Tomorrow, March 1, marks 50 years since President John F. Kennedy signed the Executive Order creating the Peace Corps. So naturally, one would expect some contrarian to rain on the parade. Right on cue, Foreign Policy magazine has published an opinion piece by Charles Kenny asking the question, “does the world still need the Peace Corps?” Being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya, I naturally have some thoughts on the matter.
It’s the Sustainability, Stupid!
His primary critique, which he returns to again and again, is that the Peace Corps “can’t seem to move on from the 1960s.” It’s difficult to decipher what Kenny means by this, as he never explains. Is it the fact that many volunteers are still motivated by the idea of service propounded by Kennedy in his Inaugural Address, that we should “ask what we can do for our country”? It’s hard to see how that’s a bad thing. Is it that the Peace Corps has been static over the last 5 decades, refusing to adapt to changing circumstances? If that’s his critique (and again, he never coherently spells out what his critique is), then he is far off the mark. The Peace Corps has undergone vast changes in the last 5 decades….
To take one example, in the 1960s, my great-aunt served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia. She and the other Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) lived for those two years in a dorm-style building in the capital, Addis Ababa. They taught in schools and were encouraged to spend their off-time together in the dorms, rather than living amongst the people. Today, the overwhelming majority of PCVs live alone in poverty-stricken rural communities, where over two years, they can get to understand the culture enough and integrate enough to successfully implement projects that make real change possible. To take a second, the Peace Corps initially focused on manpower-intensive projects, such as drilling boreholes and husbandry programs. Today, the primary focus of the Peace Corps worldwide is public health, education, environment, youth, and ICT/Small business entrepreneurship. That’s hardly refusing “to accept that the 1960s really are over.”
Kenny summarizes the Peace Corps’ 1960s-bound mission as “‘to promote world peace and friendship’ through three core goals: providing trained men and women to work in developing countries, increasing the world’s understanding of Americans, and vice versa.” So far, so good. But then he makes a series of mistaken assumptions. Whereas PCVs “had the field to themselves” in the 1960s, now “more than 1 million Americans reported volunteering in a foreign country… Organizations ranging from church groups to private companies to Doctors Without Borders send people overseas to provide everything from manual labor to advanced technical expertise.” This is very true, and all to the good. Yet each of these groups has different goals and effects on the ground. Many church groups, for example, are focused on spreading the Gospel and their projects (ranging from working in a refugee camp to buying books for school kids to simply donating money) often are implemented by Westerners who parachute in a for a few weeks and then return home. Not to negate any of these projects, but how much can someone really get to know a foreign community and its culture and its needs in a few weeks or even a few months?
There are two other potential problems with this short-term model of development work: first, the community will rightly believe that the project was something “done by that mzungu (white person).” There’s the tragic story I heard of the NGO that put portable latrines in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. There was certainly a need for an intervention, considering the complete lack of a sanitation system and the widespread habit of simply throwing bags of human waste out into the streets to get rid of them. Yet by parachuting in and implementing this project quickly and without attempting to get the community involved and invested, the latrines suffered two fates: they were either never used (“Why should I use that thing the mzungu put here? It’s not mine, it’s the mzungu’s.”) or they were used and, once full, were abandoned (“That mzungu really needs to come back and clean up HIS latrine. Oh well, back to the old way.”). Plenty of Westerners are, to their credit, quite willing to donate their money and efforts to address problems in Africa, but unless the local people feel a sense of OWNERSHIP of both the problem and the solution, it will all be a waste. Having a mzungu show up every now and then to maintain a project is simply not SUSTAINABLE, which is one of the Peace Corps shibboleths.
The other groups Kenny lists have their own issues. Private companies are first and foremost concerned with making a profit (duh!) and might be more concerned with getting good PR for a project than with it working properly. As you can probably tell by now, there is a kind of “sustainable development mentality,” which is often counter-intuitive, the principles of which few businesspeople (actually few non-development workers period) are familiar with. If there’s one overriding lesson from decades of development work, it’s that GOOD INTENTIONS ARE NOT ENOUGH. Because “aid” encourages dependency, there are few rural areas in the developing world where the people see a Westerner and DON’T assume they are there to give them money. It’s a simple lesson, but one that far too many NGOs and others with good intentions simply haven’t learned, the result being a continuation and deepening of dependency. And as for emergency groups like Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), they do extremely valuable work, but one would hope that work in war-torn societies is not the new model for the development industry as a whole! All of this is to say that the work the Peace Corps does is NOT completely duplicated by other groups.
