A Peace Corps that doesn't suck?
May 3, 2008 5:39 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a Peace Corps that doesn't suck. Does it exist?

I recently applied to the Peace Corps because I heard they were looking for IT workers of a particular sort, which I am.

But I've been warned off by a handful of people that have either been in the Peace Corps or who have had relatives or close friends in it.

Their complaints describe an agency that's hindered by bureacracy, unsupportive of their volunteers and otherwise not all it claims to be through shiny advertisements.

What other options are there? I can do IT work, I can teach IT and general computing, I do graphic design and I can teach that, too - and I can do office work, construction work and grunt work.

I'm interested in two levels of volunteering:

1) Committed, destination-based engagements like the Peace Corps with nominal material and transportation support from the organization.

2) Local hands on volunteering in SF - hopefully as free of bureacracy as humanly possible, but more formal and less ad hoc than the sorts of things I'm used to. (Soup kitchens, clothing distribution, etc.)

In both cases, I want to stay away from government or religious organizations as much as possible. I don't want to volunteer my time to promote a religion, nor do I particularly wish for it to be in the name or authority of any given country.
posted by loquacious to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
You may want to check out Tech Corps.
posted by cog_nate at 5:43 PM on May 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Or, if you'd rather work overseas, Geek Corps!
posted by electric_counterpoint at 5:57 PM on May 3, 2008

London-based, but will take on non-UK nationals. Progressio/ICD. The parent is religious, but ICD very carefully isn't.

Their philosophy is to send a professional to train a local person. Living allowance and conditions are more suited to a professional person than many schemes.
posted by Idcoytco at 6:01 PM on May 3, 2008

I think it's Canadian citizens only, but I could be wrong - NetCorps. A friend of mine lived and worked in Namibia and seemed to have an interesting experience.
posted by carabiner at 6:23 PM on May 3, 2008

posted by ssg at 6:44 PM on May 3, 2008

Their complaints describe an agency that's hindered by bureacracy, unsupportive of their volunteers and otherwise not all it claims to be through shiny advertisements.

Could be said about a lot of popular volunteering activities, from Big Brothers/Big Sisters to Teach for America. But lots of people enjoy the experience, in spite of it.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 7:24 PM on May 3, 2008

I don't have any direct involvement, but I saw a presentation from the founder of Engineers without Borders. For what it's worth, he's as fed up with bureaucracies as you are. (You don't have to be an engineer to volunteer abroad).
posted by glibhamdreck at 7:28 PM on May 3, 2008

I think you should investigate the Peace Corps some more. Check in with some people who have worked with them. I have two very close friends who loved doing work in Africa with them. Sure, there are frustrations and imperfections, but the work is rewarding on many levels. Both of those guys still have friends in the corps and in Africa.

In any case, I hope you find something that works for you. It's a great endeavor!
posted by snsranch at 7:44 PM on May 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, I bet my job would love to have your help with IT stuff, and while you're there you could ask around about what international service orgs are the best to work with. (On the international tip: some big groups that get a lot accomplished include Medicines Sans Fronteires, Partners in Health, World Neighbors - A smaller organization could also benefit from your help but you'd probably need to do more leg-work to make it happen. Try contacting a foundation that funds smaller international projects - Firelight Foundation comes to mind - to ask their advice. BTW, even if an orgs website says they aren't looking for volunteers, its worth calling and asking given your specific expertise)

I seem to remember that there was a book called "alternatives to the Peace Corps" or something that had lots of info on this.

(sorry, can't be bothered to do the hotlinks right now but all are easily googleable).
posted by serazin at 7:56 PM on May 3, 2008

a handful of people

Yeah, I'd encourage you to do more research on the Peace Corps. Talk to some other recently returned volunteers. I have three friends who are Peace Corps veterans, absolutely loved it, and found that it changed their lives. I don't know anyone who did PC and had an overall negative opinion. I'm sure there is indeed bureaucracy, but it's a government agency, and I doubt it's any worse than working in another government agency or for the military - public service is public service.

Listening to only the disgruntled will certainly create a biased impression.

That's not to say these other suggestions aren't good - but the Peace Corps is a strong, well-established, longstanding and respected program. Don't dismiss it based on a few responses. Do some more homework before you decide what's for you. And good luck on your service project.
posted by Miko at 8:13 PM on May 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

here it is!
posted by serazin at 8:55 PM on May 3, 2008

I know many many many people that did Peace Corps. I've dated them, roomed with them and been related to them (Mom, Dad and Brother). I know of only two that have had a truly bad experience and only one of those would suggest that a similar bad time might be had by anyone else (the other one was in a rather odd situation that I won't go into here). I did not do Peace Corps, but I wish I had.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:27 PM on May 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to add about the give-Peace-Corps a chance thing, that it is very much an individual and country-by-country experience. My husband was a CS major with serous sys admin experience, and we were interested in Peace Corps as we approached college graduation. I was cool doing whatever kind of work they gave me, but he really wanted something in his field. The recruiter had lots of great stories about IT volunteers and the cool projects they got, and my husband was ultimately assigned a vague-sounding opportunity that we ought to have rejected (and held out for something else). However, at that point in the process we were so eager to go that we decided to be optimistic...he wound up being assigned to teach typing (this after telling the recruiter specifically that "I do not want to be a teacher."). However, we loved parts of the in-country experience so much that we were willing to stay and give it a go.

