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Peace Corps: Millennium Is Yet to Come

Latest Addition to Peace Corps Literature Shows Volunteer's Ambiguous Role as Learner and Doer

By Efrem Sigel

Drop into a Peace Corps hangout in Delhi, or a resthouse in Nigeria, and chances are the conversation will run to gossip about other Volunteers, mingled with the latest half-despairing, half amused stories about the locals. Such talk is the stock-in-trade of the white man in the tropics, and to this extent at least, Peace Corps Volunteers are no different from other expatriates. What does distinguish their talk, however, is the thread of concern for the job that runs through it: there will be insistent questions about so and so's method of teaching irregular verbs, and genuine admiration at hearing that one of the girls has actually got them building latrines in her village.


The lesson of this concern is that the Volunteer abroad likes to think of himself as a professional. Joking with the children of the barrio or dancing the highlife is fine, but what he really wants to see are results on the job. When the monthly Peace Corps Volunteer arrived, most of us in the Ivory Coast took one look and groaned. We had seen enough heartwarming pictures of white teachers and black children; the unanswered question was whether the kids were learning anything.

At our termination conference in Abidjan 25 teachers expressed this feeling almost to a man. As the report on the conference noted, "The image of the Volunteer as a well-meaning amateur sent abroad to 'relate' to people came in for a strong battering." One expression of this point of view is that the Volunteer tends to see the solution to his problems in technical terms: he feels he needs better training, more modern textbooks, abler support from the Peace Corps staff, or special skills he doesn't now possess.

In a sense, however, the efficient "professional" Volunteer is as illusory as the catalytic "A.B. generalist" that the Peace Corps is fond of speaking about. There is even some inverse correlation between professional skills and job satisfaction in the Peace Corps. According to termination questionnaires, health workers are notably less satisfied than other Volunteers, one hypothesis being that nurses and technicians accustomed to American medical practices are bound to be disheartened at conditions they find overseas.


What this adds up to, I think, is that the Volunteer can really be neither amateur nor professional. He has lost that flush of innocence, or amateurism, which makes one think that by dint of honest toil and a boundless faith in human perfectability one can change any individual; on the other hand, he is working at too low a level to have acquired the technician's confidence in his mastery of tools for shaping institutions.

There is a similarly ambiguous quality to the education which the Volunteer picks up abroad. After two years he understands infinitely more than someone who spends six weeks in Bombay with Experiment in International Living, but he achieves something less than--or better, very different from--the visiting anthropologist or political scientist. Indeed, Volunteers often find it fashionable to describe their environment in the kind of sweeping, value-laden generalizations which they learned to beware of in college history of sociology class. "Peruvian Indians are simple and friendly people," they will joke, or "The Ghanaians are so much smarter than the Liberians." Like all cultural descriptions the statements will be half true, but in voicing them the American abroad is not simply being flippant; he is searching for a frame of reference that will make sense of his surroundings, his neighbors and his daily frustrations.

This view of the Peace Corps Volunteer as somewhere between amateur and expert, tourist and scholar can help put in perspective what Volunteers have written and will write about their work in developing societies. Alongside startling naivetes we are likely to find startling insights. The Volunteer does not have an economist's understanding of macro-economic growth, but he knows many things about development that the expert has never seen. And while he lacks the anthropologist's scholarship in his approach to foreign culture, the Volunteer brings to it a unique kind of involvement.


The latest book on the Peace Corps, The Barrios of Manta, illustrates the in-between nature of the Volunteer's role, both as learner and doer. The authors, Earle and Rhode Brooks, lived in Manta, a fishing town on the coast of Eduador for 20 months. Mainly their book sketches in greater detail a side of the Peace Corps that is already familiar to most Americans: its successes. The Brooks talk of doubts and discouragement but there is no hiding the fact that, in comparison with most Peace Corps Volunteers, they were outstandingly successful.

One obvious reason for their achievements is what they brought to the Peace Corps: greater maturity than most PCV's (they were 28 and 26 respectively when they joined) and the kind of background that would prove most useful in community development. Between them they were able to teach first aid, child care, swimming, carpentry and auto mechanics at the Casa del Obrero of Manta; in their spare time they managed to organize neighborhood cleanup campaigns, fight bubonic plague and build an oven for the local school's hot lunch program.

The book's greatest value may be as a kind of working handbook of community development: the Brooks were inventive, and many of the techniques they experimented with can stand other Volunteers in good stead. They used a variety of ways to scare up money for new projects: tapping local businessmen and expatriates for donations of cash and equipment, digging into their own pockets, and soliciting money and materials from friends in the States. I have long felt the Peace Corps needs to revise its dogma on equipping Volunteers with money and supplies. The official line holds that the Volunteer should offer only himself, not material aid, because such aid will discourage local people from making their own contributions. The rule is a sensible one, but frequently the equipment in question--a tool or a motion picture projector or an up-to-date text--is simply not available on the spot, while it may prove impossible to raise locally all the money needed for a given project. To me it seems a little ridiculous to spend thousands of dollars training Volunteers and sending them overseas, and then to balk at adding the $100 or $200 which might enable them to carry a project through.


