Should the US abolish the Peace Corps?
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.
28 CommentsLeave a comment
It sounds to me like those who want Peace Corps abolished shouldn’t have joined in the first place. They describe pretty selfish reasons for volunteering and then wonder why nothing worked out well for them. My group in India served from 1963 to 65 and did great work in public health – our initial purpose – and found ways to work as well in agriculture, schooling and building strong relationships, friendships still ongoing today. Some of us saved lives, some lost their lives, we all fought infections, suffered through doubts and in the end MADE HUGE AND LASTING DIFFERENCES!
None of us whined about being tools of our government; we were proud to represent the USA.
A few washed out; being a volunteer was never supposed to be easy and some quit. Some projects turned out better than others. Sometimes our training didn’t fit the circumstances we were placed into . . . but we got creative and still found ways to make our villages better.
If you joined for selfish reasons and had a bad experience it was a given that you’d fail. Stop whining and start doing something worthwhile.
Thank you fo your comment,Stephen. It demonstrates something I believe has permeated Peace
Corps during several different administrations and that is: misogyny- “dislike of, contempt for, or
ingrained prejudice against women.”
You served more than 50 years ago in another continent and here you are not hesitating to dismiss these young black women and their concerns. You belittle their observations. Yet, you can know nothing of these women’s lives or what they experienced. Your attitude is one indictative of misogyny. It certainly did not prevent you from being “selected” as pschologically perfectly fit to serve. I can almost hear you saying “Buck up, act like a man.”
Peace Corps from the very beginning, stated it treated men and women, alike. Indeed, it is one of the reasons I joined. I think the Corps tried to do that Women were given positions of authority and were trained in community development as well as expected to all the training which men did.
In traditional cultures, host country women still had very traditional gender dictated roles. When Peace Corps women worked in such “domestic areas”, our work, in my opinion was simple not seen as that importatn. I was a poli sci major. My training in health education did nothing to prepare me to work in the health field, even tho I was supervised by a Colombian doctor. I received no help from Peace Corps staff and my work with a UNICEF materal health program was dismissed as non-photogenic (nor was I!), Of all my carefully detailed reports, none were kept or even made available to other women in such programs. The host country women I worked with had many good questions. We had been told they were “superstitious” or “resistent to change”. They were neither. They had generational information about their ways, which proved much more effective than the ones I had been encouraged to introduce.
Now the one group of trained, credentialled professionals which Peace Corps has sent overseas from 1962 to the evacuation of 2020, were Registered Nurses. Yet, their history has been erased from Peace Corps annals. So much so that a Doctor who was promoting a plan with Peace Corps Response to sent doctors and nurses overseas to teach, was able to say in 2012, Peace Corps never sent nurses or doctors overseas. That was absolutely false. The then Director some months later, said well, there had been some nurses but they never taught. That, too, is absolutely false. I believe it is because work done traditionaly solely by women is simply not seen as important,
Thank you for so well and in so many less words, illustrating my point!.
I regret using the term ” misogyny” in relationship to various Peace Corps administrations. I was responding without thinking to the previsous comment.I do not think it is a fair description of Peace Corps. I think Peace Corps continues to grow in understanding of the role of women, not only in the administrations and our country, but also in the role of women in host countries.
Not great to start our your reply by lecturing to other people that they shouldn’t have joined. Your kind of pompous, judgmental arrogance is why white Americans still don’t have a consciousness of racism in America today and a recognition of their white privilege. I think you should acknowledge / realize that “Huge and Lasting Difference” isn’t the typical description an RPCV would give of their service. Usually, it’s “I got a lot more out of it than I gave”, describing a formative and wonderful experience in their lives that had a neutral impact on their host country.
