Corps Concerns

In an age of globe-trotting American college kids, ubiquitous Internet access, and cell phone networks that reach even sub-Saharan cattle herders, does the world still need the Peace Corps?

By , the director of technology and development and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.
Courtesy of U.S. Peace Corps
Courtesy of U.S. Peace Corps
Courtesy of U.S. Peace Corps

The Peace Corps turns 50 this year, and its friends will tell you that the U.S. government-run program is as spry as it ever was: It retains a strong reputation, considerable bipartisan popularity, and the vocal appreciation of generations of returned volunteers. But a less friendly observer might point out that the agency also exhibits the signature fault of its Baby Boomer peers: It can’t seem to move on from the 1960s.

The Peace Corps was born the year the Beatles first performed, Yuri Gagarin hurtled into space, and the United States joined the Vietnam War. The agency’s model and aims, famously prescribed by President John F. Kennedy, are all of a piece with that moment in history. But the world has changed, and the Peace Corps should, too. A new model could deliver the volunteer experience to many more people for the same resources.

At the heart of the Peace Corps program are its volunteers: The organization has around 9,000 in the developing world at any given time, working on grassroots projects for two-year stints. The agency’s mission is “to promote world peace and friendship” through three core goals: providing trained men and women to work in developing countries, increasing the world’s understanding of Americans, and vice versa. Reflecting the agency’s Cold War roots, Sargent Shriver, the first director of the agency, suggested that Peace Corps service was an “unparalleled opportunity to win friends and advance the cause of peace and freedom.”

When it started, the Peace Corps had this playing field all to itself. In 1961, the agency was the only American volunteer organization operating internationally. But times have changed. For one thing, the corps no longer enjoys a monopoly on service abroad: In 2008, more than 1 million Americans reported volunteering in another country, according to Benjamin Lough at Washington University in St Louis. Alongside a number of other government-backed programs, organizations ranging from church groups to private companies to Doctors Without Borders send people overseas to provide everything from manual labor to advanced technical expertise.

The Peace Corps was designed to benefit its host countries by placing well-educated (if usually inexperienced) young Americans in undereducated developing economies. But in recent decades, those countries have stepped up their game in producing college and university graduates. Only 3 percent of the college-age population of Guatemala, a reliable favorite Peace Corps destination, actually attended college in 1970. That figure is 18 percent today.

The same is true of other countries with a large Peace Corps presence. Indonesia’s college enrollment has grown from 3 to 21 percent over that period, and Panama’s has climbed from 7 to 45 percent. It is surely worth thinking about the technical efficacy of spending more than seven times Panama’s income per head each year keeping a Peace Corps volunteer at her station — the agency’s per-volunteer cost is around $104,000 — when she has no more education than nearly half of her native-born peers in the country.

What about the first and foremost goal of winning friends? The original idea was that young, idealistic volunteers living in communities for extended periods of time would foster goodwill toward the United States. But according to Peace Corps surveys, only 44 percent of host country nationals who have interacted with a volunteer believed that Americans are committed to assisting other peoples. We do not know what people who had not met a Peace Corps volunteer would have said, but the result suggests that a lot of factors besides meeting 20-something American expatriates are determining attitudes toward the United States.

The Peace Corps is operating in a world where people in even remote regions have exponentially greater access to sources of information about American culture and foreign policy than they had in 1961. In 2008, about two out of every three dollars spent in movie theaters outside the United States were spent on U.S.-produced films. Millions of U.S. tourists and non-Peace Corps volunteers go abroad each year. And, worldwide, the Internet and TV are flooded with news about U.S. foreign policy from local and international sources. How many volunteers would it take to make up for the images broadcast around the globe of “Made in USA” labels stamped on the tear gas cannisters and rubber bullets shot at Egyptian pro-democracy protesters this month?

