“6 Reasons We Need to Reform the Peace Corps” by Tyler Anne Donohue (Tanzania)



The Peace Corps is a form of systematic racism, for those it claims to serve and for those who serve.

The words, “systematic racism,” seem to be everywhere these days. However, it is crucial that we acknowledge that the words, “systematic racism,” do not refer to a system filled with racists. Instead, these words, refer to a system that would uphold racism and disproportionately harm and subjugate people of certain races even if no racists were present. Those leading the effort to decolonize Peace Corps, @decolonizingpc discussed systematic racism, saying that, “Even after adding more volunteers of color, more anti-racism trainings, more reforms (including the ones [they] have proposed on [their] page), Peace Corps will still be a neocolonialist organization because of the imperialistic goals of U.S. foreign policy.

Which brings us to Number 2 —

Soft power imperialism, such as providing financial aid or human resources for development, functions best under the pretense of altruism, though it remains predominantly self-serving.

It is an inherently imperialistic organization.

What does it mean to be an imperialistic organization, you may ask? Imperialism is an ideological framework, oftentimes carried out with government policy that works to extend the rule or authority of one country over another country. Such policies have historically been carried out under the guise of “civilizing” and “developing” other nations, employing both hard power, such as military force, but also soft power. Soft power imperialism, such as providing financial aid or human resources for development, functions best under the pretense of altruism, though it remains predominantly self-serving. Self-serving in what ways, you might ask?

Well, on to Number 3 — It is a neocolonialist organization.

While Peace Corps holds dear to certain values and goals, it has always been an organization that functions mostly to serve U.S. foreign policy and the volunteers over the people that they are serving. In other words, Peace Corps functions as the United States’ most prominent soft power asset. In doing so, it is, by its very nature, an organization rooted in neocolonialism, or, “the practice of using economies, globalization, cultural imperialism, and conditional aid to influence a country.” In other words, we have traded direct political and military control, for a softer, but perhaps more insidious, form of control.

Father-Knows-Best Paternalism Meets The White Mans Burden

Imperialistic policies rely heavily on paternalism, which “limits a person’s or group’s liberty or autonomy and is intended to promote their own good.” A classic example of both imperialism and paternalism working together would be the 19th century European, “Scramble for Africa,” in which the African continent was sliced and divided in order to reap the benefits of its myriad natural resources. European nations — imbued with a sense of superiority that they saw as their divine providence from God himself — invaded African nations using the framework of paternalism to pillage and completely fracture traditional African ways of life and their political structures. Additionally, they imposed “patriarchal social structures into European-dominated hierarchies and imposed Christianity and Western ideals.” The effects of this so-called scramble still permeate African policy today. At the turning point of the 19th century, this seemingly pre-ordained calling to “civilize” other nations, was cemented in the poem, “The White Man’s Burden (1899),” which called upon the superior white man to go forth and colonize these far-off lands.

Neocolonialist policy that cloaks itself in good intention, lives at the intersection of “the white man’s burden” and the developing world’s need for self-determination and autonomy.

In the 20th century, the conceptual framework of the white man’s burden has been used by proponents of decolonization, to critique foreign expansionism and interventionism. Arguing that neocolonial programs more often than not perpetuate the idea that so-called developing nations are unable to embrace self-determination. Neocolonialist policy that cloaks itself in good intention, lives at the intersection of “the white man’s burden” and the developing world’s need for self-determination and autonomy.

So, why do post-colonial nations still struggle for autonomy? Well, it’s far more complicated than a 6 point list could cover, but let’s dip our toes in —

Peace Corps’ aid structure is based on conditional financial and human resource aid that has no proven long-term results for those it claims to serve.

Aid on the African Continent is a problem. It is a complex, goliath of a problem. One need only read Dambisa Moyo’s scathing book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Wayin order to get the picture of the international development industrial complex. She makes the argument that the aid industry in Africa is not only ineffective, it is “malignant.” Over the last 50 years, more than $1 trillion in development aid has been given to Africa. She argues that this aid has, “failed to deliver sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction — and has actually made the continent worse off.”

While the entirety of the Peace Corps’ financial structure could, and should be investigated, here we are going to unpack only one part of this structure: small grants, which are organized by the volunteers and then in-theory allocated to the communities in which they serve. As explained by those running the @decolonizingpc Instagram,

The entire process for the Small Grants Program completely relies on the presence of the volunteer, from the application and fundraising to monitoring and evaluation . . .. Peace Corps practices do not live up to [its primary goal of sustainability] because project funding by the Small Grants Program requires the presence of the volunteer, who at any moment can leave site permanently without notice. It should also not be up to Peace Corps or any volunteer to decide what sustainability looks like for a community.

