Peace Corps at 25: Alive & Bumbling (1986)

JFK’s Baby at 25: Alive and Bumbling [1986]

The Peace Corps celebrates its silver anniversary, but hold the champagne.


“Most people talk about world problems. The Peace Corps solves them.” So says a recent Peace Corps recruiting brochure. That’s what the agency believes—or at least that’s what it wants the public to believe.

This year, the Peace Corps celebrates its 25th anniversary, and the self-congratulatory PR is mounting to a crescendo. But digging behind the PR reveals that the Peace Corps is one of the most arrogant and overrated government programs in Washington. From past and present PC officials and volunteers, from government reports and transcripts of congressional hearings, and from little- remarked information in the Peace Corps’s own library, there emerges a picture of the agency in stark contrast to its self-created public image.

Americans have been led to believe that the Peace Corps is saving the world and has boosted America’s popularity abroad. In fact, over the course of its history, 21 governments have thrown the Peace Corps out of their countries. It is doubtful that more than a small fraction of the 120,000 volunteers sent overseas since 1961 have benefited their host countries. The Corps has persistently lied to both recruits and the taxpayers. It has refused to admit failures or learn from mistakes. Instead of a monument to idealism, the Peace Corps is another example of government incompetence, a cruel joke on the world’s poor and a perpetual hoax on American taxpayers.

From its very inception 25 years ago, the Peace Corps has 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.” Regrettably for American taxpayers, for volunteers who have often wasted their time overseas, and for millions of foreigners who were promised help that never materialized, the Peace Corps has rarely gotten beyond its good intentions.

Created in 1961 as John F. Kennedy’s humanitarian brainchild, the Peace Corps grew quickly in the early ’60s, peaking at nearly 16,000 volunteers and a budget of $114 million in 1966. Government officials spoke of eventually sending 100,000 volunteers abroad—but Vietnam discredited American idealism, and volunteer levels declined steadily to 1982, when 5,380 served overseas. Today, the Peace Corps is trying to rebuild and is nearing 6,000 volunteers, with a budget of $124 million—barely a third in inflation-adjusted terms compared to 1966.

The Reagan administration has championed the Peace Corps in an effort to prove to domestic critics its good intentions toward the foreign poor. But the Peace Corps under Reagan has been primarily interested in its own good name. Efforts to evaluate overseas programs have been sharply downgraded—from 1980 to 1983, only seven final reports were even issued, though the Corps has programs in scores of countries. The Peace Corps under Reagan also has stopped taking annual surveys of volunteers’ assessment of the Corps’s strengths and weaknesses.

Tennis, Anyone?

The volunteer’s moral goodness has always been the Peace Corps’s first and last justification—the idea that made its very mission noble and redeeming. The Peace Corps Times, the agency’s official magazine, recently defined the “Ultimate Volunteer” as “one who enters into or offers himself/herself for a service of his/her own free will, leaves home and family to go to a foreign land and speak a foreign language and serves without pay.” And Loret Miller Ruppe, millionaire daughter of the founder of the Miller brewing fortune and Reagan’s director of the Peace Corps, recently declared, “For the developing countries and for America [Peace Corps volunteers] are living and working expressions of the best that is in all of us.”

The Peace Corps’s portrayal of itself as a rugged, mud-hut, toiling-from-dawn-to-dusk experience was, from the beginning, a deliberate misrepresentation promoted by Sargent Shriver and the Corps’s press office. The Peace Corps flooded the nation’s media with inspiring stories of volunteers suffering and struggling to overcome great odds and help humanity. Sargent Shriver bragged in 1964, “The first law of the Volunteers seems to be: the rougher it is, the better we like it.”

This was a farce. The first batch of trainees were given tennis rackets before being shipped overseas. In African projects, volunteers were routinely provided with a servant; at a project in Togo, volunteers had two servants each. Volunteers received living allowances that usually enabled them to live in far more comfort than the natives. A 1967 internal Peace Corps report on Cameroon concluded, “Volunteer teachers today, like all their predecessors, are living in quarters that can only be described…as luxurious.” Another internal report noted that many volunteer teachers in Ghana “live in housing so plush that they are embarrassed.” Some volunteers even admitted to PC officials that they “never had it so good in the states.”

In the 1960s, volunteers were getting a $150-a-month “readjustment allowance” saved up for them—the equivalent of over $500 a month in today’s dollars. One internal evaluation noted that this was “easily as much money as most of the Volunteers would have made if they’d stayed home.” Yet the Peace Corps bragged that its volunteers were serving without pay.

