The story behind one group’s grassroots effort to do just that
For many Americans, the Peace Corps is a treasured institution. It represents the idealism, generosity, and curiosity of our nation and symbolizes our spirit of humanitarianism. We imagine bright-eyed volunteers selflessly digging wells in Cameroon or teaching English in Ecuador. With its founding by JFK and its current mission of “promoting world peace and friendship,” the Peace Corps holds a special reverence in the national consciousness.
Objectively, the Peace Corps is an independent US government agency and volunteer program. Peace Corps volunteers receive three months of in-country, international training before serving two-year terms abroad in sectors including agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health, and youth development. The population of volunteers skews young, white, and female: the average age is 26, 65% are female, and 66% are white. Volunteers work alongside Host Country Nationals (HCNs), or local experts, to complete service projects and engage in cross-cultural exchange.
The stated mission includes three goals: “To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”
Others have a different perspective on the mission of the Peace Corps. JFK established the agency during the Cold War with the soft power motive of winning over the hearts and minds of “third world” nations susceptible to Communist influence. Its detractors see the Peace Corps as cheap diplomacy that sends young, naive, mostly white Americans abroad to do the legwork. For them, the experience primarily benefits volunteers (e.g., getting to live in a foreign country, boosting your resume, enjoying Non-Competitive Eligibility for government jobs, etc.) and not the international communities they serve.
Critics maintain that the Peace Corps does not help foreign countries in any real or sustainable way. As former Peace Corps Cameroon Country Director Robert L. Strauss points out, if the Peace Corps were genuinely interested in international development, it would have worked itself out of existence by now by empowering locals to do the work rather than US volunteers. Instead, the Peace Corps will be celebrating its 60th anniversary next year and has supported more than 240,000 US volunteers in 142 countries since its inception.
For critics, the Peace Corps exists to sustain itself and to benefit the lives and careers of its volunteers and its employees.
In March, the Peace Corps evacuated all 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers from their host countries in response to the coronavirus pandemic. With operations in limbo and volunteers back in the US, people are beginning to critically consider the role of the Peace Corps.
Shortly after being evacuated, three Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) from Mozambique began reflecting on their time overseas. They questioned the efficacy of the Peace Corps and the ethics of their presence in an African country. Based on their personal experiences and their research of structural inequality, they founded Decolonizing Peace Corps — a project to abolish the Peace Corps.
Today, Decolonizing Peace Corps includes 11 RPCVs (all but two are BIPOC [black, indigenous, people of color]) and has an Instagram account with 2,900 followers. They claim that the Peace Corps paints itself as a service-minded development agency, but it is actually an ineffectual foreign enterprise founded on the problematic premises of American exceptionalism, white saviorism, neocolonialism, and American imperialism.
Decolonizing Peace Corps uses these terms frequently and purposefully. It provides the following definitions on its Instagram account (edited for brevity):
Neocolonialism: “This term was coined in the 1960s as countries under colonized rule were gaining outward independence… It can take the form of external entities, typically Western, influencing the development of less developed countries (which they were responsible for oppressing in the first place) through economic, military, or political control, circumventing those countries’ autonomy and hindering their growth.”
American exceptionalism: “‘[An extension of American soft power] which presumes that American values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration.’”
White saviorism: “‘Tegu Cole via Twitter: The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.’ The White Savior complex…is as simple as leaving your own community that undoubtedly has problems of its own, and attempting to solve problems in another, a world away.”
I spoke with Lindsay Allen (Mozambique, April 2019 to March 2020) and Chiemeka Njoku (Cameroon, September 2018 to March 2020) to learn more about their experience in the Peace Corps and their efforts to dismantle it as part of Decolonizing Peace Corps.
What inspired you to join the Peace Corps? What did you understand to be the goals of the Peace Corps when you joined?
Lindsay: The reasons that I joined the Peace Corps were very selfish. Wanting to live abroad, wanting to learn a language. I think I knew that Peace Corps was about ‘sustainable development’ and I didn’t question it. I didn’t know the technicalities of that so I wasn’t sure if that was true, but it didn’t really matter to me. On top of that, as an African American person, I did want to find a way to go to the African continent and live there and experience a culture that I wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to experience.
Chiemeka: It was both personal and professional for me. I certainly was skeptical coming in and was very much on the fence all the way up to my flight leaving the US. I think in the end what motivated me was one of my mentors who was working in development. That was a big goal of mine and he told me that [Peace Corps] would be the best thing that I could do for myself at this stage in my career. Also, I’m Nigerian. I was born there and the Peace Corps doesn’t have an office there. The closest country, Cameroon, was where I served, so also, essentially, being able to go back to the region that I was born in and grew up in.
