Is the Peace Corps any good?

Yesterday, we published several reader reactions to "Think Again: Peace Corps," a new FP Web exclusive written by former Cameroon country director Robert L. Strauss.

Today, Howard Williams, a former Peace Corps volunteer and fellow former country director "with over 20 years experience as a development professional in 15 countries," writes in to say he is "dismayed" by the article:

Among the straw men are "The Peace Corps is a Diplomatic Weapon." Peace Corps is a diplomatic asset, demonstrating the goodwill and basic decency of Americans that, taken with the work of USAID, other U.S. Agencies, and their PVO and NGO partners, show we care about more than ourselves and that a sense of service to others is a basic American characteristic.

Equally flawed is the assertion that volunteers are not sent to where they are needed and that whole countries can be "graduated," no longer benefiting sufficiently from volunteers' service. Anyone who works or travels in the field, outside the capital with its agency offices and well-appointed hotels, knows that access to resources and experience managing them is uneven and that there are populations within most countries that can benefit from volunteers' assistance.

For example, many developing countries, Cameroon no doubt included, find great difficulty recruiting qualified teachers to serve in rural and remote sites. Peace Corps volunteer teachers will go there and show up at their classes regularly and well prepared –- something that local teachers often find challenging, given the other economic, social, and health demands they face each day. Students can count on PCVs to be there, in class, helping them learn.

Some countries with a greater overall resource base, like Romania, can benefit from American volunteers by their demonstrated sense of civic duty, resourcefulness, collegial approach to their work, and public transparency, traits that were not well rewarded under the former Soviet system. If a country director knowingly sent volunteers to assignments that were not needed, not useful, or not workable or that did not sufficiently engage the volunteers, as he claims, then he would have failed in his job as director. Complaints on that score are much akin to a ship's captain blaming the Navy for bad weather and rocks.

Denigrating generalizations about local people liking anyone attempting to speak their language and participate in local traditions, or that volunteers do not sufficiently demonstrate their commitment to service, are not supported by facts but by a condescending articulation about the nature of people, including the very volunteers he pledged to support.

Finally, the assertion that Peace Corps has an obligation to justify itself on a "development" yardstick, in comparison with other agencies, completely misses the point of what Peace Corps is. There simply is no such thing as a perfect "development" program. We used to tell volunteers, "Each aid agency has strengths and limitations and each has a unique role to play in development. Some have more money, some have national programs, and Peace Corps has people. You cannot judge one by comparing its limitations to the strengths of another -- and vice versa." I hope we will not lose sight of Peace Corps' unique contribution to local development, goodwill abroad, and Americans' understanding of the world in pursuit of making it look more "professional." If you ask any villager who they can count on to be there each day for them, you'll find that Peace Corps rates very well indeed.

Were you a Peace Corps volunteer or do you otherwise have strong thoughts on this topic? Read the article and comment below or send us your comments by e-mail. Requests for confidentiality will be strictly honored.


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