The Forgotten Failures of the Peace Corps
by James Bovard
This is the fiftieth anniversary year for the Peace Corps. Prior to the creation of AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps took the cake as the most arrogant and overrated government program in Washington. At a time when the agency is being hailed for idealism and almost saving the world, it is worthwhile to consider its early record of debacles and defaults.
A 1980s Peace Corps recruiting brochure proclaimed, “Most people talk about world problems. The Peace Corps solves them.” The Peace Corps’s world-saving pretensions were a joke on American taxpayers and Third World folks who expected real help.
From its inception, the Peace Corps represented the epitome of emotionalism in American politics. Sargent Shriver, the Corps’s first director, claimed it would “permit America to participate, personally and effectively, in this struggle for human dignity.” Jack Vaughn, Shriver’s successor, declared, “Love — that’s what the Peace Corps is all about.” But the Peace Corps has rarely gotten beyond its loudly trumpeted good intentions.
The Peace Corps’s founders deliberately emphasized amateurism in volunteers as a virtue, which turned out to be a prescription for disasters. Frustrated by the widely perceived ineffectiveness of U.S. foreign aid to developing countries, they thought that personalizing the aid would somehow make it effective.
Robert E. White, Peace Corps regional director for Latin America, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1970, “In the early days … it was like a parachute drop. A Volunteer would be told, ‘Here’s the bus that you take. Go and look around and get off where you think you can do some good.’” An official report by the government of Honduras concluded in 1968, “The Volunteer appears to be someone with nothing to do; his skills are not utilized and the community doesn’t know what he has to offer in the way of help.”
Indeed, throughout Latin America, volunteers were sometimes referred to as “vagos” — Spanish for “vagabonds.” A Brazilian development expert concluded in a Peace Corps-commissioned study in 1968, “As economic developers, Volunteers have not had any lasting impact on any community. They are more efficient spokesmen for their interests than … for the poor.” One Latin American government official complained to a Peace Corps auditor in 1968, “The Volunteers I have known recently — with one exception — are not helping us at all. They created problems for us.”
The Peace Corps sought to uplift foreign countries with “community-development programs.” “The political and social development of the country can only come through the infusion of a kind of revolutionary spirit such as the Peace Corps represents,” declared Frank Mankiewicz, Peace Corps Latin American regional director during the 1960s. But again, reality did not coincide with the flowery rhetoric. For example, a 1965 Corps report focusing on community-development programs concluded of the experience in Togo, “After four years, the Peace Corps record in Togo is one of waste, illusion, and irrelevance that far outweighs what little good may have been done.”
Competence has often been a Peace Corps stumbling block. In the Peace Corps’s first quarter-century, 21 governments kicked it out of their countries, often because volunteers had little or nothing to offer. The inability of the volunteers to speak the local language has been a perennial problem. Bonehead planning sometimes worsened the situation: in the early 1960s, up to a third of all volunteers for Ethiopia were taught the wrong local language.
Many volunteers have worked as teachers abroad, but often with little success. Two studies of volunteers’ effectiveness in Korea found that they did little or no good for their students. The Cameroon Foreign Ministry once complained that volunteers’ “work showed a complete lack of worthwhile teaching method” and suggested that they confine their efforts to physical education and sports. A young Ceylonese observed, “It was because of their complete unsuitability as teachers that these Volunteers became the laughingstock among our teachers and students.”
Working with “snake oil salesmen”
After teaching, agriculture was the Peace Corps’s most frequent focus. However, as with teaching, incompetence inhibited Peace Corps benevolence. As one Chilean agronomist complained to an evaluator in 1968, “The trouble with most of the Volunteers is that they can’t do the job. Most of them are good people, filled with good faith, and they like to live and get their hands dirty with the peasants. But they know nothing about agriculture.”
Some Peace Corps agricultural efforts directly hurt Third World poor. An internal evaluation of the program in Togo, for instance, concluded,
In some cases the Peace Corps Volunteers may actually have harmed the cause of development and taxed the patience and good will of the Togolese villagers by the lack of realism in their approach…. Most of the chicken and rabbit projects (which were built primarily because lumber and wire were available) proved disasters.
Volunteers encouraged Togolese to raise rabbits — even though eating rabbits is taboo among many Togo tribes. Similar rabbit results occurred in Guatemala. Volunteers got grants from the Agency for International Development (AID) to set up their own rabbit-raising businesses and then encouraged local villagers to borrow money to do the same. But while the volunteers’ heavy subsidies produced the appearance of success, a Peace Corps evaluation of the project revealed that peasants who “indebted themselves for breeding stock, cages, and feed found themselves saddled with debt when the projects failed.”
Other Peace Corps evaluations tell stories of volunteers who urged farmers to use fertilizer that cost the farmers more than the value of the increased crop output. Indeed, volunteers’ lack of economic realism often bushwhacked the recipients of their benevolence. In Niger, for example, volunteers worked as extension agents for the government’s Union Nigerien de Credit et Cooperation. But as a Peace Corps audit concluded, “In its agricultural operations, UNCC looks like a bunch of snake oil salesmen…. The sad truth is that, in all likelihood, more farmers have lost than gained by buying from UNCC.”
