Meghan Elizabeth Kallman is a graduate of Smith College with an MA from the University of Chicago, and a Ph.D. from Brown. She lives in Pawtucket, RI where she is on the City Council, and where she lives with her husband Tim. (Neither of them were PCVs.) She is also an assistant professor at the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. The Death of Idealism: Development and Anti-Politics in the Peace Corps is Meghan’s second academic book. It was published this April by Columbia University Press in New York. In her acknowledgment, she writes, “I deeply, deeply appreciate the many Peace Corps volunteers and staff who permitted me to sit in, take notes, observe, pry, and explore their experiences and their gatherings. In giving me access, you gave me a gift.”
In her book, Meghan mentions that she visited three different Peace Corps countries, that she interviewed 142 PCVs and RPCVs, staff, and agency officials, and she has survey results from 2,800 RPCVs. Today there are an estimated 250,000 former Volunteers and Staff. Kallman’s book, therefore, is based on the opinions of approximately 1/2 of 1% of all PCVs and Staff.
In her book, Kallman sums up by making this point about PCVs: “Peace Corps volunteers seem to exemplify the desire to make the world a better place. Yet despite being one of history’s clearest cases of organized idealism, the Peace Corps has, in practice, ended up cultivating very different outcomes among its volunteers. By the time they return from the Peace Corps, volunteers exhibit surprising shifts in their political and professional consciousness. Rather than developing a systemic perspective on development and poverty, they tend instead to focus on individual behavior; they see professions as the only legitimate source of political and social power. They have lost their idealism, and their convictions and beliefs have been reshaped along the way.”
Doctor Kallman, what is your field of study?
I am a sociologist (my Ph.D. is in sociology), but I teach in an interdisciplinary program in the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at UMASS Boston.
Did you ever think of joining the Peace Corps?
I did consider it, and for a number of reasons, it wasn’t the right fit. I’ve lived abroad several times; a few years each in Bolivia and the Dominican Republic. In Bolivia, I was working for two community NGOs, one of which was binational. In the Dominican Republic, I was employed teaching English.
What led you to decide to write a book about the agency?
The Peace Corps is a bit of an enigma, and it’s a pretty interesting illustration of a few things that I was interested in. The first is development: how does the US think about development, how has that changed over time, and why does it matter? The second question is about people’s values and politics: how are those shaped by the organizations in which they participate? Organizations are not passive or neutral structures. Rather, they are always teaching us lessons and socializing us, sometimes very tacitly. They are teaching us about what is “good” and what is “bad”; they are shaping how we think about the world, just by how they themselves operate and what values they instill. This is true of the Peace Corps, and of every other organization. Those things, combined, are why the Peace Corps is a very interesting case study. The book is about the pressures of rationalization (a certain set of social/cultural values) in development, and while it’s a story about the Peace Corps, it’s also a story about bureaucratic pressures and the consequences they have. In other words, it’s also a story about more than the Peace Corps–it’s a story about development and governance as well.
I’ll also note that this is a question that I spent much of the first chapter of the book talking about, so I definitely think that it would be worth looking at that. (“Why the Peace Corps?” starts on page 12).
How many RPCVs did you interview?
The book is based on data from 142 interviews, and from a survey of more than 2,800 respondents, in addition to document analysis. Check out the book’s methodology (starting on page 237). It’s got a full breakdown of who I talked to and who participated in the survey.
What led you to think that Volunteers were ‘idealistic’ and that’s why they became Volunteers.
This is a hard question to answer briefly since there’s a whole section of the book on it (in Chapter 1, especially starting on page 45). In short, because the data says so. I started the project exploring a slightly different angle of the Peace Corps, and it became clear both during the pilot project and then during the data collection itself, that idealism and values were massively important factors in people’s experiences of service. Obviously not everyone who participates in a program feels the same way about it (in other words, there are always outliers even when there are also clear patterns) but there is overwhelming evidence that Peace Corps volunteers are idealistic—particularly so in the early years of the program. The first chapter of the book is dedicated to this question specifically.
There have been, from my accounting, about 70 memoirs written by RPCVs about their experience. Which ones do you remember as best telling the story of the experience?
I think it depends on what story people are looking for. Memoirs are one version of storytelling —one that emphasizes a personal experience, and personal learning. I enjoyed [Moritz] Thomsen’s Living Poor (and it’s cited a few times as well in my own book). But there is also other work on the Peace Corps — empirical studies that are designed to help us learn about the organization through social science, and there are some good pieces there, too. Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman [NRPCV–All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s] published some work in that vein. So, there’s not a “best” in my perspective; there are different accounts that are talking about different dimensions of the organization and/or the experience.
In researching the history of the agency, where did you read where Volunteers were considered — by them — as having been idealists when they joined the agency.
This comes from both the interview and quantitative data within my study. In other words, volunteers self-identify as idealists (qualitative and quantitative data on this can be found in Chapter 1). But staff (both historically and contemporarily) also sees them, idealists, as the data also shows. Check out the recruiting posters in chapter 1 as well, for the ways in which the PC’s formal documents reflect this orientation. Kennedy’s speech at Michigan Union is another instance of that. Here’s another example: www.michiganradio.org/post/kennedy-and-peace-corps-idealism-ground. They abound.
Would you judge the Peace Corps as a failure for not living up to its ambitions?
