Saturday, June 06, 2009

A peace corps for India?

One of the most remarkable organizations in America that is rarely talked about is the Peace corps. Many of my friends have actually never heard of it. But it has perhaps done more for America’s image abroad, in some of the poorest, most underdeveloped regions of the world, than most other organizations or groups. So what is the Peace Corps? Reading from their website, the organization has volunteers who “…..serve in 74 countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, and the Middle East. Collaborating with local community members, Volunteers work in areas like education, youth outreach and community development, the environment, and information technology.” Effectively, they are agents of change, education and empowerment in distant parts of the globe, and a part of America’s tremendous soft power. I don’t know if JFK actually visualized the impact the Peace Corps would have around the world, but in my opinion, forming the Corps was one of his greatest and most lasting achievements.

I’ve been fortunate to hear about the work the Peace Corps does from friends who have served in the Corps. So, these are the kinds of things the Corps volunteers do. One friend, immediately after graduating college, joined the Peace Corps and went off to Tanzania. There she lived in a medium sized village, and taught the local school kids Chemistry and English, and also found time to make some great friends, learn about Tanzanian culture, share her ideas of American culture with Tanzanians, climb Kilimanjaro, and meet her (now) husband who was another Corps volunteer teaching science and something else to some other kids in Tanzania. After two years and a fabulous experience, she came back to do her PhD in the molecular biosciences. Another friend worked in my former lab as an undergraduate, and once she graduated joined the Corps and headed out to Gautemala to work with village communities, on health, natural resource management and other issues. The way the program works is simple. It recruits mostly from fresh college graduates (or sometimes even current students, who are allowed and even encouraged to take “a year off”). These kids then express their areas of interest, and the region of the world they’d like to go to. And then, they are sent there (almost on a “paid” work/vacation), and work there for a year, or two, or more. What, you might ask, do they get out of it apart from the experience? Isn’t the experience itself everything? No, they get much more, including tangible benefits that help their own careers. They get college credit, a big boost if they want to come back and join masters or PhD programs, they learn new languages, student loan deferments, and also become a part of a network that now has thousands of successful people in all walks of life. They are extremely valuable to corporations who would love to have people with these diverse experiences. The learning is also a two way process, and they learn a tremendous lot while, at a ridiculously low cost, act as informal ambassadors of the United States in places where people have only fuzzy ideas on what the country is about. More often than not, all parties (the Corps volunteers as well as the communities they work with) benefit and learn a lot from this.

So where am I going with this? Well, the concept of “volunteerism” on a larger scale in India is still nascent, and it is rare to find people, especially young people, volunteering for too many community activities. Their lives are understandably busy, with getting through school, and then getting admission into a program in college that will lead to a “good job” (engineering, medicine or the like), and then getting on with lives. And then, every now and then, there will be some story in the media wondering why the educated youth never go and serve in rural, deprived areas, and why much of the country remains underdeveloped. It is well known that few (if any) college graduates in India would even consider starting up enterprises or serving in rural, remote and/or underdeveloped areas. The government, it its typical heavy-handed approach, has occasionally mandated things like requiring medical students to serve for a year in rural areas (where doctors are much needed). Most of these efforts have flopped miserably. One big reason why these schemes don’t work is because they are coercive, and the student perceives little or no benefit from this. So this is where I think the government could spend a small amount, set up something like the Peace Corps, and gain a huge return on that investment.

Here’s how it could work. The organization can provide streamlined avenues for freshly graduated college students to go and stay/work in some rural/underdeveloped area of their choice, in a subject of their choice. This could range from working with government schools (with poor teachers, often absent), to rural health centers, to the forest or agriculture departments and so on. This provides an avenue for students of different backgrounds to work in. This can come with “official” recognition (say from the education department or the science and technology department), and a significant stipend (I’m thinking of something like rupees eight thousand/$150 per month), as well as options for local accommodation (there is no shortage of government places to stay across the country). As additional, significant incentives, the experience of the students can be considered credit to apply for masters/MBA/MD programs, with the provision of educational/college scholarships for these kids if they decide to continue their education at the end of their fellowship term. In particular, if this program can give significant credit to doctors for admission to specialization/MD programs (say a 20% bonus on their entrance tests or direct admission into certain specialties), this can serve as a serious incentive for doctors to serve in rural health centers. For students who work on engineering projects, projects in agriculture, environment, social issues, water issues and so on, thy could similarly get credit for education. Undoubtedly, this work experience would be very valuable indeed to corporations looking to recruit individuals with diverse experiences, as well as to business schools for their MBA students. In addition, it is possible that students who do take this up realize that there are tremendous economic possibilities in rural India, and perhaps they might themselves then go on to start their own organizations that work in these areas.

