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.

18 thoughts on “Is the U.S. Peace Corps a failure?

  1. As a former Peace Corps volunteer myself, I agree whole heartedly with your post.

  2. Right on target, Chris. The Peace Corps is not about technical assistance, it’s about cultural exchange, and we could use a lot more of that in the world. It’s also about empowering young Americans to see the world and desire to make a difference in it, which is worth funding apart from any hoped for “development” that might result.

  3. I’ve worked with several PC volunteers in the field and with those who have returned. You are right on the money.

    But can you talk a bit about the vision and how it is flawed??

    This has got me thinking further about the PC being the best place for field experience. I plan on blogging about this on my own blog (tworque.blogspot.com). Thanks always for your insightful posts.

  4. Peace Corps?

    It looks good on your CV.

    And in exchange the community left behind gets a contact in the US who will eventually change his number after one flash too many.

  5. This isn’t the first time somebody has suggested a form of ‘super peace-corps’. Percy Mistry, in this African Affairs commentary, presents a case for Africa needing a massive influx of human capital from the developed world. This idea needs to be considered with much caution, but Percy is arguing for people to invest in the country, to help provide Hirschman’s ‘voice’, not to assume control. The link is gated, sorry.

    http://afraf.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/104/417/665

  6. I really liked Chris’ post, and often agree with what he writes. Even here, I’m not sure I disagree, and I’ve linked his piece on my own blog (http://whatyoumustread.blogspot.com/).

    But I would be interested in hearing some good counter arguments by people who DON’T agree with him (us?)…

    If you’re interested in international affairs and links to thought-provoking articles, I can only invite you to visit my blog: WhatYouMustRead (at http://whatyoumustread.blogspot.com/).

    Best

  7. Peace Corps is about people and I think that is what many fail to appreciate. Being a Peace Corps volunteer changed the way I viewed the world and myself. I learned to recognize how my actions (voting, consumption, etc) impact others in powerful ways.

    When my students asked if American’s hated Muslims I was grateful to engage in dialogue with them. I was proud to be an example of an educated and professional single woman, to have the opportunity to challenge the norms that hinder progress in much of West Africa.

    I work in Liberia now for a big aid agency and Peace Corps is returning after several years away. Liberians have expressed excitement about this and praised Peace Corps in many different situations. Who could ask for better proof that Peace Corps is doing just the job it set out to do and should be doing?

    http://lisa-speakingmytruth.blogspot.com/

  8. Chris, what’s your email? I’ll send you a document I recently sent to all PC country directors.

    Robert Strauss

  9. The thesis that the Peace Corps is a failure is utter nonsense.

    There have been numerous Volunteers who’ve striven to accomplish the original three goals of the Peace Corps, and some of the quarter of a million Volunteers have been more or less successful in accomplishing those goals.

    The technical assistance mentioned as desired by some nations falls within the purview of US/AID rather than the Peace Corps.

    Evidently, Robert Strauss doesn’t understand what the three goals of the Peace Corps were and are. Or he disagrees with those goals. Well, I disagree with his ambition to pervert the Peace Corps to reflect his offbeat vision.

    Volunteer
    Group Liberia One, 1962-4

  10. Robert Strauss, having been a Peace Corps volunteer and country director, is clearly more qualified to offer his opinions and analysis of the Peace Corps today than many of the commentators on your blog.

    I am a professional attorney with a background in international law and intellectual property, and a former Peace Corps Volunteer in the small business development program in Morocco. (One of the “home-grown french speakers” I suppose.) I resigned from the program when it became abundantly apparent that there were no sustainable development objectives being striven for, that the business development program in that country was affiliated with private US business interests in violation of the Peace Corps charter, and the funds intended for volunteers were in fact being spent on the lavish lifestyles of the country administrators.

    (This was also the year that congress passed the U.S. Military Peace Corps option, AND the year that Morocco signed it’s free trade agreement with the U.S.)

    I am not necessarily against voluntourism for 22 year old recent graduates. Even if they have little impact abroad, one would hope that they bring home a more open perspective that increases our overall appreciation of different races and cultures and can impact our foreign policy decisions in the future. On the other hand, of the group with whom I volunteered in Morocco, 5 out of 30 held advanced degrees, and all 5 resigned due to the lack of direction and maladministration of the program. (The majority of the recent college graduates also resigned.)

