The Peace Corps: A lot of bucks for very little bang? (Brookings)

The Peace Corps: A lot of bucks for very little bang?
By Thomas M Hill, Visiting Fellow—Governance Studies
Monday, October 16, 2017

Former Congressman Sam Farr (D-Calif.) is credited with having stated that the Peace Corps is “the American taxpayer’s best bang for its buck.” Certainly, it’s a sentiment shared by many returned Peace Corps volunteers who describe their experiences as personally transformative.

However, at approximately $56,500 per volunteer per year, the Peace Corps is one of the most expensive civilian overseas programs funded by the federal government and nearly twice as expensive as the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. The program’s cost ($410 million annually) coupled with its inconsistent development track record and the agency’s insistence that it operate independently from U.S. foreign policy should raise questions for Congress about whether an entirely taxpayer-funded model is sustainable and a good use of limited resources.

In 1971, Brent Ashabranner, the former Deputy Director of the Peace Corps suggested that the agency could be run by a private foundation. Some have dismissed the idea of a mixed funding model stating that there isn’t enough philanthropic money available to offset cuts to federal funding sources. But the Peace Corps already does engage in some philanthropic fundraising through its “strategic partners” program. In FY 2016, Peace Corps raised more than $1.6 million (only counting donations larger than $50,000) in corporate donations, $1.4 million from the private sector for the “Let Girls Learn” initiative, and more than $16,000 through its “Peace Corps Fund.”

Today there are approximately 220,000 members of the National Peace Corps Association, a network for returned Peace Corps volunteers, who could serve as a potential donor base. Included in that number are Reed Hastings (founder and CEO of Netflix), Chris Matthews (MSNBC), author Paul Theroux, and numerous former ambassadors and elected officials fully capable of opening their rolodexes and wallets. A reduction in the federal funding levels over multiple fiscal years would allow the agency to build out its philanthropic fundraising capacity and minimize any program disruptions.

The Peace Corps has three goals:

  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for skilled individuals,
  2. To promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and
  3. To promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

The testimonials of retuned Peace Corps volunteers clearly demonstrate that the second and third goals of the program are being met (perhaps exceeded). But what about the first? The vast majority of Peace Corps volunteers have no international development experience to speak of and there are serious questions about whether host countries sustain the projects they initiate.

According to former Peace Corps volunteer and agency historian Stanley Meisler, “Volunteers simply feel and know that what they are doing helps the people around them.” Unfortunately, Congress has not held the Peace Corps accountable to its development mission, allowing the agency to operate in a non-competitive environment and implement programs independently of what other development organizations might also be doing in the same country or with the same goals and objectives.

In addition, the Peace Corps has always pushed back against the notion that it is an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. Former Peace Corps’ Director Aaron Williams said that linking the Peace Corps “with American foreign policy, no matter how benign, may hurt its credibility around the world,” echoing former Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s 1961 statement that “the Peace Corps is not an instrument of foreign policy because to make it so would rob it of its contribution to foreign policy.”

Defenders of the status quo are quick to point out that the length of their deployments makes the program unique—but that is changing. According to Current Population Survey data from 2014, Peace Corps volunteers make up only slightly more than 10 percent of the total number of U.S. citizens engaged in international volunteer programs lasting longer than 26 weeks. Other programs could achieve the same goals and benefit a larger number of American volunteers and foreign citizens, at much less cost to the federal government.

In FY 2018, the president proposed a 32 percent cut to the overall International Affairs Budget but only a 3 percent cut to Peace Corps, reducing the budget to $398 million. However, a strong lobbying effort by the Peace Corps (#ProtectPeaceCorps) and supporters in Congress rolled back even that small cut. But high levels of appropriated funding in the future cannot be assumed.

The Peace Corps ignored President Trump’s Executive Order 13781 requiring that each agency submit a “plan to reorganize the agency, if appropriate, in order to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of that agency,” and to consider “whether some or all of the functions of an agency, a component, or a program are appropriate for the Federal Government or would be better left to State or local governments or to the private sector through free enterprise.”

A mixed-funding model could be a benefit to both the Peace Corps and the American taxpayer, reducing direct government appropriations to the satisfaction of fiscal conservatives in Congress and the White House while insulating the agency from future operating budget contractions. A successful philanthropic effort could even allow the agency to reach its long-time aspiration of 10,000 volunteers.

