By Conor Robinson
Humanist Service Corps Program Coordinator
Recently, Hemant Mehta interviewed me about the Humanist Service Corps for his Friendly Atheist blog. Check out the piece if you haven’t already – it provides a good overview of the purpose of HSC, what we’ve accomplished to date, and what we hope to achieve in 2016.
Generally, the interview was well-received. However, there was one question that appeared several times in the comments and deserves to be addressed separately: Isn’t the Peace Corps a secular volunteering program?
Indeed, it is. Humanists can volunteer effectively through the Peace Corps, especially now that the application process allows prospective volunteers to select the countries and programs most suitable to their skills and humanist values.
However, it’s worth remembering that although humanist generally implies secular, the same cannot be said in reverse. Secular humanism is secular but the secular Peace Corps is not humanist. Moreover, secular doesn’t mean good and religious doesn’t mean bad where service programs are concerned. There are religious volunteering programs that do not proselytize and that put volunteers in place to do effective, culturally responsible service that aligns with humanism in many ways. The American Friends Service Committee is one of my favorite examples. Conversely, there are voluntourist programs, such as Global Leadership Adventures (not the worst offender but one of the most profitable ones), that place the emphasis on the impact service has on the volunteer rather than the community where the volunteer serves. Most of these voluntourist programs are secular. That doesn’t make them humanist.
The Humanist Service Corps is more than just a Peace Corps wannabe rebranded to attract a particular group of volunteers. Although we are interested in drawing more humanists into international service, the primary goal of the Humanist Service Corps is humanist service, not humanists doing service.
So then, what is humanist service?
Humanist service is defined by culturally responsible volunteering, community empowerment, and safety. Though HSC doesn’t claim to be the first volunteering program to prioritize these values, we believe these values must be the conclusion if the starting point is humanism.
Culturally Responsible Volunteering
The Humanist Service Corps is built to minimize the visibility of HSC volunteers and maximize the visibility of the partner organization. However, this approach is about more than appearances – HSC volunteers don’t provide direct services. Instead, they work to increase the capacity of grassroots organizations to provide those direct services. You will never see an HSC volunteer doing a job a local could do or be trained (and employed) to do, because our humanism demands that we not exacerbate existing skills gaps or reinforce postcolonial narratives that cast outsiders as capable and locals as needy.
Humanism was not the starting point for the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps was launched as a foreign policy tool for gaining influence in non-aligned countries during the Cold War. At that time, the stated goals were to expose Americans to the world and the world to Americans while providing technical assistance. After 55 years, the Peace Corps’ sterling image and reputation for development work is foremost in people’s minds. That said, the nationalistic starting point still influences the way the organization is run to this day. The Peace Corps is designed for maximum visibility of volunteers, not sustainability of their work. That’s why it has always placed thousands of volunteers despite the fact that the program cannot ensure positive project impact from region to region.
Peace Corps volunteers are often called upon to provide “technical assistance” they are unqualified to provide, and in such a way that that skills gaps go unaddressed or may even be exacerbated. This non-humanist approach to technical assistance can be seen most clearly in education, where Peace Corps volunteers who have no background in education are often placed as classroom teachers within unfamiliar educational systems.
Within two years of the launch of the Peace Corps as a foreign policy initiative in 1961, 60% of Peace Corps volunteers worked in education. Currently, the number is around 40%. In principle, a Peace Corps volunteer with an education assignment collaborates with key advocates and teaching professionals to design and implement education initiatives addressing local needs. In practice, many Peace Corps volunteers just end up teaching English and/or Computers classes. Some are even assigned this outright. To be fair, somewhere around 80% off the countries where Peace Corps volunteers serve identify education as a primary concern, so the focus on education is aligned with host country development priorities. However, putting volunteer teachers in classrooms should be viewed as a temporary solution at best, not a 50-year approach.
Let’s look at the U.S. education landscape for an illustration of why we shouldn’t be putting volunteers in classrooms. There is widespread criticism of Teach For America for putting undertrained teachers into classrooms because they’re not sufficiently prepared, they leave after only 2-3 years, and they compete with career teachers. So, how can it possibly be okay for us to put Peace Corps volunteers into foreign classrooms when they are untrained, unfamiliar with the local education system, only there for 2-3 years, and compete with career teachers?
Technical assistance should be provided by qualified people and should work toward increasing the number of skilled professionals. The Humanist Service Corps will never place volunteers as classroom teachers, even if they are award-winning teachers in their country of origin.
Although we think it’s important to put the emphasis on community impact rather than volunteer growth, we also believe that a humanist volunteering experience should be safe and fulfilling for the volunteer. This leads to another difference between the Humanist Service Corps and the Peace Corps. Humanist Service Corps volunteers are placed as a team. Peace Corps volunteers are generally isolated from each other once they begin their assignments. It can be lonely, and in many ways it is more dangerous. This is especially true for women, the majority of Peace Corps volunteers.
The Peace Corps has a disappointing history of failing to respond appropriately to and even covering up cases of sexual assault and rape. In 2014, the Peace Corps improved its reporting system and there has since been a 20% increase in sexual assault reports, which is good news. Less encouraging is that the most significant change the Peace Corps made to its sexual assault prevention training was to focus on bystander intervention so that volunteers and staff will look out for and help each other. That may prove effective during the three months of training, but most volunteers are separated once they begin their assignments. Most sexual assaults occur when volunteers are alone. Most volunteers don’t have the option of relying on other volunteers for backup.
Are there ways the Peace Corps IS humanist?
Absolutely. There are things the Peace Corps does that are aligned with humanism and are worth emulating, which is why we have adopted several Peace Corps practices in our own program. Here’s one example, taken straight from the Peace Corps playbook: in order to ensure we can bring volunteers whose skills match the needs of our partner organization each cycle, we work with Songtaba to identify a greater number of potential project areas than the number of volunteers we intend to bring. This allows us to be flexible in fielding our team because there are more potential matchups between the skills that are represented among applicants and the needs the community has identified.
Another admirable Peace Corps practice is its employment of host country nationals as permanent staff. Though the higher positions are typically filled by Americans, the culture and language directors, safety and security directors, and program coordinators are generally all locals. This helps ensure that Peace Corps programming carried out by the volunteers addresses local needs in a more culturally responsible way. On top of that, the employment of so many host country nationals most likely, in fact, has a greater positive impact than the work of the Peace Corps volunteers they are hired to support.
The Peace Corps commitment of 27 months, including three months of language and culture training, is a strong statement about culturally responsible service coming from one of the most respected volunteering institutions in the world. It is the standard, and it has undoubtedly influenced other organizations.
Despite the ways the Peace Corps incidentally aligns with humanism, the Peace Corps is a secular, not a humanist organization. The Humanist Service Corps is the only international volunteering program guided by the principles of humanism.