Is the U.S. Peace Corps a failure?

Rarely have my blog posts created more controversy in the comments section than when I bemoan ‘development tourism’, epitomized by the three-week trips or research projects by people who purportedly want to make a difference. (The posts are here and here.)

I always felt the U.S. Peace Corps was an excellent example of what to do right: stay a while, immerse yourself in the culture, have modest goals, and recognize that you are there to learn as much as contribute.

The Christian Science Monitor, however, writes that recipient countries want more:

If the Peace Corps wishes to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS, it needs to send expertise, not just youthful zeal. That was what Ethiopian officials politely told Peace Corps country director Peter Parr when he approached them last summer with a proposal to send a batch of volunteers to work on the pandemic.

“[HIV/AIDS] is serious business and requires serious people with commitment and capacity,” says Meskele Lera, deputy director of the Ethiopian agency overseeing efforts to stop the spread of AIDS, who attended that first meeting with Mr. Parr.

Despite Parr’s best efforts, however, about half of his volunteers are straight out of college and still need to be told not to arrive at the office in flip-flops.

Like the British VSO, the Peace Corps is apparently trying to rise to the challenge, by taking on skilled volunteers and undertaking more ambitious development programs. This strikes me as an excellent initiative, so long as it doesn’t crowd out the original Peace Corps program. I still see a positive role for the unskilled, inexperienced volunteer, even if he or she makes only a very modest impact. It’s not as though there is a shortage of skilled American consultants in Africa, is there?

Apparently there is. Robert Strauss, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, argues that the Peace Corps’ founding principles are founding myths:

In the eyes of Americans, no government agency better exemplifies the optimism, can-do spirit, and selfless nature of the United States than the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, it’s never lived up to its purpose or principles.

The Corps is none of things the public imagines, he says: it doesn’t recruit the best and the brightest; it doesn’t send them where they are needed most; and it is most certainly not a development organization. To significantly better the lives of millions, he says, the Peace Corps

must go out and recruit the best of the best. It must avoid goodwill-generating window dressing and concentrate its resources in a limited number of countries that are truly interested in the development of their people. And it must give up on the risible excuse that in the absence of quantifiable results, good intentions are enough.

Quite frankly, I think it the vision, not the implementation, that is flawed.

An army of bright 22-year old Americans has essentially limited capacity to change the lives of millions. Even an army of skilled and committed 50-year olds will fall short of his mark, I fear. I say let’s remain ambitious, but at the same time remember that small is still beautiful.

There must be a few Peace Corps volunteers who read this blog from time to time. Insights welcome.