Reevaluating the Peace Corps
Some ex-volunteers are asking tough questions about the international program’s effectiveness while others are trying to double its budget.
University of Washington Peace Corps representative Heidi Broekemeier stands in her office on campus in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Senator John F. Kennedy made a speech that outlined establishment of the Peace Corps at the University of Michigan in 1960. Kennedy commanded in his inaugural address three months later, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." The Peace Corp has come a long way since the ’60s, and it continues to serve an important role in sending Americans abroad—demonstrating that our country is not just focused military power.
But the Peace Corps has a significant amount of challenges that need to be addressed. As the organization approaches its 50th anniversary, former staff and volunteers are asking tough questions about the program’s effectiveness. At the same time, a campaign is underway to double the budget of the Peace Corps, an objective that is gaining support in Congress.
As a former volunteer with the Peace Corps in Morocco, I experienced some of the challenges of serving as a volunteer, but, at the same time, enjoyed the countless benefits. Where the Peace Corps will go over the next 50 years is yet to be known, but the hope of at least one organization of former volunteers is to continue the Peace Corps’ mission of international goodwill.
Challenges faced by Peace Corps
Today the Peace Corps has two main objectives: to provide physical and technical labor to countries that may not have enough trained workforce and to promote cross-cultural understanding between Americans and locals. These two objectives often cause a tension within the organization. Is it more important to provide labor where labor is needed, or to send grassroots ambassadors to strengthen America’s relationships with other countries?
The Peace Corps’ identity crisis has existed since its inception. Michael Warren, who served as a volunteer in Uzbekistan, points to the period of time when he served as a volunteer. In 1992, shortly after the break up of the former Soviet Union, President George H.W. Bush called for the placement of 300 volunteers in the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Congress and the State Department exerted a fair amount of political pressure over where volunteers would serve and in what capacity. In 2005, the U.S. State Department failed to renew visas for Peace Corps volunteers in Uzbekistan, so work there came to an end.
Ed Rowley and John Roberts, both former volunteers and country directors with the Peace Corps, agree that Peace Corps staff need to have adequate time to evaluate needs of countries and develop the infrastructure in-country for staff and the volunteers.
Rowley points out that “there needs to be viable programs and viable government support for the Peace Corps program.” Volunteers serve where host countries have asked for assistance. There has been pressure to place volunteers in Muslim-dominated countries rather than a broader category of need-based countries. While it may be difficult to keep such considerations out of the process while appropriation legislation travels through Congress, the best decisions about needs are probably best left to those who have worked with the Peace Corps and in the development field abroad.
Robert Strauss, former country director and volunteer, recently wrote an article in Foreign Policy discussing the challenges faced by Peace Corps. Strauss wrote, “Many Peace Corps staff and volunteers see development work as a burdensome obligation undertaken only to legitimize the cultural exchange aspects of the agency. For applicants, the Peace Corps emphasizes the personal experience, not the volunteer’s development impact. That, of course, is not how the Peace Corps pitches itself to foreign governments, to whom it promises significant technical development assistance—only to provide predominantly recent college graduates who may or may not have any useful skills to offer.”
Melanie Cole, who served as a volunteer in Morocco from 2005 to 2006, says that she believes the program met its cultural goals of “changing opinions about myself and different cultures. I was a bit more humbled in that I feel like I know less after Peace Corps than I did going in, because it taught me so much.”
At the same time, Cole says that the lack of defined work or technical projects can be a reason why volunteers terminate their service. “I finished my service early because my work was not happening and I felt as though I was not receiving a lot of guidance in terms of work projects.”
While most former volunteers believe more people in the field can be a good thing, there is a fair amount of concern about how the programs are expanded, which countries are served, and what volunteers are asked to do abroad.
Rowley, who served in Colombia, believes the Peace Corps does meet its goals. “Its American ambassadors at local levels [are] certainly more effective than our foreign policy State Department. We do contribute to development but we can’t expect the highest level of development—it’s more grassroots projects.”
Technical assistance is work like teaching English as a foreign language, assisting in a local health center, or working with a community group to find solutions to local environmental problems. In the end, even if Peace Corps volunteers work can’t always effectively complete the work of technical assistance it appears the benefits of cultural exchange can increase international understanding. At a time when perceptions of Americans by foreigners is in decline, Peace Corps volunteers continue to project a positive image abroad—living, working, and learning in communities throughout the world.
“In general we need to do a lot of work to change the world’s image of the United States. Peace Corps can be part of that—in terms of showing the world that America isn’t only about military power,” said Warren.
“Peace Corps is probably the most effective tool ever invented for people to people interactions. Any development contributions are icing on the cake,” said Roberts, who served in Somalia.
The Case for Expanding the Peace Corps
Donald Ross, a spokesman for the More Peace Corps campaign, points out that the Peace Corps had nearly 16,000 volunteers in the 1960s and today there are only 8,000 volunteers. While there has been motivation and legislation to increase the Peace Corps in past years, there has never been a concentrated effort to build support within Congress and in the greater citizenry, Ross said.
More Peace Corps aims to create a larger and more effective organization. The main goal of the campaign is to double the Peace Corps in size and budget by 2011. The campaign points to the fact that there are currently 20 countries on a wait-list—countries that have requested volunteers but that the Peace Corps can’t afford to send volunteers to.
The campaign’s website notes that “the astounding success of the Peace Corps, managed on a shoestring budget of $331 million, less than the cost of one day in Iraq, deserves recognition and increase.” Even doubling the size of the budget, the Peace Corps would still remain a small line item in the federal government’s overall budget.
If the Peace Corps can be effective at reducing future threats abroad, the investment now may be a relatively small price to pay. Roberts believes that “If we had Peace Corps everywhere, we’d have a lot less need for war as the world would see us differently.”
A new emphasis on diversity in the Peace Corps could bring a new influx of volunteers from under-represented groups. The vast majority of volunteers come from middle-class, often white families, often recent college graduates. Changing the structure of Peace Corps to allow for more short-term, highly-skilled positions for those men and women with more years of experience could help change the monolithic nature of white, fairly privileged and under-experienced volunteers that tend to enroll now. Ross suggests the idea of having engineers who serve for shorter periods, for example, two to four weeks once or twice per year in the field, and during the other part of the year, serving as a resource via email and phone.
What Congress is Doing
Recent legislation sponsored by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) would increase funding for the Peace Corps by $10 million, bringing the total funding appropriated to $333.5 million in fiscal year 2008. [Editor’s Note: See our related article on proposed changes to the Peace Corps legislation.] This increase is a relatively small drop in the bucket. The idea of increasing the size of the Peace Corps isn’t new. President George W. Bush called for doubling the Peace Corps in his state of the union address in 2002.
The More Peace Corps campaign is run by a large group of Peace Corps volunteers, with grassroots fundraising and presentations, on a shoe-string budget. Something the volunteers are all intimately familiar with.
Former Peace Corps volunteers often find that the experience has given them a new perspective on themselves and the world. Often this change translates into greater motivation to create change and on some level improve our world. The relatively small campaign of More Peace Corps raises valid criticisms of international service organizations, but as we look at America’s current reputation abroad, the Peace Corps can still make great strides with its grassroots activists and its development assistance.
Adam Welti is a graduate student at The Fletcher School at Tufts University studying law and diplomacy.