Wow! Talk about pulling up the ladder behind you. I don’t disagree with their concerns, but it’s their Peace Corps experience that opened their eyes to those concerns. I started CorpsAfrica out of similar convictions, but we want to complement the Peace Corps, not replace it. Peace Corps (like CorpsAfrica) is not like most NGOs with a mission to achieve – it’s about promoting a better, more inclusive, informed, participatory landscape, and a transformative experience for future leaders, like Lindsey and Chiemeka, with personal and professional benefits that last a lifetime. Living in communities for an extended period of time as the local people do, learning their language, eating what they eat, sleeping where they sleep – that’s how you build trust, friendship and respect … it’s crucial to sustainable development and very few aid organizations do it. Peace Corps is not perfect, but it’s vital and priceless and improves the lives of thousand, even millions, of people living in poverty around the world. 25 years ago, the Peace Corps opened the door to the rest of my life and now I’ve dedicated my life to paying the Peace Corps forward by opening the door for young Africans. Without Peace Corps there would be no CorpsAfrica. I invite everyone at Decolonizing Peace Corps to drop this negativity and come join us. http://www.corpsafrica.org or find your own way to be the change you want to see in the world.
Go Peace Corps!
Beautifully said, Liz! I second your comments!
Lindsay and Chiemeka bring up important points for the Peace Corps to address. However, how they arrived at a solution that involves throwing out the baby with the bathwater is beyond me.
I agree with you entirely, Alana. I was about to say the same thing.
Well said, Liz! Reasonable discourse never hurts situations such as this. Keep up the great work!
I think this is an excellent interview. I believe that every one who served is entitled to use their own service in any way they wish, with the exception of using host country nationals after service or without their permission or proporting to speak for all RPCVs. It would appear to me that the women who initiated “decolonizing the Peace Corps” are not doing any of this, but rather speaking from their own experiences and their own values. I do not agree with their ultimate aim, but I certainly support their right to do so.
May I remind everyone including the ERPCVs and the members and followers of Decolonizing the Peace Corpsthat although Peace Corps is a federal agency, it is not monolithic and does not exist independently of the administration which is in power. The ERPCVs served during the current Trump administration,. The Director and Deputy Director were appointed by President Trump and confirmed by the Republican Senate. There were approximately 30 employees in the Peace Corps administration which were Schedule C appointees – “A Schedule C employee is an employee in a position that is excepted from the competitive service because of its policy-determining nature or because it involves a close and confidential working relationship with the agency head or other top appointed official.” This is from the google search engine. in 2017, Peace Corps and all other federal agencies were ordered to reduce their staff by 20% so the percentage of Schedule C employees may or may not have changed.
Furthermore, unique to the Peace Corps is the Five Year Rule which limits employment with the Peace Corps to five years – so there is constant turnover with the Peace Corps administration. “You can not step in the same river twice” nor can you call the Peace Corps today, (The overseas host country staff is not bound by the Five Year Rule )the same Peace Corps which existed four years ago or twenty years ago. Service as a Volunteer is NOT a requirement for employment with the federal agency, Peace Corps. The current Director noted in recently that 70% of her staff were retired military.
I think any RPCV talking about the federal agency is ethically bound to name the administration governing the federal agency which he or she is discussing.
I served as a Health Education Volunteer from 1963-65 and every criticism I read from the group about their training was true during my service 55 to 57 years ago. However, other Volunteers in a Health Education assignment from my group might well not agree with me because their service was different.
I welcome this discussion and I hope it will continue here. Joanne Roll Colombia 63-65
Well said, Joanne.
They raise some important questions about the role of Peace Corps, especially as the light of changing values shines down on public discourse. Having said that this article left out important considerations which would also need to be discussed in deciding if abolition or reform is most appropriate. For example pretty much the entire interview is focused on the third goal, with little on the first two. And no data beyond anecdotes were mentioned. Also it gave the impression that PCVs dropped in on parachutes and my understanding is that host countries invite Peace Corps and decide it if will stay. Also all programs have host national counterparts. I’m unsure if all APCDs are host nationals, but they were when I served in Costa Rica in 1993-95. Of course I realize there are many ways for powerful countries to twist the arms of host nationals and perhaps Peace Corps does exert this force. But then again, how generalizable is it? Is there any survey data of host nationals and their perceptions of PC? Or are these abolitionists guilty of their own critique: imposing their American views on host nationals? What if host nationals don’t share the view that they are subjects of imperialism? Self-righteousness does characterize part of the postmodern discourse.