What happened once you joined the Peace Corps to inform your perspective that it’s a colonial enterprise?
Lindsay: Starting with pre-service training. There was no mention of colonization and no mention of white saviorism, no mention of imperialism, and that alarmed me. But I thought once I’d get to my site, I’d be able to ignore and forget about all of the alarming things I saw at pre-service [training].
I was a health volunteer and it was pretty tricky. Our role isn’t as defined as maybe teachers and other sectors. I was like, ‘I have nothing to do at my site and it’s my fault.’ I blamed myself for a long time. I only stayed at my site for seven months, but I realized that this is a structural problem with the Peace Corps. I’m not from this community, I’m still learning the local language, how am I expected to identify projects? Why is this all on me? Why am I the one all these resources are being put into?
What experience did you bring as a health volunteer and what were the goals and outcomes?
Lindsay: I studied public health for two years before I changed my major, but I maintain that I wasn’t qualified to be a health volunteer. Our position was youth development and health together and they started this new framework under us because all of the [previous] health volunteers were complaining that they didn’t have anything to do. With the new framework, nothing really changed.
Our main [task] was that we had to go to the hospital every day. None of us were doctors or nurses and people already thought that because we’re American we’re credentialed when we weren’t. All of the doctors at the hospital wore jackets and Peace Corps wanted to give us [volunteers] jackets so people would think we were doctors [too]. I was like, ‘People already think that we’re doctors and we’re not. This is wildly inappropriate.’ I tried to tell [the Peace Corps] and they didn’t care at all.
Chiemeka: I was a health volunteer and a community educator which was quite vague and difficult at first, but I grew to not mind the flexibility of it. I think what made me jaded was when I was at [my site]. I tried to implement projects that I thought would align the best with the sustainable development [practices] I learned at training. When I got to post we actually started having to report our numbers and I realized that there was a greater emphasis on getting our numbers up, doing certain activities, no matter what they were, no matter how they came about, no matter how well-thought-out they were, just so we could get the numbers and continue to get funding and that Peace Corps could continue to last forever.
I tried to push back during pre-service training when the Peace Corps gave an example of ‘Oh look at this exemplary volunteer.’ [The volunteer] funded 75% of her project [with her own money] and the other 25% came from a Peace Corps grant so none of it came from the community itself. I had to pull this [information] out of that meeting because she didn’t just come outright and say ‘I funded most of my project myself.’ I questioned her and the other staff there and the message I got was, ‘In the end, it was a good project. Ideally, it would have been done this way, but look at these cool things she was able to do.’
There was another project where the volunteer was giving out free birth control to women in her village, which is also really bad for so many reasons because then people in that village are going to think that volunteers are only there to give out free birth control and setting a really bad precedent. It’s unsustainable, all the support coming externally, and the communities being left with potentially a bigger gap than they began with.
I feel like the Peace Corps only cares about sustaining itself which means hitting the indicators and it’s more about quantity rather than quality. Beyond that, when I tried to approach them about my concerns, I was shoved under the rug.
You served as a squeaky wheel and I wonder how much of that role you took on as a volunteer of color and how you related to the others in your cohort?
Chiemeka: I definitely wasn’t looking to take on this role. It fell upon me. In my cohort, there were three Black women and I was one of them. Anytime anything came up, it was always us three addressing it.
During [training], we had a racial incident where a volunteer thought it was okay to use a slur with a host country national. During a training meeting, the two other Black women and I were like ‘We have to address this. We have to talk this all through about why it was wrong to use this certain slur, appropriation, how to conduct oneself in Cameroon as a white volunteer, or just as an American.’
Outside of training, it always fell on one of us [Black women] to address [inappropriate comments and behaviors]. It just [typecasted] us as the angry Black women of the Peace Corps. Because the composition of the Peace Corps is so white, it felt more outcasting to take on that role.
How did the Decolonizing Peace Corps effort come about after you were evacuated?
Lindsay: [When] I was [in Mozambique], some of my friends and I were like, ‘Let’s start a decolonization committee.’ We had the idea because imperialism and neocolonialism were missing from [pre-service training]. We started it and put a bunch of things together for it, presented it [at a training], and got a lot of push back. After we got evacuated and after the uprising when George Floyd was murdered, we reached a point where we were like, ‘We need to do something about Peace Corps.’
So we wrote a petition, me and the other two volunteers from Mozambique. We presented it to No White Saviors [an anti-racist advocacy campaign focused on international development], and they gave us some pointers on it and told us that this wasn’t going to be enough. That we needed to do more to bring attention to this issue, so that’s when we started the Instagram account.
[Before this project], I really didn’t have the language to describe what the Peace Corps really is in terms of neocolonialism and imperialism. Those were words that I knew but hadn’t thought about that much. Now, it’s mind-blowing to me how obvious it is.
