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.

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

  1. I’m essentially a Peace Corps poster child – I was a Peace Corps volunteer, a Peace Corps Fellow (a program where returned Peace Corps volunteers receive their masters degrees), a Peace Corps recruiter (or mini-strat working 10 hours a month, weirdest job title ever) and a Crisis Corps volunteer (a program where former volunteers are sent back to help in a crisis).

    Despite all these experiences – or perhaps because of them – I remain skeptical as to the cost/benefit of having a volunteer. My first site specifically said they didn’t want a volunteer – yet I was placed there anyway. You can guess how well that worked out, I spent the year essentially playing the tambourine in the park band (interestingly enough it’s not the only time I’ve been paid to play a tambourine). At my second site I had more impact, but the person that followed me probably did not – at least that’s what I’m guessing from the emails I received from her. I saw many other volunteers that really weren’t able to contribute to their sites, despite their best efforts. And I saw many Peace Corps projects fail, including one of my own.

    On top of that Peace Corps has a much higher drop-out rate than most people realize. From talking with all the other volunteers in my Fellows program, I’d guess that the overall drop out rate is between 30 – 50%. So communities put all that time into hosting a volunteer just to have them up and leave before anything is really accomplished.

    As a Crisis Corps volunteer, although my own project turned into a 35 person nonprofit – and eventually my blog, many projects went nowhere. Some of the volunteers were helpful and some were of little benefit to the organizations they were sent to help. Few provided skills that weren’t available locally. And this all occurred in the middle of a disaster recovery operation. Since then Peace Corps has stopped sending volunteers to disaster areas – in exit interview I made it very clear that Peace Corps was not the right organization to be sending people into these situations.

    All too often volunteers are placed in areas because of political reasons, not because they have the right skills for what is really needed. I also feel that Peace Corps does a fairly poor job of training and supervising volunteers on development related issues. They’re much better at language and cross-cultural issues. But from my experience fairly weak on the actual work side of things.

    As Dave mentioned Peace Corps actually has three goals. To summarize them they’re essentially:
    1. For Americans to learn about the rest of the world
    2. For the rest of the world to learn about Americans
    3. To get something done – if possible.

    And they are literally in this order. I was actually told by two different country directors that it’s OK not to get anything accomplished as long as we go to the market and interact with people every day.

    So yes, Peace Corps can be thought of as one big cross-cultural experience. But is it really worth their time for us to go over there and learn about the world? I will admit that PC is a training ground for American Red Cross, it’s very hard to find someone that works in the international section of ARC that wasn’t a former volunteer. And yes, volunteers do come back with a much greater understanding of the larger world. And part of that understanding comes from trying, and often failing, to accomplish anything meaningful. And many former volunteers do go on to be congressman, teachers, and business people that do probably have an impact.

    But the question must be asked again of whether our benefits are worth the cost to the communities we’re supposed to be helping.

  2. Tom, I agree–in fact, people are already gathering hard evidence to understand the impact of TFA, e.g. http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=evaluation+of+teach+for+america&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&hl=en&tab=ws. I don’t see any comparable work re: Peace Corps.

    Dave, I agree about the relationship between maximizing development impact and making the selection process more stringent. It seems as though the ODI Fellowship model may be better in these respects (though of course, still tough to say what its “development” impact is).

  3. I think in order to address these issues and make the Peace Corps relevant in the 21st century, it (and comparable programs in other countries) must include modules about community organizing and organizational development in their training and orientations. Rather than having volunteers develop “their” projects in “their” village, mandate that they seek out existing community initiatives and discover how they can offer support to them. This is vital given the large percentage of aid workers that start their careers through this type of volunteer programs. Let’s ground the next generation of aid workers in what community ownership really means.

    • This is exactly what Peace Corps does. We were told to go into communities, find out what they needed and were working and act as ‘facilitators’ to help them organize and accomplish their goals. I never invented “my project” to be used in “my village.”

  4. Nice post with interesting questions that should be asked, especially about impact, but I do find fault with condemning the whole program. PC programs have faults and need improvement, but for a volunteer program, it’s not a bad one and admit it- we were all idealistic college grads once. PC helps season snarky old EAWs. ;)

    Sandra’s comments are right on, seemingly because she is the only one with any knowledge and insight into PC.

