Future Peace Corps?

FUTURE PEACE CORPS?
By Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77)

Lately there has been a slew of articles about the Peace Corps and change. Some authors describe rising assaults on volunteers. Others discuss the lack of adequate medical compensation for returning volunteers. For decades, many have criticized the program itself: recruitment, job placement, purpose and bureaucracy. None of them analyze a simple fact: America and Americans are not perceived as they were in 1961. Sixteen years after the end of the Second World War, we were perceived as the Great Liberators. That seems to have changed. Now, we are often seen as the Evil Empire and volunteers as stormtroopers.

Today there are no volunteers in the field. This might be an opportune moment to revise the Peace Corps mission. Maybe it should be a simple post-graduate exchange between nations. For example, we send them an architect and they send us an engineer or teacher (at our cost). The program could be open to the humanities as well (writers, actors, musicians, and artists).  All participants would need to already speak the language. However, one could add a six-month tutorial in-nation if deemed appropriate. 

The package would offer tuition, books, supplies, some sort of medical services (as offered in each nation), a dorm room, food, and a stipend for living expenses during a one or two-year sojourn. If any staff was required, it would be minimal. There are no federally funded retirement packages or job preference status for participants. No language schools to fund. No real offices. A minimal annual report to Congress. The savings would be incredible. 

The purpose is cultural exchange. We can’t save the world. In fact, we shouldn’t try. That assumes our way is somehow superior which is arrogant. We can all learn from each other and maybe get along better. 

For those who seek a reprieve on their student loans, offer them AmeriCorps. For every year of work, you get a 30K loan reprieve (from the federal government) plus salary and benefits from the hiring agency. For example, our national park system could really use some help, just like the CCC lent a hand in the 1930’s clearing and building. They also need a hand to selectively harvest diseased and/or dead timber. The Veterans Administration needs nurses and other skilled labor. Many school districts have problems recruiting teachers and aides. Volunteers would be under the auspices of whichever organization puts them to work. 

No need for either the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps to be an independent agency. They both serve as headhunters. The only real federal workers are computer specialists, screeners, and very few managers. Using good systems, maybe one employee for every 500 placed.

Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77), is a retired urban planner who has self-published nearly a score of books, several about the Peace Corps.

11 Comments

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  • Thanks. Good, clear and practical thoughts. Shriver and Wofford are smiling from above and shouting encouragement. Donohoe, Ethiopia 62-64.

  • The ideas espoused by Lawrence have merit but I still believe there are places in the world where the Peace Corps I volunteered for in the 60’s can remain a force for good changes with few changes. Security will always been an issue in some parts of this world but you buys your ticket and takes your chances in this life. There are few guarantees no matter where you go or how carefully you arrange your life.
    World War II did not guarantee safety but did offer cohesiveness between those who volunteered and those drafted. I believe it did as much for the success of our way of life as it did for the parts of the world those under arms defended. With only one percent of our population now in the volunteer armed services there are few ways for Americans to make a difference overseas. The traditional Peace Corps in many world situations can still be valuable.
    Choosing where in our world Peace Corps can still be safely implemented, welcomed and needed should be the goal. A complete re-write of Peace Corps role is probably necessary but not its ideology.

  • I agree with Lawrence about the one-for-one exchange idea, and I even agreed with parts of Death of Idealism (by Elizabeth Kallman). But I don’t think the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater, and I don’t like the idea of a Peace Corps which revolves around professionalism. I’ve tried in my most recent memoir, Nakhon Phanom: the Domino that Didn’t Fall (and my Thai hometown) to promote the idea of ALG centers both overseas and in America as pretraining. The letter I sent to Peace Corps before beginning Nakhon Phanom, the Domino That Did Not Fall is as follows:

    504 Norwood SE Apt. 1
    Grand Rapids, Mi. 49506
    July 21, 2019
    Dr. Josephine Olsen
    Peace Corps Director
    Peace Corps Headquarters
    1111 20th Street NW
    Washington, DC 20526

    Dear Dr. Olsen:

    I think you can agree that, for many RPCVs. the Peace Corps experience doesn’t end when they return home. And I doubt I’m the only RPCV who, after requesting a do-over tour, was not selected. Still, I have some hope that you or someone on your staff can find the time to do the following four things:

    1. Download and read From The Outside In by the late Dr. Marvin Brown which describes the ALG (Automatic Language Growth) method he developed in Thailand and which is now used in other Asian countries as well.
    2. Contact Dr. Paul DeNeui whose profile can be found on the North Park University website. In From The Outside In, Dr. Brown says Paul was one of his most successful ALG Thai language students.
    3. Contact Ryan Kuliananijaya, Acting Coordinator, Thai Studies Department, AUA, Bangkok to learn the status of the current ALG program in Thailand.
    4. Download Peace Corps’ “In-country TEFL/crossover tropical agriculture training manual” and consider the idea of establishing a year-round agriculturally-based ALG center in Thailand. When this crossover program existed in the 1980s, it was provided to TEFL trainees with the idea that they would be able to provide their students with agricultural expertise on the side. I think it could have more value as a language immersion program for trainees being sent into more unstructured programs. It could be analogous to military basic training but also available to mismatched volunteers as temporary reprieves from what Dr. David Searles referred to, in The Peace Corps Experience, as nonjobs. Costs could be kept down if the trainers were American and foreign national volunteers themselves.

