“Peace Corps is not about living without electricity, it’s not a contest to see who suffers most. Peace Corps is about relationships. It is not about building a well or a sewer, it is about building understanding and friendship. I hope that Posh Corps will change the way volunteers approach their service, and that it will ensure that suffering is no longer a metric for volunteer success.”
~Alan Toth, Director & Producer of the Film Posh Corps
I write this from my computer with working wifi, where I have 4G reception, electricity, running water, and a hot shower. If I want to go to Carrefour, I just take a 10-minute taxi ride and a 1.5-hour bus ride into Marrakech. Some Morocco Peace Corps Volunteers don’t have these things, and live ten hours from a big city. And some have even more than me.
Poverty & Peace Corps
Whereas traditionally or stereotypically, PCVs were all living in extreme conditions with thatched roofs, well water, and a call home once a year, the term “Posh Corps” implies that PCVs now—especially in higher-income countries and at larger sites—are living a less valuable, even inauthentic, experience than ones in more isolated areas. Posh Corps makes poverty or lack of access a central component of being a Peace Corps Volunteer.
But like Toth, I believe that using physical, emotional, or mental hardship as a metric for volunteer success is not only misguided, it is also problematic. No matter what, moving to a new community, country, and culture, and creating your own work with the ambiguous task of youth development is going to be challenging. While these challenges produce growth, suffering just for the sake of it doesn’t do anything to help PCVs or Moroccan youth.
In fact, the idea that the poorer the site, the more meaningful the Peace Corps experience perpetuates “a mindset of superiority [of the West] and inferiority [of the rest], whereby the betterment of peoples elsewhere cannot be thought of outside of a Western presence,” as Dr. Olivia U. Rutazibwa said. In reality, poor or rich, no community in Morocco actually needs Peace Corps Volunteers to improve. PCVs are added value; they are no one’s saviors. Morocco is and will continue progressing because of capable and resilient Moroccans.
Morocco’s economic development doesn’t hinge on Peace Corps Volunteers at all; but the idea of Posh Corps v. Peace Corps ensures that when PCVs return home, they get to use their time living in what is seen as a poorer area to gain credibility and show off their “grit” in the international development community. Instead of the Third Goal teaching Americans about the amazing people, promising innovation, and cultural richness that Morocco holds, the “PCV suffering competition” turns this dynamic country into a passive tool of the Peace Corps Volunteer showing off how strong they are.
Youth Development & Peace Corps
It’s not that poverty doesn’t exist in Morocco. In fact, with a Gini Coefficient of 40.3%, Morocco has higher inequality than any other North African country (please note that the Gini Coefficient for the U.S. is not far off from that number at 36%). Almost 19% of Morocco’s population lives on less than $4 a day, despite the growing number of billionaires in the country. Just one hour away from me, in a village near the tourist-beach town of Essaouira, 17 people died last year in a stampede for food-aid from a local association.
But just sending Americans to live in high-need areas for two years is not going to help Moroccans living there, or the American volunteers, to grow. With Peace Corps Morocco’s renewed focus on Youth Development, volunteers are rightly expected to cooperate and collaborate with other young people seeking to make positive changes in their communities through trainings, classes, and clubs. These activities can happen in an isolated village, a small town, or a big city—but it is enthusiastic work partners, not poverty, that are prerequisites for a successful Peace Corps service.
With such work partners, in Peace Corps lingo, “counterparts,” Americans can contribute the things they can do well—such as adding new perspectives, connecting people to resources, or encouraging others—to produce sustainable projects, support youth, and work towards common goals. These humble goals, that are more focused on people-to-people ties rather than poverty alleviation, are ones that don’t require a village or town to be “needy” in order to get a volunteer.
Progress ≠ Westernization
Indeed, no matter how big or small the site, I’ve never met a Peace Corps Volunteer who didn’t witness social issues in their community. Where a small rural village might have low literacy rates, a bigger town might have more harassment and crime. Where an isolated site might have low access to resources, a more connected one might have more disengaged youth.
My experience with Peace Corps revealed how I used to view the term “development” as linear and synonymous with “Westernization.” In reality, having such a narrow view of progress blinded me to social issues that exist in every community, in every country, no matter how “Western.” For example, while my site, Sidi Bouzid, is more rural than the nearby town Chichaoua, the people here have a higher sense of safety and community.
Every place in the world has problems that are in need of solving. As a relatively privileged person seeking to “make the world a better place,” my role is not to solve other people’s problems, but rather, listen to others, find partners, and support them. I could do this from a site that is big, small, isolated, or connected, as long as there are people and institutions on the other end with whom to cooperate.
Sidi Bouzid as a Peace Corps Site
During my two years living in Sidi Bouzid, I did find those people. Together, my incredible counterparts and I started afterschool activities for the first time ever in Sidi Bouzid, put on a training for associations, started a “mobile patisserie,” and repainted and re-equipped a youth center. We also faced plenty of challenges, such as low participation rates, lack of sustainability, and drama between associations.
Despite challenges and plenty of things that could be seen as “failures,” the projects I helped with were worthwhile. The youth center we worked on continues to be used despite people fighting over ownership. Other women have carried on our “mobile snack” idea in the women’s center despite internal drama. Two participants started a cooperative that they conceived of during our capacity-building training; another association even re-created the same training but with higher attendance.
Yet once I leave, Peace Corps has decided not to place another Volunteer in my site—I will be the first and last PCV in Sidi Bouzid. Instead, they will place 1-2 Volunteers in the nearby town Chichaoua, where associations and institutions are more active and experienced than they are here. Even though I love Sidi Bouzid and I know that there are enthusiastic and talented people here—both work-wise and just in general—I do think that the incoming Volunteer will be able to better support associations in a place where there is already so much going on. She or he will not be the one initiating projects, but rather, adding value to them.
Because of the people I met here and what I learned from them, I wouldn’t change my Peace Corps experience in Sidi Bouzid. That being said, I will never call the Volunteer placed in Chichaoua a member of Posh Corps instead of Peace Corps. Because the term “Posh Corps” assumes that his or her experience in the bigger and less rural community is less valuable, challenging, or “real” than my time living in the village just 6 kilometers away. If Peace Corps is to stay relevant in an ever-changing world and social sector, the misguided and problematic term “Posh Corps”—and the judgment of PCVs that “have it easy”—should cease to exist.
“I came into my Peace Corps site ready to change it—but instead, it changed me.” I heard this refrain from way too many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) before heading off to Morocco. I thought I was so self-aware by contrast, with no illusions of an ability to save anyone or change anything during my time here.
I was determined not to take after “savior Barbie” or be fooled by the “Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems.” I was primarily driven, like most other PCVs, not by the desire to improve Morocco, but rather, the desire to improve myself so I could be a better person and professional afterwards. I thought I had hacked Peace Corps, and I wondered what I had left to learn over two years.
But the joke’s on me. Knowing and understanding are two different things, and the conclusions I thought I had so cleverly reached back in DC were just some words I knew. Indeed, with 24 months down and just two more to go, I still have so much left to learn.
As the Jewish and Islamic New Year ends and Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of forgiveness approaches, I am coming to realize that this learning can’t happen until I recognize my mistakes and forgive myself for them. Even if I can already verbalize what I need to learn, true understanding won’t be evident in my blog but rather in my behaviors, feelings, and daily interactions.
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!