Then there is another aspect. As someone who not only graduated from PC, married a host national, moved back to my host country, gained nationality there, I really see PC from both sides. In Costa Rica, PC has a largely positive image; its volunteers have contributed to many projects over the years, some of which survived. The people I worked with don’t only understand baseball and T-G from me.
I also work in international development and I see so many RPCVs who work in the field and related fields. As a thought experiment, I imagine if all of these positions that we hold were held by people who may not have had the same depth and immersive experience, how would that affect their ability to participate in international development (and to be honest, I have my criticisms of international development too). In other words, maybe a PCV’s largest net benefit for society is not while they are serving in the PC but when they take that experience with them and use it as the foundation for their professional careers (I realize that not all PCs are young early career folks). Certainly PC made me a better person and I think a more effective change agent for the rest of my life. There are many benefits associated with that that the abolitionists may not have considered.
As we used to say that PCVs don’t actually accomplish anything until the second year as the first year they are just getting to know their surroundings and culture. Don’t bad the folks who are arguing this position didn’t even make it to their second year. If they had maybe they would have felt more realized. But then again, everyone PC’s story is so different. Who knows.
Well said, Jon!
You and Joanne make great points!
I completed one of the Decolonize the Peace Corps’ surveys because they asked many valid questions which I mention in my recently published book, Between Inca Walls, A Peace Corps Memoir. My observations and experience in Peru include: Pre-training that didn’t prepared us to address the host country’s real needs; directors unfamiliar with host country situations and little interest in volunteers’ needs, projects, and sites; not performing jobs that take away work that host country nationals need and want; justifying U.S. intervention in any country; and putting volunteers in communities and countries that don’t know what to do with them.
However, today, after I read the group’s demands, I unsubscribed to their site because I don’t agree that the answer is to abolish the Peace Corps and eventually all international development projects. Their stance is no more valid than suggesting I no longer contribute to those needing food and housing in communities here in the U.S.
In most instances I’m familiar with, Peace Corps volunteers gained a greater understanding and appreciation of other ways of being and their own abilities to relate to another culture. That knowledge is invaluable. We learned a second language, gained confidence to take on difficult challenges, and, in my case, married a host country national. The Peace Corps has educated a great many of our diplomats so they are more realistic and can thereby contribute more when they go to represent the U.S. in foreign service careers. NO, I don’t believe the Peace Corps should be abolished.
Evelyn Kohl LaTorre
Author of, Between Inca Walls, A Peace Corps Memoir
If Peace Corps can’t better accommodate the safety and health of those who serve and served, and continue to force those who accrued health issues because of service, they should be closed.
I’ve worked 37 years on this issue and remain disgusted by the fact that PC has contributed to fail to reform themselves. RPCVs shouldn’t have to move to countries where they served to access healthcare that they can’t access here because of cost or because of inability to navigate the Byzantine federal bureaucracy inept for RPCVs. Nor should sick or injured RPCVs have to move overseas because they can’t live on the meager disability wage available if they have the tenacity to even access it. Many lives have been ruined by this. I fault Congress, as well, for not providing oversight of the rules that exist. PC needs to stop protecting and justifying itself and those who served should stand up for these issues.
Nancy, thank you for all the work you have done. It has resulted in legislation which brought these matters to congressional attention, I know much still needs to be done. Please take care.
Thank you , John Coyne, for posting this story on PeaceCorpsWorldwide. I might have missed it otherwise. I was a PCV in India in 1965-67. In 2003, one of my policy research projects at the Brookings Institution was a study of the Peace Corps. I’ve written a fair amount about the Peace Corps and international volunteer service since then, including a piece in the latest issue of WorldView. I share the basic concerns (neocolonialism, exceptionalism, etc) of Lindsay Allen and Chiemeka Njoku, but not their solution. I see the Peace Corps in the context of a world of 7.8 billion people, of whom only 330 million are American. It’s a world facing some immense challenges beyond the most obvious ones of infectious disease and climate change. I believe the Peace Corps can contribute meaningfully to address these challenges, but to do so it cannot simply continue operating in the way it has for the past 60 years. It will have to “reinvent itself” to be relevant over the next 60 years. Several crucial changes that I believe can make the Peace Corps more useful (domestically and internationally) are spelled out in the WorldView essay.