    Strauss is correct in that the Peace Corps is not equipped to manage or direct skilled volunteers.

    And one might also ponder how many Peace Corps volunteers end up in development hindering careers such as that of John Perkins?

  11. To add late to this discussion, I would argue that the debate over whether Peace Corps is an outright failure reflects a lack of consensus over its purpose and vision. Within any Peace Corps office (domestic or international), we could find a diversity of opinion on the matter.

    As an environment volunteer in a Central American country, our program’s technical objectives seemed lofty, difficult to monitor (if not impossible), and disjointed. It was never made clear to us how these goals fit into any broader plan for our region. Many volunteers in our program did “good” things, qualitatively; their counterparts would be first to say so. Even so, there was no little long-term follow-through or objective monitoring of the impact and longevity of this activity in specific sites or regions, especially with consideration of how these activities worked or did not work in synergy with community, NGO, and host country government efforts. Although our program was recently cancelled, I don’t think it was unique in these weaknesses.

    Peace Corps does have good plans and monitoring in some countries and programs. Its weakness is its size and lack of focus, which leads to the institutional of “failing up” and variable competence at all administrative levels, poor (but improved) control over its 70-something host countries, and an ongoing PR campaign directed out of mathematical necessity at their “bread and butter” market of enthusiastic but technically weak undergraduates.

    As others have mentioned, Peace Corps is a great personal development opportunity for US citizens, and often leads to positive cultural exchange. Even so, I’ve never seen the former espoused as an outright goal of Peace Corps. Where I served this obvious reality co-existed with plentiful rhetoric about “meeting the needs for qualified men and women” and “serving those most in need”.

    [Volunteers in my country rarely worked where qualified technicians were unavailable — just where agencies wanted a free technician they didn’t have to pay — and few volunteers in my country served those “most” in need, because those most in need also lived in the most dangerous areas.]

    Although Peace Corps has made major reforms in recent years, particularly focusing its work where generalists are more effective (ie. education), that lack of institutional clarity remains because it is beneficial on some level.

    Like all institutions, Peace Corps’ primary goal is to perpetuate itself. If Peace Corps became more honest about its technical impacts, could it keep interest, funding, and enrollment so high? I would say it has served Peace Corps thus far to maintain this dual identity and it will continue to do so as long as the benefits of doing so exceed costs.

  12. MMS,
    When did you go to Morocco with the PC? I’m scheduled to go to Morocco with the PC for “youth development.” Do you think the program still has this maladministration? What would your advice be?

    Thanks

  13. Peace Corps mobilizes a large mass of people. Things of note are only accomplished by massive mobilization.

    (OK, maybe the invention of the spreadsheet is a counterexample. But from land conquests to public works down to filming Lord of the Rings, it takes more than Jobs & Wozniak to put 316 million iOS devices into hands.)

    And as I commented on your other post, it reduces the amount of ignorance & arrogance in the USA as well as their youth unemployment. The poor are not the only humans who need help.

  14. As a Current PCV in Benin, who Peace Corps Admin is trying to come up with reasons to “seperated” due to my request to serve in a position that might actually contribute to greater development of the country, I would like to say not only is this post on the money, it is a perspective that needs to be shared. The PR train of Peace Corps is disgustingly misrepresentative and exploitative of idealistic Volunteers. PC has no idea what it is; the agency is in the midst of a huge identity crisis. In Benin, the agency is trying to become USAID and force volunteers, who came for cultural exchange, to take on big development projects in areas they have little interest or expertise, and didn’t sign up for. They are even spending thousands of taxpayer dollars to hold huge conferences to teach volunters how to monitor and evaluate USAid projects at the country’s most expensive hotels. Volunteers, myself included, are shocked that their service is define by filling out paperwork and counting villagers on reporting forms trying to create simulacrum of progress. I’m fairly certain that not only is Peace Corps not a development agency (although it is finally trying to be), it is also not about “peace and friendship.” What it is about is showing off the U.S hegemonic power all over the developing world by making sure young and old Americans unknowingly neocoloninize rural villages all over the world! Great work, Peace Corps, on fooling the American Public and continuing exploiting rural citizens under the guise of development! Hats off to you .