Fifty years ago today, the Peace Corps was established by President John F. Kennedy. We asked two contributors to reflect on the organization’s history and consider its continued relevance in the twenty-first century. Karen Rothmyer is a former Peace Corps volunteer (and former Nation managing editor), and Frank Sheed is a former Peace Corps legal counsel.
It will no doubt come as a surprise to many that the Peace Corps is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year—a surprise not that it’s so old but that it’s still around at all. Many associate it with its heyday in the ’60s and assume it died along with much of that decade’s idealism. In fact, there are more volunteers today than at any time since the 1960s, in a broader range of countries than ever. But in a world that has changed so much since the Peace Corps’s founding, it’s reasonable to ask whether we still need it.
Certainly the changing world has made it necessary to re-evaluate the role of international development organizations in addressing the world’s development challenges. But the Peace Corps is not an international development organization in the way that USAID or the World Bank is. Since its founding, the Peace Corps has been guided by its three statutory goals: (1) helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; (2) helping promote a better understanding of Americans by the people served; and (3) helping promote a better understanding of other peoples by Americans. So while most international development organizations provide money and projects, the Peace Corps has always provided essentially one thing: people.
The people the Peace Corps provides do not sit in offices in Washington or in Bangkok; they live in the villages they serve and become part of the community. They do not come to the community with predetermined ideas about what the community needs; they learn about its needs by being a part of it for a full two years. And they do not respond to those needs by undertaking large-scale projects themselves but by training or teaching those in the community to undertake them. Its truly grassroots nature has made the Peace Corps a model for other development agencies, large and small, as they have increasingly seen the value of community-based development.
But the Peace Corps’s enduring value can’t be measured by development metrics. Its real achievement is cultural exchange. The Peace Corps maintains a strict separation from US foreign policy and from other US government agencies so the Peace Corps and its volunteers will be viewed as representatives of the American people, not the American government. I can say from experience that maintaining this separation is not always easy, but it is at the heart of Peace Corps operations and has been critical to its success, through fifty years of Republican and Democratic administrations. Many communities around the world that might never have seen an American in person, much less lived with and gotten to know one, have a markedly different idea of what America can be than those who only hear about America on the news.
Likewise, volunteers returning from service have experienced life in other countries in a way that few Americans ever will. Even among those hardy development workers or travelers who might venture to Mozambique or Suriname or Kazakhstan, few will remain in the local village when the sun goes down, few will develop friendships using the local language and eating the local cuisine day after day, few will sit in the African hut chatting easily with a grandma who has never seen a foreigner before. In short, few will come as close to knowing what the world looks like from there. Volunteers who bring this perspective back to America bring something of inestimable value to other Americans in understanding the world on a deeper, more human level than they can understand it by reading the news. They also bring this needed perspective to whatever work they choose to do when they get back, be it teaching, study, political work or, yes, development work.
It is true that in some ways the world has gotten smaller and the needs of many countries have changed, and that the Peace Corps has changed in some ways as well. Volunteers now train in information technology, small-business development, ecotourism and even industrial engineering. HIV/AIDS education is a key part of Peace Corps service around the world. And the Peace Corps has increasingly sought to find ways to use the expertise of returned volunteers again on shorter, more focused projects, including emergency relief. To stay relevant, the Peace Corps must continue to find ways to address new problems and new approaches to addressing old problems. But through all the changes, the value reaped by people of different countries and cultures gaining a better understanding of one another has not diminished one bit. As long as this is true, the Peace Corps will always have an important place.