Wow. So glad I came across this article. I always thought the Peace Corps was basically what it’s (I’m guessing) commonly known to be: an organization that did humanitarian work in places where it’s needed and probably other lofty good deeds. I even wanted to join for a while but didn’t think I was able, so I’ve always had a lot of respect for and definite envy of Peace Corps Members. I never thought that either party- the volunteer or the community – might not actually benefit, it seems that that would be the natural outcome of such a program. I was also aware that it was started under the JFK administration but never really gave much thought to the fact that it is, in fact, a governmental agency – something that is usually, once formed, I notoriously hard to roll back, especially when it gets bigger. I also never considered that their programs weren’t necessarily sustainable – it surprisingly did not occur to me that if the work that was being done was sustainable, then surely your job is done – and eventually, the need for the program should dissipate.
I admit I started reading with some skepticism, especially with the polarized climate of today, and that possibly this was just an idea that had possible ridiculous underpinnings. But I moved on to more of a view that was wondering if it was just different people looking at the same thing, only from different angles – most any story can be told in a good light or more sinister light. I wondered if this was maybe the motive (it still hadn’t clicked why anyone would truly want to stop the Peace Corps). This was especially stark in the two settings the author postulates: the goodwill, cultural-exchange, community-serving program that fosters, or the group founded in the Cold War era, influencing those who were possibly bound for future communist leadership and imparting our own values. This truly struck a chord.
The author did a great job with shedding light ion this movement. Once I got to the end and had learned of the myriad problems, weaknesses, and (quite typically governmental) self-justifying, with the end goal being only funding with no one to answer to, I was truly impressed that these volunteers have taken on what I’m sure will prove to be a monstrous task, and that they are not discouraged, even when they knew they’d be brushed off.
I’m not saying I don’t see a need for the Peace Corps to be dismantled per se, at least not yet, because the world is vast, communities will have changing needs, emergencies happen, etc. But I am firmly on your side when it comes to demanding accountability, making public the issues expressed about the culture, the abuses of power, and what seems to me to be a borderline dangerous healthcare structure. Coming from a medical background, that was especially egregious to me. If someone put on a white coat in the US and started treating people because those people thought they were being treated by a doctor, and that white coat went ahead and let them think that – and then played doctor- they’d be arrested. To say that was wildly inappropriate I thought was absolutely spot-on, as any health care worker would realize, I’m sure – which surprises me all the more that the more senior medics seemed perfectly fine with the idea. That also shows very little respect for the community.
I applaud you all. You didn’t make me into an enemy of the Peace Corps and didn’t seem to try to, but instead you definitely won my support! You are taking a mature and responsible, “crowd-sourced” informational approach to your ideas, while at the same time admitting that you are willing to listen to others, collect more knowledge when needed, and admit when you need to know more – without question outstanding character traits.
Your article made me more aware, and I am impressed in many ways. Well done and best of luck to you! (Apologies for the lengthy response. Quite an impact!)
I am an RPCV or REeturned Peace Corps Volunteer. It is an informal term for those us who are alumni of the Peace Corps. I have never worked for the Peace Corps agency, but there are two facts I want to clarify for you. I think your comments are very important and it really good to hear from someone who is not or has not been a Volunteer and/or associated with the Peace Corps. Thank you.
1) “May I remind everyone including the ERPCVs and the members and followers of Decolonizing the Peace Corpsthat although Peace Corps is a federal agency, it is not monolithic and does not exist independently of the administration which is in power. The ERPCVs served during the current Trump administration,. The Director and Deputy Director were appointed by President Trump and confirmed by the Republican Senate. There were approximately 30 employees in the Peace Corps administration who were Schedule C appointees – “A Schedule C employee is an employee in a position that is excepted from the competitive service because of its policy-determining nature or because it involves a close and confidential working relationship with the agency head or other top appointed official.” This is from the google search engine. in 2017, Peace Corps and all other federal agencies were ordered to reduce their staff by 20% so the percentage of Schedule C employees may or may not have changed.
