The Peace Corps is the quintessential example of American volunteerism, but at its fifty-year anniversary, the program is showing signs of age. Does the Peace Corps have a place in the modern development sphere, or does nostalgia blind us to a program that has outlasted its time?
Criticizing the Peace Corps is a little like kicking a small puppy. After all, the 8,600 Corps members and trainees include some of the most compassionate, optimistic, and enterprising students of their generation. Alumni include Chris Dodd, the former Senator from Connecticut; M. Peter McPherson, Chairman of the Dow Jones; and Chris Matthews, host of NBC’s Hardball. Corps members sacrifice two years of their lives to volunteer in countries that some Americans couldn’t even point out on a map. And in the process of serving local communities, they bolster the opinion of America abroad.
When the Peace Corps was created in 1961, the program focused on countries emerging onto a democratic, post-colonial world; the first volunteers worked in Ghana, Tanzania, and Colombia. At that time, those countries had only a fledging public sector and virtually no private sector activity. The Peace Corps offered a valuable influx of college graduates, ready and eager (though perhaps a little naïve) to engage in nation-building.
Five decades, later, though, those same countries have come into their own. Peace Corps graduates, still equipped with a college degree, have become less useful as local communities have increased educational opportunities. In fact, Karen Rothmyer writes in The Nation that Peace Corps volunteers may even deprive local communities of jobs.
What, then, is the value of a Peace Corps volunteer?
Lex Rieffel at the Brookings Institute argues that the Peace Corps is an invaluable form of “soft power” diplomacy that promotes goodwill for the United States, but Frank Sheen, a former officer at the General Counsel’s Office of the Peace Corps, observes a stark delineation between the federal government and Peace Corps volunteers.
Writing in The Nation, he notes that
The Peace Corps maintains a strict separation from US foreign policy and from other US government agencies so the Peace Corps and its volunteers will be viewed as representatives of the American people, not the American government.
If this is the case, then Peace Corps is essentially a program to promote cultural exchange. And while this is a lofty goal, the Peace Corps is hardly unique in promoting it. Between university-sponsored exchanges, faith-based programs, corporate sponsorships, and even for-profit organizations, there exists a plethora of programs offering the opportunity to travel and volunteer abroad.
Compared to these other opportunities, the Peace Corps can be expensive. A report by Charles Kenny, a Center for Global Development scholar, finds the Peace Corps’ $440 million budget (for the fiscal year 2011) amounts to a cost about $50,000 per Corps member—well above the median income and practically the cost of an Ivy League education. In comparison, Reiffel reports that private-sector programs can place volunteers for as a little as $5,000-$6,000 per year, though he is careful to note that these programs fail to include all the benefits of the Peace Corps, such as regional support or language training programs.
Still, even Reiffel, a Peace Corps proponent, acknowledges the program’s inefficiency. For example, it spends up “56% of overall costs to staff overseas offices compared to 28% [towards] supporting volunteers in the field.” With new technology like e-mail and Skype, international communication has never been cheaper, yet the Peace Corps has been slow to incorporate these advances.
These issues aside, it is important to realize that the Peace Corps’ mission is fundamentally linked to national interests rather than development efforts. On the subject of foreign aid, the mission of the Peace Corps is strikingly silent. As published on their website, their three goals are as follows:
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.
While the first point loosely alludes to foreign aid, the statement as a whole offers only a tepid endorsement of development. And yet, Peace Corps members travel to foreign countries to work on specific development projects. Their role is not solely limited to cultural exchange, and as one of the country’s most prominent volunteer organizations, it seems reasonable to evaluate the Peace Corps on its developmental impact.
Gal Beckerman argues in the Boston Globe that “if you were trying to design an organization to avoid having a lasting impact, it might look a lot like the Peace Corps: inexperienced volunteers sent to work in near-total isolation from one another, with time limits guaranteed to make their impact only short term.” While Peace Corps members do often replace one another, the bi-annual turnover and subsequent need to establish contact networks and community trust makes development work all the more difficult.
Robert L. Strauss, a former Peace Corps country director, is quick to emphasize the “myth” that “The Peace Corps Is a Development Organization.” No recent scholarly study of development organizations, he writes, even mentions the Peace Corps. Country assignments are as dependent on bureaucratic “inertia” as actual need, and he derides the program’s failure to conduct a rigorous self-assessment of its developmental impact. At his most critical, Strauss dismisses the Peace Corps as little more than “an extended, government-sponsored semester-abroad program.”
(As a college student myself, I find it a little difficult to equate two years in Togo with a semester in Paris, but Strauss’ point is well taken.)
In light of these criticisms, it is worth asking how the Peace Corps could update its program to better fit the needs of its volunteers and host countries. Given burgeoning private sectors in these countries, some have suggested that the Peace Corps should send older professionals—engineers or doctors rather than fresh college graduates. To reduce costs, Kenny proposes restricting the Peace Corps restructuring the Peace Corps to resemble the Fulbright Program, a government-sponsored fellowships that sends students and educators abroad to teach and conduct research. By making small grants for individual projects, Kenny argues, the Peace Corps could cut overhead and increase flexibility.
Young Americans who join the Peace Corps should be praised for their generosity and dedication. However, we should honor their efforts by building a better Peace Corps that incorporates the practices of private-sector organizations and acknowledges its dual commitment to culture and development.