In the 1980s, Peace Corps living standards are still far higher than Peace Corps commercials lead the public to believe. Richard Scobey, a volunteer who served in Malawi, commented in 1981: “We lead lives of comfort and convenience. My new three-bedroom house is a vast improvement over apartments I have rented in Providence and Washington, and having a houseboy wash and iron clothes is better than waiting two hours at the laundromat. Excluding the few who live in the rural areas, no Volunteer here lives at anything approaching a relatively low socio-economic level.”

Susan Peligan, a volunteer in Sierra Leone in the early ’80s, wrote in The Progressive: “During the six-week training period, each new volunteer was assigned a personal servant—a child from the village who would carry water, sweep floors, wash clothes, fetch beer, or do anything else we wanted.…Our incomes secured us an elite position. Over the years, the villagers have come to perceive that Volunteers—like the British colonists of an earlier time—live a big man’s life in a poor man’s world.” Peligan received a living allowance almost five times greater than the salary “earned by the local teachers with whom I worked.”

A Peace Corps press officer recently admitted to me that volunteers throughout the world still routinely have personal servants.

The widespread idea that volunteers live on the same level as the foreign poor they are trying to help is simply a joke. In Mali, in West Africa, the average annual per capita income is $160, while the Peace Corps’s monthly living allowance for volunteers is $183. In Haiti, the annual per capita income is $300; volunteers get $332 a month to sustain themselves. Volunteers in five other countries get a monthly living allowance that’s greater than what the average citizen of those countries earns all year.

Moreover, the Peace Corps saves a readjustment allowance of $175 a month (up to $4,200 over two years) for each volunteer. Volunteers get free dental and medical care, free transportation to their assigned country, and extensive vacation time.

This isn’t such a bad deal, considering that many volunteers simply don’t have that much work to do—or don’t bother doing the work that exists. Peace Corps audits of volunteer teachers in Ethiopia in the 1960s, for instance, noted that “excessive Volunteer absenteeism has been a perpetual complaint from headmasters.…A sizeable number of [volunteers] make it to school about half the time.” Other internal documents tell the story of volunteer teachers in Venezuela who had only three hours of teaching duty per week.

So much for mud huts and toiling from dawn to dusk.

Undoubtedly, many volunteers enter the Corps believing it will be just the way the Corps portrays it. A 1966 internal PC evaluation, for example, noted that the Corps failed volunteers “by making promises it didn’t keep, by saying things that weren’t true, by not saying things that should have been said.” The popular mud-hut image of volunteers’ existence “comes from the publicity the Peace Corps has gotten—and given itself—from the beginning,” the document stated. And a 1975 survey of volunteers in the Philippines found that 68 percent felt that Peace Corps recruitment advertising “was not a realistic representation.”

Amateurism As a Virtue

Nor is the Peace Corps’s self-congratulatory representation of its achievements anything close to the truth. On the contrary, incompetence and ineffectiveness have long been the trademarks of Peace Corps volunteers around the globe. A review of the Corps’s record during the ’60s shows that from the very start it has bungled its programs throughout the Third World.

Consider, for instance, the case of one volunteer in Peru. “In quick succession,” wrote David Hapgood in Agents of Change, the volunteer:

tried to break a pony to harness in order to introduce new motive power to the community (the horse ran away, harness and all, project abandoned); promoted a communal nursery for reforestation and undertook to care for ten thousand seedlings himself (three weeks later he departed on vacation, and, on his return, found all the seedlings dead); pushed the idea of hot showers for the school, promoted materials to construct them and whipped up interest among the unwashed to do the manual labor (after two weeks of effort he tired of the job and abandoned the direction of it, materials and tools and project soon vanishing); encouraged some young men to buy band instruments at great expense to themselves, promising to teach them to play and form a band (abandoned when he found they wanted to play only Indian music, which he didn’t like); undertook to mount the community’s two-hundred dollar gasoline sprayer on a horse’s back for greater efficiency (the horse, never having heard a gasoline engine before, much less from the proximity of his own back, quickly divested himself of the machine, totally wrecking it); took the community Jeep to pieces with the intent of repairing it but somehow never managed to get the parts back together again.

Admittedly, most volunteers didn’t leave such a trail of disasters—but from what I’ve gathered from both documents and people who served in the Corps, this sort of thing probably happened more often than did the “world savior” anecdotes the Peace Corps loves to publicize.