Furthermore, unique to the Peace Corps is the Five Year Rule which limits employment with the Peace Corps to five years – so there is constant turnover with the Peace Corps administration. “You can not step in the same river twice” nor can you call the Peace Corps today, (The overseas host country staff is not bound by the Five Year Rule )the same Peace Corps which existed four years ago or twenty years ago. Service as a Volunteer is NOT a requirement for employment with the federal agency, Peace Corps. The current Director noted recently that 70% of her staff were retired military.”
2) I share your concern about Volunteers being instructed, by Peace Corps, to put on white coats so people will think they were Doctors. That is outrageous and should be reported to the Inspector General. Since 2005, Peace Corps staff, trainees and Volunteers (including RNs and Doctors) have been forbidden to treat anyone because of the danger of contamination. There were Doctors and Nurses in a very special teaching program associated with Peace Corps, but superviced by Boston General Hospital who were in a teaching position in countries. They may have also working in clinical setting, but they were qualified and professionally trained.
Also, in host countries, there are Peace Corps staff consists of people from the host country as well as Direcotors and other personnel who are American citizens. It would be important know exactly who told the Volunteers to wear white coats.
Thank you again for your comments.
If President Trump is reelected PCVs will never be sent overseas again and Peace Corps will be gone. Quickly or gradually, but gone. Trump’s argument will be something to the effect that why should U.S. taxpayers spend money to send losers abroad, losers willing to work for substandard wages and live in substandard housing to have a free overseas adventure? Countries can either pay market value for teachers, healthcare workers, agriculture technicians, etc. or work with NGOs. The U.S. government should not be competing with the NGOs.
It would be a shame because I believe that sending them out to vaccinate folks against Corona Virus would be a very worthwhile project for the next crop of PCVs, if there is one.
From Dan Campbell, El Salvador, 1974-1977
I still thank my lucky stars after all these years that I had the opportunity to serve in the Peace Corps. I was there to try my best to help and never felt pressured or hassled by Peace Corps staff or the U.S. government to promote the American way. I am hoping to join again when I retire in the near future but I will probably not pass the medical examination this time but we shall see.
Long live the Peace Corps!
I’d like to address the comment that “older volunteers believe in American exceptionalism.” That is simply not true. I know many older volunteers who did not subscribe to that attitude at all. In fact, they’re motivated to join Peace Corps to form friendships with people in other countries and to learn about their cultures, unlike the “decolonizers” who seem to join for an adventure and other personal reasons. Older volunteers are treated with the respect accorded to elders in their cultures, and we often have wider experience than younger volunteers. Lillian Carter was a good example!
I hope that all our comments are reaching the “decolonizer” instigators.
Leita Kaldi Davis
(Senegal 1993-96) 55– 58 years old
Recipient Lillian Carter Award 2014
I wouldn’t call them instigators, I would call them reformers, protesters, or similar word. The PC at its core is based on American exceptionalist thinking. Yes, even the first PCV class and probably most if not all classes after that were full of kids who would disagree with it, but the program itself is based on it. It was meant to introduce and project on to the world young Americans in the hopes of winning favor of competing world powers like Russia. Yes it has evolved and yes those within the organization don’t share that goal etc. etc. but that’s what it basically is. So to call someone an “instigator” for trying to wake RPCVs up to this fact is unfortunate. They should be appreciated, respected, and listened to, and given ever opportunity to try and help advance this country beyond where it is today, certainly beyond where it was in 1961.
LONG LIVE THE PEACE CORPS WHERE WE WERE DRAWN TO WALK THAT GANGPLANK OF WONDER and THRILL
There are no solutions, but there are fortunate lives with well-ordered trajectories, no history of challenges, terror, impairment.
We must not be surprised rains
Fall coldly on flowers and in the process having then just the memory of having been promised a rose garden for so many.
Supposing it is really not a question.
Robert Klein, Ghana I -1961 wrote BEING FIRST about his experience of the early days of the Peace Corps, but he has died.
