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Debate: Is it time to retire the Peace Corps?

Peace Corps

Is the Peace Corps just a government-subsidized vacation for well-to-do white kids?

Nonsense, writes Jessie Seiler in an Op-Ed about her experience in the Peace Corps  that ran in Sunday's Opinion pages.

Before I joined the Peace Corps, I had heard all the stereotypes. Volunteers were a bunch of privileged white kids, I was told. Guitar-strumming, wide-eyed do-gooders who didn't understand cultural differences and spent their time building latrines they could never persuade anyone to use.

Referencing a latrine project she successfully spearheaded, she writes:

The image of an unprepared, inexperienced volunteer armed with nothing but good intentions is no longer accurate, if it ever was -- at least not here in Senegal, West Africa, where I am serving in the Peace Corps as a preventative health educator.

Gal Beckerman takes a more pessimistic view. Writing for the Boston Globe, the former Peace Corps volunteer raises an eyebrow at the American institution, pointing to its structural problems and inefficient (or lack-there-of) development programs. Given our economic climate, Beckerman asks why we're still funding the Peace Corps. He's not alone. He quotes several people with similar frustrations, including:

Paula Hirschoff and Chuck Ludlam

"Why should the American taxpayer in a time of horrendous budget cuts pay for these college grads to have a two-year vacation in a foreign land?" asked Paula Hirschoff, a two-time Peace Corps volunteer who along with her husband, Chuck Ludlam, authored the critical memo. "Why? It doesn't make sense."

Robert Strauss

That lofty sense of virtue devoid of real mission strikes a lot of people as pretty fuzzy for an organization that is arguing for an even bigger budget and an increase in volunteer numbers. The Peace Corps needs to "start operating as an organization that is serious about efficiency and bang for the buck," wrote Robert Strauss in a 2008 Foreign Policy magazine article.

Will Dickinson

"The Peace Corps goals and missions were very misleading," said Will Dickinson, a volunteer who served in Armenia from 2005 to 2007 and upon his return started an independent website called Peace Corps Wiki to help volunteers share information about their service. "I was told I was going to be immersed in development work. In the end, I figured out how to do that, but it took me fighting the Peace Corps the whole way in order to do that mission."

Despite Seiler's success with her latrine project in Senegal, though, there is a point on which she'd likely agree with Beckerman: If we're going to invest in the Peace Corps, shouldn't we be thinking long term?

Maybe this latrine project in my village will prove to have been a small step in the right direction. And maybe I should be happy with that. But I want the people of this village to want more. If in 10 or 20 years the people of Ndiago and Senegal and the rest of the developing world are still asking for latrines instead of demanding access to health and sanitation facilities, to better schooling for their children and more accountability from their leaders, then my project and thousands of others all across the world were failures. Fama is not one special, entitled child in a million, she's one of millions. Each one of them is worth more than what a latrine project can give them. So what do we do now?

RELATED:

Defusing the population bomb

West Africa: Digging a hole is only a start

True to the Peace Corps

A Peace Corps volunteer's journey

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: A 1965 snapshot of Peace Corps volunteer C.J. Smith Castagnaro, right, visiting a friend and village children in Bahr Dar, Ethiopia. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.

 

Comments () | Archives (10)

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T Taylor

Perhaps rather than retiring the Peace Corps, the selection process and criteria could be more strict. Obviously, for projects to have a significant impact, the volunteers have to have something significant to contribute. If Seiler believes that in 10-20 years the impact will be insignificant, perhaps her latrine project is already a failure and she is in denial about that. Someone more qualified may have been able to contribute something better for the people of Senegal than she did.

C.J. Smith Castagnaro,  Ethiopia 1964-66, 1967-69

The Peace Corps is the best foreign aid we can send to countries and should be continued.

Kate

@ T Taylor: Though it may seem counterintuitive, sending more highly qualified volunteers does not necessarily make a greater impact. In fact, the results of Peace Corps' comprehensive agency assessment found that the more highly skilled a volunteer is, the more likely they are to quit. The truth is that young and "inexperienced" volunteers often (though not always) have the personality and mindset to navigate the cross-cultural issues better than technically experienced volunteers who are more set in their ways, especially as it relates to workplace culture. Older volunteers tend to be more "American" in their concepts of time, efficiency, etc.

What is lost in this discussion is that Peace Corps is not an international development organization -- the difference between Peace Corps and USAID or other NGOs is that 2/3rds of Peace Corps mission is about cross-cultural exchange. 1/3rd relates to providing technical assistance. Some will belittle the importance of cultural exchange, but I think it is much more powerful than technical aid.