Unfortunately, the Peace Corps prefers the status quo, confident in its Congressional allies and the clout of its alumni. But soon policymakers are likely to ask whether a public-private funding model is a more appropriate arrangement for a comparatively costly volunteer organization intent on distancing itself from U.S. foreign policy and designed to benefit the volunteer first and foremost.

Thomas M. Hill Visiting Fellow—Governance Studies




Leave a comment
  • This description of Thomas M. Hill’s experience and education comes form the website for the Brookings Institution.

    “Thomas Hill is a Visiting Fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow. His research focuses on modernization of U.S. foreign policy institutions. Previously, Mr. Hill served as a Senior Professional Staff Member with the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), majority staff covering Department of State operations including democracy and human rights promotion, the Middle East and North Africa, the international organizations (i.e. United Nations), and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) as well as U.S. public diplomacy more broadly. Prior to joining the Committee, he served as a Foreign Affairs Officer with the U.S. Department of State for almost nine years. During that time, Mr. Hill served as the Strategic Planning Coordinator for the Office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) (2009-2013); as the Governance Advisor to the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Sadr City, Iraq (2008-2009); as the Freedom Agenda Coordination Team (FACT) Director (2008); as the acting-Deputy Director for the State Department’s Iran Democracy Program (2007); and as the foreign assistance coordinator for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (2005-2006).

    Before joining the Department of State, Mr. Hill worked as a research assistant at Democratic Dialogue in Belfast, N. Ireland (2002) and served as a claims writer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Amman, Jordan (2001).

    Mr. Hill recently completed coursework towards a Ph.D. in Political Science at George Washington University, researching the factors that determine the speed of regime collapse and democratic development in the “Arab Spring” states. He holds an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University (2006); and, a B.S. in Political Science from Santa Clara University (2000). He has studied Arabic at Birzeit University (2000) in the West Bank, Israel and speaks Spanish and limited French.”

  • Congress has also not held Peace Corps accountable for the health of Volunteers while in the field and upon their return. Many suffer profoundly from lack access to care by medical officers in country. Peace Corps pays dollar for dollar for health care for Volunteers once they return for service related illnesses/injuries. But this care is adminiatrated by the US Department of Labor, lacks the physicians or the knowledge to administer the kind of care that Volunteers need. Until the health and security of all Volunteers is improved, Peace Corps must not be expanded.

  • I think Hill’s blog post deserves a very deliberate and documented response. I have used the question form on the blog website to ask Hill for more information about the citation for the Current Population Survey data for 2014. I looked and could not find to what he was referring. His reference to Peace Corps “insistence” on operating independently of US foreign policy links to a working paper of the Brookings Institution from 2003. This doesn’seem to explain the use of the word “insistence”. Peace Corps does not operate independently of Legislative or Executive authority.

    I will continue to research Hill’s assertions and report back. The Brookings Institution is a well respected “think tank” and Hill’s comments may be used by others.. That is why I think it very important to make sure that the assertions are challenged, where indicated.

    Having said that, $56,000 per Volunteer is absurd as has been noted here by many RPCVs. Nancy Tongue’s comment reflects the work she has done over the years and we hope pending legislation will begin to correct these problems.

  • “Peace Corps volunteers make up only slightly more than 10 percent of the total number of U.S. citizens engaged in international volunteer programs lasting longer than 26 weeks.”

    This is a false comparison. 26 weeks is half a year. There’s a big difference between volunteering for 26 weeks and volunteering for 2 years. Integration takes a long time; 26 weeks is just barely enough to integrate, and is not enough to start doing sustainable work.

    Also the comparison lacks data on location. Peace Corps Volunteers are often in remote rural areas. Is this also true of the programs where the other 90% of US citizens volunteering abroad are?

    • Thank you, Kristen. When I read it, I made the mistake of thinking it was 26 months. I really appreciate your comment. I think what Hill wrote does not make any sense. I used the question form on the Brookings Institution blog site to ask him to verify the information about “90%” of civilians, etc. He cited the Current PopulationSurvey to prove his point. Let’s see if we get a response.
      My personal opinion is this is really a sloppy piece of work!

    • Kristen, you are right on target. Trying to track down the sorce of that statistic has so far been futile.