They can afford cell phones! Mission Accomplished!
Kenny also points to a shrinking education gap between PCVs and their local counterparts.
“Only 3 percent of the college-age population of Guatemala, a reliable favorite Peace Corps destination, actually attended college in 1970. That figure is 18 percent today. The same is true of other countries with a large Peace Corps presence. Indonesia’s college enrollment has grown from 3 to 21 percent over that period, and Panama’s has climbed from 7 to 45 percent.”
Increased college enrollment is a very positive sign, to be sure, and over time will help reduce those countries’ need for assistance, as they build up a skilled entrepreneurial class. But it would be naive to assume that local community colleges and trade schools obviate the need for the Peace Corps. There’s a reason that even an American undergrad diploma from an accredited state university is valued to such an extent that hundreds of thousands apply for US student visas every year. If they thought they could get a comparable education in their home country, they would. It’s that simple. While there are increasing numbers of high-quality universities throughout the developing world, America still maintains its role as Educator to the World; not a bad little niche!
Kenny again: “The original idea was that young, idealistic volunteers living in communities for extended periods of time would foster goodwill toward the United States. But according to Peace Corps surveys, only 44 percent of host country nationals who have interacted with a volunteer believed that Americans are committed to assisting other peoples.” In all honesty, that does seem a little high, considering that to most people in my community, I am “the mzungu” rather than “the American.” From the perspective of most Kenyans, all white people, be they from North America, Australia or Europe, are the same-same (in the same way that far too many Americans think all Africans are the same or that Africa is a country rather than a continent).
Flitting from one random factoid to another, Kenny tells us that “in 1970, there were fewer than 11,000 telephones in the entire country of Senegal, most of them in the capital city of Dakar. Today, there are 5.6 million of them, spread throughout the country.” Yet Senegal also has a much higher per capita income than most African nations with PCVs.
There’s also a difference between having a cell phone and having it be a smartphone that has access to the internet. Even for those who can afford such a smartphone (the cheapest sell for about $8000 KSH or about 1/17th the average annual per capita income here; note that most PCVs live in rural areas where the per capita income is much much less than this), will Kenyans or Senegalese use these phones to try to find out about US culture? Kenny seems to think so: “In 2008, about two out of every three dollars spent in movie theaters outside the United States were spent on U.S.-produced films.” Which would increase knowledge of US culture more, having a PCV in your community or drawing stereotypes about what Americans are like based on Hollywood movies? Is that even a serious question?
The next question posed in Kenny’s convoluted argument: “How many volunteers would it take to make up for the images broadcast around the globe of ‘Made in USA’ labels stamped on the tear gas cannisters and rubber bullets shot at Egyptian pro-democracy protesters this month?” A valid question, but one entirely outside the control of the Peace Corps. Gee willikers, perfessor, you’re saying that if we give with one hand and take with the other, people will be confused about our intentions? It would seem rather obvious that since our founding ideals have inspired people around the world, that our power and influence abroad would be enhanced when our policies and ideals are in harmony and that they would wane when the two are not aligned. This isn’t rocket science nor, since Peace Corps does not decide matters of war and foreign policy, is it remotely relevant to the argument Kenny seems to be valiantly struggling to construct.
“The world is a very different place than it was in 1961. Between 1996 and 2009 alone, the number of U.S. citizens traveling to Africa tripled to 399,000 a year; 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad in the 2008-2009 academic year, up from around 75,000 20 years ago. A lot of those studying did so in developing countries — 13,681 in Africa and 3,670 in the Middle East, for example.”
We already looked at other groups which travel to Africa (church groups, NGOs, businesspeople). As far as studying abroad goes, Kenny admits that only 13,681 out of 260,000 students studied abroad in Africa. Most of the rest studied abroad in developed nations, particularly in Western Europe. Living abroad, even in London or Barcelona, can be an enriching experience; but there’s a much larger cultural gap between the US and Kenya or even Kyrgyzstan than between the US and Spain or the UK. It’s clear that with such small numbers of US students studying abroad in Africa that such programs can hardly be counted on to contribute much to cross-cultural understanding between the US and African nations.
