The agency’s foe and foil were clear in 1961. To counter the spread of communism in newly independent states, it enlisted a post-World War II generation of American idealists to share our country’s new affluence around the globe.
Overseas, Peace Corps volunteers inspired trust in democracy by teaching citizens of poor nations skills they requested in their languages and communities. At home, Peace Corps volunteers promoted international friendship by showcasing beneficial values and practices learned abroad. Everywhere, Peace Corps volunteers learned to innovate, withstand hardship, honor commitments and appreciate the power of humble efforts to help others.
Three policies underpinned that mission. Host-community ownership was promoted by having local people use a bottom-up development model called Participatory Analysis for Community Action to choose volunteer activities and by offering customized skills training for 211 different projects within 50 technical interventions. Regulatory capture was prevented by making the Peace Corps independent of the United States Agency for International Development and by barring most Americans from holding staff positions at the Peace Corps for more than five years. And volunteer empowerment was encouraged by trimming the tooth-to-tail ratio of volunteers to staff to 10:1.
Sixty-two years later, the Peace Corps’ adversary and recruits are much different. Internationally, China replaced the Soviet Union as the West’s primary competitor in many developing nations and substituted major economic leverage for person-to-person ideological indoctrination as its method. Domestically, lingering uncertainty caused by the Great Recession of 2007-09 prompted a new generation to think about career ladders in addition to the needs of others.
The policies that guided the Peace Corps in the 1960s also changed.
First, host-community choice has diminished. It started in 2010 when, to protect its share of the American volunteer market, the Peace Corps began reducing projects host countries could select from 211 to 60 on the assumption the remaining ones would provide volunteers “highly focused on building a career” with “an unmatched opportunity for professional growth” and still help local beneficiaries. The death blow came a few years later when the Peace Corps required volunteers to follow “standardized logical project frameworks.” Formed by “a consultative process, involving host government representatives, non-governmental organizations, other project sector experts, counterparts, Volunteers, and staff” rather than by the dictates of host-community members as contemplated by PACA, LPFs now limit the work a volunteer can perform to a menu of activities set by people mostly from outside the volunteer’s community.
Second, there are signs of regulatory capture. Since 2002, the Peace Corps has ceded programmatic control of hundreds of volunteers annually to USAID’s Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief; entered a USAID-Peace Corps Global Interagency Agreement to integrate activities; appointed USAID veterans to top Peace Corps positions; and changed the ratio of volunteers to staff from a trim 10:1 in the ’60s to 2:1 in FY 2020 and an inverted 1:4 in FY 2022, raising concern that the agency may be inefficient and focused on preserving itself.
Third, trust in the initiative and resilience of volunteers has wavered. How else can one explain the change in the ratio of volunteers to staff from 10:1 to 2:1 to 1:4 and the substitution of activities scripted by outside experts for those designed by host communities aided by volunteers?
Without a doubt, an organization with a vital mission must change to meet demographic, technological, social, legal, economic, and political realities. Remaining stagnant will make it ineffective, inefficient, inequitable, and unsustainable.
The question is whether the Peace Corps still has a vital mission. It did when service-oriented American volunteers combated person-to-person Soviet propaganda by working for the sake of foreign community members on projects they chose. However, China’s substitution of massive economic aid for person-to-person diplomacy and the Peace Corps’ new preference for expert control of community activities, for USAID integration, for an outsized staff, and for promotion of volunteer careers rather than volunteer service has raised doubts.
A fresh review of the Peace Corps’ mission and policies seems appropriate. Debate then can begin on whether infrastructural aid is needed more than person-to-person diplomacy to counter China’s growing economic influence abroad; on whether older skilled volunteers are needed more than young generalists where person-to-person diplomacy remains viable; and on whether contracts with nongovernmental entities are better sources of volunteers than a bureaucracy. The self-sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of upstanding American volunteers and trainees who made life better for millions warrants it.
By David F. Mayo
March 24, 2023