Years ago, I wrote a column for USA Today on efforts to modernize the Peace Corps. While Americans in general think of the Peace Corps as an international development type program, as returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCV) will quickly tell you, that is but one of the organization’s three goals. Cross-cultural friendship and understanding are (basically) the other two. It’s in pursuit of such cultural immersion that we send young people (mostly) into remote villages alone. I, and others, have wondered if the program might be more effective, and garner more public support, if we deployed volunteers with more needed skills (medical, construction, etc.) and gave people better communication tools, the ability to work in teams and so forth.
I was absolutely amazed at the sheer volume of angry emails I got after that column appeared. I understand that the Peace Corps is an incredibly intense experience, and so some people reacted strongly to a non RPCV writing about the program at all. But I still think — as the world becomes smaller, and cell phones come even into the world’s remotest regions — that the larger conversation on what the Peace Corps’ role should be is a conversation worth having.
So I’ve been interested to read through Rajeev Goyal’s new book, The Springs of Namje: A Ten-Year Journey From the Villages of Nepal to the Halls of Congress. I interviewed Goyal for the USA Today piece after his service in Nepal. The villagers of Namje had to walk hours to get water as part of their daily life. Goyal kept walking miles too — to the nearest phone — as part of his efforts to figure out how to build a better water pumping system. Over the next few years, he and the villagers succeeded in putting in a water system that seems to still be working, a success often missing in international development projects. On the other hand, Goyal’s work and mission would have been much easier if he’d been able to consult with an engineer, or had access to communication technology, or had a budget for his work (he raised the money separately). Our armed forces can communicate from wherever to bring the world’s expertise to solve problems. Why shouldn’t our Peace Corps use available tools too? These trade offs are worth talking about.
Goyal is a big fan of the Peace Corps (the volunteers that is — less so the Washington-based bureaucracy), and describes his experiences at length in the book. He also talks about his life after returning, and how he became involved in lobbying for the Peace Corps. That part of the book is a fascinating insight into how influence works in Washington. You get a lot of senators and congressmen behind something, but the key person who needs to be influenced on appropriations might be, say, Sen. Patrick Leahy. So you get lots of Vermont RPCVs and “Ben” (of Ben & Jerry) to lobby him. Why funding for volunteers in Columbia should hinge on a conversation between an ice cream entrepreneur and a senator from Vermont is not entirely clear, but that is the system of government we have. And it’s also the system of government Goyal throws himself into understanding and mastering. Peter Hessler, who researched Goyal later for the New Yorker, once observed him have completely unscheduled meetings with 15 senators in two-and-a-half days through sheer persistence. Just as Goyal figured out how to build a water system, he figured out how to build support for a bill that increased Peace Corps funding by $60 million: bit by bit, using all his wits and energy, making sure the perfect was not the enemy of the good. This young man is going to do (and has already done) amazing things.
One of the most poignant parts of the book, though, is Goyal’s realization of exactly how complex matters of development are. While clean water is good to have in a village, Goyal’s pumping system destroys the jobs of the area’s professional water carriers. Once Namje has access to water, it starts to develop. Its rustic charm turns into concrete buildings. Land values skyrocket. The place Goyal fell in love with is forever changed. Is that a good or bad thing? The book doesn’t really arrive at an answer, it only points out that many of the things we think about the developing world are impossible to know without being there for a long time — longer, even, than the two years Peace Corps volunteers stay.