That leaves the third goal of the agency: promoting U.S. understanding of the rest of the world. The Peace Corps’ accomplishments in this area are considerable: Over the years, the program has created a near 200,000-strong alumni base of people aware of — and frequently very committed to — global development. Talk to returned volunteers, and it is obvious that the Peace Corps can provide a hugely enriching and life-changing experience.

But even here, the world is a very different place than it was in 1961. Between 1996 and 2009 alone, the number of U.S. citizens traveling to Africa tripled to 399,000 a year; 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad in the 2008-2009 academic year, up from around 75,000 20 years ago. A lot of those studying did so in developing countries — 13,681 in Africa and 3,670 in the Middle East, for example.

The Peace Corps does remain unique in its focus on long-term volunteer assignments in rural areas of developing countries. Still, the fact that the world is growing smaller does at least suggest there is less need for the considerable overhead attached to operating the Peace Corps under the current model than there was 50 years ago. For example, in 1970, there were fewer than 11,000 telephones in the entire country of Senegal, most of them in the capital city of Dakar. Today, there are 5.6 million of them, spread throughout the country. Similar trends worldwide are evident in the Peace Corps’ own statistics — 90 percent of its volunteers in the field now have a cell phone.

The Peace Corps’ extended presence in its volunteer host countries, moreover, comes at a considerable cost. Lex Rieffel of the Brookings Institution suggests that more than half of the Peace Corps’ overall budget went to staffing overseas offices compared to 28 percent that went to supporting volunteers in the field in 2004. Is there a need for a significant administrative infrastructure in country to ensure the safety and comfort of Peace Corps volunteers in nations like Belize, Costa Rica, Jamaica, or Thailand? Plenty of backpackers would tell you otherwise.

There is still a vital role for the Peace Corps. In fact, its goal of teaching Americans about the rest of the world is even more important today than it was in the 1960s, when the ties between America and the globe — concerning issues from finance and trade to disease and the environment — were far weaker. But the Peace Corps does need to adapt — and it has plenty of models to follow. According to Brookings’s Rieffel, there are private-sector programs that place volunteers overseas for between $5,000 and $6,000 a year, or about 10 percent of what the Peace Corps pays per volunteer. Trimming the current bureaucratic structure — and perhaps rethinking the two-year commitment — would expand the number of countries where the program could operate and allow the Peace Corps to attract more volunteers. Given all that, it would make considerable sense for the agency to move toward a model of awarding grants for overseas service rather than attempting to provide a full volunteer package.

One potential model is the Fulbright program. The program awarded approximately 6,000 grants in 2008 to U.S. students, teachers, professionals, and scholars to study, teach, lecture, and conduct research in more than 155 countries, and to their foreign counterparts to engage in similar activities in the United States. The cost to the U.S. government is about $32,000 per award recipient per year — about $20,000 less than the Peace Corps. In addition, Fulbright scholarships are usually for an academic year or less, suggesting three times as many participants for each dollar of government funding. The grant program also has a wider reach than the Peace Corps in countries that are of particular strategic focus for the United States, which tend to impose risks that the Peace Corps is unwilling to take with its volunteers. Yemen, for example, has seen 70 visiting U.S. scholars since Fulbright’s inception in 1946, and 426 Yemenis have come to the United States under the program. The Peace Corps, by contrast, has no one in Yemen, and indeed only two programs anywhere in North Africa or the Middle East.

In a new Peace Corps, grants could be offered directly to volunteers to cover the cost of travel and living in a developing country. The agency could set conditions on factors such as minimum length of service, security, language skills and training, focus countries, and the total cost of the proposed program. It would be a dramatic change from the current model, of course, and the corps might begin by rolling it out on a trial basis in some of its more welcoming host countries.

Regardless, the greater flexibility and lower overhead costs of a grant model would mean that the Peace Corps could both attract more applicants and deploy more volunteers even in a flat budget environment. Given the powerful impact of service on participants, these are changes the agency should warmly embrace — even if it means accepting that the 1960s really are over.

Charles Kenny is the director of technology and development and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and the author, most recently, of The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease. Twitter: @charlesjkenny

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