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The Great ICT4D Peace Corps Volunteer Debate

By Lindsay Poirier on August 10, 2011

Most people that I have met in the international development field have had strong opinions for or against involvement in the ICT field of the Peace Corps.  I’ve toyed back and forth over whether to pursue this path after graduation for personal reasons.  Most notably, I have questioned whether I’m willing to miss out on two and a half years of life with friends and family to live in a third world country where I know no one.  

As I’ve taken on new, independent challenges, this has become less of the issue.  Instead, through discussion with my network of new ICT4D friends, I have found that there are some career and sustainability factors that I should be taking into consideration.


Let’s start out with the benefits of volunteering with the Peace Corps:

  1. To be successful in a career in international development, you have to have international experience.  Sustainability is greatly jeopardized when individuals with no experience living in a particular culture attempt to create solutions for their problems.  Cultural understanding is absolutely vital for designing sustainable solutions.  The Peace Corps provides volunteers experience in developing solutions for a unique living style, emphasizing the importance of ethnography in design.
  2. The Peace Corps offers training for tackling development issues.  Whichever field Peach Corps Volunteers (PCV) decide to pursue, they are given three months of training on the culture of the area they will be entering and on how to successfully implement projects in their field.  This is essentially free education.
  3. Your extended period of time living in one community allows you to create a real attachment with the people of that community and allows for a complete cultural immersion.
  4. The Peace Corps offers the best benefit package of any volunteer corps.  With a monthly living stipend, non-competitive government job placement, and partial student loan coverage upon completion of a Peace Corps tour, it is easy to see why most individuals interested in global development choose this route over others.  It is difficult to even get loan deferrals for volunteer abroad trips, let alone loan repayment.  While I’m sure these are not the main reasons any individual decides to devote a minimum of two and a half years of his/her time to life in a third world country, they are benefits that are weighed when choosing the best route.
  5. The Peace Corps is a great opportunity for students right out of college to get a good amount of travel and life experience before settling into a stable career.

Taking all of this into consideration, the Peace Corps seems like a perfect way to get involved in international development.  However, there are a some vital points to take into consideration if the prospective volunteer’s main goal is creating sustainable results.  The mission of a PCV is divided into three main goals (taken directly from http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=about.mission):

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Note how only one of these goals deals with development.  While cultural understanding both internationally and domestically is greatly beneficial and necessary for maintaining peace and sharing ways of life, individuals who have the main goal of seeing results in economic development are likely are not looking to devote 2/3 of their efforts to spreading culture.  This may be the goal for some, and that is great.  I, personally, want to see results and efficiency.

Even more importantly, sending one individual with no experience with a particular region and culture and only three months of training is unquestionably not the most efficient way to tackle development issues.  It’s great that individuals are willing to donate their time to the noble cause of training men and women for economic growth, but without a strong foundation of knowledge on a particular region, a great deal of time is wasted on projects that do not sustain.  

This is particularly true in the ICT field where projects need to take into consideration all sorts of community aspects, from cultural dilemmas, such as language barriers, to physical barriers, such as broadband or electrical issues.  A better approach would be to send interested volunteers to areas where grassroots organizations and NGOs have already established projects and have people in the field that know a great deal about the culture of the region.  This way volunteers and field workers can bounce ideas off each other to create the best solution.

Please note that I have great respect for all PCVs and the work that they have devoted to development.  I am simply questioning whether this is the best model for my goals and vision.


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I am an undergraduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Information Technology and Science, Technology, and Society. The focus of my studies is on International Development. I have a particular interest in incorporating ICTs in primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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7 Comments to “The Great ICT4D Peace Corps Volunteer Debate”

  1. mbiti moise says:

    Peace Corps Volunteers Mission is very good ,according to the benefit names out;but what are the consequences of PCV? THE MAIN GOAL WERE EDUCATION AND HEALTH according to me .

    I thing that ICTS field projects are the principal goal to folow now ,because population in many countires are under development.I am not against the involvemennt in the ICTfield of the peace corp, i donate myself to to teach pupils in primary school ,train men and women in computer for economic growth ,but without a strong foundation of equipment or of knowledge.I will bring the begening of solution in all sorts of community aspects .

    I am particularly intrested for the project or your vision in this arears,sending volunteers,not only where they have alreay established projects and have people in the .They can startet and pionears. my question is that :
    – dit volunteers and field workers be youths and those who have not job?

    In conclusion ,i also thing like you that ICTS peace Corps Volunteers in the way to get involved in international development, i will like to have it as my mission also.
    Thank you.

  2. Jessica says:

    You make some very valid points about Peace Corps service, which does in fact revolve around the “three goals”. But I believe it is this three-fold mission that separates Peace Corps Volunteers and their achievements from other international NGO workers and volunteers. Of course, I am probably biased having served as an IT PCV in Kenya from 2001-2003.