Peace Corps’ structure attempts to move away from the aid industry — in the sense that it sends (in theory) skilled volunteers — abroad to help build sustainable programs rather than blindly throwing money at the problem. This type of aid is not conditional in a quid pro quo sense, but rather that the aid is conditional on the volunteer being there. And if the volunteer must be there for the aid or benefit to be reaped, well then, the goal of sustainability is called into question, and dare I say, inherently flawed. This became startlingly transparent in March 2020, when thousands of volunteers were suddenly pulled from their host countries due to COVID-19 — leaving communities in a lurch, funding stalled, and crucial projects never to be finished.

The conditional aid structure and very nature of both Peace Corps promise and its inability to create sustainable change, calls to question whether or not it has a place in the global community. People that work in the aid/development world love to say, “the goal is to work ourselves out of a job.” And yet, it remains a financially fruitful industry for those employed by it, including the Peace Corps.

It relies on a Westernized model of development.

During my time as a Peace Corps volunteer, while I traveled, while I read books about the aid industry and the developing world, one question always seemed to creep in from the recesses of my mind: “Developing toward what?”

What exactly do we mean when we say, “a westernized model of development?” Two well-regarded Iranian scholars and economists claimed that, “The western model of development prioritizes technological modernization, free-market economy, a democratic political system, and western health systems as the basis for development.” So, these items are used as metrics to measure the success of a nations’ development. Yet, those nations that we consider successfully developed (i.e. Britain or the U.S.) reached their status, “at the expense of slavery, war, other gross human rights violations, and overexploitation of the environment within and beyond their borders.”

What does Peace Corps have to do with this? Well, back to those at @decolonizingpc who have been actively speaking out and unpacking this issue:

Peace Corps is one iteration of the western model of development because Americanized volunteers are not equipped to identify problems and possible solutions in a community that is not their own. Some volunteers are not just unqualified because they have no experience in the fields in which they volunteer in, but simply because they are not from the community and have a completely different (westernized) worldview.

As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I have spent countless hours sitting around circles with fellow volunteers discussing these very points. These complex issues rarely evade the volunteers themselves. Like so many systems, awareness begets change and those who have served in the Peace Corps are perhaps best positioned to call it to account as an institution. With the world coming to a screeching halt due to COVID-19, there is no better time to reimagine, reform, and decolonized the institutions that are no longer serving us as a global community.



Leave a comment
  • WOW! Now this is an indictment of the Peace Corps that has never before been on my list of reasons why the Peace Corps always needs to be examining itself to ensure it serves a worthwhile purpose for host countries , the US, volunteers and local peoples. I can not readily see a set of changes that would solve the problems these folks see. Is this the end?

  • I’m sure Ms. Donohue is sincere, but I object to this kind of misguided, cynical theorizing. Nearly one quarter of a million PCVs have contributed their time and effort to meaningful causes, and even if some of them weren’t qualified at the outset of their term of service, they became more than qualified very quickly. It’s disgraceful to attempt to diminish the value of the accomplishments of the PCVs and attack the reputation of the Peace Corps organization.

  • All of that seems to fly in the face of the “but teach someone to fish . . . ” model of helping others. Granted, many programs were built around false premises. One skill set my group was trained to offer small villages in South India in the early 60’s was providing waste water systems for village streets. No village panchayat wanted to touch that and after our first monsoon we understood why.

    Instead we scrounged up a mold for making concrete pipes, built several other molds for making slabs with hand flush latrines and successfully set up what we left as a successful small business with a peon in charge when we exited India two years later. We also introduced hybrid maize adding another way for local farmers to make money. We were helped in that project by a nearby Japanese Demonstration Farm which loaned the machine for stripping kernels from cobs.

    Those ushered in other successful projects.

    A grandson of the first farmer to grow maize visited me here in the U.S. last year with his mother and father. His grandfather had passed on but maize was still a cash crop there and in surrounding villages.

    The peon became a successful businessman.

    I’d be interested to know how what we helped effect could be called anything except useful volunteering. Certainly not racism nor any of the other five reasons promoted above for reforming the Peace Corps. Returned Volunteers who failed to make a difference can make lots of excuses but few in our huge group made excuses. We just got stuff done any way we could and then went home feeling pretty good about the experience.

