Conclusion Comments of The Peace Corps in a Smaller World

[If you don’t have the time to read Charles Kenny’s full report (not long, 15 pages) here is his conclusion…and what he recommends. While his brief bio doesn’t say, my guess is that Charlie at one point early in his life was awarded a Fulbright and loved his time outside of the U.S. Anyway, here are his Policy Conclusions for the Peace Corps.]

Policy Conclusions

In a globalized world with a growing number of different opportunities for young Americans to live and volunteer in developing countries, there may be ways to increase the efficacy of the Peace Corps in delivering on the promotion of world peace and friendship.

It is perhaps fair to conclude that the most unarguably accomplished of the three goals the Peace Corps strives towards is promoting a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. But perhaps particularly when it comes to maximizing the efficiency of reaching that goal, the current long-deployment, government-run, high cost per volunteer model is poorly suited to deliver.

At the moment, the Corps has a model that depends on in-house provision of services from selection through training, placement and support. This is an expensive model, it is one that limits the range of activities and number of countries that Peace Corps volunteers can engage in, and one that looks increasingly unnecessary as the distance between volunteers and the US declines. The marginal cost of a volunteer is considerably below the $104,000 average cost, but the supply of potential volunteers under the current model is also limited, suggesting it will be difficult to reduce average costs through an expansion of the program without greater flexibility in terms of service.

The Fulbright Program might be seen as a comparatively light and flexible model towards which the Peace Corps could move. The program awarded approximately six thousand grants in 2008, to U.S. students, teachers, professionals, and scholars to study, teach, lecture, and conduct research in more than 155 countries, and to their foreign counterparts to engage in similar activities in the United States. The Fulbright program is far less involved in day to day oversight and management of scholar activities than is the Peace Corps with volunteers. This is one reason costs are lower. For a Congressional allocation of $234 million (supplemented by $141m in overseas and private contributions) there were 2,913 foreign recipients of Fulbright scholarships in the US in 2008 and 4,452 US citizens on Fulbrights overseas, including 1,526 students. Per awardee, that suggests a cost to the US Government of about $32,000 per year -about $20,000 less than the Peace Corps.

In addition, Fulbright scholarships are usually for an academic year or less, suggesting a threefold-plus larger throughput of awardees per dollar. The program can have a wider reach than the Peace Corps -for example, Yemen has seen 70 visiting US scholars since Fulbright’s inception and 426 Yemenis have come to the US under the program.

In a world where there are competing providers of volunteer services operating at considerably lower cost, and where a US bureaucratic model limits the scope of operations to countries with a formal government-to-government agreement and where security risks are deemed low enough, it would make considerable sense for the Corps to evolve towards a model of awarding grants for overseas service rather than attempting to provide a full volunteer package.

Grants could be offered directly to volunteers to cover the cost of travel and living in a developing country as well as some of the costs of reintegration on return. The Corps would leave to applicants (working with placement agencies if they chose) to set up travel, training and placement. In order to preserve the sense of camaraderie created by the Corps, grants might also stipulate and support pre-and post-deployment as well as in-country meetings for volunteers.

The Corps could set conditions on factors such as (i) minimum length of service; (ii) language skills and training requirements; (iii) countries (and/or locations within countries) where volunteers could operate; (iv) areas of volunteering focus; (v) security arrangements for volunteers including training and evacuation procedures and (vi) total cost of the proposed program. It could offer grants by sectoral focus, region and/or country. With regard to length of service in particular, to broaden the application base and reduce pervolunteer costs, this could be reduced from two years, especially for applicants with technical skills. While there is surely value in terms of the experience and impact on volunteers from a program that lasts at least six months to a year, there is also a declining marginal return to longer service.

In some cases, the terms might be made more generous to attract volunteers with particularly valuable skills or experience. For example, Mead Over at the Center for Global Development has proposed that there might be a particularly effective role for a volunteer agency to support the placement of medical graduates in developing countries, perhaps in return for paying off a proportion of medical school debt.40 A grant-making agency could work with existing NGOs working in this field including Doctors Without Borders and the Global Health Corps to support such targeted volunteer placement.

As the Corps’ role changed from service provider to grant maker, it could also take on an additional role as evaluator. What is the potential impact on the Corps’ mission of long term placements or higher skill requirements, for example? As the Corps would no longer be locked into one service model, it would have considerably greater flexibility to experiment and learn through grant adjustments and evaluations.

A number of commentators and legislators have proposed creating new volunteer programs broadly along the lines suggested above. For example, the Global Service Fellowship legislation recently considered by Congress would provide 10,000 fellows support to work with NGOs abroad at a cost of $50 million each year. Kevin Quigley of the National Peace Corps Association and Lex Rieffel at the Brookings Institute have proposed a Corporation for International Study and Service which would have the existing Peace Corps at its heart but also offer support for a range of other overseas volunteering models –service with NGOs or UN Volunteers, shorter service periods and so on.

An alternate approach would be a potential transition and experimentation model for the Peace Corps itself. While continuing to offer the standard Peace Corps package in the countries where a full-service model might seem to have particular advantages (fragile states, perhaps), the Corps could start a more flexible grant making model in some of the countries where a lighter model could most likely deliver similar outcomes at a much lower cost (the Dominican Republic, the Eastern Caribbean). They could also offer to provide grants to individuals seeking to volunteer in countries currently without a Peace Corps program at all. This would allow for a period of evaluation and learning potentially leading to an increased level of transition towards the new model over time.