    As a PCV, you are given intensive language and cross-cultural training during your first three months in country, which, while not a lot, is probably significantly more than what many other expat staff and volunteers receive. Most PCVs arrive at their project sites with a strong, though basic understanding of the local language and culture. Additionally, during your first three months of service (after being posted to your project site) you are not allowed to travel outside of your district, a regulation that aims to ensure you become integrated into your community and are give time to understand the needs and goals of the community before you begin working. This integration is something that many outside NGO staff do not have, and it actually puts effective volunteers in a position to understand at a grassroots level the many cultural dilemmas and infrastructure issues you mentioned. Further, by living amongst the community, volunteers engender a trust within their village which allows them to facility development in a way that many external NGO workers cannot.

    I was one of the earlier IT volunteers so my primary project was teaching basic computer literacy in a community where the majority had never seen a computer before. However, I do believe that many of the postings for IT PCVs these days are with established CBOs, allowing PCVs to impart their IT knowledge with organizations that have an already established network and local acceptance.

    I can understand that Peace Corps is not the best option for everyone. It is fairly regulated – eg no driving, travel restrictions, etc -, it is a large commitment of time and in addition to the personal separation, this can also be a professional challenge, especially when you’re in the IT field, you can be caught behind when you’re attempting to return to the workforce after two years in a rural location of developing country where the technology may not be as advanced. However, if the question is whether you can be effective in providing solutions to a community’s development issues as a PCV, then the answer is definitely yes. And in many cases, PCVs are even more effective than their counterparts from large organizations which have bottom-lines to consider in their development initiatives.

  3. Wayan Vota says:

    So I am a failed Peace Corps Volunteer if you judge me by my community impact – I had none. My program in Russia hit a big bump six months in and I left rather than waiting it out. I have no regrets on that decision as it led to a whole other experience and even the short stint I had changed my direction.

    My time as a PCV influenced my life in a profound way – it started me on professional travel. Since then I’ve focused on working for international organizations that paid me to travel. Around the world and back again twice so far. Nice for me.

    My time as a PCV influenced the way I interact with other peoples. The cross cultural training was excellent. To this day, I still reflect on the lessons I learned in Zelenograd on how to respect local customs and traditions.

    My time as a PCV influenced my ICT career. It was as a volunteer that I started blogging. Sixteen years later, I am still blogging – now professionally. No, its not a direct iCT intervention, but back in 1997, there wasn’t an “ICT” philosophy to intervene with.

    So should you you volunteer to start your ICT career? No clue. Should you volunteer to change your life and get a giant leap ahead in international development? Hells yes! In fact, I would go so far as to say there is something of a RPCV club – you’ll at least get an interview if you have Peace Corps on your resume, regardless of your chose specialty.

  4. Steve says:

    I guess I wonder if we all mean the same thing when we say “ICT” or “ICT4D”. I’m a “mid-career” programmer/sysadmin with a personal history of growing up in West Africa. I went through the Peace Corps application process recently but dropped out at the end. I had thought that, given my experience, I could have something substantial to contribute while getting some international work experience in exchange. But after going through the whole application I was told that I would probably be sent somewhere to teach basic computer literacy in a classroom. Nothing against teaching computer literacy, but there’s a reason I didn’t go into education, I would make a terrible classroom teacher.

    To me, ICT means a whole range of things: electronic engineering, software design, system administration, tech support, and education in all of these. To the Peace Corps it seems to mean education in basic literacy. Perhaps that’s as it should be, but in my case that seemed like an inefficient use of PC resources and my time so I’m going with the job-search route instead.

  5. lindsaypoirier says:

    Interesting point, Steve. I was under the impression that most PC projects in the ICT field involved computer literacy but that projects in some regions were specifically seeking people with your expertise. Does this depend on the locale where you are placed?

    I think that it’s fair to say that determining whether the Peace Corps is a smart career choice for an individual should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I have no doubt that it’s an excellent opportunity to get your foot in the door in regards to international development and that it offers the means for gaining experience working with an unfamiliar culture. Still, career goals/objectives (along with some personal stances) should definitely be factored in when making a decision. Thank you for the all of the feedback. I really appreciate hearing a wide variety of stances on the subject.

  6. Steve says:

    That had been my impression as well, which is why I applied. Maybe it was the specific placement officer I got. But she was intent on my understanding that (1) I needed to be willing to go anywhere regardless of my regional preference, and (2) that I would almost certainly be assigned to teach basic literacy in the classroom. If I were coming straight out of college I would have accepted that, but it doesn’t seem a good fit for me now.

  7. Wayan Vota says:

    Steve, If you are already mid-career with ICT and grew up in West Africa, you probably do not need the Peace Corps experience to break into ICT4D. You could volunteer directly with an ongoing program for a year and have a better input, experience, and outcome than the Peace Corps, which is designed mainly for recent college grads. That’s exactly where Matt Berg was when he made the leap – he first volunteered with Geekcorps for 6 months which earned him a program manager position, and started his ICT4D career.