Indeed, the Peace Corps’s founders deliberately emphasized amateurism in volunteers as a virtue, which turned out to be a prescription for such disasters. Frustrated over the widely perceived ineffectiveness of aid to developing countries, they thought that personalizing the aid would somehow make it effective. In contrast to the “skilled experts” that the Agency for International Development sent overseas, the Peace Corps would send abroad relatively unskilled college grads whose good intentions alone would let them save downtrodden foreigners. The reality, however, was otherwise.

Take the example of efforts to teach foreigners English, always a prime Peace Corps project—but one with which volunteers have often had little success. “Korean principals and teachers consider Peace Corps Volunteers do not possess sufficient training and experience as English instructors,” a 1969 Korean study found, for instance. “Volunteers are relatively passive about problems of students, having more interest in introducing American culture and helping out with recreational activities.” (A decade later, the Corps couldn’t seem to do any better: according to a 1980 study of the English program in Korea, “exposure to Peace Corps Volunteers…might actually interfere with the Korean teachers’ normal classroom teaching skills.”)

Of the Corps’s program in Ceylon, one native observed, “It was clear beyond every vestige of doubt that these Volunteers were anything but teachers. It was because of their complete unsuitability as teachers that these Volunteers became the laughingstock among our teachers and students.” The Cameroon Foreign Ministry once complained that volunteers’ “work showed a complete lack of worthwhile teaching method” and suggested that they confine their work to physical education and sports.

In JFK’s vision of the Corps, volunteers were to raise the foreign poor simply by mixing with them and letting a little Americana rub off—sort of like being cured by kissing the Pope’s robe. But volunteer teachers have often been very distant from their students. A Peace Corps report on Peru in 1966 concluded that volunteers “displayed an almost total lack of engagement in Peruvian life.” Another report on education in Africa concluded that “the Peace Corps volunteers know next to nothing about the environment that produced their students. Isolated in clusters on school compounds, the Volunteers have no feel for life in Cameroon.” A 1968 internal report bewailed “the persistent failure of Volunteer teachers to become involved in the lives of the communities in which they teach.”

Even where the English program might have functioned well, it was difficult to see what benefits, for instance, eight-year-olds received from getting a tiny smattering of English. One evaluator noted that in Nigeria, students were “educated along academic, college preparatory lines—they even studied Latin—and they are as ill-prepared as [grade-school dropouts] to find a needed working role in Nigerian life.” Peace Corps bureaucrats apparently never asked themselves if many Africans or Asians would have any real occasion to speak English, even if volunteers could teach them.

Vagabonds Without Skills

Other early Peace Corps programs didn’t fare any better. A notable example is “community development,” one of the Corps’s most popular and ballyhooed programs in the 1960s. “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. “Community development” was the Peace Corps in all its modesty.

But again, reality did not coincide with the flowery rhetoric. For example, a 1965 Corps report focusing on CD 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.”

Not surprising results, given the methods. 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.”

Good Intentions Don’t Grow Crops

After teaching, agriculture has been the Peace Corps’s most frequent task. However, as with teaching, lack of competence limited 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 have even 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 rotten 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 bushwhacks 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; that the technical training provided these volunteers by the Peace Corps was not adequate or appropriate for the jobs they were requested to perform; that, prior to the arrival of certain volunteers, the Peace Corps staff failed to resolve problems relating to volunteer assignments with the host governments, and that the major problems which confronted the initial group of agriculture and rural development volunteers in 1964 also confronted the group of volunteers who were in the country at the time of our field visit in 1967.” Otherwise, the program was a success.

Alice in Wonderland Management

Since the 1960s, little has changed. The Peace Corps is still promising to save the world and still fumbling almost every kickoff.

Former volunteer Lucy DeWitt Jewett, who resigned in 1976, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee the next year: “Nobody was about to tell us that there really were no jobs for us to go to and that the job descriptions we were holding contained jobs that did not and would never exist.…Had we followed our manager’s advice, we would still be traveling around the countryside writing up a survey which nobody needed.”

In 1981, volunteer Richard Scobey observed of his experience in Malawi: “Jobs are poorly planned and ill-chosen by the country staff.…About a third of the 17 Volunteers that came with me found that the jobs for which they were recruited were poorly defined or unnecessary.”

