The Ying And Yang Of The Peace Corps

The Ying and Yang of the Peace Corps has always been whether a PCV is an expert technical advisor (written small), or an American just off on a Third World Walk About. The three goals of the Peace Corps give a mixed metaphor to the real reason of being a PCV. Many HCNs see us as CIA agents, and back home in Americans we’re thought of as missionaries without a religion.

PCVs for the most part just want a job, want to feel wanted, and need to believe they are getting the job done. So, on the macro side there is this grand design of the whole agency encouraging peace by sending Volunteers into the world and on the micro side there are just men and women-mostly young and inexperienced–hoping that at the end of the tour they will have been somewhat successful.

These competing goals are not necessarily bad.

From the first days of designing the Peace Corps in two rooms of the Mayflower Hotel the development types had a limited view of what PCVs could do in the Third World.  Shriver, and others, who were also in the rooms, had a larger vision.

For example, by the mid-60s Harris Wofford became to use the term “university in dispersion” to describe what the Peace Corps was. The development types didn’t like this. In their minds, the Peace Corps wasn’t a two-year advance degree program. They were not interested in what benefit a Peace Corps tour might be for an American kid.

I go back to what JFK said to Wofford about having PCVs coming home to vote more intelligently on foreign affair issues. That’s a value Kennedy realized from the first days of the agency. In 1961 few Americans had any real idea of what a Third World country was like.

There is something else that is important, and that is always overlooked, and that is the way PCVs live overseas. Volunteers live in villages, and by placing an American in a village changes the dynamics of the community. Changes the Volunteer.

The RPCV comes home to America and tells stories of life in the Peace Corps. The villagers left behind tell stories of this Volunteer, and their children, on both sides of the ocean, growing up with another perspective of the world, a dream of what might be possible for them, fostered by the tales their parents tell. It’s an old story. Cast a stone upon the waters and watch the ripples. Who know how much influence a single American in a small Third World village will have to the children of that village, to the leaders of the community, to the kids in school, to their host country friends? That’s the rub. That’s the genius of the Peace Corps.


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  • John, you tap into a pet subject of mine here. Is the Peace Corps an agency of development or just American PR? In my involvement at the agency with both sides of the question–PR via recruitment and development via regional ops–I came to this answer: it’s both, depending on who you ask. I think even the most die-hard anti-foreign aid types among the purse-keepers on Capitol Hill have come to appreciate the PR value of having eager and bright Americans tromping around among the natives. As long as you keep it cheap, they’ll fund it. But to the host-country people who have dedicated their lives to the development of their countries and partnered with the Peace Corps in that effort, the program is primarily a piece of the local development puzzle, with the incidental benefit that volunteers tend to be friendly and easy (usually) to work with.

    After all my years at the Peace Corps, I came to see that the true heroes of the agency, entirely unsung, are the Host Country programming staff attached to the overseas missions. During our time as colleagues in the Clinton years, we co-opted the campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid!”, and came up with, “It’s the volunteer, stupid!” I thought it was cute at the time, and a no-brainer, until I got to know and appreciate HCN staff. They work their butts off, all for the betterment of their countries, and don’t have the luxury of dropping in and then pulling out after a couple of years. They are true patriots, and they need all the skills the Peace Corps can provide to accomplish their goals. Ideally, the volunteers are agents of that desired change, and if local programmers become frustrated with the agency’s inability or unwillingness to provide a higher level of skills, it’s understandable. This two-edged sword may be “the genius of the Peace Corps,” but it’s also a compromise, and like all compromises, where the rubber hits the road, nobody is 100% happy with the product.

  • John, you’ve captured a lot about the complexity and subtlety of Peace Corps’ stated goals and how they actually play out. The reality is that there is no mechanism that can quantify the full, and most significant, value of that cross-cultural ripple effect you allude to that flows out from American volunteers (and sometimes even staff!) to and from people who have touched their lives in country and vice versa.

    Too bad we can’t create an It’s a Wonderful Life re-creation of what life in this world would be like if Peace Corps volunteers, as imperfect and non-“expert” as they may be, had never been placed overseas. I am absolutely certain the world would be a poorer, sadder, more narrow-minded place.

    I also agree with Ralph’s comment that the host country national Peace Corps staff are the unsung heroes. While the significance of HCN staff contributions remain mostly invisible to the outside world, I see another unstated goal achieved that reflects positively on Peace Corps and the HCN’s working overseas: the way Peace Corps posts operate, employing and providing additional training for these amazing individuals, results in thousands of host country nationals contributing their knowledge and skills to shaping the future of their respective their home countries. And then there is the ripple effect of HCN staff and their interactions with the American volunteers and staff that ripples across the oceans between the continents, too.

    None of this is perfect or useful in everybody’s eyes, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t part of the “genius” that is the intangible mark Peace Corps leaves on the globe.

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