The New Peace Corps

By Christopher Hedrick*

A half century after its founding, the Peace Corps is building upon a new generation’s passion and technological know-how to make a difference in the everyday lives of people in developing countries across the globe. The agency is undergoing a profound transformation, and volunteers’ service no longer resembles the traditional notion of the Peace Corps experience.

Despite its tight budget and rapidly churning workforce, the Peace Corps has endured for fifty-one years largely because of the simplicity and beauty of its mission: to help those in need across the globe and to enhance international understanding. The Peace Corps also holds a special place in the American collective consciousness, with more than 210,000 Americans having served as volunteers.

The Peace Corps is playing a more important role than ever in meeting global development challenges by embracing the characteristics of its most successful volunteers: flexibility and nimbleness in the face of changing conditions.

The image of the solitary Peace Corps volunteer is an icon of “Peace Corps Classic,” as Sargent Shriver, the agency’s first director, constructed it in the 1960s. While the Peace Corps evolved over the decades, much remained unchanged. Volunteers served in relative isolation, with few opportunities for outside communication and collaboration. They integrated into their host communities with deep linguistic and cultural understanding. Their development impact was largely evaluated anecdotally.

Some initiatives, such as the effort to eradicate Guinea worm and, more recently, to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, have joined volunteers with the international community to address key development issues. But, by and large, the reality of the Peace Corps continued to be one of volunteers serving on their own, mostly disconnected from the world, working at the local level with ambiguous results.

Why change?

In the time since the Peace Corps’ founding, the U.S. Congress has increased its over- sight of foreign affairs agencies, requiring clearer strategic planning and metrics-based program evaluation to justify budget increases. In addition, the latest generation of development workers bring with them new expectations of how they want to live and work, knowledge of technology, and desire for innovation. The developing world has also, to varying degrees, advanced economically, requiring a reevaluation of the ways U.S. international development efforts can best contribute.

To thrive in this environment, the Peace Corps is beginning to transform itself. At Congress’s request, in 2010 the Peace Corps published a Comprehensive Agency Assessment describing reforms toward focus, efficiency, and effectiveness.

This new approach redefines the Peace Corps development niche, taking advantage of the new generation of volunteers and of technology. Millennials are tech savvy and want frequent communication and feedback. They have grown up working in teams. They’re goal-oriented and seek a sense of accomplishment and recognition. This new generation of volunteers is entering service as access to technology is dramatically expanding in the developing world. Cell phone penetration in some countries in Africa now surpasses the United States, and Internet access is growing exponentially around the world.

In the New Peace Corps, mobile devices are used to access free, universally accessible technology platforms, including:

  • Google’s open-source office tools and cloud storage, for document sharing and communication;
  • Facebook, for sharing experiences and fostering teams;
  • Skype, for enabling no-cost, long-distance interaction and learning platforms;
  • YouTube and iTunes, for instructional videos to provide timely performance support.

Teamwork is replacing the iconic notion of the lone volunteer. Increasingly, volunteers are collaborating to pursue bold goals and teaming up with partners, such as international NGOs and USAID, to work for important change.

The Peace Corps’ Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative, launched in 2011, can serve as a model for this fresh, “New Peace Corps” approach. The program uses Skype to bring in world experts for intensive training seminars, Google Drive’s cloud storage for knowledge collaboration, and Facebook groups to build communities of learning and expertise across twenty-four countries in sub-Saharan Africa in order to fight malaria, which kills hundreds of thousands of children every year.

The Peace Corps is now an integral part of the international team battling malaria. More than 3,000 Peace Corps volunteers across sub-Saharan Africa are engaged in this campaign at little incremental cost to the U.S. government. And they aren’t working alone: they work in partnership with USAID, the Centers for Disease Control, and others. This collaboration adds value to the global fight in a way that only the Peace Corps can: through community engagement and education at the grassroots level.

The impact has already become clear in the number of incidents of disease avoided and lives saved.The New Peace Corps is truly new, leveraging this generation’s passion and this era’s technology. What will not change, however, is the core competitive advantage of the Peace Corps in international development: volunteers’ deep understanding and love of their host communities. This relationship at the heart of volunteers’ experiences will continue to link Peace Corps Classic to the New Peace Corps into the future.

*Christopher Hedrick coordinates special initiatives for the Peace Corps Africa region and from 2007– 2012 was the Country Director for Peace Corps Senegal. Previously, he was CEO of Intrepid Learning, a Seattle-based corporate learning services firm, served as a science and technology advisor to the Governor of Washington state, and worked for the Gates Foundation and Microsoft. Hedrick was a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal from 1988 to 1990. 

View this op-ed as a PDF

– Jake Nelson served as Lead Editor for this op-ed. 


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5 Responses »

  1. Great article, so true. I was an early Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria. Unlike most, I was in the country's capital. And unlike most, I stayed 24 years instead of 2, because I fell in love with a host country national and married him! We're still married. I came back in 1986 to do my MBA at Yale's SOM; my husband followed a few years later.
    We gather occasionally with other former volunteers who all still feel connected to the country where they served, even though they didn't marry into the country like I did. Now I'm mentoring a current volunteer. She hardly needs me because she has access to the internet and can find resources easily. So I just provide a little encouragement.

