Not long ago, a friend of mine said something she clearly thought would be shocking. “Katie,” she began tentatively, as if bracing me for devastating news, “You know most people don’t really consider Peace Corps a world changer.” There was a heavy pause.
I was not shocked—my list of world-changers would be fairly short—but I was caught off guard. I am much more accustomed to dispelling assorted myths born of distance, exoticism, and Peace Corps recruiting posters. No, I do not dig wells with my bare hands and bloody knuckles, nor have I contributed to the search for the cure for AIDS. I am sorry to say that I haven’t rescued a single stranded dolphin.
For those who criticize the world-changing effectiveness or impact of Peace Corps, this may be the crux of the issue, an incompatibility of expectations and reality. Peace Corps is exceptionally good at what it does; I just don’t think that most Americans know what it is we do.
In defense of Peace Corps, I offer you one word and then ask for five paragraphs to explain it. The word is kludge, and it is defined as “an awkward, inelegant contraption that somehow works.” Setting aside entirely the personal growth of each Peace Corps volunteer, the private, complex and completely individual journey each of us undertakes, this is my strongest (or at least, most unique) argument for the value and very existence of Peace Corps.
But first, I have to give due to the awkward and the inelegant. Peace Corps is a lumbering, bureaucratic machine. Often there are snafus and mishaps, as one might expect from an organization that places 10,000 volunteers in 10,000 far-flung locations. One feels occasionally isolated and unsupported, as if after your hurried months of training you are slapped on the butt, told “make us proud,” and promptly creamed on the line of scrimmage. You hear horror stories of volunteers abandoned; you hear stories, too, of volunteers who partied away their 700+ days. But those are the exception, not the rule, and most volunteers leave Peace Corps feeling that they were respected and served with integrity.
Despite these shortcomings, Peace Corps somehow works. For two years, volunteers do a unique and challenging thing, integrating in the truest sense of the word. We live among our communities, adopting their ways and sharing the rituals of life, learning the language, adjusting to the pace of a different place. This is a means to an end, helping the community, but also an end in itself: struggling across a vast portion of the cultural divide as a good faith gesture. As a result of this struggle we see our world and particularly our country of service through a new lens. And, in turn, the citizens of our host country—neighbor, co-worker, mailman, coffee lady—see us as much more than the foreigner we initially appear and thus the United States as more than just a vague distant nation. In this way, Peace Corps volunteers are ambassadors and embodiments of an ideal of cultural tolerance and exchange.
This change of perception works slowly and yet powerfully on two sides of the world. Here in Madagascar, the second a word of Malagasy comes out of my mouth, people know that I am American and a surprising number know that I am Peace Corps. It is this demonstration of effort and nod to longevity, this crossing of the divide, that sets us apart. Peace Corps volunteers are a presence in a country: not tourists, not disconnected development workers, but something altogether different. Through pure hearsay, I have heard the American Chargé d’affaires say that Peace Corps is the reason the United States has a good reputation in Madagascar. Think of that magnified on a seventy-country scale, or even the 139 countries in which Peace Corps has served since its inception 50 years ago. Yes, much of what Peace Corps does is symbolic, but that symbolism matters.
Now cross an ocean or two. Each year thousands who have experienced a change of lenses, an alteration of values, return to America. Their collective voice broadens our national worldview, enriches our perspective, enlivens and informs debate. These are returned volunteers who will always remember their time in a dusty or drenched, distant corner of the earth, who will not forget the people who were kind to them there, or the subtle ways that the conduct of a world power can affect them. Peace Corps volunteers know how small this world is, and in these increasingly interconnected times can be a unique voice for people who may be left out or left behind.
Forget not that volunteers do good and effective things during their service too. This argument is not to devalue these works or their impact, but rather to point out that the framework of tangible success is not the only way to measure Peace Corps’ value. For Peace Corps, like any agency striving for improvement in the developing world, has encountered mountains of missteps, false starts, and dead ends. This is another awkward and inelegant side of the kludge. But the side that matters, the side that somehow works, despite the difficulties, is that of the thousands of volunteers whose countless actions and exchanges operate in a small, daily way to increase understanding and improve their small corner of the earth.
Thus, after a heavy pause, I reply: Peace Corps may not be a world changer, but in a world that is changing, it is more relevant and necessary than ever.