    Dr. Brown was considered the foremost American Thai linguist before he died in 2002. He wrote his linguistic autobiography as he was concluding his forty year career. The ALG program is radically different from other Thai language programs (and better suited for out-of-the-classroom settings), but Dr. Brown was hardly a fly-by-night guy. Of course, the proof would be in the pudding.
    Best wishes,

    Jim Jouppi

    Cc: Paul DeNeui (pdeneui@Northpark.edu)
    Ryan Kuliananijaya (ryan@auathai.com) (02-160-5264 Ext. 1291)

  • Based on the memoirs of some pioneer volunteers, Peace Corps has changed a lot over the years.

    Panama (2015-2017)

    • Anson, Thank you for your observation. I think it would be very interesting to know your observations on how you feel the Peace Corps has changed. The Pioneer PCVs were a very special group because so much did dependent on their efforts. I served early on in Colombia from 1963-65 and my experience was different from the other women in my training group as well as other PCVs serving at the same time. I think that each Volunteer’s experience is unique.

      But patterns can be identified and comparisons made. I would really like to know yours.

  • Lawrence,

    There is much merit in your proposal in that while the world of 1961 has changed significantly, has Peace Corps changed with it?
    In 1961, most of Africa and Asia were emerging into a post-colonial period. The first country to receive Volunteers was Ghana, just out of British colonial rule. All of its sectors, such as health and education, were in the public domain. Today, it is an oil producing country no longer in need of foreign aid. Its health and education sectors are now largely dominated by the private sector.

    China doesn’t consider its financial support for Africa as ‘foreign aid’. Rather, it is responding to what Africa needs and wants: infrastructure, e.g., roads, deep water ports, shopping centers, communications, rails, etc. It has secured 100 year leases on multi-thousand acres of farm land. The problem: China seldom uses local labor on these projects and it ships most of the food produced in these leased lands back to China.

    In a luncheon with a Board Member of Rwanda’s National Bank, when she found out that I had been in the Peace Corps, she asked: why are you sending me Volunteers for my health sector. What we need is Volunteers to help us establish a national system through which we can do home loans. Help us with that and we’ll take care of our health sector, thank you.

    If and when Peace Corps gets Volunteers back in the field, it will be relevant if it responds to the demand side of the equation rather than the supply side. In a vastly changed world from 1961, what is it that host countries really want in 2021. If Peace Corps responds to that question, it will have a future.

    Sincerely,
    Jeremiah Norris

    .

  • Lorenzo,

    Thanks for thinking outside the box–Peace Corps and the world have changed in so many ways I think a reset for the Peace Corps is in order. And like the idea of volunteer exchanges which recognizes that we have much to learn from others around the world as well.

    Cheers,

    Mark

  • I wasn’t a PC volunteer; however I know returned-PC friends who have written extensively about their experiences and discussed them personally with me. I agree with Lawrence that the Peace Corps should be rethought as more of an exchange between equals rather than the U.S. unilaterally bestowing goodwill and how-to on the developing world. In places where the teaching of basic skills may still be appropriate, a good area for that would be teaching business skills, perhaps even providing microfinancing to jump-start small businesses where those skills could be practiced.

  • Exchange programs do “promote world peace and friendship” and do seek to fulfill Goals 2 and 3. Universities, government agencies, NGOs, and companies do these programs well and have in place the required systems, processes, and controls both here and in the involved countries. The current Peace Corps model (which I agree needs to be continuously tweaked for changing times, circumstances, needs, and values) has been successful for 60 years. Volunteers in-country share their values as Americans and, reciprocally, learn from their hosts and return home inspired with commitments to service that last up to to lifetime.

  • Lorenzo,

    Thank you for this very provocative recommendation for future Peace Corps. I have not had experiences traveling outside the country in years, so I do not have yours or others’ perspective. I do, however, have opinions!’

    You are right about how America was viewed in the early 60s. The US had not only been Liberators, but had also rebuilt our enemies, Japan and Germany, into allies with strong capitalist economies and most importantly, democratic governments. Our technology had given us a marvelous life style. We were ready to do the same for the developing world. We underestimated the risk factors and unintended consequences of our beautiful high risk, high gain technology. The latter is my upmost concern. Peace Corps should start an ongoing evaluation of every program sent to requesting countries to make sure we are not creating problems.

    I think RPCVs are best at looking at how the Peace Corps agency can better treat Volunteers. I advocate Volunteers be given personal service contracts to define their legal status vis a vi the government. I also believe Volunteers should get the same “GI Bill Benefits” as the military Volunteers. Peace Corps should provide competitive scholarship to students BEFORE they apply to serve. The military and the Public Health Service do that to gain qualitied people. Successful students would then serve in the Peace Corps for two or three years. I think the current plan to offer an opportunity for applicants to serve overseas as “trainees” in ESL programs and then receive ESL certification AFTER their service violates the First Goal.

    There are many great cultural exchange programs, already, such as the Fulbright Fellowship and the many exchange college programs. I don’t believe we should duplicate those efforts.

    I don’t think it is up to us to dictate to Host Countries what Peace Corps could “DO for them”. I think it serves our needs, not theirs. Surveying host countries to determine what they want from Peace Corps should be ongoing among many different sectors in each host country. Right now, the Peace Corps Response program, which is like what you are suggesting, Lorenzo, has a lot of requests and may well be the future of Peace Corps.

    We need to hear from those who know Peace Corps the best about the future. The people who know Peace Corps the best are those in the host countries in which we have served.

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