  • Even back in the earliest days (the 1960s) there was a feeling that the Peace Corps had a much higher overhead ratio than any other volunteer program, notably CUSO, VSO, TEA, and TWA, to name a few large ones. Particularly, significant considering that the Peace Corps, unlike Military, State Dept, USAID, & cetera, offered no fringe benefits other than service-related health care and a small readjustment allowance.

    I still remember the universal laughs from early volunteers when the State Dept maintained that in Malawi life was so difficult for diplomats, with their mansions, cooks, chauffers, limos, gardeners, nannies, that they all needed two weeks of R&R per year in Greece, or South Africa. This was the “Foreign Policy Establishment”, and their clandestine foreign policy, that Pres JFK wanted to stay independent of. That, and the ominous presence, real or imagined, of the CIA, about which all early volunteers received a stern lecture, to avoid anybody claiming to be CIA, wishing to recruit them and/or asking for information.

    One advantage these other volunteer organizations had was they were focused on only teaching, simplifying recruitment, and typically things like housing were already much more established. However, the complexities of multiple First Goal occupations, lodging complexities in remote areas, typically fell on the tiny, four or five in-country staff, which generated a very small (like 3%) overhead. Factoring in all other expense categories, it probably is about 5%. Nowhere near $56,500/PCV/yr., leaving everybody with the conclusion that the fat was in the Washington HQ.

    What is needed is what’s called “Zero-based Budgeting”, where the appropriation request starts at flat ZERO, and every dollar is explained and justified in terms of some definable function. No vague generalities. Nobody wants to have to do this more frequently than every few years, as the process itself is expensive. But what it can reveal is nothing short of astounding. in summary, i think the Peace Corps OVERHEAD should be carefully examined. Not some across-the-board cutting, but costing by function. My suspicion is that that $56,500 would suddenly drop by 2/3.

    I also like the concept of the Peace Corps being representative of the American People, rather than a wholly-funded function of the government. Once again, it’s the old principle of “Independence of the Peace Corps”. Every time I read of some dim-bulb congressman wanting PCVs to be selected and assigned as propaganda agents for whatever the current foreign policy stunt happens to be, I’m reminded of what the original “Independence” thinking really was all about. John Turnbull New Mexico

  • John,

    I think that Acting Director Crowley agrees with you about administrative overhead. In August, she announced a 20 percentage reduction in stateside staff, Crowley is a RPCV!

    I think there are many good ideas to discuss about reorganizing Peace Corps. I found a lot of assumptions in Hill’s article which don’t hold up. FYI, I think zero based budgeting was in effect during the Carter administration.n

  • Thanks, Joanne. When I read the most recent posting of Sargent Shriver’s 25th anniversary speech, and then went back and read Mr Hill’s comments, what the foundational difference in the two perceptions couldn’t be clearer. I remember back in the early -60s with the original groups in Ghana and then again in Nyasaland Protectorate (later Malawi) State Dept people frequently were dismissive of the Peace Corps. But every now and then, one of them would express genuine admiration for what we volunteers were doing. And even the military remarked about sending off individuals to uncertain tasks and circumstances with virtually NO backup. it spoke well for the volunteers.

    I think a lot of State Dept sour grapes (and veiled resentment) came to an end with the revolution in the Dominican Republic, where New Mexico born country director Andres “Andy” Hernandez, when everybody else was evacuated, kept the volunteers at their posts, or in even more critical life-saving assignments throughout the conflict, did not take sides, and earned the respect of that country ever after. It was six years ago, we gathered at the adobe church at the little ranching community of Puerto de Luna, to say our final Good Byes to Andy. One of those “bigger-than-life” figures, like Shriver himself, who made the Peace Corps what it has been.

    Back when I was involved with “Zero-based Budgeting”, I was the technical guy, and worked with a top-notch accountant-auditor. The foot-dragging and non-cooperation was always a challenge, but when we assured everybody that nobody would be dumped, and for the supervisors learning that combining of positions with more responsibilities could mean reclassification and elevation in pay, they really pitched in. Civil Service systems, designed to protect from corruption and patronage, typically get in the way of free-wheeling reorganizing, but once everybody is on the same page, it can be inspiring. So, good luck to RPCV Crowley, and her current task. John Turnbull New Mexico

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Copyright © 2022. Peace Corps Worldwide.