I think that lots of people have a great Peace Corps experience, and that Peace Corps is a good program for certain types of people. If you are truly go-with-the-flow, I'll-do-whatever, than it can work for you. If you go in with a lot of expectations and requirements for the type of work you're doing, where you're living, etc, then you're setting yourself up for disappointment.t If you're the type who can laugh off ridiculous rules and red tape, you'll do fine. If you get really frustrated with bureaucracy, you might have a problem.

My advice to people thinking about Peace Corps is to do everything in your power to talk to volunteers who have RECENTLY returned from your country, and ideally people who had your type of assignment. Talk to people who left early and people who loved it - they will both have useful information for you. Go in with as few expectations as possible: if you are looking for true IT work like you'd have at a job in the US you will probably be sorry and would be better off pursuing some other type of volunteer work. Also, the folks you talk to in the US (recruiters) will have very little knowledge of the actual job you would do or what things are like in country. Remember: go with no expectations.
posted by handful of rain at 9:36 PM on May 3, 2008

I suspect that you are giving too much weight to the terrible Peace Corps stories you have heard, and not enough weight to the "I had a great time, although it was really tough lots of the time" stories that predominate.

However, when you write:

nor do I particularly wish for it to be in the name or authority of any given country

That tells me that Peace Corps is probably not for you. I have known a number of unhappy volunteers, who just couldn't deal with the fact that PC is indeed an arm of the US government and operates in service to (a very benign version of) US foreign policy. I have also known a bunch of unhappy volunteers, who were unhappy because they had their heart set on job X and instead found themselves doing A, B, and C which were totally unrelated to X. A lot of those unhappy people were, I'm sorry to say, IT volunteers, who were really hit hard when they found that for whatever reason (computer lab caught on fire, power line out for next six months, no local interest, etc) there was no IT project and instead they were going to have to be flexible and do something very, very different.

People like that, job-focused and impatient with bureaucracies, are usually a lot happier in a smaller organization with a much more focused mission and shorter-term projects. If that's sounding like you, then listen to your gut and don't pursue PC, and instead start phoning/emailing the organizations that have been suggested. Or, for a different approach, start contacting schools and community organizations in a country you would like to work and see if they have any use for an IT volunteer.

One thing that is easy to forget is how expensive it is to deploy and support foreign "volunteers." Depending on who you believe, it costs on the order of $36,000 to $41,000 to keep a Peace Corps volunteer in the field for a year. There's a lot of infrastructure built into that, and probably a lot of waste -- but when you are sick and need a medical evacuation, that infrastructure can seem pretty thin. Organizations that operate on slimmer budgets, and don't have the administrative capacity of Peace Corps, are often gambling on there not being any crises, or that if there are you will get to solve them on your own. (And in a real crisis, where all the foreign nationals in a country need to be evacuated, those shoe-string organizations piggy-back on the well-funded bilateral ones like PC, GTZ, etc.)

My point is: ask some tough questions before you sign up, about things like what if I get sick? what if there is a war? what if my mother gets sick and I need to fly home on 6 hours notice? what if there is a sexual assault? Make sure to talk to some people who have recently returned as volunteers from that same country, with that same organization, and ask them the same questions.
posted by Forktine at 10:03 PM on May 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

Yes, PC is hard but some people love dealing with the challenges. If you don't think you can handle the bumps in the road, please don't do PC. I live in a county with PC and another person not able to cut it doesn't help anyone.
posted by k8t at 11:15 PM on May 3, 2008

i recently deferred my peace corps service because after 18 months, i still had not been medically cleared. (i do not have a particularly problematic medical history, either.) they would mail me a question about some tiny incomplete thing in my records, i'd scramble to get the doctor to sign off on it, and then after a month of nothing, get another note in the mail asking for clarification or about another little thing they needed to reconcile from doctor's notes. i included a note asking them to just call and go through it all with me on the phone if there were so many problems, but they never did (i never had a phone number for the people doing the clearance). at some point they got my file mixed up with someone else's, and asked me questions about health problems i didn't have. my last communication with them was recommending that i get a tonsillectomy because i get a mild case of tonsillitis every four or five months. i don't want the surgery, don't even really need it, and can't afford it anyway, and they won't reimburse me, so i just said i wanted a year to think about it, investigate other options, or scrape up the money to do the surgery, or just bail out.

i know it's bureaucratic and maybe i am just dealing with one very inept person who is not representative of the whole thing, but man, after eighteen months, i had gotten rather attached to my job, my boyfriend, and basically moved on.

fwiw, i know one person who had an amazing time in africa, and a married couple who had such a dreadful experience in micronesia that they left after six months. so it clearly goes both ways. i'm up for all the local challenges, it's the stateside bureaucracy that's killing me.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:42 AM on May 4, 2008

Seeds of Peace - their closest office is in LA but you could volunteer for the Maine summer camp if you're looking to travel. They are non-religious.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 1:49 AM on May 4, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for the responses so far. I've already learned about a bunch of orgs I had no idea about in the first place, and I've been exploring the links. Please, keep it coming! :)

It's been a long day and I've been multitasking, but I will follow up and issue best answers after I've done some homework, as well as eventually provide an update on anything I've volunteered for.