How did you come up with your organizational goals?
Lindsay: We have a list of our demands, a master document, and that’s constantly being edited and updated with what people are DMing us about. It’s all happened really naturally from comments we’ve gotten [on social media], the research we’ve [done], and that’s how we’re developing them.
Chiemeka: As time progresses, we continue to refine ourselves and our vision and I’m really excited to see how it’s developed.
Lindsay: I just want to add that the general premise of these demands [is that before our proposed abolishment of Peace Corps by 2040] that there would be fewer volunteers, that there would be more volunteers of color, that it focuses more on quality over quantity, that [locals from the community] have more power within Peace Corps as a development organization. So, it’s really about decentering the white American and centering the host country nationals and their sovereignty and their autonomy.
What are you planning to do with the volunteer stories and data you’re collecting?
Lindsay: So we have our petition that has all of our demands on it and we want to have some data to back that up with so that is where the stories fit in. [For example], people have been talking about collecting stories about Country Directors to support the demand that all Country Directors should be [Host Country Nationals] or at least that the American Country Directors would have a [local] counterpart. The idea is that [American] Country Directors are very disconnected, they don’t understand what volunteers are doing, are sometimes rude, inappropriate, and insensitive, so if we have a bunch of stories, which we do, then we can compile them and use that as a citation for that demand.
Chiemeka: We’d also potentially create a report that summarizes all our data to put out there for people who are interested in what we’ve learned.
When do you move from developing your goals to presenting your goals and actively working to dismantle the Peace Corps?
Chiemeka: It’s not quite concretized and we’re trying to keep our finger on the pulse and depending on what opportunities come up that could immensely speed up our potential timeline or slow things down even more.
Lindsay: Right now we’re putting out a lot of communication and putting out our demands, listening, and being open-minded and then after that moving into the making noise phase where we’re hopefully bringing a lot of attention to this project and the issues we’re talking about because at the end of the day, Peace Corps is not going to do anything we ask them to do. People have been trying to reform the Peace Corps for a long time and going directly to them means nothing because they have nothing to lose.
So there’s no possibility of working with the Peace Corps?
Lindsay: I think people forget that the Peace Corps is a US government organization. They will not take accountability ever and that’s just a fact. The only way to get them to do that is to make enough noise to force them to say something to save their public image.
What we’re trying to do is to come up with a list of demands that’s meant to be a framework for them to investigate and implement themselves. We don’t have the resources that the Peace Corps has — the money, the time, the access to [Returned Peace Corps Volunteers]. We’re collecting data and coming up with demands and they can do the research. They’d have to get an external organization to help investigate them and from there they would implement them. This is the best-case scenario.
Also, I don’t think abolition is that radical because when we talk about international development, it’s not meant to last forever. It’s meant to have a clear end. And that’s what we’re asking for. We’re asking for [Peace Corps] to have a clear end and it seems like they’re only trying to increase their power, increase the number of volunteers, increase their funding. We have to remind ourselves that they are a US government organization and it’s going to take them a while to budge.
I don’t think abolition is that radical because when we talk about international development, it’s not meant to last forever.
How do you see your project as being related to other social movements happening right now?
Lindsay: I’ve been inspired by the defund and abolish the police movement. When you look at Peace Corps and you look at the police and you see the origins, you ask yourself ‘Can this really be reformed?’ How can you reform a system that was founded on neocolonialism and imperialism by a country built on genocide and slavery? How do we reform that system and can it be reformed? And I think the answer is no and that’s how abolish [Peace Corps] became our goal. When you look at (Peace Corps Director) Jody Olson’s apolitical stance on George Floyd’s murder, you see that Peace Corps will only go so far. And the idea of defunding is about decreasing the amount of power that Peace Corps has, decreasing the number of volunteers, decreasing the number of Americans involved in it.
Have you found similar organizations to yours in international development?
Lindsay: No White Saviors, which is the popular Instagram account, is actively involved in decolonizing the international development industry and the ethics of foreigners abroad, so I think that’s the main one. I haven’t seen anything else about bigger movements to decolonize development work.
Chiemeka: It’s hard to find groups similar to ours because we’re really clear about what we want. It’s not reform — it’s the complete end of Peace Corps and to find groups that are willing to do that would be a matter of finding people who are no longer working for X, Y, and Z organizations, and I can see that being really difficult. There are certainly different values when it comes to abolition versus reform movements.
How much push back have you gotten from volunteers, particularly older volunteers, who may be holding on to an idealized version of Peace Corps?
Lindsay: A lot of [the push back] is from white volunteers who play devil’s advocate. We’ll layout [our arguments] clearly and they’ll talk about their personal experience like, ‘I was able to do this, I was able to do that.’ That’s sort of frustrating because it doesn’t negate all of these structures we’re talking about — neocolonialism, imperialism.
