21 August 2008

in defense of youth.

A while back, Yahoo! published an article
criticizing the youth of Peace Corps volunteers in general and their
inexperience in Ethiopia in particular. Nicholas Benequista called
for "professionalizing" the Peace Corps along the lines of the UK's
Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) in order to better address the
increasingly complicated issues (i.e. environmental degradation or
HIV/AIDS) that now fall under the umbrella of the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps would certainly not suffer from greater numbers of
older volunteers, but it is a fallacy to suggest that age or
experience causes or is even correlated with success in the Peace
Corps. The issues volunteers are facing in Ethiopia are incredibly
complex and, as the article pointed out, quite new - experience in the
American professional world doesn't necessarily translate to
experience combating the spread of HIV in a culture almost entirely
unlike that of the United States.

A significant portion of the young volunteers currently working in
Ethiopia have lived and worked in developing nations around the world,
including Burkina Faso, Swaziland, Tanzania, South Africa, Guinea,
Argentina, Mexico, Vietnam, and Jordan. Volunteers are currently
organizing zonal home-based care programs for HIV patients, starting
income generation projects for reformed commercial sex workers and
people living with HIV, creating job and health training programs in
prisons, reforming hospital record-keeping systems, writing
curriculums for health education in schools, and developing
eco-tourism programs to support and fund development projects.

Age is not the only measure of experience, nor is it an accurate
predictor of success. With age comes experience, perhaps, but then
with youth comes innovation. New, creative solutions don't come from
a lifetime spent in the same career; they come from a fresh pair of
eyes looking at a situation from a new angle. Some of the world's
most successful companies (including, incidentally, Benequista's
employer, Yahoo! and its chief rival, Google) were founded by young
professionals who looked at a blossoming industry and saw gaps they
could fill. Young volunteers look at development in the same way -
connecting and combining resources when new ones can't be afforded,
challenging social practices that perpetuate problems. Today's
twenty-somethings were raised to believe they can do and be anything -
is that really an attitude that doesn't have a valuable place in

There is a practical reason the Peace Corps attracts "youthful zeal" -
it is a volunteer agency. Volunteers live on no more than three to
four dollars a day, often in conditions unfathomable to the average
American, and earn less than $2,500 a year for their efforts. For
recent college graduates, the experience outweighs the meager pay, but
for older professionals, it is difficult to walk away from a five- or
six-digit salary for a couple of years in a developing nation. The
problems faced by Ethiopia (and other Peace Corps countries) are
complex and deep-rooted. It will take passionate, dedicated
individuals who can "afford" two years away from the comforts of the
Western world to make lasting contributions. They should be applauded
for taking on a task most wouldn't even consider, not criticized by
those who've never walked in their shoes.

These young Peace Corps volunteers, the vast majority of them female,
are working in a culture that values youth and masculinity above all
else. Women don't question their husbands and children never
challenge their elders. These women face near-constant sexual
harassment in their communities and even their workplaces. Many
struggle to work with counterparts who are reluctant to take their
ideas seriously and to genuinely work with them. Yet they're still
there, striving every day to be seen as individuals with something to
contribute. If your boss commented on your body, your bus driver
tried to grab your breast, and children threw stones at you every day,
would you persist in your work? They do. It would be absurd to
contend that they were incompetent by virtue of their sex - is it
acceptable to suggest the same because of their age?

While the Peace Corps would certainly not be harmed by an increase in
older volunteers, it would be remiss to abandon the passionate young
people who have formed its heart and soul for the past forty years.
The Peace Corps applicant pool isn't exactly overflowing with older
professionals - should the young really be turned away?


Anonymous said...

YOu are truly amazing and I am so proud of all you are accomplishing, especially in view of all the challenges you face everyday!
Love you,

Ruby said...

amen, sister.

i owe you a letter and will send on once i am back from the dnc convention in denver.

:) ruby

Anonymous said...

Great article,Sarah litchy's father

cecilia n. said...


came upon this and wanted to know what you thought of it.