Don’t write off the Peace Corps

By COURTNEY CANO

I am currently living in a rural village in the Eastern province of Zambia as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer.  My main assignment is “capacity development” at my community’s primary school, a job which includes teaching English, facilitating teacher trainings, and working with adult literacy and gender equality. My secondary assignment is to improve programs that raise awareness for HIV, malaria, early marriages, and gender-based violence. At least, these are my stated objectives; my actual services have evolved out of the desires of the community. While the Peace Corps is far from perfect, I believe that the way we respond to specific communities is incredibly important.

School infrastructure in rural Zambia tends to be a little rough around the edges, and my school is no exception. We have three classroom blocks of three rooms each — for a total of nine classrooms — but not all of them are functional. My school is old (it was originally built in 1954), and not much has changed since then. The floors are covered in chips and cracks that leave the desks at variety of weird angles. The chalkboards are virtually useless, the windows have no glass, and the classroom walls have holes in them, leaving students exposed to the elements. Rain pours in, soaking their notebooks. The wind is a constant distraction. During the hot season, the classroom feels like a desert: dry, dusty and insufferably hot. Conditions like these are not conducive to  teaching, much less learning.  

While the Peace Corps is far from perfect, I believe that the way we respond to specific communities is incredibly important.”

An overall lack of resources has also crippled our school’s ability to engage the students in much-needed extracurricular development. Because the only available classrooms are in use during both the morning and afternoon, we are unable to carry-out educational programs such as GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), GRS (Grass-Roots Soccer, an HIV/AIDS program), or other programs designed to increase literacy. 

And so instead of simply teaching, I have been restoring the school. On that note, my current (and biggest) undertaking is a community-driven school restoration grant. This  will allow us to buy the materials needed to bring our school back up to working order (including new cement for the floors and walls, paint for the chalkboards, new frames and panes for the windows). Yet even here my role evolves in response to the community: the locals are the ones writing lists, creating a budget and organizing volunteer workers. They are the ones telling me what needs to be done. I am not the driving force behind this endeavor– I am simply a cog in the machine, working with community members to achieve a common goal. 

Peace Corps Partnership Program grants (or PCPPs) are not uncommon amongst Peace Corps Volunteers. In my opinion, they are the safest way for American donors to ensure their money is being put to good use. The grant applications are written by Peace Corps Volunteers on behalf of a community that lacks the resources to address a specific need. Often, grant applications are concerned with infrastructure: building libraries or new school blocks, or — as in my case —  restoration. What is particularly great about PCPPs is that you know your money is going directly to the community. It is not being filtered through a committee of sticky-fingered bureaucrats, and it is not being spent on futile, albeit well-intended, programs. For these reasons, I believe there are few better options than to donate to a PCPP. 

As I said, the Peace Corps is far from perfect. It has the same flaws that plague any institution of its scale and scope. So do its volunteers. Some of them come off as “white saviors.” Some of them do a poor job of readjusting their world lens when working within their communities. Volunteers like this make it easy to write the Peace Corps off as another misstep on an aid-heavy path to development. In my experience, however, there is a strong base of Peace Corps volunteers who have the right intentions, and our working to correct the Peace Corps’ flaws. As volunteers, we are most effective when we stay open and responsive, and, whenever possible, amplify the voice of our host communities. 

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