As far as older volunteers go, we’re struggling with that a little bit. Some of them believe in the concept of American exceptionalism. I don’t even know where to go from there. How do you convince someone that believes that American exceptionalism is real and a good thing that Peace Corps is bad? Of course, some of the older volunteers are more open-minded and we’re trying to think of ways to engage with them more, but some are really far gone.
Do you think there are any elements of Peace Corps that can be salvaged or replaced?
Chiemeka: That question is about the volunteers and these volunteers who are mostly white, upper-middle-class and that question just centers them again. Have they not been centered enough?
Lindsay: If you look at Peace Corps’ goals, you assume cultural exchange is a good thing. But when [Peace Corps] asks volunteers to share ‘American culture,’ they don’t ask us to tell the truth. They want us to talk about baseball and Thanksgiving and not necessarily about America’s failures. They want us to share the ‘diversity’ of the US, but the majority of volunteers are white. They ultimately want us to play into American exceptionalism and I think that’s quite harmful. On the other side of that, without an honest discussion of imperialism, neocolonialism, and privilege, volunteers will not be able to understand the culture of the formerly colonized country they’re serving.
Chiemeka: To add to that, some volunteers see cultural exchange as an excuse for cultural appropriation. A white volunteer who served in Cameroon designed a Cameroonian-themed wedding with their white American fiancé. She commandeered traditions and marital practices like dowry exchanges unique to a Cameroonian ethnic group. What’s more, they planned to invite dozens of volunteers and Peace Corps staff to their wedding. I had to be the one to say, “No, this is wrong. Living in a community for a year and a half doesn’t make you African.” This is another way that Peace Corps is linked to colonialism. Unfortunately, this theft of global culture by white Americans is not only condoned but encouraged in the name of cultural exchange.
What do you see happening after COVID-19 when your group potentially becomes busier with other things outside of this project? Do you see yourselves forming a formal organization and applying for funding?
Lindsay: I don’t know. I started this thinking it would last only three or four months and now that we have the team together there are a lot of people who are seeing this as long-term. I think something I realized while doing this project is we’re not just talking about Peace Corps. We’re talking about decolonizing international development because it’s an industry that has created dependency and has its own issues. I could see potential for this project to explore international development as an industry and how to decolonize that. I think it would depend on the group members and on funding to see if this could actually be turned into an organization.
In the end, I really want the Peace Corps to be abolished. I don’t want the organization to keep going. I want our end goal to be ‘Peace Corps is abolished’ that’s it and we’re done.
Is there anything else you want the public to know about your organization?
Chiemeka: You had asked about volunteers who had had a good experience and I would consider myself part of that category where my service was incredibly meaningful to me and I do feel like I did something. What I would say to those volunteers is that at the end of the day, maybe your service was good for you but just because it was good for you it doesn’t mean it was good for the world. The means by which you got this experience is not benefiting these countries we’re supposed to be serving.
I would tell volunteers in general that they should really try and reflect critically upon their service, not just from all the personal things that they’ve gotten from it, but in a much broader sense, to think about the structure that they’re feeding into. But beyond that, continue to do the work for themselves, continue to follow us and share a post [on Instagram or Facebook] and stay tuned because this will have to be a joint effort because it can’t just be the work of 11 people. It will have to be a massive movement much like all the other movements that are springing up right now. They will play a role. Keep your eyes open and ears pierced for what’s to come.
Lindsay: And to add on to that, when the [George Floyd] uprising happened a lot of people were scrambling like ‘What should I do?’ trying to read books and confront their privilege and this is one of those things. This is one of those times to really sit with and think ‘I participated in a system that is unethical and I need to take responsibility for that and do what I can to confront that.’ I would just ask them to think about what they are really willing to give up — both what power and what privilege are you willing to give up?
Decolonizing Peace Corps poses some hard questions about the role of the US Peace Corps and its volunteers. The project asks us to consider whether the Peace Corps is truly a humanitarian effort based on the ideals of service and cross-cultural exchange. It asks us to reflect on the ideologies of American exceptionalism, white saviorism, neocolonialism, and American imperialism as the bases for Peace Corps’ work. It asks us to think about the assumptions behind sending Americans, some of whom are poorly or minimally qualified, to aid vulnerable communities abroad. It asks us to consider whether the Peace Corps creates a dependency on external aid rather than sustainable improvements with local leaders. As we continue to face issues of structural inequality in the US, Decolonizing Peace Corps asks us, “Who really needs the Peace Corps?”
Disclosure: The author is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Morocco from 2006–2008. The views of Decolonizing Peace Corps do not necessarily represent the views of the author.