My Time in the Peace Corps

By Waldorf, Saral | The Public Interest, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

My Time in the Peace Corps


Waldorf, Saral, The Public Interest


WHEN President Kennedy created the Peace Corps in the early 1960s, he appealed to the idealism and patriotism of American youth--promising them an opportunity to change the world through volunteerism. But beyond such altruism, the Peace Corps had a strategic, Cold War purpose: to flood the world, especially the Third World, with young, bright, well-educated Americans, who would aid development, plant the seeds of democracy, and check the spread of Soviet communism. While its impact even during the Cold War was marginal at best (except perhaps as useful propaganda), the Peace Corps was at least then a defensible program--largely ineffectual, but defensible. Today, as the Peace Corps celebrates its nearly 40 years of existence, one needs to ask if it really has any substantive role left to play and whether the program justifies its fairly hefty expense here and abroad.

The case for the Peace Corps has always rested on contrary aims, the most important being the education of American youth in the ways of the world. A Jeffersonian belief that educated citizens bring enlightened governance has always driven the Peace Corps's emphasis on the young, still somewhat uninformed adult, who through overseas service comes to understand the fundamental unity and brotherhood of man and brings this understanding home. In fact, anthropologist Robert Textor, editor of the initial evaluation of the Peace Corps just six years after its creation, argued that returning volunteers should obtain preferential job treatment in government, academia, and business, because they bring back such valuable insights after two years of service in Third World countries.

Yet the Peace Corps charter clearly states that its first goal is not the education of American youth but the transfer of technical skills to developing countries. And so here lies the problem: How can mostly young, unskilled volunteers--often left alone with few resources in the middle of a Third World village--transfer useful technology with any effectiveness? Peace Corps, to its credit, has always been aware of the near impossibility of making its competing goals compatible. And every director under every administration has tried almost every conceivable scheme to try to professionalize its recruits without losing the spirit of volunteerism that has always been the Peace Corps's signature appeal.

But these efforts have been mostly a failure. The success rate of the Peace Corps in terms of the economic and political development of host countries has been next to nothing--sometimes worse--if one reads the various congressional, academic, and ex-volunteer evaluations made of the agency and its programs. Moreover, the pool of recruits has sharply declined in recent years, suggesting that enthusiasm for the Peace Corps's brand of sacrificial volunteerism is no longer popular among America's recent college graduates. This is not entirely unexpected, given the many alternatives for getting the same psychic rewards--a sense of doing good and a sense of being perceived as doing good by others--without leaving home and family for two years.

Today, there are many Peace Corps spin-offs that allow for volunteering on a small scale. Each fall, USA Weekend magazine holds its annual "Make A Difference Day" and features the "winners" in its pages. And in tune with the American way of turning service into leisure, one can now pay to be a short-term volunteer in, say, Ghana, by putting down about $2,000 for a two-week "community-service village experience" offered by vacation outfits such as Gross-Cultural Solutions, Global Volunteers, and even Elderhostel. And it's all tax-deductible.

Perhaps most significant, in a booming American economy that has produced many twenty-something millionaires, the idea of spending two years after college in poor, faraway lands is no longer as appealing an option as it was in the days of the compulsory draft and a much weaker job market. …

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