A grant-making model would considerably reduce the overhead costs of the Peace Corps program while increasing flexibility with regard to issues like placement and duration. This would allow for an expansion in the ratio of grants awarded to budget, while potentially also increasing the applicant pool and both the development impact and the diplomatic impact of the program. With greater flexibility would come the potential to better absorb additional budgets (and perhaps other federal programs including Volunteers for Prosperity), allowing for an even greater number of volunteers to benefit from what is frequently a life-transforming opportunity. The new model would be far better suited to sustain the reputation and impact of the Peace Corps through its next 50 years of life.

The full report is here:


Leave a comment
  • This dollars and cents approach does not work. It misses the mark of just what the Peace Corps is all about. Comparisons to scholarship funds are silly.

  • John, as you wisely pointed out, the author was not a volunteer, so he didn’t get the “culture” of Peace Corps service. It is still an outstanding government to government program, wihtout all of the corruption entailed by grants of money, instead of peopld. I doubt if one year would do the trick, both for the HCNs and the PCVs, as an educational experience. I really don’t see how a Fulbright-type of effort would do anything otgher than get the scolar a dissertation, leaving little or nothing behind in terms of impact on HCNs. I am not even sure that the third goal of PC would be realized compared with the limited exposure of the day to day frustations that PCVs face and address. In essence, the recommended policy change seems all too academically-oriented and does not advance the skills of HCNs social and economic development.

  • It takes two years. Period.

    Also, has anyone figured out what it costs to recruit, train, and maintain a volunteer soldier for two year? I have no idea, but it might make an interesting comparison.


  • I believe this idea has merit. The Peace Corps will never be a highly trained development agency, no matter how much planning it does. It is at its heart a “people to people” program that seeks to expand and deepen Americans’ understanding of other peoples and their understanding of us. This can be done with shorter assignments and a more expansive view of what the Volunteer does while in another country. i.e. he is not Dr Livingston but a person with a simple desire to understand what other peoples think and explain himself to them.

    The downside is that the Peace Corps has always cloaked itself in the guise of a “development” agency in order to avoid being branded as an extended holiday for young Americans. I believe the Fulbright program, that also has to pass Congressional scrutiny, has been consistently viewed as a valuable exercise in cross-cultural understanding. And there are more examples of very effective “people to people” diplomacy.

  • It is obvious that Charles Kenny did not read the Peace Corps Agency Assessment Report of last year. The agency is reducing the number of countries to which it sends Volunteers. It also is focusing on “low level skills.” I don’t agree with the Peace Corps plan anymore than I do with Kenny’s. However, it is so arrogant for Kenny to simply ignore the agency’s assessment and its rationale.

    Both did not mention what it is that the countries who are requesting Volunteers want. If Kenny’s suggestions had any merit, he would present evidence that countries are asking for more Fulbright Scholars. And if that were the case, then the response should be to simply increase the number of Fulbrights, not twist the Peace Corps to meet that need.

    As for Leo’s assessment, that Peace Corps is really a “people to people” program. I disagree. Many Volunteers today, are still being placed to work with desperate people, who more often than not are dealing with disease and inadequate resources. Such people don’t have time for “mutual cultural exchanges.” Their children are dying. Peace Corps should not be a tourist enterprise, much like the one described in “Brave New World;” arranging tours to primitive places, maintained like zoos, for the temporary amusement of the affluent, well satisfied citizens of the New World.

  • I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia 1962-64, a Peace Corps staff wife and teacher on my own in Sierra Leone 1966-68 and Fiji 1970-72 and I was a Fulbright Scholar in Ghana in 1997. I think I was a much more effective Fulbrighter and professor because I had lived in West Africa before. Peace Corps and Fulbright are very different. The training Peace Corps does is very, very important. Of the four countries in which I lived I have the most people connections still with Liberia. Two years does make a difference! That said, my brother was a Fulbrighter in Nepal and had a great experience there and has been back. I realize there are student Fulbrights, too. But I believe Peace Corps is a gold standard worth continuing. Read our book Voices from the Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteers(University Press of Kentucky) for what 100 returned volunteers say!

  • Thank you, Angene. Great perspective! I have bought the book and find it very interesting and valuable.

  • I took the time to read this foolish, harmful essay. It is written by someone who does not understand the Peace Corps. He is so caught up with numbers, formulas and charts that he misses the point. What makes the Peace Corps experience so unique is its intensity. I, for example, devoted ten years of my life to Africa as a Ford Foundation fellow, Peace Corps official, and Los Angeles Times correspondent. I have met many Africans and have traveled up and down from one end to the other. But I never had the full and intense experience that Mike Tidwell describes in “The Ponds of Kalambayi.” I never was able to fully experience the complexity of cultural change that Tidwell felt after spending two years isolated in a remote part of Zaire speaking only the tribal language. Kenny’s proposals would turn the Peace Corps into a travel agency for tourist volunteers. It would not last very long. Why do people like Kenny feel that the Peace Corps is in such dire need of transformation?

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