Of course, most of this has been about incentives for students to join such a program. The reason the government should/could do this is because it is the only entity that has its reach in every corner of the country, and the authority/ability to implement such a program. But the potential problem is that even if the government does this, it might do this in a typical heavy-handed, bureaucratic, top-down approach, and that will fail. So what they need to do is to support the concept, but leave the complete implementation and execution to a board with people who are good at putting grassroots organizations together, and promise never to interfere in that work. All they should do is provide unconditional grants. Given how Indian governments work, with their maai baap attitude, this is bordering on fantasy. But such a concept can work (and has worked, remarkably well, with the Peace Corps). So now, does any one have the drive and will and reach to put this together and get the government to do something like this?


bongopondit said...

An excellent idea in principle, but as you mention, to expect the government to implement this is beyond fantasy.

We had some initiatives like this in college, mainly through NSS - included teaching children in the rural area of WB, helping the farmers with technological solutions etc. But again, the NSS 'course' was pretty much forced upon us (you had to obtain a 'pass' in it to eventually get your degree), so for most parts the students weren't very motivated. Did not help that the profs in charge seemed to go through the motions as well. Still, some good came out of it - as a few of us became involved in a rural school outside the regular 'course load' !

(btw, welcome back - looking forward to your weekly essays again)

Anonymous said...

it certainly is a great idea. i dont know how efficient it is to send suggestions to the PMO, but the official website does have a comments section ( i agree that just a comment on the website will most probably not be taken seriously, but we can at least try....

Sunil said...

bongopondit....thanks! The whole idea of something like the peace corps is that it shouldn't be something like the NSS, which is too top down, does not allow any enterprise or original ideas, has a strong hierarchy, and gives the student no credit!

Princessfiona.......not sure if anyone in the pmo reads those things, but yeah, why not?

pragzz said...

Two things in response:

a. The Peace Corps are a tremendous initiative and I fully laud Sargent Shriver for having pushed it through. In reality though, the Peace Corps (BTW, "the Corps" generally refers to the Marine Corps...the opposite of the Peace Corps!) has had its fair share of issues exactly because they were affiliated with the government. During and since the Cold War, it was believed (and there has been evidence) that several volunteers were really CIA spies incognito. This was the reason that Indira Gandhi threw the Peace Corps out of India. Being affiliated with the Government has its own set of problems.

b. In the absence of a more committed government, private and social sectors need to step in. This has already started happening both in India and the US, where Peace Corps like programs have already popped up. Programs like Indicorps and AIF's Service Corps send excellent young talent back to India to volunteer a year or more in Indian rural and slum communities. Even Indian NGO's are stepping in now. CHIRAG, a rural organization based in Uttaranchal has started a Peace Corps like program called "Swadesh ki Khoj" ( that encourages young urban talent to spend a year volunteering in rural communities.

Sunil said...

pragzz.....great comments.
Yes....your points about the Peace Corps in India are great. Anyway, I certainly wasn't advocating the US Peace Corps start work again in India. What I had in mind was something modeled on those lines that was started in India, with the "blessings" of the government.

You're absolutely right about private and social sections, and gropus like Indicorps etc do excellent work. I've also been associated with some such internship programs by NGOs and other groups who do this in India. But with private groups, none of them can ever even imagine working in the scale that a program "blessed" by the government can. At this stage, there are some superb efforts, which should be supported. But I'm hoping for/dreaming of something bigger.

pragzz said...

Ah, I get it; you were advocating an Americorps style model, which was started by Bill Clinton in 1994. It encourages American youth to volunteer their time in America. It is working, but barely. For some reason (some suspect the CIA's lack of interest) Americorps is not as well funded or cared for as the Peace Corps; and the modus operandum is quite different. With Obama (who is putting a lot of emphasis on community service), things may be different.