There's a lot of good knowledge here so far, and well reasoned thoughts both pro and con about the Peace Corps for me to consider.

I'm still leaning heavily towards NGO, and my intuition is telling me that the Peace Corps isn't for me. I would probably prefer a smaller, more mobile organization - even if it means wearing more hats, which I don't mind at all.

I can just as readily dig a ditch or lay irrigation pipe or throw around bags of grain or cement. I know how to work hard. But the IT thing is a specialty that deserves to be applied. Also, it would hopefully make sure I'm around still around some kind of computers. I get a little twitchy without 'em, but I'm fine as long as I at least have some old piece of junk to fiddle with.
posted by loquacious at 2:29 AM on May 4, 2008

I think that I misread your question. Sorry for that. I thought that you were complaining about the hardships of working in developing countries, not PC in particular.

I'd agree with Forktine that the infrastructure and support of PC is really nice to have. I've been in both situations: well-supported by the Embassy and completely unknown to the Embassy. I can say with certainty that I feel a whole lot better when I'm with an organization (in my case Fulbright) that gets some attention/love from the Embassy, in case of a problem. Thankfully nothing bad has ever happened, but I'm quite sure that if some shit hit the fan when I was just a regular ol' student here or when I was working for an NGO with no links to the government, I would have been the last on the evacuation copter for sure.

Similarly, I'd argue that PC has some credibility/legitimacy. If you're gonna set up a wifi network in a village or something, if you're with an NGO that no one knows about, locals are going to have a hard time trusting you. It takes YEARS to build up trust.

Plus, at least in the former Soviet Union, there are dozens and dozens of tech-related projects going on right now (school and library computer labs, training for refugees/disabled/orphans, wifi networks for towns, IP phones, etc.) and all of them have their faults. The moment that you're just doing something nice for someone, people get suspicious. They've heard it before. They've been let down before. At least with an organization like PC that has had decades of building a reputation, you're more likely to get your foot in the door.

Even my organization, which build a good rep, had accusations thrown at it all the time. "One kid broke through the filter and saw porn! OMG!" "The teachers are selling off the IP phone at night." "They're charging 2X for printing!" And these stories flew around quickly.

I worked for a tech project in developing countries for an NGO. NGOs aren't perfect - they have funders. I'd venture a guess that PC is WAY more lax about expectation than funding agencies are.

One example: post-9/11, I had to come up with all sorts of qualitative and quantitative evidence on how our program (putting computer labs in schools) was fighting the war on terror. Some of these countries were Muslim, but most weren't. All were not countries in any way shape or form connected to terrorism in the least.

Or, funders would demand that we do projects in particular places. For example, a gas company would say "yeah, we'll fund 30 computer labs, but they have to be along the gas line and our employees get first dibs." Or a rich diasporan would demand that wifi be set up in his grandparents' village rather than in the village that you found would be the best pilot setup. And you really have to decide if that is okay.

At least PC isn't that political.
posted by k8t at 3:43 AM on May 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just as a data point, I know at least a half dozen people in the PC in southern Africa who are unhappy and are just staying because they don't want to feel like failure if they early terminate. And as many who are pleased with their work and would like to stay beyond their alloted two years because they've made satisfying niches for themselves in their communities -- (they assuredly don't want to stay because the PC itself is so great). Ask the i-hated-it folks what they did like and the i-loved-it folks what they didn't, just to get some realistic balance from both.

I think if your gut is against the PC, then that's worth listening to. It's not an experience you want to walk into if you aren't sure the organization is for you because it only goes downhill from there and the redeeming aspects of your country can take a long time to materialize.
posted by bluenausea at 5:10 AM on May 4, 2008

My wife and I recently had an absolutely AWFUL experience with the Peace Corps. We rearranged our lives for an entire year, were nominated and told to wait for a placement only to have them send us an E-MAIL telling us we were no longer welcome.

That said, if you have some cash to sink you can link into a number of abroad programs. ALthough they may not use your IT skills. Americorp is a great option- I know it's not foreign, but you'll end up in some interesting places all the same.
posted by GilloD at 7:11 AM on May 4, 2008

If you are at all interested in teaching, you might want to look into Worldteach. They are very well organized and have a wide range of programs all over the place. Some are quite expensive, but others are fully funded. I had a wonderful experience with one of their programs. Feel free to mefi mail me if you have any questions.
posted by c lion at 7:52 AM on May 4, 2008

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