Peace Corps: America’s most extensive SWEDOW (stuff-we-don’t-want) operation?

The Peace Corps turns 50 today. In the last half century, over 200,000 volunteers have deployed to 139 countries.

But is the agency still as relevant as it was in the 1960s? Charles Kenny argues that it isn’t. He proposes the grant-based model of the Fulbright program as a more appropriate alternative for today’s interconnected world. Meanwhile, Kevin Quigley (president of the National Peace Corps Association) argues that Peace Corps has kept up to date. He invokes the jargon of today, calling PCVs “social entrepeneurs” and lauding the “21st century job-training” provided by working cross-culturally. (H/t to Tom Paulson for both links.)

Questioning the relevance of Peace Corps today requires that we take a step back and ask a more general question: What exactly is Peace Corps supposed to accomplish? The website lists three goals that span a dual mission: providing trained men and women to interested countries (this isn’t quite “development”, but let’s call it that anyway), and promoting better understanding between Americans and others (let’s call this “diplomacy”). These two don’t always go together perfectly. You can maximize the diplomatic mission by sending a lot of Americans abroad, but maximizing their development impact might require being a bit more selective about who you send and investing more resources in how you support them.

Peace Corps has weathered its share of criticism. A few former volunteers and staff have been especially vocal about failings on both the diplomatic and development fronts. It would be unfair to complain about the cost of the agency, given that the operation is cheap by federal standards, but I think it’s legitimate to ask whether it could do more. Personally, I would like to see it more focused on a development mission. That would include actual evaluation of the impacts.

With the ongoing debate about World Vision’s distribution of unwanted NFL shirts, a somewhat controversial question came to mind: Is Peace Corps an example of donations driven by our own goals, rather than those of the people being served? Maybe the reasoning went like this: We’ve got a bunch of idealistic college grads to send overseas, and all we have to do is pay for shipping. They’ll show up and the community will have to figure out what to do with them. They couldn’t possibly do any harm, right?

Would that make Peace Corps volunteers SWEDOW (stuff-we-don’t-want)?

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UPDATE: A couple people have pointed me to another great pair of columns — one critical and one laudatory — on the same topic. (H/t Danielle Lanyard and Saundra Schimmelpfennig)

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Full disclosure: I applied to Peace Corps and (for various reasons unrelated to the points made above) did not join.