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Debate: Is it time to retire the Peace Corps?

May 16, 2011 |  2:02 pm

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?


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.

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