“The audacity of my arrogance in assuming that this time abroad would do Cameroon any good was apparent on day one.” These are the words of former Peace Corps Volunteer Kelli Donley, who resigned from her post after five months in a move that, by the standards of the Peace Corps, is not the least bit unfounded.
27 percent of those who began their service in 2013 were terminated before completing one year of their two-year service. Of those who were terminated, 63 percent resigned from their position. These numbers are indicative of a set of volunteers who are wholly unprepared for the conditions that their training is supposed to prepare them for.
The fault of this does not lie on the Volunteers, who I believe to be well-intentioned people, even if their efforts are misguided. The fault lies on the Peace Corps itself for failing to create a training program that properly prepares its Volunteers.
As explained on the Peace Corps website, “Pre-service training is conducted by Peace Corps staff — most of whom are locally hired trainers — and current Volunteers.” While there are many of these pre-service training programs throughout the country, the program with the largest producer of Peace Corps Volunteers resides here at Tulane University.
Tulane has long taken pride in its position as the No. 1 producer of Peace Corps Volunteers, displaying it proudly on its many banners across campus. I am not sure, however, if this statistic should truly bring pride to our university. The Peace Corps is a flawed program, not in its intent, but in its execution.
The idea of serving others in developing countries is not at all a bad one. It must be clear, however, that the service is for the citizens of those countries, and not for the Volunteers. Volunteers often travel in order to find a sense of purpose, but they rarely consider what kind of impact they’ll have on their host country. As a result, Volunteers often do more harm than good. This type of work has been colloquially dubbed ‘voluntourism’, and many voluntourists have little to no experience with work in their own country before they go abroad.
Some positions within the Peace Corps do have minimum requirements for previous volunteer work, so they deal with less of this than typical voluntourism organizations, but there are no requirements across the board.
There is a very clear-cut difference between good volunteering and voluntourism, and this lies in the impact left on the communities one volunteers in, whether at home or abroad. Volunteers should leave behind a positive impact that goes beyond the warm fuzzies: some of these communities need established sources of safe drinking water, others need schools, others need help building infrastructure. It is important to remember that if or when you go abroad to volunteer, the people you are working for are no different than you. With much elbow grease put into my research, I have been unable to find any definitive proof that the Peace Corps creates any significant developmental progress in the countries it travels to. There is anecdotal evidence, but, unsurprisingly, almost all of this comes from current or former Peace Corps employees and Volunteers. And what, really, did anyone expect? Most Volunteers are in their early-to-mid 20’s, have little experience in sustained humanitarian work, and are under minimal supervision. The circumstances are not a breeding ground for positive impact.
Tulane’s status as the No. 1 producer of Peace Corps Volunteers fits the mold of Tulane’s attempts to brand itself as a school of service with its service learning program. Like those attempts, the Peace Corps is well-intentioned and in desperate need of a complete structural overhaul if it ever hopes to be what it says it is. As for the people who wish to volunteer abroad, I applaud your values, but I encourage you to look to your own community. When’s the last time you volunteered in your own community to a degree that wasn’t required by Tulane? Before you hop a flight to Myanmar, try catching a cab to the Lower Ninth Ward.