell you how many Nepalis I’ve met who’ve truly thanked me and told me they’ve never met a foreigner before who really spoke the language. That is not something that voluntourism agencies care about or achieve.
But Peace Corps leaves a lot to be desired in terms of delivering real technical assistance. I joke that Peace Corps takes unqualified, undertrained Americans, spins the globe, plops them down in a random spot and says, “go forth and make change!”
Despite how we seem set up for failure from the start, I do see volunteers doing incredible things. One of my friends started an orchard within a few months at site. Another sponsored a clinic that provided over 150 villagers with free dental care for the first time in their lives. I’m not saying this was sustainable or that’s it’s the best way to spend development dollars. But I do know that we volunteers benefit immensely from the opportunity we are given to live and work here. And in ways both large and small, the people we work with benefit as well.
Historically, Peace Corps has been very successful giving volunteers a life-changing experience, but less successful in making an impact through its programming. The latest reforms are one step in the right direction. If Peace Corps can recruit better trained and motivated people and pair them more effectively with countries that will make use of their skills, they will be that much more likely to make positive change.
In a sense I’m glad the reforms happened too late for me, because I probably wouldn’t have chosen to come to Nepal. In a parallel universe maybe I’d be in a Spanish-speaking program, where I wouldn’t have to learn a new language. Maybe I’d even be paired with a project that perfectly fit my interests and would guide me toward my career goals. As it is, I might never accomplish much as a Peace Corps volunteer and I probably won’t work in food security again, but I do know that when I leave I’ll never be able to shake this place. It’s grabbed a hold of me and its never letting go.