  • It’s easy to find fault with the Peace Corps. I started doing this as a Brookings scholar in 2003. What is harder is to make the Peace Corps better. I have argued that the biggest obstacle to making it better is its status as a Federal agency. Our country and the world would be better served by “unleashing” the Peace Corps, by reorganizing it as a non-governmental organization (NGO), as other countries have done successfully. More recently, I have suggested that in the post-pandemic world, the Peace Corps concept will only thrive if it morphs into a two-way street: bringing as many volunteers from host countries to serve in the USA as we send to them. What is tragic is how xenophobic the US voting population has become. It is hard to imagine the Congress ever authorizing a two-way flow. A Peace Corps in the NGO sector, depoliticized, could do this. And it could be as big and as valued as the Red Cross.

    • Lex, I apologize for not realizing you are a RPCV India 1967-69. I will look for your essay in World View. Thank you for your comments.

  • Lex, What has been your direct association with the Peace Corps? Updates: I apologize for not realizing that you are a RPCV India. I will look for your essay in World View.

  • This is one of the most arrogant articles I have ever read. The Peace Corps is far from perfect but I am sure it does make an important contribution to international development and has had a positive impact on lives throughout the world. May the Peace Corps improve, thrive and play an even more important role in the years to come.

    Dan Campbell, El Salvador, 1974-1977

  • The indictment that counties like the US and UK can never be helpful in development efforts because of their colonial or enslavement history is as naive and pedantic as it is completely missing the human connection that service engenders between volunteers and many of the people (and young children) in the communities served. Yes, some projects don’t work out as planned (like all ‘startups’ everywhere), but the enthusiasm and empathy exchanged in the field both strengthens people’s sense of worth and their hope for the future—with many long lasting (though not universal) accomplishments. But for America, the presence now of 250,000 citizens who lived modestly among poor communities, struggled with languages and new cultures, and later returned has left the US a much richer country for the insights and open minds that RPCVs bring to their communities in every part of America.

  • I have to say that this essay doesn’t sound at all like something from a volunteer, but rather a rehash of old theories by a grad student doing a term paper. All experiences by volunteers or by host country nationals will not be the same. Some volunteers find the experience a total waste of time, whilst for othes “life-changing”. The second and third goals of the original PC remain “understanding” across national lines, and are as significant today as during the Cold War years. With or without any benefit to anybody’s National Foreign Policy objectives.

    John Turnbull Ghana-3 Geology, and Nyasaland/Malawi-2 Geology Assignment 1963, -64, 65.

  • The theory expressed might be better suited as a discussion point for a graduate class in international development than as actual fact. It is offensive to those who have served without having been knowingly or unknowingly an instrument of neocolonialism.
    Were there asshole administrators who behaved as though they were selling America? Yes! The Peace Corps was only a year old when I served in Peru. I remember that many of us had serious disagreements with regional reps and country directors.because some of them expressed an attitude of superiority. A few of our group returned to the States, their tour unfinished, because they had not found the niche in which they could best serve.They had been brutally honest with themselves. There is nothing shameful about the notion of service to others. The author presumes that the volunteers themselves were duped, that we did not sufficiently reflect on our decision to join or wonder if we had been pawns of imperialist America. .

  • We must acknowledge our country’s history of imperialism and racism, but not use that to call for a withdrawal from the world or abandonment of Peace Corps’ mission to promote world peace and friendship. Peace Corps has three interrelated goals: to help the people of host countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; to help promote a better understanding of Americans by people in the host countries; and to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. Goals 2 and 3 are more important than ever. We are inter-dependent and therefore cannot solve our global economic, social, environmental and other challenges without greater intercultural communication and understanding.

    I’ve conducted oral history interviews with more than 100 RPCVs and to a person, each has said that Peace Corps’ greatest and most enduring impact has been on broadening perspectives and expanding individual horizons among host country nationals and Americans. Promoting women’s empowerment, children’s education and better environmental stewardship is expanding universal human rights, not neo-colonialism. Rather than challenging the very concept of Peace Corps, we need to diversify and strengthen the Peace Corps.

  • Evelyn, Thank you very much for all your work with the RPCV Oral History Project.

    I wish there were a way to record the voices of host country nationals about their opinions of Peace Corps. I know that some opinions are “captured” in data surveys with HCN counterparts. But I think this is not adequate. Oral histories with the inteviews which allow people to talk at length would be so important. I do not know if RPCVs would be the best people to do such interviews because HCN might find it difficult to be honest

    Some years ago, there was a professor who was planning on doing an oral history of Peace Corps in Colombia, speaking only with Colombians. However, he was not able to do that project.

    Chiemeka Njoku and Lindsay Allen are both evacuated RPCVs and, I believe, both are women of color. They would be excellent RPCVs for the RPCV Oral History Projects. They are the women involved with the “decolonizing Peace Corps” project.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Copyright © 2019. Peace Corps Worldwide.