When recently perusing the archives for the IAG Awards at the Harvard Kennedy School, I couldn’t help but notice a series of programs from the 1998 submission pool which included entries that were all too familiar.
Among the over 1,400 submissions for the year, were three Peace Corps programs I personally came to know and well, not love, but certainly experience to the fullest. These programs were the Peace Corps Third Goal Activities, Peace Corps world Wise Schools, and the Peace Corps Health Benefits Program.
Anyone familiar with the Peace Corps program probably has some idea of the three overarching goals each volunteer is inundated with upon beginning their service overseas.
1) Providing Skilled Assistance to countries in need
2) Facilitating Learning to foreign nationals about the United States
3) Relaying knowledge to fellow Americans about cultural knowledge and experiences gained abroad
These programs are certainly compliant with these operational goals, as are most pieces of writing coming from behind a desk in Washington D.C. For example, the World Wise School Program aligns current volunteers with classroom teacher “pen pals” in the U.S. to help educate domestic classrooms about the experiences of current volunteers. In theory this is a brilliant plan to incorporate the experiences of active volunteers to the educational curriculum back home.. (my experience with this fell remarkably flat).
I came across these submissions on the same day I read this piece by Ryan Rommann, pointing out the hypocrisy in the organization as applying for funding on the premise of being a “development organization,” while at the same time exercising roles as an “international social club.”
Coming from the Peace Corps program in China of all places (arguably one of the most developed places where the Peace Corps has ever been active), makes Rommann’s critiques resonate more. Only 19 of the currently served countries actually qualify as low human development status according to the UN. This may call into question the premise of the entire program.
Peace Corps China has seen dubious perspectives in the past. In fact,during my service, a congressional delegation visiting Chengdu came up with similar complaints, some even calling for the immediate revocation of the entire country program.
Rommann takes the perfect quote from a former country director, Robert Strauss, who calls the organization a “schizophrenic entity, unsure if it is a development organisation, a cheerleader for international goodwill, or a government-sponsored cross-cultural exchange program.”
With resource allocation and scarcity plaguing the international development sphere, the question is all the more important of whether these countries should continue to be served. The program is still going strong, in large part because of its relatively tiny operational costs. One should not forget that the cumulative budget for the past 50 years amounts to only five days of current military spending. Still, is there perhaps a more effective way to allot the $46,700 per volunteer spent each year? As Rommann puts it, “the Peace Corps owes it to them to be better.”
While I walked away from my service feeling like the three goals had more or less been accomplished, many questions still remain.
In any sense, none of these programs made it past the first round.☼