Two weeks ago all of the Agriculture and Municipal Development volunteers received emails from the Peace Corps office informing us of a meeting at the end of the week. Viaticos (travel and per diem) would be paid.
This was alarming for a few reasons: the email was only received three days before the meeting, it failed to specify the topic of the meeting, they were inviting volunteers to travel, some upwards of twelve hours, out of site and they were committing to handing out thousands of Q in order to do so. This is all very out of character for the office. I was intrigued (and not about to pass up a free night in Antigua) so I made the necessary arrangements and showed up in Santa Lucia at the appointed time, joined by my fellow bewildered Ag and Muni friends.
As could be guessed, the meeting was not a particularly cheerful one. We were told that new volunteers to the Agriculture Marketing and Municipal Development programs would not arrive in August and that after we complete our services our programs would come to a close. Of course, the first question was, “Why?”
Last summer, Peace Corps underwent a global evaluation that revealed two important things. First, the majority of applicants to the Peace Corps throughout its 50 year history have been young, liberal arts majors. While this is not a bad thing, it does make technical programs harder to fill. By focusing on programs that can be filled by more generalist applicants, recruiting and placement becomes a much easier process and country programs aren’t threatened by the prospect of not having enough volunteers to fill spots.
Second, currently the Peace Corps has programs in just about every field of development (agriculture, health, education, local government, NGO development, business, youth development, ecotourism…) and the evaluation concluded that rather than “drops in many buckets” the Peace Corps should focus on larger achievements in fewer fields. And taking into account the first revelation regarding the average applicant profile and overarching worldwide development needs, Washington seems to have decided that they are going to shrink the scope of programs to mainly health, education and youth development.
The reactions were varied – disappointed, angry, sad. And I can definitely see where all of these feelings are coming from. It’s disappointing that the programs will be coming to a close because it’s easy to see the amount of work that could still be done in these programs. It made many angry to think that Washington seemingly doesn’t understand, and doesn’t care to see, the value of what we are doing. It is sad to think that the incredible people that run our programs may not have places in Peace Corps in the near future. But in the end, if my time at the Evans School taught me anything, this process is the kind of self-reflection that all organizations must undergo. Without addressing the short comings of Peace Corps global and making necessary changes (even when they make certain people angry or sad or, you know, unemployed) the organization would stagnate, be less effective and lose its integrity.
So, what does this mean for me? Mainly, I won’t be replaced here in site. Instead of being the first of three volunteers and starting the original 6-year process in my site, I will be the first and the last. Everything I do must be completely sustainable or completed as there will be no one afterwards to tie up loose ends or further strengthen my work. This is a little sad, but also great motivation. I’m going to be the only volunteer, which automatically makes me the best one, but I’d like to actually earn that title and not receive it by default.
The changes to Peace Corps global may also signal the end of the Masters International program, as it is focused on providing hands on technical experience to those undertaking graduate coursework in the same field. I’ll still be able to graduate, but it’s sad to think that others may not have the same opportunity in the future – as I think this program is providing me with a so much richer education.
It also means that, unless the other programs here in Guatemala change their geographical focus, there will be no volunteers in the Oriente after we leave (as Agriculture and Muni are the only programs represented in the eastern half of the country). This is perhaps the part that bothers me most of all and am hoping that the other program directors will seriously consider expanding their work outside of the Occidente. Because, as I’ve written about before, there is need here too.
So, here we go. I’ve got 21 months left to accomplish something.