It is not my intention to evaluate the Peace Corps as a “good” organization or as a “bad” one; I don’t think that’s helpful. Rather, I am interested in using the experiences of volunteers to understand an ongoing social process that is larger than the agency itself, and that has implications for how American society sees and undertakes social change work, especially development. Additionally, the Peace Corps does not necessarily have a single set of ambitions — it has an explicit 3-pronged mission statement, but also answers to a set of less explicit state pressures (see chapter 2). It is shaped by the pressures of bureaucratization and rationalization, which is the focus of the book. In other words, something can only fail relative to a specific set of goals, and the Peace Corps has always had multiple sets of goals. So I don’t see that language of “failure” or “success” as helpful necessarily–to me, the interesting thing is trying to understand why the organization behaves as it does, and what the consequences are for its volunteers and for development and social change. The conclusion of the book takes up this question very directly.
Now that all Volunteers have been called home, would you suggest that the agency be dissolved for not having lived up to its expectations?
You seem to assume that I think the Peace Corps has not lived up to its expectations. That is not my point at all — see above.
It is estimated that former Volunteers have invested well over two million dollars in one form or another in continued to support individuals, villages, and programs in their host country. What do you think are the motives for these RPCVs to still be connected, some after as many as 50 years, in their Peace Corps country? Why would you think that has happened?
I would guess that it’s because they feel very deeply connected to their host communities, committed to them, and grateful for their Peace Corps experience. Almost all the volunteers in my study valued their Peace Corps experience very deeply from a personal level. They report that they grew a great deal as a result of service, so these numbers don’t surprise me at all.
You write on page 23–24 that someone you met worked for 18 years with the Peace Corps. It was Shriver’s idea not to create a bureaucracy. To keep the ‘agency’ young and new. Do you think Shriver’s idea failed, or was it worth trying to keep?
I think it was an interesting experiment — and to me a worthwhile one. Having turnover creates a different set of problems from not having a turnover. A number of volunteers reported (and some of this is in the book) that having people turn over so fast meant that the Peace Corps was constantly reinventing the wheel. Obviously, Shriver was responding to a different set of challenges–of ingrained habits and the like. Organizations are complex, and I’m not sure there’s a silver bullet answer, but I do think that experimenting with new organizational processes is worthwhile. For what it’s worth, there are also a lot of ways to get around the 5-year rule, at least contemporarily: you can be hired as “local staff” if you’re an American under certain conditions; you can leave and come back; etc.
You write: [The Peace Corps] is shaped by the pressures of bureaucratization and rationalization, which is the focus of the book. In other words, something can only fail relative to a specific set of goals, and the Peace Corps has always had multiple sets of goals. How were the Volunteers’ “shaped?” Did you think that the agency limited their progress and success?
The Peace Corps has effects on its volunteers, but I wouldn’t say the agency “limited” anything. It, like any other organization, socializes people. Chapter 5 is all about people’s experiences when they come home–it parses their patterns in jobs/careers, political ideas, and feelings of patriotism and connection to the US. For me, a word like “limit” implies some sort of the desired goal for PCVs when they return. I don’t think there is any such goal; PCVs do show clear patterns about if they continue volunteering (yes, they do), where (in very local settings), where they work (very often in education and other helping professions), and what their political views are (generally liberal-centrist, though with some interesting variations on specific issues). Those patterns are not coincidences.
The real point is that pressures within society and government (rationalization and professionalization) shape the organization, causing changes within it. The structure and the practices of the organization, in turn, shape the volunteers, teaching them specific and enduring lessons about what development is, where power lies, and how social change happens. Volunteers carry those beliefs with them out into the world, and they inform where they work and how they spend their time, over the rest of their lives. Chapter 4 is the chapter that focuses most on those processes–it analyzes the experience of volunteers in the field.
You write in the book that you spoke to 140 people of the “nearly 250,000 returned Peace Corps volunteers.” And that you had a survey of about 2,800 RPCVS. Now I saw recently where the Peace Corps says that there have been 235,000 RPCVs. Either way, you are basing your results and opinions on approximately 1/2% of 1% of the total Peace Corps population. Do you think there are enough examples to prove your case?
If you look at the methods section, you’ll see the sampling methodology and a discussion about what’s called “representativeness” within the sample. No data is perfect; mine certainly isn’t. But see page 240 on the representativeness of the survey data — this is basically the idea that one can extrapolate general patterns from a subsample. This is also why the book uses what we call a “mixed methods” approach — different kinds of data both replicate and triangulate results. In other words, survey data only tells you so much because it’s multiple-choice, even when you have several thousand responses. That’s where the interviews come in, which help provide detail and texture that survey data does not. The documentary analysis (materials from the archives at the JFK Presidential Library & Museum, among other places) is what helps paint a picture of the organization’s understanding of itself — the face it presents to the world. This documentary data includes the text of the laws, excerpts from letters ([Harris] Wofford’s among them!), and hundreds upon hundreds of Peace Corps publications, including handbooks, annual reports, and the like.
I’d like to end by acknowledging that it’s very challenging to read a critical perspective on an experience that is dear to one’s heart. I know; I’ve been there! But to return to my former point: I’m not interested in whether the Peace Corps is “successful” or “failed” or “good” or “bad”. It’s not about whether any individual person is “good” or “bad” for their work there — Peace Corps volunteers and staff, in my experience, are for the most part authentically motivated by a desire to help. They are sincere. Those desires don’t always map onto the outcomes that one would wish to see, and the goal of the book is to understand why that is. I’m interested in why all these patterns keep playing out over time, where they come from, and what consequences they have. What can we learn from this about how to run better organizations, about how to take better care of our volunteers and host communities, or about the ways in which much bigger systems affect our efforts?
Thank you, Doctor Kallman for your time.