Thinking about the Purpose of the Peace Corps

8/15/10

A happy consequence of having nothing scheduled to do for three days has been that I’ve been able to read a lot. One of the most interesting things I’ve read has been a book by a former Peace Corps Country Director, John Bullington, recounting vignettes of PC Niger Volunteers from 2000-2006.

I’ve been fascinated by his explanation of why the Peace Corps exists and the purpose that it serves it Niger. I’ve done enough reading on the Peace Corps website to understand that the organization was created by John F. Kennedy in 1961 to inspire young Americans to consider public service—modeled along the lines of the famous quote “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” It was pronounced an expression of American generosity and idealism and upholds those ideals to this time. But, at the time, it was also an instrument of the Cold War—a soft power tool to win the “hearts and minds” of people in countries beginning to emerge from colonialism.

 The three goals of the Peace Corps have remained the same since its creation; first, to provided skilled Americans to work with local people at the grassroots level; second, to promote a better understanding of America by people in the countries served; and lastly, to promote a better American understanding of other countries.

 Initially, I’d was surprised to find that two of the three goals focused on cultural exchange. It seemed, and to some extent still seems, like the U.S. government is financing a prolonged study abroad program. While I’m a huge proponent of cultural exchange, I wondered how such a program could be justified in Congress, particularly amidst huge budget deficits.

 Bullington, a conservative, explained how his philosophy of “compassionate conservatism” not only supports the Peace Corps but calls for additional resources for it. Peace Corps costs relatively little, about $265 million annually (far less than the $800 billion doled out to the military) because the agency relies on volunteerism. The Peace Corps has benefited from its bipartisan support, with both President Obama and former President Bush pushing for the agency’s expansion.

Peace Corps plays a particularly interesting role in Niger. The country has a lot going against it: explosive population growth, rampant desertification, a severe geographic disadvantage (landlocked and 2/3 desert), political instability, skewed gender norms and widespread disease. By all macro social and economic indicators, the fifty years that the Peace Corps has been in Niger has done little. Peace Corps Volunteers are not NGOs; we can’t fix roads or build hospitals.

At the end of our two years,very few of us will ever be able to point to a magnificent building somewhere in a Nigerien village and say “I did that.” And yet, as Bullington argues, our “most important legacy are people who think and act differently, not buildings and machines.” It’s supposed to be a hand-up, not a hand-out. I’m hoping that by the end of my two years I will have helped in such a way that my village will think that they’ve done it themselves.