    Jennifer- they do include these subjects in training and orientation. Kinda the whole point of the 3 month in-country training and 2 years of srevice. Some of my best program managers in INGO work are Rpcv’s who actually have community development, organisation and listening skills.

  5. Saundra, thanks for sharing your story. Tom, Kartik and Jennifer, always good to hear from you as well.

    Trayle, I would never fault any “idealistic college grads” for joining. I almost joined myself. However, with a little more perspective, I do fault the agency for not making the most out of these idealists’ time and effort. If my post came across as “condemning the whole program” then allow me to retract.

    PC serves as a good training ground, but it could be better. I think that’s Jennifer’s point. Almost every RCPV I’ve ever spoken to has described a complete lack of support/supervision during their service. It seems that 3 months of training may be insufficient without proper ongoing management. A more robust management (and – gasp – overhead) structure would mean fewer volunteers but higher overall quality of work. (Of course, it’s hard to make these statements with any certainty because all we have are anecdotes. That’s why the lack of evaluation is the major critique. As Tom pointed out, PC is hardly the only organization that fails to evaluate its impacts. But that doesn’t excuse it.)

    Coming back to the question of mission: Training future development workers is nowhere part of the Peace Corps’ mission. When I applied, the placement officer explicitly told me that my interest in a development career was not in line with the agency’s goals. If it’s meant as a training ground for development workers, then it should be doing a lot of things very differently.

  6. Trayle’s right, Peace Corps does emphasize working with the local community to determine their own needs. But that’s really all they teach. They don’t go into any other aid or development theories or lessons learned. And they don’t provide any real support or extra training throughout the 2 years.

    But this was not set up as a development program or an aid worker-in-training program. This was set up as a cultural exchange, hence the order of the goals. The work was just an excuse to have everything else happen.

    • This hits the nail on the head. You can criticize the Peace Corps for failing to be an international development all you want, but the fact is that it is not designed to be an international development program. At best it is a cultural exchange program. And in this capacity, I believe it serves it’s function. I have learned all about Honduras, they have learned more about the United States, and now I speak fluent Spanish. I’ve accomplished some development projects that were initiated by the community, but as Saundra said, this is more an excuse for everything else. If they will fly you across the world, and train you to learn a language and interact with people, they might as well have you do something while you’re at it. I recently did the math, and Peace Corps costs every American $1.45. The entire budget fits on the wing of a jet fighter. And now congress is about to cut the budget by 20%. For the price of a starbucks coffee each american finances the Peace Corps. As far as attrition rate, usually the people who have no skills and think they are coming in to save the world via a small village are the ones that drop out the fastest. its important to be realistic. PC is not a training ground for development work. In fact, after the experience most people realize development work is not for them. It does however, expose you to poverty, a new culture, and a new language, all experiences that intl development organizations find important for a successful worker. Peace Corps certainly has it’s shortcomings, which I will spare everyone right now. But can you tell me another program where the govt will fly you half way across the world to learn about a different culture, learn a language, and gain an invaluable experience living and working with the 4/5 of the world that is poor? There are some programs like flubrights, but those are few and far between. If an American wants to give up their comfy life of material excess in the United States, this should be applauded, not criticized so much. Finally, talking about the entire PC program as if it is one giant project is fallacious. Every country has their own staff, their own projects, and run things very differently. If Malawi is having lots of problems with their PC volunteers and program, that is not reflective of all the other countries where PC is operating, for instance. This simple fact that there are wide disparities between country programs is usually overlooked. I have never been more depressed, bored, or lonely as I have been in Peace Corps. But I also can’t think of a better experience I could have had in the last two years. I have gained cultural insight, a new language, and grown as a person. These experience could only have a positive impact on the United States on my return. I’d find it hard to really take any argument that sending volunteers into impoverished areas actually HURTS the people, or has some kind of long lasting negative effect.

  7. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Dave.
    You are 100% correct: the one value I so snarkily argued for isn’t the mission but rather a nice side effect (which indeed could be enhanced by improved support).

  8. I’m disappointed that the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers have so little interest in talking about development issues. They just want to drink beer with each other and go on hikes. So….

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