“I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.” Like 98 percent of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, I was proud to declare this and believe my two-year service was worthwhile. I grew professionally and personally, and I did some good. But the program is broken in many ways.More than 210,000 Americans have served as volunteers in 139 countries since the program’s founding in 1961. John F. Kennedy envisioned the Peace Corps as a call to service for qualified Americans to venture abroad and help developing countries. It represented an idealized world of humanitarianism in a time of Cold War tensions and racial segregation. Today, more than a half century later, neither the sentiment nor the program has changed. If the program is to improve and meet its admirable ambitions, we must rigorously evaluate, adapt and abandon some of the core beliefs animating the program. The Peace Corps’s mission is ostensibly “to promote world peace and friendship.” Clearly only the crass would denounce such universal aspirations out of hand, but the truth is that they don’t really withstand scrutiny when applied to the reality of Peace Corps work in many parts of the globe. “Promoting friendship”, for instance, is a vapid slogan considering the strong anti-American sentiment in former Peace Corps posts like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iran and Venezuela. Aside from slogans, the genuine mission of the Peace Corps breaks down into three goals:
- Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained people;
- Promoting a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served;
- Promoting a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Again, admirable goals, but also goals without any clear metrics for success. Perhaps this is why less than a third (30 percent) of returning volunteers are confident they achieved these goals, and why only 25 percent think the assignments were “well defined”, according to a 2011 report by the National Peace Corps Association.“The Peace Corps is guilty of enthusiasm and a crusading spirit,” in the words first program director, Sergeant Shriver. But exuberance poorly aimed is poorly spent. The Peace Corps must do better. It must define when a country’s mission can be considered accomplished and then develop a plan to accomplish it. Development organizations that are worthwhile should aim to render their jobs obsolete. Yet today Peace Corps remains in countries that do not require outside assistance. Out of the 68 currently active countries, twenty countries have high human development, 29 have medium human development, and 19 have low human development on the UN’s Human Development Report. With stressed budgets and so many countries in need of assistance, limited resources should not be allocated to countries that have already achieved the Peace Corps’s first goal. Criteria for resource allocation and evaluating achievements also need auditing. Currently, assessment is primarily internal, conducted by volunteers in biannual reports. These self-assessments rely on introspection rather than sophisticated methods of statistical and cost-benefit analysis. While many development organizations are moving to program evaluation based on randomized controlled trials, the Peace Corps largely eschews empiricism. This is not for a lack of measurement opportunities: 76 percent of volunteers work in education, health, and economic development—sectors perfectly suitable for quantitative analysis. (But perhaps the Peace Corps wouldn’t find the results of such analysis very agreeable.) The Peace Corps is also plagued by a slapdash hiring process that results in unqualified volunteers continuing unnecessary assignments. According to the Peace Corps’s own 2010 assessment, “Approximately 85 percent of the agency’s volunteers are recent college graduates with little or no professional experience.” While a college degree was sufficient to qualify as expertise in the 1960s, it is not enough now. Higher education enrollment is above 50 percent in many countries with a Peace Corps presence, compared to single digit enrollment in the 1960s. (In Ukraine today, for example, the rate is 82 percent.) Sending fresh philosophy and English majors to help countries “meet their needs for trained people” is a patronizing gesture at best. The developing world is now better trained; so too should be today’s volunteers. The current year-long application process primarily consists of medical and legal reviews, while an approximately one-hour interview (often over the phone) is meant to assess the candidate’s cultural sensitivity, motivation and maturity. There are only weak attempts to assess the candidate’s technical ability, either in the form of case interviews or psychometric testing. In 1961, few people in developing countries had any connection to the United States. Today, the internet and television reach most corners of the world, bringing with them everything and everyone from President Obama, massively open online courses, the English language, pop culture, and even the embarrassing antics on Capitol Hill. In light of this increased connectivity, the Peace Corps should refocus its second goal, exporting American culture. Note that I didn’t say “do away with” this goal; it is still worthwhile, given the often fantastic job volunteers do dispelling the negative American stereotypes often conveyed abroad by television and the internet. Also, as micro-extensions of American soft power, volunteers are more tangible links between the US government and foreign nationals, compared to our diplomats, who are often trapped behind embassy and consular security walls. The Peace Corps’s third goal, bringing the world back to the United States, has also changed a great deal since 1961. Today, 274,000 college students study abroad, compared to fewer than 2,000 in 1961 according to the Institute of International Education. More than 87,000 U.S. students currently study in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Cleary, we need less support when it comes to bringing understanding of foreign cultures back to American shores. At best, Peace Corps succeeds at the second and third goals detailed above: the ones involving cultural exchange. But the Peace Corps hasn’t been willing to embrace success by this measure, fearing that some might challenge the prudence of government funding for a glorified semester abroad. The Peace Corps therefore conceals its identity as international social club in order to lobby Washington for funding as a development organization. As former country director Robert Strauss puts it, the Peace Corps is a “schizophrenic entity, unsure if it is a development organization, a cheerleader for international goodwill, or a government-sponsored cross-cultural exchange program.” None of this is to say the Peace Corps needs budget tightening. Its $377 million budget is a rounding error compared to most items on the Federal budget. The Peace Corps should not be targeted for cuts when $500 million a year is spent on marching bands, or when the entire fifty-year budget of Peace Corps amounts to five days of current military spending. Yet the $46,700 a year spent on each volunteer seems much larger when compared with the ten-cent ORS treatment, which can save a child dying of dehydration. Peace Corps owes it to the American people, and to all the people abroad that America is trying to help, to be better.