I was part of those 50 lasses and lads.
“Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour….” (W. Wordsworth) or maybe we should say that about John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
I’m 83 now; 23 meeting Senator JFK.
Now my memories are skirling as if wildly in torchlight or lamplight as the piper steps and leaps dis-inventing the Peace Corps.
“Winter always turns into Spring” Nichiren Daishonin 12 th Century Buddhist monk
Thoughtful and heartfelt words from “ both sides” which I believe are really on the same side of wanting the best for our beloved PC as an organization, our volunteers, all the countries and cultures shared and hope g G or humanity to be at peace.
We will get through this and no matter what the outcome, as a resilient and Inventive group we will continue to make service to others, the bottom line.
WHEN THE WORDS START SHOWERING DOWN
(Options are narrowing extremely quickly)& YOUR DEPARTURE MAY BE HIGHLY EXPEDITED — and the words for the day remain as usual: “Lunchy”&”I’m hungry” & a return to something from a Shakespearean sonnet to the effect that “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes (Options are narrowing quickly) I all alone beweep my outcast state….” and blah blah the effect that “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes I all alone (Options are narrowing quickly) (Options are narrowing quickly) YOUR DEPARTURE MAY BE HIGHLY EXPEDITED — and the words for the day remain as usual: “Lunchy”,”I’m hungry” & a return to something from a Shakespearean ‘beweep my outcast state….’ and blah blah
(Options are narrowing)
© Copyright Edward Mycue 20 III 2020
LIndsey and Chiemeka make several very important and appropriate points. Abolish Peace Corps? maybe it is time. Decolonize Peace Corps – certainly. What they are saying was pointed out by Ivan Illich back in 1971 – As a volunteer trainee in 1974 in Ecuador some of his writings were required reading.
The training group I was in started with 50 and only 25 of us made it through training – and after two years and three months, only five of us were left.
The program I was assigned to my have been one of the more unique ones. The project was started by two sociology majors who were asked by the Ecuadorian government to help settle people from the mountains who had lost their lands out in the Amazon region. Upon arrival, the PCVs found that the area to be settled was still occupied by descendants of the pre-colonial peoples. The PCVs changed the program to a survey project to help the Shuar gain land title, which the government surveyors refused to do. The program ended when the last survey was submitted – five or six years after I left in 1976. The government finally recognized the work a number of years after that due to the hard work of the Shuar attorneys. Unfortunately, according to National Geographic, the government seems to have given oil drilling rights to international oil companies over part of the Shuar lands.
What did I get out of it, other than stomach problems related to, what the PC nurses told me was a record number of parasites? A sense of service to my country and world peace – however ephemeril.
Change Peace Corps? If we really want it to be that – Peace – the aim should be to provide trained mediators and counselors available to negociate peace to prevent wars.
Just a thought.
Thank you Patrick. I am moved and touched by your experience. Most of us RPCVs don’t have such intense experiences like that but I think many of us can at least have some appreciation of what that must have been like during and afterwards. It reminds me of when I worked at the Census Bureau after I got back from Ghana as an RPCV. My boss at Census was also an RPCV from the earlier days. As a young RPCV he got a job with Census in their foreign aid division. He went to Rwanda to assist them with their census. It was later used as a tool in the genocide. He felt more than terrible about it of course – it was like the deepest betrayal – and he was a part of it. My own experience as a water and sanitation and health volunteer was a lot like Lindsays – I had no training or skill in health or water and sanitation. I learned what I could and did the best I could but my host village needed money and jobs – that is what they told me when I first arrived, and it was 100% true. Instead I convened a few silly meetings under the shade of the communal village tree talking about the importance of sanitation and hand washing and everyone was polite and endured me as they would have endured their teacher in class during a lesson on health. Then I raised some money from other countries, like Japan, to supplement the totally inadequate SPA funding, to finish the elementary school building (adding walls and a cistern) – so good for me, but I was basically functioning in the role of a large donor. I also raised some money to fund a local artisan to build small cisterns and some latrines in some of the compounds in the village, all of which have now fallen into disrepair. Is that how an aid program should work if designed to actually help people? No of course not. Was it an invaluable experience for me right out of college – yes for sure. Was there any recognition during my service of the history of the slave trade, colonialism, or the experience of BIPOC volunteers who were serving in a country their ancestors may well have been kidnapped from before being brutally tortured for the rest of their lives? No. Was there any discussion of the white privilege of the white volunteers (or indeed the first world privilege of all of the volunteers) and any kind of work done trying to unpack that privilege so that we would be more aware and conscious during out stay? No. As a result, our two years were spent as they would have been back home – as white Americans oblivious to our privilege and as BIPOC whose truths and realities are invisible to whites. I think you said it best – decolonize – definitely. Abolish – maybe it’s time for that. Also quite clear is that there is some kind of variation of the Peace Corps that would actually make sense in 2020 and beyond. But it’s not the 1961 PC, that should be decommissioned and the service of you, me, and everyone else should be honored and cherished and then we all should move on to bigger and better things to work for Peace.
