12 minute read

You may remember Strauss from his NYT article damning the Peace Corps back in January. It made the point that the increasing numbers of volunteers is decreasing the agency's effectiveness and that the agency itself was too stuck on its mission to improve and adapt. Strauss has been a volunteer, and also a country director, with the Peace Corps, and I as a returned volunteer can agree with some of his points.

He's back now in April with a much longer attack in Foreign Policy.com, where he sets up a series of strawmen to knock down.

For example;

“The Peace Corps Is a Potent Diplomatic Weapon”

No. With diplomats stuck inside barricaded compounds or loath to venture from expatriate residential ghettos, a Peace Corps volunteer is likely to be the only representative of the U.S. government that poor, rural populations ever see. As the State Department cuts back on its public diplomacy and cultural exchange programs, the Peace Corps' predominantly young volunteers wind up carrying more and more of the responsibility for demonstrating that the United States still has good intentions abroad.

He goes on to make the point that the branding of Peace Corps is insufficient and doesn't connect the volunteers on the ground with the foreign policy of the USA -- probably because there's not much connection, and potentially some antagonism. I think this argument falls flat; PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) show the multifaceted America, not just the 51% who won the last presidential election. The fact that they are on the ground and working in solidarity with the local population is probably more valuable than State Department-funded programs will ever be. Of course, Strauss hasn't offered any research or quantitative data, so I don't feel a need to either.

GABRIEL MALAYA/AFP/Getty ImagesHis next strawman is “The Peace Corps Recruits Only the Best and the Brightestâ€� – and sure, if you have the perseverance and health to get through the application process, you’re probably going to be accepted. This may take years and numerous tests and doctor notes, but it will happen. He has a valid point here, and I can only thank him for noting that the agency has one of the highest numbers of political appointees - 29 currently - filling its ranks. My biggest beef here is with the image he pulls from Getty to illustrate the point that PCVs are witless partying fools, to the right. Strauss’s caption for this photo is Best and brightest? As long as applicants meet the minimum standards and are healthy and persistent, the Peace Corps rarely rejects them outright.

If you click through to Getty, you find this description for the photo:

KIANGAN, PHILIPPINES: Wearing an Ifugao tribes outfit, Dustin Butler, (L) an American Peace Corps volunteer based in northern Ifugao province takes part in the celebration of the ten traditional rice rituals in Kiangan, 27 August 2006. American volunteers have been deployed in limited numbers in the country following security threats in certain areas especially in southern Philippines where al-Qaeda linked Islamic militants have kidnapped foreigners. AFP PHOTO / GARBIEL MALAYA (Photo credit should read GABRIEL MALAYA/AFP/Getty Images)

Do PCVs party? No doubt about it. I threw and/or attended quite a few gatherings as a volunteer. It's a tough job, and you need to unwind, decompress, complain about the various systems and institutions, brainstorm on the underlying problems, and just relax. If you're going to ding PCVs for saving up all their "happy hours" for an occasional big party, fine, but don't expect me to want to grab a beer with you after work. Also, no need to abuse a photo of a volunteer integrating himself with his village to make your point.

He complains that Peace Corps doesn't concentrate on the world's poorest countries, and that volunteer numbers rarely match the need (using Mexico as an example). Peace Corps operates only in countries where there's reasonable safety for US citizens to be out and about in country, instead of "stuck inside barricaded compounds or loath to venture from expatriate residential ghettos" as he knocks US diplomats and USAID professionals for. Further, PC only operates on the invitation of a country's government. We actually pressured Mexico into accepting volunteers, and in return they required very specific, business/IT focused volunteers for a very small pilot project.

“The Peace Corps Is a Development Organization� which receives little recognition from development thought leaders. Well, actually, Peace Corps is 1/3rd development and 2/3 cultural exchange (remember the first point you were making?). It's true that Peace Corps has not been effective at evaluating its impact. Neither have big development agencies such as USAID or World Bank. In fact, even the academic crowd has had a difficult time finding statistical evidence of any benefit to foreign aid. If Strauss has actually read William Easterly's book which he notes, he'll find pages and pages of commentary and research on aid effectiveness and measurement problems both "real" and political.

“The Peace Corps Has a Strategy� The Peace Corps has plans, not a strategy. A strategy implies a conclusion, a final goal. The Peace Corps has none. In Washington, plans are already underway to celebrate the agency’s 50th anniversary in 2011. Celebrating half a century of existence ought to be a dubious benchmark for any development organization, particularly one that actively encourages its volunteers to “work themselves out of a job,� yet has no plans for doing so itself in any of the more than 70 countries where it is currently active.

Again, Peace Corps is on the benign side of most development organizations, particularly the Bank, on this one. I might also point out that there are many countries where volunteers no longer serve -- because the country has "graduated" you might say from having a need for PCVs.

“The Peace Corps Is One of the Greatest Things America Has Ever Done�

Dream on. Today, the Peace Corps remains a Peter Pan organization, afraid to grow up, yet also afraid to question the thinking of its founding fathers. The rush to fulfill John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign pledge was such that the Peace Corps never learned to crawl, let alone walk, before it set off at a sprinter’s pace. The result is a schizophrenic entity, unsure if it is a development organization, a cheerleader for international goodwill, or a government-sponsored cross-cultural exchange program. In any case, the Peace Corps tries to do too many things in too many places with too few people to really get much of anything done at all. ... Based predominantly on the life-changing experiences volunteers had while serving, the Peace Corps continues to generate strong support from the American people. But for the agency to approach its potential, deep, substantive changes must be made.

So, almost 200,000 US citizens have had life-changing experiences thanks to Peace Corps? It's balancing between being " a development organization, a cheerleader for international goodwill, or a government-sponsored cross-cultural exchange program" -- which sounds like the three goals of the Peace Corps Mission to me, so if it's flittering between those, it's on track.

Does the organization have some problems? No doubt. Are these valid attacks? No. We should work on removing the political appointees from the organization, matching funding increases to politically-motivated requirements to increase volunteer numbers, and hold all organizations working in international development to higher standards of unbiased measurement and evaluation and sustainability goals.

I actually believe that Peace Corps is a potent diplomatic weapon -- a loose cannon of idealistic youth who probably don't agree with the status quo of American foreign policy.

And that's a good thing.