Ivan Illich, an Austrian philosopher and outspoken critic of contemporary western culture, in his speech to the 1968 Conference on Inter-American Student Projects, said, “next to guns and money, the third-largest North American export is the American idealist.” The resource, replenished each year with a new graduating class of wide-eyed twenty-somethings eager to make their mark, is not one that will likely run out. Steeped in wanderlust, global responsibility, and restlessness, these idealists are prime candidates for instruments of U.S. foreign aid such as the Peace Corps. The Corps has enjoyed decades of success and a largely unquestioned positive image. But it is important that we evaluate the shortcomings and inherent problems with the organization to better understand its potential effects abroad.
President John F. Kennedy created the Corp in 1961 as a strategic, humanitarian program during the Cold War. His intention was to keep a peaceful American presence in developing nations, especially those at risk of becoming Cold War battlefields, while promoting American capitalism, democracy, and the humanitarian ideal. Young people imagined themselves amongst foreign peoples, laboring alongside impoverished communities. Slogans beckoning them to change their lives and make a difference instilled a sense of nationalism and charity they could not resist.
They eagerly joined the cause and the Corps was a huge success. Today, the historical context of its conception has fallen away, but the agency’s mission—to promote world peace and friendship—has not. Each line of the mission statement begins with the words “to help.” It aims to help developing communities and the volunteers themselves, but also to help preserve the influence Americans have on the developing world.
First, the Corps claims “to help the people of interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women.” If we examine the nature of the training process and qualifications for the Corps, it becomes apparent that volunteers are not prepared to “meet” the need for trained individuals. The base requirement given to apply is to be at least eighteen years old and an American citizen. For more specific positions, the “most competitive” applicants are suggested to have a bachelor of arts or science in any field regardless of the position they apply for. To be a “Public Health Educator,” they encourage either a bachelor’s degree or five years of unspecified professional experience. With so few prerequisites, each accepted volunteer relies solely on the training that the Corps provides before being thrust into the role of “expert.”
For each trainee, the Corps spends three months on language courses, assimilation preparation, and brief instruction in the actual work they will be performing. During this training, an average of 10 percent of volunteers will opt to leave the program, and great deal of money is lost each year in these cases. The annual budget for 2015 was $380 million, and many critics, including Illich, have suggested that if the intention were really to help developing communities, the money would be better utilized if it were invested directly into the communities.
With only three months of intense language training and just a basic understanding of the social and political climate of their site, volunteers have a month on site to adjust and form relationships within the community before they begin their work as leaders and development experts. Volunteers are given general overarching assignments and are asked to report on their work at least every three months. For example, a Business Advising Volunteer is asked to “work in partnership with the key actors in the community, to build the capacity of local institutions, or to increase the involvement of citizens and youth in local decision-making.” To take ideas and goals as broad as these and turn them into tangible results is an extraordinary task for new volunteers.
As a result, the work volunteers end up doing often has little to do with their intended task. Ryan Lane, a health advocate in Madagascar, reports that he “wasn’t expecting to coach gymnastics,” but he’s found that “by getting [his] hands dirty” the community “could actually talk about health issues a lot more afterwards.” While gymnastics is just an added activity, his main task is to “try to convince people to sleep under bed nets so they’re less likely to contract malaria.” To encourage extracurricular activity and safer habits is undoubtedly well intentioned and positive, but ultimately just a drop in the ocean. If we are to make measurable change and put lasting tools of development in place, we need development specialists and deeply embedded community members with a profound understanding and mutual respect within the community. Volunteers simply cannot be expected to perform such tasks given their training.
The Peace Corps wants to claim that its volunteers are qualified development workers. But the real philosophy seems to be that because developing countries and communities have so far to go, help in any form—even novice college graduates—will have a positive effect. At best, volunteers will be able to foster a small successful program during their two years. Unfortunately, any continuity between tours is difficult to coordinate as each new volunteer has license to begin new projects. At worst, the community is burdened with an outsider that does not understand their culture and attempts to try to fix complex development problems with uninformed, western solutions.
