The Real Job of the Peace Corps
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The Real Job of the Peace Corps (page 2)

Development assistance, to have any effect at all, must work at a much more basic level, and it must involve at every turn the people who are receiving it. And this brings me to a consideration of what I have called the “real” work of the Peace Corps. It does no good to send an agronomist overseas to tell people what crops they should be planting. Any agriculturist, to be effective must go beyond the immediate problems of technology and study why it is that people farm the way they do, and what are the religious, economic and social characteristics that make them resist vaccination of their herds and furrow irrigation of their crops. Any nurse or doctor, to be effective, must learn what local health practices are being used, and what is their utility for the whole man — as well as the whole complex of human forces that go to make up people’s attitudes toward life and death. A teacher, to be effective, must know the home life of his students, and he must not only concern himself with matters of teaching technique, but he must examine at every turn the educational needs of the people he is serving in order to help them to acquire wisdom that will be relevant to their own purposes.
     The examples of how an agent of development assistance becomes effective could be multiplied many times. But underneath them all lies the need to learn and understand. He must acquire an ability to help the people he is serving to find their own ways to solve their problems, not to show them our way in the sublime and frequently unrealistic faith that it is the only right way. This is the real work of the Peace Corps. It is also the real work of effective development assistance.

Starting from Scratch
Starting nearly from scratch in 1961, the Peace Corps began to find ways of training its Volunteers to be effective. One way has been to make them more sensitive to each other during their training period before going overseas. Through this means, they learn to observe the mechanics of relations between individuals and groups. Upon this base can be built a body of methodology for studying human interrelationships. By the time a Volunteer arrives overseas he can be trained to observe the flow of all resources in a community — how they are procured, how they are distributed and used — and to relate them to the social structure of the people he is working with. But above all, the most important skill a Volunteer learns is the one that helps him to involve the people he is working with in studying themselves so as to achieve an understanding of their own problems.
     In this sense the Volunteer becomes a catalyst with every observation he makes, for it is often an observation acquired through discussion with people who are for the first time taking a good look at what they had previously accepted as inevitable. No Volunteer can be effective who does not live closely with the people, nor can he make the grade without being able to communicate with them in their language. That is why the Peace Corps takes no chances — it teaches him the language and assigns him to live and work among the people. These two preconditions of effective work have become more entrenched in Peace Corps programs with every passing year. So has the concept of making the Volunteer a more effective catalyst, or instrument of change.

Making Sense of Development
Looked at this way, development assistance begins to make some sense. It requires the presence of a person — not just advice, commodities and money. This person, whether he be sent to work in a school, a rural clinic, a city slum, or a local or regional council, recognizes his basic job as one of helping people to find out about their problems, and then teaching them the techniques of problem-solving. Learning this job, and applying its techniques overseas, is as challenging and rewarding an enterprise as any American can engage in at the present moment of our country’s history. To engage in it means acquiring intellectual tools that are largely unavailable through any other source in America. It means applying them, often with results that strike right at the heart of the syndrome of dependency and inertia that have consistently nullified efforts to reach the masses of the people in other development assistance programs. It means teaching the techniques of problem-solving to people who desperately need them, people who will welcome the help when it is provided within the framework of their own needs and desires.
     This job means developing leadership potential at the grass roots by throwing the prestige, willingness and analytical tools of a visiting foreigner behind those people in the community who appear more eager to involve themselves in change. It means feeding information about resources to the people who can best use it. It means helping people to plan at all levels of society for the more effective use of the human, energy, information and raw material resources that go to make up their environment. It means constantly seeking out people’s opinions, constantly asking questions, constantly feeding information into the various systems which go to make up that nebulous entity we call “community.”
     All these aspects of the Peace Corps job can be accomplished by any Volunteer, whether he be working in a school, on an agricultural experiment station, in a department of public works, in slum-based community centers, in a hospital, in a federation of cooperatives, in a firestation project — in short, in any of the many jobs in which Volunteers are now working. The person who makes a success of the Peace Corps is one who is curious, endlessly interested in what is going on about him. He is above all interested in people. The Peace Corps has shown itself capable of taking that kind of person and training him to be effective in development assistance, then assigning him overseas in a place where h can use that interest and training to take the slow, careful, practical steps that are needed to secure peace in a world that badly needs it.

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