Although the Brooks usually insisted that the local people pay whatever they could, certain acts of generosity appear a little questionable. Some returned Volunteers will raise eye-brows at their distribution of seven cartons of used clothing sent from the States; the trouble with such direct giveaways, as the Brooks found out themselves, is that the demand is inexhaustible. After all the parcels had already been distributed to friends, Rhoda relates, "the crowd at our door swelled to frightening size; complete strangers were coming off the beach to see what all the excitement was about."

The Brooks tackled the problem of relations with Ecuadorians by displaying an enthusiasm and a patience that can only astound--or dismay--other Vounteers. On their first day in town they politely demurred at the suggestion that they rent a spacious balcony apartment in town and instead set up house in a beach front dwelling of bricksand bamboo, located two miles away. The choice amazed local fishermen. "But only poor people live here," said one, unable to comprehend why gringos chose to reside in his barrio.

Once installed the Brooks pursued an open door policy with a vengeance. Every meal, they relate, included two or more impromptu guests and sometimes a roomful; on Sundays the house overflowed with visitors. For all this I admire their stamina though I wonder how they kept their sanity. New Volunteers anywhere are usually so eager for friends that they practically pull people in through the windows, with the result that they accumulate a large number of urchins, hangers-on and people looking for gifts--"leeches," as a Volunteer who served in Iran referred to them. (In my own experience, the individuals one would most respectful to show up of their own accord.) There comes a time, however, when the Volunteer realizes he has had enough; his own privacy counts too, and is doubly important if he has work that must be done in peace. At this point he simply becomes more selective. It is no more possible to like all Latin Americans than it is to like all the people in your apartment building.

Through his job and contacts the Peace Corps Volunteer gradually gains confidence in his understanding of the new culture, and then tries to puzzle out the why of underdevelopment. "My original impression--that most of the young people were lazy--was unsupported," Earle writes. "Their lethargy was not dullness but an understandable reaction to the constant lack of work.... Latins are not lazy people.... [They] have learned to live with the underdevelopment of their countries...." The answer, he felt, was "motivation," but he did not push this very far. The crucial question for students of development is what determines readiness to be motivated. Why did the community garbage cleanup work in Barrio Miraflores and fail in another barrio in the center of town? And why did the Brooks complete projects when other Volunteers could not? One answer may lie in the person of the director of the Casa del Obrero, a dynamic and dedicated man. Without at least one well placed ally in the local power structure, many Volunteers spend their time pushing on a string.

Of course even with the best local conditions success is hard to come by. I suppose what I miss most in The Barrios of Manta is an account of the periods of utter lassitude which can strike and immobolize Americans abroad. The days--and there could be a whole row of them--when local food plays havoc with one's intestines, and when the kids in English class or the women in nutrition class give the same wrong answer, or no answer at all, for the hundredth time: these are part of anybody's Peace Corps experience. How to deal with them remains very much an individual matter. The gifted few do achieve a breakthrough which permits them to accept and draw pleasure from their environment on its own terms. This capacity may be more a matter of temperament than anything else. The Brooks left Educador with an adopted son and daughter, a testimony to their identification with the people they helped. Other Volunteers are thrown back upon themselves; they ransack the Peace Corps booklocker and strugble to define the attitudes their new new existence has forced onto them. Ken Kressel who served in the Ivory Coast called for a Peace Corps philosophy of dullness appropriate to the environment. "No crashing of guns, no bombing of heavy seas against our frail ship, no firm resolution in the face of death. But instead--an English classroom, a hot African town, and the relative pronouns 'who' and 'whom'" he wrote in the Voulnteer. A rather different point of view from The Barrios of Manta, but then, the Peace Corps is 10,000 individuals in 40-odd countries, and we can afford a little diversity in what it tells us about ourselves and the societies we set out to help.

For this reason I am skeptical of attempts to generalize at the overall impact of the Peace Corps, especially on such intangibles as "understanding" and "good will." The Brooks write: "If each Volunteer contacts some thousand people in this personal way, then the 50,000 Volunteers who will have returned to this country by 1970 will have directly influenced, in some way or other, over 50,000,000 people around the world. And if each one of these 50,000,000 passes along a little of his understanding to his friends and neighbors, then the circle of impact will widen beyond comprehension." Lest the mind grow dizzy at the calculations, it may be best to point out that the overwhelming majority of returned Volunteers are satisfied with what they themselves learned; as for the millenium, they appear willing to let that take care of itself

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