Since Reagan took office, the Peace Corps has sharply reduced its evaluation of programs. Instead of an Inspector General, the Corps now has an “Office of Compliance,” which mainly worries whether the country programs are following regulations. It took several Freedom of Information Act requests to even obtain summaries of the Corps’s internal assessment of programs in the last few years, but the result was less than revealing: “Peace Corps administrative and financial operations in country x were conducted in an efficient manner.” “Peace Corps administrative and financial operations in country y were conducted in an efficient manner.” And so on.

Peace Corps evaluations are far less substantial and more superficial than they were in the past. The Corps no longer even bothers publishing an annual booklet of summaries of evaluation reports. This makes it far more difficult for administrators and outsiders to determine the true value of programs. Charles Peters, chief of PC evaluation in the ’60s 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 has changed in other ways, as well. In the beginning, the PC portrayed itself as a grass-roots organization working person-to-person with the foreign poor. Nowadays, the great majority of volunteers work either for host-government bureaucracies or with AID projects—and the Peace Corps almost brags about it. The Corps’s most recent Briefing Book for Africa, for example, notes that “Volunteers figure predominantly in Botswana’s civil service.” In Malawi, volunteers are used as “slot- fillers” in government bureaus.

Volunteers often busy themselves trying to get grants for local organizations. On ending his stint in the Dominican Republic in 1984, Greg Dodman concluded: “Most associations in my area seemed to be formed in order to receive handouts or a cheap loan from the government. Many are designed to battle for some of the trickle-down benefits and sometimes they look to Peace Corps Volunteers to be their advocate or errand runner in the process.” The Peace Corps’s 1983 annual report noted that a “volunteer developed a proposal for a $90,000 grant from USAID for the Fiji Council of Social Services, an umbrella organization containing 20 small social services organizations.” So American taxpayers are paying to send Americans abroad to help foreigners figure out how to get more money from American taxpayers.

“The major question raised by the aid-funded small projects,” a 1985 House Foreign Affairs Committee staff report observed, “is whether Peace Corps Volunteers are being sought by communities because of their access to these resources.” The answer seems obvious.

Here, Have Some Bureaucrats

The Peace Corps is more interested by far in currying favor with foreign governments than with foreign poor. A sampling of the Corps’s Africa Briefing Book shows this syndrome:

• “Since its beginning, PC/Burundi has worked closely with the Government of Burundi to establish programs responsive to the needs and priorities of the government.”

• “Since 1962, over 500 Peace Corps Volunteers have served the Government of Sierra Leone.…The thrust of the Peace Corps Sierra Leone program is to support the Government of Sierra Leone’s policies and initiatives for promoting rural development.”

• In Mali and Togo, the Peace Corps is working closely with the governments to help carry out their “five year plans.”

If African governments were humane and enlightened, the Peace Corps’s pro-government policy might make sense. But throughout Africa, governments have butchered their people, scuttled their economies, and devastated living standards. Bad government policies have starved far more Africans than bad weather has.

Throughout much of Africa, governments monopolize the buying and selling of crops, and to boost revenue, most governments pay 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—even before the recent drought. Farmers who try to evade government controls and sell their harvest on the black market are sometimes shot. Several countries even have extensive checkpoints to prevent farmers from transporting their crops to sell in the cities.

Far from protesting these destructive policies, the Peace Corps has enthusiastically poured in more volunteers to staff government agricultural bureaucracies. In some countries, PC volunteers toil 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 has 91 volunteers in Burkina Faso—helping “support development” under a government with close ties to Libya that, for instance, last year forced renters to turn over their rent to the government instead of to landlords. Hunger is widespread in northern Burkina Faso partly because government price controls discourage traders from bringing in food from the south. At the same time, the government is boosting its sugar production—even though the world sugar market is hopelessly glutted.

In Benin, which the Peace Corps describes as a “Leninist/Marxist country,” the Corps has 56 volunteers spurring development. President Kerekous this year has repeatedly denounced private businessmen and, according to the British Quarterly Economic Review, “invited the ‘militants of the Beninois revolution’ to denounce individual merchants to the government so that it could take appropriate action.” Yet the government pays farmers less than one-fourth the market price for their coffee crops.

Outside of Africa, the record is hardly better. The two countries with the most volunteers worldwide—the Philippines (336) and Honduras (333)—are top entries for a “Who’s Who of Economic Basket Cases.”