Not certain if this string is still active but if it is:
When I served as a PCV (1976-78 Dominican Republic) we trained in very basic social/geographic/anthropologic aspects of living in our “host” country; about 12 weeks of fairly intensive all-day language training with “cultural outings” and special sessions with subject matter experts (SME) in diet, health, local economy, etc. At the time this training was viewed as preparing us to live in the local country learning to abide by their laws, customs and mores. There was not much emphasis on training us in our “assigned fields”, as we had been accepted as already knowledgeable in our respective areas, only needing familiarization with the how these fields of work operated in the local country; we were provided “meet-n-greets” with local “experts/officials” at the national level before going to our locales after training, etc. My “field” was rural youth club development, as I was “recruited/selected” into this field I assumed due to having 13+ years of experience at local, state and national level in 4-H clubs as a member, leader, etc.
Basically we were “prepared” to “survive” in country and all our work related efforts; assessments of the local situation, possible projects to support or launch, finding in meeting the local people who worked or participated in our field was totally up to us. I was given my monthly allowance to live on but nothing for doing the actual volunteer work; no bike, no motorcycle, no supplies; all “work” related resources we got on our own, as was my understanding of how things worked when I applied and was accepted. I on my own sought out the local Agricultural Office where the local government agronomist worked out of, I with my on $ helped their mechanic restore one of their non-operational motorcycles for transportation, etc.; it took time to make any noticeable progress, months. I did this because I assumed as a “volunteer” it required extra effort and methodologies of my own making; for example I contacted the US 4-H Foundation and other groups to get training bulletins in rural agriculture techniques growing vegetables, grains, rabbits, poultry, beekeeping which I studied, translated part, etc. to compare with local techniques, to help me assist the rural youth and my local counterparts in their quest for learning/enhancing their local techniques wherever appropriate/possible (I relied on my local Agronomists partners to help determine this “appropriateness”). Was I imposing my way of life/work on the local people? Maybe by only “being who I was” with my experiences and knowledge. Did I usurp/appropriate their traditions/customs and way of life to make it my own? Well maybe, I adopted their way of life in their domain mainly because I wanted to be accepted into the community, albeit as the foreigner that I was. I worked hard to learn their way of speaking, their dialect, pronunciation but I was an outsider, coming into their turf, I was tall white/Caucasian kid in sea of brown skinned people. I accepted them as they were and for the most part they accepted me with all my north americanisms, and prejudices while seeming to respect my attempts to live within their way of life.
I think the De-Colonize PC group make some very compelling arguments if PC is now as they describe it. Their description in some ways fits my experience but in other ways it does not. My experience was to serve, but admittedly I probably got much more out of the experience than I provided. I did not use the “non-Competitive” USG hiring perk when I returned, I took my 23 months x $125 “readjustment” allowance to pay for finishing my college degree (I left college to join PC at age 19). It seems to me that De-Colonize PC group could help PC using their individual knowledge/experiences to find more collaborative approaches/methodologies with in-country indigenous SMEs to implement locally-appropriate enhancements and use it as a two-way street for PC and PC personnel learn from local SMEs to apply in any areas of true need.