The second mission claim is “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served.” Perhaps the Corps hopes to reveal that all Americans feel a genuine responsibility and concern for their struggling brother nations abroad. But because of the obvious inadequacy of the volunteers sent abroad, it seems more likely that the understanding is meant to be that Americans present the “ideal” and are thus to be seen as a symbol of aid and hope in the developed world. In an open conversation with Peace Corps volunteers working in Senegal, one volunteer was asked what he ultimately hoped to do with the Peace Corps, and his response was simple: “I hope to be remembered.” This volunteer exposes the self-interest that pervades humanitarian efforts on an individual level, the same self-interest that drove the original establishment of the Peace Corps.
As Illich pointed out in more extreme terms, “it should be evident to all America that the U.S is engaged in a tremendous struggle to survive. The U.S cannot survive if the rest of the world is not convinced that here we have Heaven-on- Earth.” This holds true today; the American image is critical to maintaining its esteem on the world stage and sustaining the perception in the developing world that American humanitarian aid is the main opportunity for growth.
It is also important to note that Corps volunteers represent a small, very specific demographic. Corps volunteers are American college graduates, 72 percent white, 28 years old on average, and most likely to come from California or New York. There is no way for this sample of the population to connect with impoverished communities in the developing world. In fact, even the poorest Americans could not find shared experiences with impoverished individuals or comprehend what it means to be impoverished in the developing world. As Illich puts it, “there is no way for you to really meet with the underprivileged, because there is no common ground whatsoever for you to meet on.” Volunteers cannot meet these people at their level, so the image or perception of Americans “on the part of the people served” can only be elevated and inhibit a valuable exchange between cultures.
Finally, the Corps claims to “help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” It is true that after two years living abroad in drastically different circumstances volunteers will likely have an elevated or at least different understanding of the other peoples they encountered. The distinction they make between Americans and “other peoples,” however, illuminates several issues and limitations surrounding this new understanding. Volunteers in the Peace Corps travel to developing worlds as “helpers” and “advisers” and thus view the peoples they come into contact with as those requiring help or advice, and the whole tour of duty is viewed as an “experience.” One volunteer, Chhun Sun, served in Azerbaijan and reflected on his motivations. “I could travel the world but not on my dime…I could realize new experiences and write about them on Facebook.” An unbiased gaze is almost impossible when the nature of their “mission” places volunteers in a position of perceived superiority from both parties. The depth of their understanding will always be limited by this dynamic.
More often, volunteers finish their tours with a better understanding of themselves and the limited effect of their work. Karen Showalter spent time in Niger as a Corps member and offered this testimony: “I learned how incredibly privileged I am…but even seemingly small acts like planting a garden, helping in a friend’s field, or building a fence, make a difference. That’s not to say that I was some miraculous change-agent in my village; I learned more than I could ever offer.” This revelation is common among Peace Corps volunteers who experience extreme poverty and subsequently come to this conclusion. While this does create an improved sense of self-awareness in volunteers, Illich argues that even that is not enough to justify their intrusion. He points out that “the damage volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn’t have been volunteers in the first place.” He makes the important case that whatever understanding of “other peoples” or of themselves that the volunteers gain does not justify the two-year “voluntour” it took to reach this understanding.
The Peace Corps is an organization fueled by the good intentions of inspired Americans, but good intentions are not enough. Good intentions can effectively mask the harmful nature of organizations that profit from proselytizing American exceptionalism and ignore the harmful effect of haphazard intervention. Kennedy’s intentions in 1968 served a strategic purpose that is no longer pertinent. Looking forward we need to adjust our understanding of the Corps’ purpose and open a frank dialogue about its efficacy. For the Peace Corps to effect tangible change, it must be more than merely a transitional period in a twenty-something’s life.