The Peace Corps focus on taking Americans and placing them internationally which is actually a very good idea for would be nice if Indians did service in the neighboring countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, etc. It would really help build neighbourly relations. Also, Indians would have greater appreciation for their government (which atleast has a working democracy, however flawed it may be!). But on the other hand, I doubt that the other countries will allow Indian youth in there exactly because they are so volatile and could easily be spies lurking around. And who knows how many youth will actually go there!

Finally in my opinion, probably the best funded and most effective internal service program to date are the ones in European countries. As you may (or may not) know, all young men are required to do atleast one year of military service upon graduation, depending upon the country. Since the Berlin Wall came down, conscientious objectors have been given an option of spending those years and that salary in service to their communities, rather than spending it in the military. This has created a forced service culture. NGOs get excellent talent for atleast a year; young men get to put their skills to use in a more productive way and are often taken out of their comfort zone and learn about people and areas they have never been exposed to.

Sunil said...

pragzz.....welcome back. So what I have in mind is something between the Americorps and peace corps model. I think with an Indian peace corps, it can start of with students working in different parts of India (particularly outside their home states, which in many cases can be like visiting another country), and if the program works, it certainly can be extended to friendly countries in the region, like the one's you've named.

As far as the european model goes....i like many aspects of it. The only thing I don't like is the fact that it is often compulsory service of one kind or the other. "Compulsory" works well only rarely, and I'm a much bigger fan of something that rewards volunteer initiative, as opposed to mandating.

Abhishek said...

Very correctly pointed out is the fact that for any success, any such programs should be well complemented with a system of incentives. The examples mentioned are very practical and do-able.

I was wondering if such a system can actually be made to work without the blessings of the government also? Is something like this possible - the IIMs offering preference to aspirants who have such work experience, with organizations that they recognize.

Sunil said...

abhishek......i know most people don't care much for the government, but for the scales this kind of a project involves, it is very unlikely to work without the support of the government. It doesn't have to be a government project, but the government is the only "organization" present in every corner of the country....particularly the underdeveloped regions. For an outsider to do this, it will take an enormous amount of work to set up a new, parallel infrastructure to reach places, particularly outside the cities (which don't need this anyway). On the other had, the government doesn't need to run this, just allow whoever is doing this full access to & support of government officials in all places. That could work.

Anonymous said...

I was a Peace Corp volunteer in India (India-99) working in poultry husbandry, Karnatka (Mysore) State in 1972. Prior to Indira Gandhi sending us home a recent Indian college graduate arrived at my site as my replacement. It was explained that he was an Indian Peace Corp volunteer. After departing India, I was transferred into the U.S. domestic Peace Corp, actually known as VISTA (Volunteers in Servcie to America). Americorp volunteers are typically not college (but High School) graduates. At the time of our departure, it was explained to us that we were being sent home for our own safety. President Nixon had sided with Pakistan during the war outbreak the prior year.

Ashika said...

Hi this is Ashika and im from Fiji. I had read this blogs and im very much impressed about the idea of set up of Peace Corps in India. I have been to India lately and i have really loved that country and I also would like that a service of such should be open up there. I dont really know if USA Peace Corps is based in India or not. If they wouldnt want to open up a set up there than i would like to suggest one thing which I would like to work on very much. This has occured to me when i was on the roads of mumbai and i had seen so many kids beg in the street which has hurt me to know that their parents made them beg instead of teaching them new ways to live.Iam sure among those kids, there are many who are willing to study,and who must be very intelligent but we have over seen them.
My own idea of the set up is that why dont some people or youngers built up a own set up instead of waiting for other services to open up?I as a foreigner would like to open up a service centre where these kids including the people are taught in education,a better way to live.I know we all cant open it ourselves but if we get into the group and open up this small service centre , Iam sure it can be very big later on as we can campain for donation.Not only from India, we can ask volunteers to share their abilty and edcuation with kids who will be future. Ihave many other plans with me from which we can make this service a very successful one in india where we could be a helping hand to thousand of kids and im sure we can make it a difference in this. If anyone is interested in this than please email me at
Iam sure we all can make it a difference.My own ancestors were from India and now i would like to do something for my motherland though im born in Fiji,my home land is still India of my ancestors.
Jai Hind

siddharth said...

sir, are u aware of any such programme that is going on currently in india ?
I would be really grateful to you if you can impart me any information in this area.

Sunil said...

sorry siddharth, nothing I know of.

Anonymous said...

I also was in 99 india - still working poultry development Asia anb often in India was well. The world likes eggs and poultry meat! Especially in Asia.