For years the Peace Corps world has asked itself an important question:  “Has the Peace Corps made a difference?”  An affirmative answer provides assurance that the large expenditure of money, time, and talent since 1961 has been justified.  A negative answer reduces the entire effort to the equivalent of a grand tour for a few privileged Americans.

 Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way of answering the question.  As my friend Joey has often pointed out on this site, the Peace Corps has done a dreadful job of evaluating itself as an institution, as well as the work of its tens of thousands of volunteers.  Still, we can make some educated guesses based on a few hard facts and, of more importance, on anecdotal evidence from the past half century.  (Remember, just because it is anecdotal does not mean it is worthless.)  Several years ago I made an effort to do such an assessment and concluded - wearing my rose-colored glasses, some will say - that indeed the effort has been worthwhile, and the country can take comfort in knowing that its money, time, and talent have been well spent.

The greatest differences the Peace Corps experience has made are in the lives of those who participated in it and, by extension, in the life of the country to which they returned.  Virtually all volunteers (92% in an early survey) said that the Peace Corps influence on their lives has been profound.  Their concept of the world and their place in it has been changed permanently for the better.  Whatever level of provincialism they began with has been replaced by recognition that we are all in this together.  

What makes this so important for the United States - rather than just for the individuals involved - is the combined impact returned volunteers have had on the collective character of American society.  The important role former volunteers play in international affairs is well known.  USAID, the State Department, almost all NGOs, and many international philanthropic organizations - all have former Peace Corps folks on their staffs.  In 1986 the head of USAID said, “Five hundred former volunteers, me included, are on our roster.”  In 1990 the heads of all the American agencies in Nepal were former volunteers.  Two months ago in one of my blog contributions I highlighted two wonderful organizations currently ‘making a difference.’  Both were founded and are now led by former volunteers.  Surely, this situation continues. 

Beyond the international arena one can see the influence of former volunteers throughout society.  Former volunteers are serving in the Senate and House; many others are on congressional staffs; still more are in local and state governments.  Others are in every conceivable walk of life and they are often central to the lives of their communities.  Can there be even one school system in the entire country that has no former volunteer teachers, staff, and administrators?  What little research we have suggests that these folks not only are contributing members of society, but they also bring the wider world to their home places, places that otherwise might never give a thought to what lies beyond the border.  America is different - better I would say - for the presence of nearly 200,000 returned volunteers. 

 To suggest that Peace Corps bestowed its greatest gifts on those who served and the country that supported them is not a criticism, nor is it meant to lessen the contributions made to the people of the third world.  It simply reflects a universal truth in the Peace Corps: “We received more than we gave.” 

 Another arena in which volunteers clearly ‘made a difference’ is in the way people of the Third World think about Americans.  One of my favorite stories has to do with a volunteer couple stranded by floodwaters in a remote part of Malaysia while on vacation.  When a local man learned that they were Peace Corps volunteers he smiled and said, in effect, “I owe you!”  Ten years earlier he had benefited from the presence of a volunteer and was eager to repay his debt, which he did.  The Peace Corps has softened the image many have of Americans and their sometimes rough-shod ways.  Recently while in Costa Rica I asked one of our rainforest guides if he knew of the Peace Corps.  He said “Of course” and I swear he was warmer and more open upon learning that I, too, had a Peace Corps connection.  I expect that the 50th anniversary celebration will have more than one head of state, many more ranking government officials from present and former host countries, and countless English-as-a-second-language speakers publicly (and privately) thanking Peace Corps for ‘making a difference’ in their lives.  

 The toughest arena in which to judge the Peace Corps contribution is in economic and social development.  The Peace Corps is a very small part of that apparatus.  Nobody knows how to sum up the individual experiences of tens of thousands of volunteers, let alone find the data that might assist in that project.   

 Yet I contend that there is sufficient evidence to credit Peace Corps with two important contributions at the macro level.  First, the Peace Corps has altered the theoretical underpinnings of development by emphasizing the absolute need to bring beneficial change to people where they live.  All of the hydro dams, the steel mills, the world-class hospitals are meaningless if they do not lead to better lives for the people.  There have been others involved in promoting this understanding of development - Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, and Dr. James Yen’s insistence on development that is ’simple, economical, practical, and duplicable’ come to mind - but the Peace Corps took these ideas to the whole world.  

 Second, the Peace Corps has provided the formative experience for many of the professionals and experts currently working in the field of economic and social development.  Based on some very elementary research I did among volunteers who served in the Philippines, and projecting the results for the rest of the Peace Corps universe, something like ten thousand former volunteers are now in that broadly-defined field.  As a head of USAID once said, “[the Peace Corps approach] has dramatically affected the way development . . . has been reformulated.”

 Beyond that are the tens of thousands of individual stories - once housed in the Peace Corps library - of the hogs that went to market at 6 months, instead of 2 years; of the galvanized roofs that replace thatched roots when a vegetable marketing program succeeded; of the feeding center that restored vitality to a barrio’s youngsters; of the double-cropping permitted when USAID, Peace Corps, and local rural banks cooperated to bring small loans to subsistence farmers; and of the impact fish ponds can have on a community.  (For this last, I recommend Tidwell’s The Ponds of Kalambayi.)

 Has the Peace Corps made a difference?  I answer with a resounding ‘yes’ on three levels:  the individual, the national, and the world at large.  Long may it continue.