Moving to the argument that the Peace Corps costs too much, Kenny asks, “Is there a need for a significant administrative infrastructure in country to ensure the safety and comfort of Peace Corps volunteers in nations like Belize, Costa Rica, Jamaica, or Thailand? Plenty of backpackers would tell you otherwise.”
Of course not! It’s not like Jamaica was plagued by drug-cartel fueled street violence last year or that Thailand has seen years of strife and insurrection since a military coup in 2006. And of course, it couldn’t possibly be the case that there are PCVs in nations even less stable than that, including more than a dozen which have experienced a civil war in the last decade alone. Especially in the wake of often hyperbolic and breathless recent media coverage of some horrific incidents involving Peace Corps Volunteers, his cavalier attitude towards PCV security is bizarre. Clearly there needs to be a certain amount of administrative and medical staff in each PCV-hosting nation, particularly if there is an emergency, an outbreak, or evacuation proves necessary. Personally, as someone living alone almost an hour’s drive from the nearest Westerner, I’d like to be able to receive medical or security help when I need it!
And OF COURSE living in a foreign country for 2 years is EXACTLY like backpacking through a country for a few days or weeks! People in either situation are at EXACTLY the same amount of risk of violent attack (since most victims know their attackers) and are at EXACTLY the same risk of contracting a tropical disease or parasitic infection (since the more time you spend in a malarial zone, the greater your chances of being bitten, for example).
“We’re Broke.” Sound Familiar?
Now I’m sure there are plenty of things the Peace Corps could do better. Some administrator in DC or elsewhere could probably stand to see his or her salary cut. Every corporate or bureaucratic budget has SOME fat. And the Peace Corps’ approach to the safety of its volunteers is worth debating, though I imagine few would argue that the solution is spending LESS on security. And his point that we should have more PCVs in strategically-important areas like the Middle East is correct (though Yemen, aka “the next Somalia,” is an odd example). But rather than start a worthwhile debate about any of these issues, Kenny pivots to conclude by suggesting that the Peace Corps be converted into a grant program: “In a new Peace Corps, grants could be offered directly to volunteers to cover the cost of travel and living in a developing country. The agency could set conditions on factors such as minimum length of service, security, language skills and training, focus countries, and the total cost of the proposed program.”
Why would converting to a grant program be an improvement over the current system? Well, according to Kenny,
“There are private-sector programs that place volunteers overseas for between $5,000 and $6,000 a year, or about 10 percent of what the Peace Corps pays per volunteer. Trimming the current bureaucratic structure — and perhaps rethinking the two-year commitment — would expand the number of countries where the program could operate and allow the Peace Corps to attract more volunteers. Given all that, it would make considerable sense for the agency to move toward a model of awarding grants for overseas service rather than attempting to provide a full volunteer package.”
Would it really make considerable sense? Generally, attempting to more with less turns into accomplishing less with less. I’m not opposed to the idea of a government-funded development grant, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that that approach would be more effective.
Why does it cost so much more for the Peace Corps to place a volunteer than other groups? Part of the answer may lie in the fact that in Africa alone, according to the latest PC budget, “In addition to French and Portuguese, the Peace Corps provides training for Volunteers in over 150 local languages and in sign language in Kenya and Ghana.” Hiring language trainers to teach all those languages doesn’t come cheap.
Why force PCVs to stay in a developing country for two years when most volunteer programs don’t put their volunteers in the field for anywhere close to two years? Because it takes at least one full year to truly get integrated into a community enough to know the movers and shakers; to figure out who genuinely cares about improving their community and who thinks you could be a source of easy money; to know what the community’s real needs actually are; to be conversant enough in the local language to be accepted as a member of the community so that whatever project you spearhead, it becomes THEIR project, not just yours.
Reducing the term of service to less than two years will drastically reduce the effectiveness of volunteers and result in fewer completed projects. Kenny might dismiss this as a relic of the ’60s, but an organization that has been doing something for five decades has undoubtedly learned a few lessons along the way. The Peace Corps is certainly FAR from perfect, but it might more productive to find out why the Peace Corps does things the way it does than to blithely assume it has something to do with a weird 1960s fetish. Or as the Godfather of the Peace Corps might say, our work of international development “will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”