Taking Peace Corps Up A Notch

What did it take for me to realize that where I live is different than the other 2/3rds of Uganda? Was it when I read a book about Northern Uganda titled “First Kill Your Family”? The first story of someone miraculously spared from being abducted by the LRA? The first time I saw a man without lips? When a student shared how her uncle was 1 of 27 massacred in a village and he was 1 of 3 chosen to be boiled and fed to the rest of the village? The former child soldier now security guard getting drunk on shift and then shooting at men because they made him mad while I was walking on the other side of the street was definitely an eye opener.

Maybe it was the opening Interpersonal Relationships/Life Skills lesson where the manual says to start with a skit. Two girls— one girl who has a newborn baby tells the other to not get sexually involved with boys and the importance of finishing her studies. The skit ends with the second girl revealing she is pregnant. It’s supposed to show how we have the knowledge of good decision making yet we lack the action steps to lead a healthy positive life. When I looked around the room though, I saw girls with broken pasts. Girls who had been forced into lives they never wanted. Over 60% of them had children— from while they were sex slaves for rebel commanders or defiled while living in the horrible conditions of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps.

Granted, defilement and rape occur in every country but not to the intensity or the rest of the problems that occur in a post-conflict area. 30 minutes of talking and passing around handouts about working in a post-conflict area is not sufficient training for a Peace Corps Volunteer who wants to be effective, and sane, in their new community for 2 years.

Peace Corps is taking its service to the next level. This last week, 25 PC individuals from around the world with expertise in working in a post-conflict area gathered to question the current system, analyze difficulties which are specific to certain countries, and devise a revamped plan for moving forward in the Peace Corps world.

 Currently, Post Conflict countries are being treated the same as every other country. A person fills out their application, interview, nomination, long drawn out paperwork and medical checks, blue folder invitation with description of service and small information about the country, accept invite, book a flight to staging, pre-service training in country, swear in as a volunteer for 2 years, close of service and start the next thing in life. For in country staff, they are given a certain allotted timeframe to set up their office, identify volunteer sites and then request numbers of volunteers, ten weeks of training for trainees, and the hosting volunteers cycle begins.

 Interesting things I found that we discussed was how to market Peace Corps to individuals willing to work in Post Conflict areas. Changing the current system of recruitment to include not only regions of the world but also including Post-Conflict areas specifically. There are currently Master’s International graduate school options in Peace and Conflict Resolution for those applying but no one has taken advantage of this opportunity as of yet. Including books and other information about the specific country of service in the welcome book and other ways to mentally prepare a volunteer were suggested. Giving people the option to turn down the invitation to work in a post conflict country without fear of waiting another year for a different country would give people the freedom to decline reducing the rates of early termination once overwhelmed in the country.

Before even applying for volunteers, In Country Staff need adequate funds and time to assess and prepare for taking on volunteers. At what stage of recovery is appropriate for Peace Corps to open its offices— relief, transition, or development? When a country opens, 7 months is the typical timeline allotted before receiving trainees. This is hardly adequate time to hire and train Host Country National (HCN) staff and develop future volunteer sites. HCN Staff need to be trained adequately on the essence of Peace Corps and what it stands for, working in a cross cultural office with American staff and volunteers, how to support volunteers with work as well as their mental health. Safety and security protocols are extremely important to examine and possible triggers for a relapse in conflict have to be known. To properly function, increases in budgets to prepare staff and volunteers must happen.

The typical pre-service training doesn’t match the needs of working in a post-conflict country therefore training must be reformed. Not only do volunteers need to know how to make a tippy tap and a basic business plan, but volunteers also need to know a detailed and honest history of the conflict, the affects of trauma on individuals and communities, processes of recovery, and their role as volunteer in a transitional country.

 A couple of larger problems discovered once a volunteer is at site include trust issues and donor dependency. For example, Rwanda’s genocide was Hutus against Tutsis. 16 years later after a genocide that left almost 1 million dead and thousands of refugees in other countries, there are still tribal tensions. Add that on top of symptoms of paranoia and extreme irritability caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and life becomes a bit more challenging.

Integration and working together with organizations becomes difficult. When a society becomes donor funding based, sustainable development may not be the top priority of the leaders in a Non-Government Organization (NGO) whereas it is the top priority of Peace Corps. The volunteer may not agree with practices of the organization or the individualistic focus the top staff carry—how long and up to what point is it appropriate for volunteers to stay silent or voice an opposition opinion for the sake of development? Post-conflict areas are complicated and somewhat confusing.

Areas that need to be taken up a notch include increasing community awareness of Peace Corps and volunteers role, thorough site identification and development, facilitating positive group dynamics and volunteer support, training on understanding and working with populations highly affected by PTSD, incorporating trust building activities into work activities, continual systematic safety and security updates and communication between staff and volunteers, and identifying project ideas specifically for transitional countries.

 Thankfully, with last week’s workshop these issues as well as many, many more were discussed. Peace Corps has realized that Post-Conflict countries must be indeed dealt with differently than relatively peaceful countries. We did make the connection that some of the fundamental issues are similar. The difference is that Peace Corps must take its preparation, training, and continual support to a higher level in post-conflict areas. It has taken difficulties and increased challenges for Peace Corps to realize that to work in post-conflict areas, increased quality of programs and superior trained staff and volunteers are a must to progress into the desired top notch Peace Corps we know we are capable of becoming.

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