Sargent Shriver, the agency’s first director, recognized that a “Peace Corps, small and symbolic, might be good public relations, but a Peace Corps that was large and had a major impact on problems in other countries could transform the economic development of the world,” according to former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford. Because the Peace Corps has tried to be all things to all comers, that grand vision has never been realized or even approached. To become effective and relevant, the Peace Corps must now give up on the myth that its creation was the result of an immaculate conception that can never be questioned or altered. It must go out and recruit the best of the best. It must avoid goodwill-generating window dressing and concentrate its resources in a limited number of countries that are truly interested in the development of their people. And it must give up on the risible excuse that in the absence of quantifiable results, good intentions are enough. Only then will it be able to achieve its original objective of significantly altering the lives of millions for the better.
Think Again: The Peace Corps, Robert L. Strauss, in Foreign Policy, April 2008
I have to say that, even though I am a “Returned Peace Corps Volunteer” (RPCV) myself, I don’t like what I have seen of RPCV culture, here or abroad. It’s too often self-congratulatory, if not self-righteous.
On the other hand, I haven’t sought out other RPCVs, and when I am contacted by the Peace Corps it is usually in the context of promoting the program or celebrating our service. None of these situations are conductive to critical self-reflection.
The people I knew in the Peace Corps would welcome some sort of critical discussion. Strauss makes a great start although he leans towards hyperbole. Still, I can’t help but agree that the Peace Corps has not achieved is original mission and could use an overhaul.
I think this new, revised Peace Corps ought to be coupled closely with it’s domestic parallels, such as AmericaCorps, and linked to a wide-spread initiative to expand higher education and to make college fully accessible.
An ideal program would include several components. It would have to begin, as Strauss says, with specific countries making specific requests. My sense is that much if not all of this sort of development would require a little expertise, and a lot of labor.
In any case, the basic bargain would be a trade of overseas development work for college expenses. I think this might best be done as a year long program either before or after college. It might also be possible to have a program that allows you to do two-months at a time, starting in High School.
I think this sort of program would come much closer to the original ideals of the Peace Corps. If well run and designed, it could accelerate development all over the world. Just as importantly, it would help to create a less insular culture here, which might help the world more than anything else.