  2. Chris,

    This strikes me as a welcome development, and I hope one that is readily embraced across the Peace Corps. My experience in Ecuador from 1997-1999 was one in which the old model -- the technologically and physically isolated volunteer working solo -- was embraced and collaboration between volunteers was discouraged, the thought being that volunteers might not get the paradigmatic cultural experience if they spent all their time socializing and communicating with their American peers. I always thought this to be problematic and had a really difficult time pushing Peace Corps to embrace a common email list that had everyone's contact information and expertise. My peers were a great source of information and emotional support, yet working with others in a collaborative way was very difficult, given the lack of information and support. There was one phone in my town and no internet access. Cell phones hadn't yet taken off. I had a laptop and a dial-up modem and was able to travel two and a half hours periodically to connect to the outside world, which included contacts in the U.S. for an export market for organic quinoa that I was able to develop with an RPCV and that continues to this day. The phone access in my town was based on the national telecom, and all the fees ate into my monthly budget. I was able to get reimbursed by Peace Corps but was always living hand to mouth because of delays in getting paid back. My greatest strength as a volunteer was my ability to tap into national networks of expertise to expose my community to other ways of doing things.

    In my mid twenties, there were limits to what I could do to show them alternative methods of growing crops, raising animals, and finding markets. But, with the telephone and the internet, I could tap into vast sources of information, all around the country and world. I led people from my town on field trips and brought experts to them. Much of this success I think happened despite not because of the way Peace Corps was organized at the time, and that the real achievement that Peace Corps wanted to foster was not so much grassroots development but our own cultural imprint as being foreigners in a different culture. Whether we achieved anything was somewhat secondary, as how much could a bunch of largely twenty-somethings actually pull off? I might have a skewed memory of the degree of Peace Corps support, and I'm sure that some of my colleagues with more ready-made technical abilities were able to pull off magnificent achievements in the way that Peace Corps volunteers traditionally have.

    Still, I think we were on the cusp then of forging a different path, based on teamwork and technology. With the cell phone being available and indeed necessary given security concerns, the information and communication are there and I'm glad Peace Corps (or at least part of it) have embraced a different approach.

  3. Hi Chris,
    I do believe that you may have confused Peace Corps with other "development" agencies. One of the aspects of Peace Corps that makes it so unique is exactly that it doesn't focus on "development" as its main goal. Why have a put quotes around "development" you ask? Let's not get into the larger neo-colonial aspects of "development" at this point in time...

    The cultural exchange is vitally important. The Peace Corps experience can provide insight into how and why bigger development projects often fail (often based in the lack of cultural understanding by the AID agency). Peace Corps background gives RPCV's a unique place from which to assist larger organizations. Focusing too much on what 20-somethings can do for their community removes one of the most important pieces of the volunteers' experience--simply just being at site, absorbing the information around them.

    I do think technology can have a place, but as we look at how it is disrupting our students ability to learn and socialize in the US, I question its place in a village, with a person who is already attached to his/her iPhone, laptop, etc. One of the best things about the Peace Corps experience is the EXPERIENCE. It's difficult, I realize, and you are probably feeling pressure from those same young people.

    How have diseases been avoided? In the volunteers themselves? I think the best place to evaluate the impact of your technologies would be by asking the communities themselves. Remember, that is truly who you are serving, not congress.

    Best,
    RPCV Senegal

    • Dear RPCV Senegal,

      With such high emphasis - and rightfully so - on accountability, Peace Corps very much is a development agency. Indeed, it is set apart from the rest of the development community via its unique approach to community integration, but that is the very element that drives PCV-facilitated development. I notice a stark difference between how I interact with the community and my understanding of its needs versus people who come to execute a project over the course of a week or two in conjunction with the NGO in my town. They have much more of a "we think this is what you need, so we're going to do it" approach, whereas my assessment of the community's needs is bred from trust and understanding through the relationships I've fostered in my 10 months here. PC is no longer a two year stint of simply hanging out in your community and seeing what happens - sustainability is the key term of "New Peace Corps." While I completely agree that interacting with your community is by far the most essential aspect of a PCV's experience, it is also the central catalyst for bringing sound, lasting, desired development to a community.

      As for technology disconnecting one from the community he or she serves, I can tell you for certain that's simply not true. Power outages and breaks in connectivity aside, you can only spend so much time inside on your laptop (the start of rainy season, as it is right now, is a perfect time!) before you get stir crazy and have no choice but to get out there. Even if you didn't reach that point, I assure you that the majority of my fellow Ethiopia PCVs - some 200 in total - are here with a genuine desire to improve the lives of those around us, and we fully understand the positive impact technology can have on that part of our mission. The number of Facebook groups and Google forums dedicated to project collaboration is astounding, and that's only the tip of the iceberg. Want to download a BBC program to use for your English Club? Done. Want to incur less wait time on grant application turnaround? Thank you, internet. Want to resolve some basic livelihood issue that will instantly decrease your stress levels? Send an email to your APCD! Want to create audio clips to put on a CD for your students to take home and work on English pronunciation? Easy, since you have a laptop. And even if all that weren't true, the ability to stay in touch with folks back home is a true blessing. I have a fiance back in the States and I can't imagine our experience being a positive one without being able to video chat from time to time. As an added bonus, most of us keep blogs to detail our experiences, mostly read by friends and family back home. Goal 3, here we come!

      Technology and advancement certainly have their drawbacks, but the New Peace Corps is moving in a positive direction that will hopefully add credibility to the organization and help evolve its image from the perceived "hippy dippy 2 year vacation" into one of a sharp, smart "development" agency capable of endless good (which will perhaps earn it a larger chunk of taxpayer dollars...).

      Thanks for highlighting this new era of a great agency, Chris. I'm honored to be part of it.

      Cheers!

      -Joe

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