Third World to Volunteers: Get Lost

Why the record of perpetual incompetence—why hasn’t the Peace Corps learned by now? A line from an early Peace Corps report to Congress gives one reason: “It is not an easy matter to fit a Corps of willing workers to a legion of undefined needs.” But with the Peace Corps’s approach, it’s not just difficult—it’s damn near impossible. Yet the Peace Corps has learned nothing and forgotten nothing—it still sets up the same hopeless programs based on the same illusory premises. Hugh O’Neill, the Peace Corps’s director of public information, admitted to me, “The Peace Corps is very short on institutional memory.”

For 25 years, Third-World governments have complained that volunteers were inept at the host country’s language. Yet Peace Corps volunteers often receive less training now than they did in the ’60s.

Chilean sociologist Ricardo Zuniga, who did a doctoral dissertation at Harvard on the Peace Corps, observed that the volunteers need a much better grasp of the native language “in order to have meaningful host country contacts.” Many volunteers receive training in a country’s official language but are incapable of conversing in the local dialect where they live. As a result, they can speak only with a country’s educated class.

Moreover, the Corps is so poorly organized that it often teaches volunteers the wrong language—such as happened to Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian, who served in India from 1966 through 1968. In the early ’60s, up to a third of all volunteers for Ethiopia were taught the wrong local language.

More generally, a 1972 General Accounting Office (GAO) report concluded: “The Peace Corps does not have a system for the evaluation of the effectiveness of its training program on a continuous basis or for using these evaluations to improve subsequent programs.” Nine years later, in 1981, the GAO still castigated the training program: “Exchange of training program information was rare; little or no information on trainees was provided by Washington prior to their arrival; specific Volunteer assignments had not been identified before training began.…Little, if any, criteria or guidance was available or being provided to the overseas locations on the design, conduct, and management of pre-service training.…There were no agency criteria…against which actual overseas operations could be examined.”

Indeed, the Peace Corps is a classic case of the failure of government planning. For its first decade, the Corps relied on unskilled generalists who usually had little or nothing to offer host countries. In the 1970s, the Corps began relying more on skilled experts, though this greatly diminished the difference between Peace Corps and AID programs. And now that some volunteers have real skills, it is much more difficult to match them with foreign governments’ needs. Michael Balzano, former director of ACTION (the agency that from 1971 to 1981 oversaw the Peace Corps), noted: “The Peace Corps knowingly deploys overqualified Volunteers on projects where there is little hope of using their abilities.”

The Peace Corps also is notorious for trying to palm off unqualified recruits on foreign governments. For instance, one former volunteer observed that “although a minimum of two years of high school French was required of Volunteers by the Ivory Coast government, about a quarter of the 36 trainees had had none.”

The Peace Corps’s performance has been so ragged that five of the largest countries that accepted volunteers in the 1960s (Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, and India) tossed the Corps out. By the early ’70s in India, for example, government planners decided that its thousands of Peace Corps volunteers had been of little use. So in 1975 they set a limit of 50 volunteers, and in 1976 they banned the Peace Corps altogether. 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 ”

Instead of drawing the obvious conclusion about the difficulty of giving away free “help,” the Peace Corps simply redoubles its announcements of how wonderful it is. And that’s often done by citing figures that supposedly demonstrate the Corps’s successes. But from the beginning, Congress, auditors, and critics have questioned the Corps’s excessive reliance on numbers as the ultimate measure of success. A 1966 evaluation of the Cameroon program, for example, concluded: “The Peace Corps is hurt by its mammoth presence.” Flooding a country with volunteers may provide impressive figures, but it discourages 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.”

Peace Corps director Loret Ruppe recently 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. Almost every country report, for instance, proudly lists the number of wells the Peace Corps has blessed the Third World with. But these numbers mean little or nothing. According to one PC evaluation, the inspector “found new wells built alongside working indigenous wells. She found too many wells unnecessarily clustered in small areas. She found that new wells soon became contaminated because no one told the villagers how to keep them clean.” Moreover, the inspector discovered, “when the Peace Corps Volunteer wells became so contaminated that they are unusable, the village chief will simply ask the government to build another.”

Even in the category of “mutual understanding,” for which the Peace Corps claims so much glory, volunteers often fail. “There is a special kind of arrogance which comes from the knowledge that you are contributing services without compensation,” one Peace Corps staffer observed. In a 1978 survey, 16 percent of volunteers admitted that they didn’t feel positively about host-country citizens. Peace Corps workers were evicted from Vicos, Peru, after the local committee decided that they were more trouble than they were worth. Volunteers’ “effect on Togolese-American relations,” an internal report concluded, “is summed up in the common accusations of racism and exclusiveness made against them.”

Though flooding countries with volunteers failed in the 1960s, the Reagan administration is now trying the same trick in Latin America to help stem the tide of communism. This is somewhat ironic—one returned volunteer recalls that in the late 1960s and early ’70s, “half the Volunteers in Guatemala would sit around in the capital city cafes discussing the need for a revolution with their Guatemalan counterparts.” Gringo Grita, the volunteers’ newsletter in Dominican Republic, has numerous anti-Reagan cartoons and quips. One volunteer was reportedly busy “training his dog to attack all Reagan supporters.”

I personally know four volunteers either currently serving in or recently returned from Central America, none of whom has much affection for Reagan or private enterprise. At least one was actively involved in raising aid for the Salvadoran Marxist guerrillas before joining the Peace Corps.

Congress is even worse than Reagan: the House Foreign Affairs Committee has voted unanimously three years in a row to vastly expand the Corps from 6,000 to 10,000 volunteers as soon as possible. Typically for Congress, the Foreign Affairs Committee spends almost no time examining the Corps’s actual workings—but always votes to increase its size.

Of the Volunteer, By the Volunteer, For the Volunteer

“If anything ails a person, so that he does not perform his function,” Thoreau once wrote, “if he have a pain in his bowels even—for that is the seat of sympathy—he forthwith sets about reforming the world.” From the beginning, the Peace Corps has largely been a vehicle for Americans to indulge that impulse. And the results of unleashing such often-confused souls upon the world aren’t surprising. As one Filipino complained to a PC official in 1973, “some of these Volunteers seemed to have trouble evaluating themselves, much less the project or the Filipinos they were supposed to be advising.”

Chilean sociologist Ricardo Zuniga, in his study of 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) and therefore reflects the ethnocentric nature of the Peace Corps: insufficient concern with the problems of the host country; too much attention to the problems of the giver and not enough to the needs and characteristics of the receiver.” A 1977 Peace Corps evaluation of its program in Togo reached the same conclusion: “Goals are stated in input rather than output measurement.”

A top PC evaluator complained in 1969 that the Corps had become an organization “of the Volunteer, by the Volunteer, for the Volunteer.” He continued: “There is something sick about an organization run for the sake of middle class American college graduates in the midst of people lacking food, education, strength, and hope.”

Many Peace Corps experts admit that most volunteers did not do much for their host country. As Donovan M. McClure, a Peace Corps official in the 1960s and ’70s, observed, “The great majority of Volunteers have been sent abroad without sufficient skills, without sufficient language ability, without sufficient cultural awareness, and without a clear or critical job assignment.” Chilean sociologist Zuniga puts the truth a little more gently: “The Peace Corps is valuable more in terms of its meaning than of its concrete accomplishments.”

This has been the Peace Corps’s justification for 25 years—that even though most volunteers and most projects do little or no good, the morality of its mission redeems it. But what sense does it make to send unskilled, often incompetent Americans around the globe so that foreigners can be blessed simply by their presence? It’s true that much of the world would be better off by copying more of America’s traditions and its Constitution. But having one government pay to send free bureaucrats to serve another government is not the way to save the world.

The Peace Corps admittedly has had some successes: Volunteers have helped carry out vaccination drives against tuberculosis and other diseases. They’ve taught many people how to speak a few words of English. And in some cases they’ve made friends for America. These are good things and there are many volunteers who are justifiably proud of their accomplishments. But overall, there is much room for humility.

As a concept, the Peace Corps is fundamentally flawed, because it epitomizes the emotional approach to government—the idea that intentions are more important than results, which is the curse of all US foreign-aid programs. As former Peace Corps official Brent Ashbranner noted, “emotion was always valued over analysis in the Peace Corps.” The trouble with the emotional approach to foreign aid is that while the donors enjoy their good emotions, the recipients must suffer the negligible or bad results. The Peace Corps might even be called “the gang that refused to think straight.”

The Peace Corps has done nothing to match its grandiose rhetoric. Its benevolence is largely a fraud, its achievements largely a mirage. There are worse government programs around—but perhaps no other with so much hot air.

James Bovard is a free-lance writer in Washington, D.C. This article is a project of the Reason Foundation Investigative Journalism Fund.


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