BBoland

The purpose of the Peace Corps was and is FIRST to be goodwill ambassadors to struggling nations around the world by putting citizens of one of the most powerful nations in the world at a grassroots level to show support for development in struggling countries who desire it; any "we need more bang for our developmental buck" argument has missed the point. The term public relations may feel like a cynical effort to some, but all important organisations address it for a reason: they want their efforts to be seen with positive regard. The United States used to want to share its optimism for education, development, and human right and was willing to pay for the privilege. The last fifteen years has shown a steady decline in these type of funded programs, which also include American libraries and information centers in important foreign lands. These "PR" programs have an effect on how the developing world sees (or doesn't see) the good that we mean to spread. Instead, funds are diverted away to even greater and greater financial misuses at home, ranking in the billions for taxpayers. Our generals in foreign lands reiterate regularly that the winning of hearts and minds is essential to the cause in the United States; Peace Corps is a tool in that struggle. The budgets for the Peace Corps and the afore-mentioned libraries are minuscule comparatively, but are always on the chopping block to be sacrificed to feed the worsening financial hubris of our political and economic leaders who believe our dominance and credit can go on without end. I was a Peace Corps member, and I saved a few babies, helped finance and build one small school building, and I showed them that Americans can care who they are, live like they live, and offer what they have, even if it is in a small way. That is the purpose of the Peace Corps.

Timmy

Here's a scary story from a former volunteer:

http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-555608

Claire K.

50 YEARS of the Peace Corps (its entire existence) = $8.7 billiion
1 (one) year of defense spending (FY 2012, pending) = $671 billion

That's .06% -- yes, sixth 100s of one percent. Just saying.

A. Postle

Most returned volunteers find Peace Corps a defining experience. When they left America, they were no different than the millions of recent college graduates who are forced to work at Starbucks to pay off their student loans.

When they returned to the US, they had a sense of who they were and how they could better America. Many went into medicine and public health, many went into teaching, most went into positions that made America better.

Four years of high school education costs the same as two years of Peace Corps, and what do we get out this investment?

There are always going to be critics who had unfortunate experiences as a volunteer. C'est la vie. And I don't notice a lot of Congressmen who cut their expenditures to solve the budget crisis - and fewer yet who were in the Peace Corps ...

David

The fact is that every Peace Corps country is different, every program is different. Some are better conceived and more effective than others, to be sure. In the past decade or so, Peace Corps has been much more focused on metrics -- exactly what was accomplished in a particular place and a particular project.

Ineffective projects should be phased out or replaced with something more locally appropriate. Nobody argues about that. Is Peace Corps a "two-year vacation"? I don't know about Paula Hirschoff, but, personally, I worked my butt off in a very remote and rustic location for two years. Is Peace Corps ineffective? My project let people in my area quadruple their income (or more) and was exceedingly popular with long waiting lists.

And "in these times of tight budgets" (what other times are there?) is Peace Corps too expensive? A rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that 50 years of the Peace Corps -- combined -- has cost the US taxpayer about what we now spend on the military in FIVE DAYS. Sounds like the biggest bargain in the world to me.

Kendall Reeves

If anything our peace corps should be expanded. America should take it more seriously. It would be nice to be as known if not more known for our peaceful efforts in the world than in our military. I definitely wouldn't mind seeing the peace corps become an even bigger deal than our military.

Instead of making the application more strict I think the application process of many of the positions within the peace corps should be made more lax. Building latrines for example does not require a college diploma in my opinion. You get two months of training/orientation in the peace corps for a reason. The application process should still be very strict for the higher and more education-reliant positions but for a lot of the "every small step makes a difference" tasks I think two months of training is definitely sufficient.

The peace corps should also be approached in a similar way as the military in regards to high school graduates. High school graduates who are unsure if they want to go to college, unsure if they can afford it, or just wanting to take a couple years off before it should be recruited and advertised too just as fervently as the armed services' efforts now.

In order to sustain this kind of growth within the peace corps, the peace corps staff and directors must begin to express more concern over the well-being of their volunteers. The military offers very much support and benefits for their troops and the peace corps should follow their example in that aspect. I have always wanted to join the Peace Corps but I must admit to being discouraged after all of the news about these women getting raped. While the actual rapes have not surprised me much, the Peace Corps' response and lack of empathy and support has been appalling. This is an organization that should be rooted in empathy-- that should be the whole idea. If empathy cannot be found internally, how legitimate can it really seem externally?

If anything should be targeted to solve a budget crisis it should not be the Peace Corps. Expanding our diplomatic and peace corps efforts and projects could drastically help us in many ways. Approaching the peace corps more like the military, as I discussed earlier, could provide many poor people with jobs (good for the economy: lowers unemployment AND for those pining over American jobs lost to other countries due to labor costs-- only American citizens are allowed to volunteer for peace corps). It could also better our national security (there would likely be significantly less tension if we were more known for using our strength to help poor communities through this than through bullying through with our military all the time).

In summary, not only is it NOT time to retire the peace corps, it's time to strengthen it. The biggest complaint in this article seems to be a lack of efficiency and therefore a waste of tax dollars. In my opinion the solution to this is not retirement, but an increase in efficiency.

Joel Robbins

Ask the people who have worked alongside or were taught by PCVs. Sometimes volunteers are the only source of hope, education and personal respect in countries where governments are corrupt, money stays in the hands of a few favored families in the capital, human rights are suspect and rule of law is nonexistent. I served in two countries, and past and present volunteers were discussed with great respect. Do some volunteers take advantage of the system, of coure, but most made an impact where they served and were impacted in return. Volunteers are different human beings after they have lived, not toured, in a third-world country for two years.


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