6 Reasons We Need to Reform the Peace Corps

From a Former Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV Tanzania)

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Source: Unsplash, Simon Berger

1. It is a form of systematic racism, for those it claims to serve and for those who serve.

The words, “systematic racism,” seem to be everywhere these days. However, it is crucial that we acknowledge that the words, “systematic racism,” do not refer to a system filled with racists. Instead, these words, refer to a system that would uphold racism and disproportionately harm and subjugate people of certain races even if no racists were present. Those leading the effort to decolonize Peace Corps, @decolonizingpc discussed systematic racism, saying that, “Even after adding more volunteers of color, more anti-racism trainings, more reforms (including the ones [they] have proposed on [their] page), Peace Corps will still be a neocolonialist organization because of the imperialistic goals of U.S. foreign policy.

Which brings us to Number 2 —

Soft power imperialism, such as providing financial aid or human resources for development, functions best under the pretense of altruism, though it remains predominantly self-serving.

2. It is an inherently imperialistic organization.

What does it mean to be an imperialistic organization, you may ask? Imperialism is an ideological framework, oftentimes carried out with government policy that works to extend the rule or authority of one country over another country. Such policies have historically been carried out under the guise of “civilizing” and “developing” other nations, employing both hard power, such as military force, but also soft power. Soft power imperialism, such as providing financial aid or human resources for development, functions best under the pretense of altruism, though it remains predominantly self-serving. Self-serving in what ways, you might ask?

Well, on to Number 3 —

3. It is a neocolonialist organization.

While Peace Corps holds dear to certain values and goals, it has always been an organization that functions mostly to serve U.S. foreign policy and the volunteers over the people that they are serving. In other words, Peace Corps functions as the United States’ most prominent soft power asset. In doing so, it is, by its very nature, an organization rooted in neocolonialism, or, “the practice of using economies, globalization, cultural imperialism, and conditional aid to influence a country.” In other words, we have traded direct political and military control, for a softer, but perhaps more insidious, form of control.

4. Father-Knows-Best Paternalism Meets The White Mans Burden

Imperialistic policies rely heavily on paternalism, which “limits a person’s or group’s liberty or autonomy and is intended to promote their own good.” A classic example of both imperialism and paternalism working together would be the 19th century European, “Scramble for Africa,” in which the African continent was sliced and divided in order to reap the benefits of its myriad natural resources. European nations — imbued with a sense of superiority that they saw as their divine providence from God himself — invaded African nations using the framework of paternalism to pillage and completely fracture traditional African ways of life and their political structures. Additionally, they imposed “patriarchal social structures into European-dominated hierarchies and imposed Christianity and Western ideals.” The effects of this so-called scramble still permeate African policy today. At the turning point of the 19th century, this seemingly pre-ordained calling to “civilize” other nations, was cemented in the poem, “The White Man’s Burden (1899),” which called upon the superior white man to go forth and colonize these far-off lands.

Neocolonialist policy that cloaks itself in good intention, lives at the intersection of “the white man’s burden” and the developing world’s need for self-determination and autonomy.

In the 20th century, the conceptual framework of the white man’s burden has been used by proponents of decolonization, to critique foreign expansionism and interventionism. Arguing that neocolonial programs more often than not perpetuate the idea that so-called developing nations are unable to embrace self-determination. Neocolonialist policy that cloaks itself in good intention, lives at the intersection of “the white man’s burden” and the developing world’s need for self-determination and autonomy.

So, why do post-colonial nations still struggle for autonomy? Well, it’s far more complicated than a 6 point list could cover, but let’s dip our toes in —

5. Peace Corps’ aid structure is based on conditional financial and human resource aid that has no proven long-term results for those it claims to serve.

Aid on the African Continent is a problem. It is a complex, goliath of a problem. One need only read Dambisa Moyo’s scathing book, Dead Aid, in order to get the picture of the international development industrial complex. She makes the argument that the aid industry in Africa is not only ineffective, it is “malignant.” Over the last 50 years, more than $1 trillion in development aid has been given to Africa. She argues that this aid has, “failed to deliver sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction — and has actually made the continent worse off.”

While the entirety of the Peace Corps’ financial structure could, and should be investigated, here, we are going to unpack only one part of this structure: small grants, which are organized by the volunteers and then in-theory allocated to the communities in which they serve. As explained by those running the @decolonizingpc Instagram,

“The entire process for the Small Grants Program completely relies on the presence of the volunteer, from the application and fundraising to monitoring and evaluation… Peace Corps practices do not live up to [its primary goal of sustainability] because project funding by the Small Grants Program requires the presence of the volunteer, who at any moment can leave site permanently without notice. It should also not be up to Peace Corps or any volunteer to decide what sustainability looks like for a community.”

Peace Corps’ structure attempts to move away from the aid industry — in the sense that it sends (in theory) skilled volunteers — abroad to help build sustainable programs rather than blindly throwing money at the problem. This type of aid is not conditional in a quid pro quo sense, but rather that the aid is conditional on the volunteer being there. And if the volunteer must be there for the aid or benefit to be reaped, well then, the goal of sustainability is called into question, and dare I say, inherently flawed. This became startlingly transparent in March 2020, when thousands of volunteers were suddenly pulled from their host countries due to COVID-19 — leaving communities in a lurch, funding stalled, and crucial projects never to be finished.

The conditional aid structure and very nature of both Peace Corps promise and its inability to create sustainable change, calls to question whether or not it has a place in the global community. People that work in the aid/development world love to say, “the goal is to work ourselves out of a job.” And yet, it remains a financially fruitful industry for those employed by it, including the Peace Corps.

6. It relies on a Westernized model of development.

During my time as a Peace Corps volunteer, while I traveled, while I read books about the aid industry and the developing world, one question always seemed to creep in from the recesses of my mind: “Developing toward what?”

What exactly do we mean when we say, “a westernized model of development?” Two well-regarded Iranian scholars and economists claimed that, “The western model of development prioritizes technological modernization, free-market economy, a democratic political system, and western health systems as the basis for development.” So, these items are used as metrics to measure the success of a nations’ development. Yet, those nations that we consider successfully developed (i.e. Britain or the U.S.) reached their status, “at the expense of slavery, war, other gross human rights violations, and overexploitation of the environment within and beyond their borders.”

What does Peace Corps have to do with this? Well, back to those at @decolonizingpc who have been actively speaking out and unpacking this issue:

“Peace Corps is one iteration of the western model of development because Americanized volunteers are not equipped to identify problems and possible solutions in a community that is not their own. Some volunteers are not just unqualified because they have no experience in the fields in which they volunteer in, but simply because they are not from the community and have a completely different (westernized) worldview.”

As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I have spent countless hours sitting around circles with fellow volunteers discussing these very points. These complex issues rarely evade the volunteers themselves. Like so many systems, awareness begets change and those who have served in the Peace Corps are perhaps best positioned to call it to account as an institution. With the world coming to a screeching halt due to COVID-19, there is no better time to reimagine, reform, and decolonized the institutions that are no longer serving us as a global community.

Pastimes include playing with words, using my passport, and eating croissants. A writer of all things gender, culture, and travel.

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