The agricultural program in Nigeria — one of the Peace Corps’s stars — was racked with problems in the 1960s. A General Accounting Office (GAO) examination concluded that “only a limited number of these volunteers possessed the background, either by virtue of education or experience, required for the jobs to which they have been assigned; and that the technical training provided these volunteers by the Peace Corps was not adequate or appropriate for the jobs they were requested to perform.”
The Peace Corps bureaucracy
The Peace Corps had become far more bureaucratic by the 1980s. In the beginning, it portrayed itself as a grass-roots organization working person-to-person with the foreign poor. During the Reagan era, the great majority of volunteers worked either for host-government bureaucracies or with AID projects. In Malawi, volunteers are used as “slot-fillers” in government bureaus. Volunteers often busy themselves trying to get government grants for local organizations. A mid-1980s Peace Corps Briefing Book for Africa bragged, “Volunteers figure predominantly in Bot swana’s civil service.” The same briefing book declared, “Since its beginning, Peace Corps/Burundi has worked closely with the Government of Burundi to establish programs responsive to the needs and priorities of the government.” In Mali and Togo, the Peace Corps worked closely with the governments to help carry out their “five-year plans.”
Moreover, throughout Africa in the 1980s, governments butchered their people, scuttled their economies, and devastated living standards. Bad government policies starved far more Africans than did bad weather.
Throughout much of Africa, governments monopolized the buying and selling of crops, and to boost revenue, most governments paid farmers far less than the market value of their harvests. As a consequence, per-capita food production fell 20 percent in Africa between 1960 and 1982.
Far from protesting those destructive policies, the Peace Corps enthusiastically poured in more volunteers to staff government agricultural bureaucracies. In some countries, Peace Corps volunteers toiled on state farms and cooperatives that have been unmitigated disasters across the continent, with production falling by 30, 40, 50 percent, or more over previous levels.
The Peace Corps often relied on a “body count” approach to prove its benevolence. From the beginning, Congress, auditors, and critics questioned the Corps’s excessive reliance on numbers as the ultimate measure of success. A 1966 evaluation of the Cameroon program, for exam ple, concluded, “The Peace Corps is hurt by its mammoth presence.” Flooding a country with volunteers discouraged the achievement of self-reliance — supposedly the Corps’s ultimate objective. “By taking over the town in force,” a report on Togo noted, “we weaken the Togolese sense of responsibility — lack of which is the chief complaint we then make against the Togolese.”
Loret Ruppe, Reagan’s Peace Corps director, declared, “The number of people whose lives have been touched by the Peace Corps was estimated at one million every month.” This is one more reflection of the “Pope’s robe” mentality — the idea that foreigners are benefited simply by seeing idealistic young Americans. The Corps’s obsession with measuring its success not by what is achieved but by what can most easily be counted often ventures into the absurd.
Faced with 20 years of such grim evaluations, the Reagan administration got rid of the Inspector General. Instead of an IG that evaluated what volunteers did abroad, the Peace Corps got a new “Office of Compliance,” which mainly worried about whether the country’s programs were following regulations. Charles Peters, chief of Peace Corps evaluation in the 1960s and now editor of The Washington Monthly, observes, “That means the guy in charge doesn’t want to find out what’s wrong.” A former top Peace Corps official under Reagan confirms this charge: “You’re talking about Alice in Wonderland management. It’s not important what’s happening — it’s only important what people think is happening.” The Peace Corps under Reagan even stopped taking annual surveys of volunteers’ assessment of the Corps’s strengths and weaknesses.
As early as 1969, a Peace Corps official complained that the Peace Corps had become an organization “of the volunteers, by the volunteers, and for the volunteers.” Chilean sociologist Ricardo Zuniga, in his Harvard doctoral dissertation on the Peace Corps, observed, “There is a pervasive focusing on the giver rather than the host.” After surveying thousands of pages of Peace Corps literature, Zuniga concluded that it gives “almost no attention to ‘goal attainment’ (effectiveness).”
Most of the former Peace Corps volunteers I have met conceded that their time abroad did little good for the foreigners but was a wonderful growing experience for them personally. It’s nice to have growing experiences — but we don’t morally canonize people for going to graduate school, and we shouldn’t do it for those who join the Peace Corps.
Some Peace Corps volunteers, like some Americans who volunteer for religion missions abroad, have truly helped foreigners. But that cannot redeem either the Peace Corps or U.S. foreign policy. Insofar as the Peace Corps makes Americans believe that the U.S. government’s actions abroad are a fount of benevolence, they prevent citizens from recognizing the harm inflicted on many nations in their name.
tagline: James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy  as well as The Bush Betrayal , Lost Rights  and Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave-Macmillan, September 2003) and serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation.