SEPTEMBER 1986 - VOLUME 7 - NUMBER 13
T H E P E A C E C O R P S
The Peace Corps
Benign Development?by Sandy Smith
It was 25 years ago this month that the first Peace Corps volunteer arrived in Dodowa, Ghana to begin a tour of duty teaching English. In celebration of this anniversary, a flurry of articles are toasting this unique government program which has probably done more than any other to expose Americans to the four-fifths of the planet that is poor.
Hubert Humphrey was the first to envision a corps of U.S. youth as international volunteers, but the notion did not take hold until publicized by John Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign. Those were Camelot years. The Cold War was on in earnest and the U.S. was edgy about the teachers and technicians the Soviet Union had been sending to developing nations. Bearded revolutionaries had just triumphed in Cuba. The times were right for some good natured U.S. internationalism.
The idea struck a chord with the public. Since 1961 over half a million Americans have applied to spend two years abroad working with the poorest of the poor. By 1986 there were some 120,000 returned Peace Corps volunteers.
Although its basic mandate has not changed, the Peace Corps in the 1980s differs greatly from the 1960s program. It is less idealistic. The average volunteer is older and more specialized. The number of volunteers abroad has dropped by more than half while the cost for each has soared. The Corps' annual budget has returned to levels of the pre-Nixon years, but even so, it lags far behind inflation and, in constant dollars, is worth only a third of its 1968 value.
The Reagan Administration has criticized the wellproven "cooperative" approach to development in poor villages and pressured the Corps to assign volunteers to small business initiatives. There is talk of closing the Peace Corps library, of privatization, and of assigning more volunteers to the Agency for International Development projects.
Nevertheless, Corps director, Loret Miller Ruppe, draws high marks from most returnees and observers for resisting efforts to both scale back the Peace Corps and wed it to militaristic foreign policy initiatives. Most observers agree, that in the age of Rambo, the Corps has generally maintained its integrity.
"Under Reagan," said one former volunteer, "it could have been a horror show."
Ruppe has pledged to build up the Corps from its present 6,000 to 10,000 volunteers by 1990, but the dollars have yet to be allocated for such an expansion. In fact, the Corps will probably lose money under Gramm-Rudman.
In 1961, the U.S. Congress defined three goals for the Peace Corps:
Attempts to quantify the value of a quarter century of volunteer effort are difficult. There are thousands of colorful anecdotes, but few analytical studies of the program's long term effectiveness. Surveys during the 1970s produced an impressive array of statistics: 182,600 people trained in academic and vocational skills, 180 development surveys, 490 water projects, 270 demonstration farm plots, 82,200 livestock inoculations. ...
But statistics don't tell the story. As historian Gerard T. Rice wrote in his 1981 book, Twenty Years of Peace Corps, the Corps is "not in the business of transferring massive economic resources. Rather it concentrates on increasing productivity and encouraging self-reliance" in villages that are often ignored by large-scale development agencies.
He went on to quote former Peace Corps Director Jack Vaughn's answer to the question of whether a handful of volunteers in a forgotten Andean village make a difference: "Yes," said Vaughn, "It makes a difference to that village."
The best indication of what a small $127 million volunteer program really can accomplish may be told in the anecdotes and lessons of returned volunteers.
President John Kennedy told the first team of volunteers to "come back and educate us." But many returned volunteers complain that the Peace Corps does little to promote or make use of their rich experiences once they return.
Yet there is little doubt that both the volunteers themselves and society benefit from this cross-cultural contact. In a 1979 survey, 93 percent of returnees said their Peace Corps experience had had a "positive or extremely positive" influence on their lives. The survey also revealed that 50 percent of returnees participate in voluntary work here in the states.
In Search of Mud Huts
The Corps has certainly met the goal of supplying energetic individuals to the Third World. But questions remain as to what that energy ends up doing. One common practice is "slotfilling" -assigning Peace Corps volunteers to fill service jobs for which there is no shortage of trained personnel. For example, explained Steve Smith, a former Peace Corps country director, "a country might train plenty of nurses, but none of them want to serve in Podunk Province." So a Peace Corps volunteer is sent in. This practice in effect relieves the local government from having to develop policies that assure equitable distribution of health care.
During the early years there were many failures in structure and programming, perhaps not surprising considering the scope of the mission and a dearth of models for developing small-scale development projects.
Charlie Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, ran an evaluation unit for the Peace Corps in the 1960s. He was responsible in large part for many program improvements.
"Programming was very haphazard in the early days," said Peters. "The staff would go into the capital cities and talk to cabinet level ministers. They knew about as much about needs at the grassroots level as cabinet people here."
Probably the most widespread criticism of the Corps is that its programs do not address the basic human needs of the very poor. A 1978 study of the program by Steven Cohn and Robert Wood found that a majority of the volunteers do not even work with the "poorest of the poor," nor in the poorest countries. Over half of all volunteers worked in countries with comparatively high per capita incomes-more than $500 per year.
A 1979 survey of returned volunteers supported the study's findings. Half reported that they did not feel their Work had a direct impact on the truly poor sectors in their host countries. A fifth thought their work had primarily benefitted the top 60 percent of the socioeconomic levels in that population.
Cohn and Wood also criticized the high priority the Corps gives to teaching English instead of addressing people's basic needs for food, water, and health care. In response, Congress amended the Peace Corps Act in 1978 to require that volunteers help the poorest individuals in recipient countries with their most basic human needs.
Nevertheless, the Corps retains a heavy emphasis on basic education. This year. 39 percent of all volunteers are assigned to classroom teaching, and English remains a common subject. Although useful in many settings, English-speaking ability is more commonly a skill valued by "middle-class" students headed for a university education. One recent returnee described her struggle to get out of a Peace Corps assignment in Zaire teaching English to students who were already fluent in French. "Most were unlikelv to ever leave Zaire and they would have no need for two European languages," she said.
It is the "public relations" goal of the Peace Corps Act that has traditionallv drawn the strongest criticism from the left. Anti-Vietnam War protesters sometimes called the Peace Corps the "smile on the devil's policy."
Some critics charge that the Peace Corps is only a somewhat ineffective attempt to counter damage done to the U.S. image abroad by its aggressive military and its unscrupulous businesses.
In 1984, US News and World Report surveyed six Peace Corps country directors about the image of the United States in their host countries. Most mentioned local suspicions about the U.S. military buildup and widespread feelings that the United States cares little about the Third World.
And when the main symbols of the United States are Coca Cola, rich businessmen, a fortified embassy, and the tail end of the nuclear submarine docked at the U.S. naval base in their port, local resentment grows.
The statistics also bear it out: Annual revenues of Exxon are greater than the GNPs of most poor countries. The U.S. sinks close to $200 billion a year into a military buildup and maintains bases in 40 foreign countries-nearly twice as many as any other power. Less than a third of one percent of the U.S. GNP, however, goes for foreign aid-a smaller percentage than Canada, Australia, Japan and nine Western European nations.
Statistics such as these put the Peace Corps-and all U.S. economic aid for that matter-into perspective. It also raises the issue of the causes of Third World poverty.
In their book Aid As Obstacle. researchers of the Institute for Food and Deveilopment Policy write, "The official aid agencies' diagnosis is that the poor are poor because they lack certain things... [But,] in studying country after country it becomes clear that what the poor really lack is power. power to secure what they need."
With this analvsis, the poor should be encouraged to organize a power base to gain more leverage with the powers-that-be. To their credit, manv Peace Corps volunteers have helped to empower local communities. Some of the best work of volunteers has been in "community development work"-essentially serving as a liaison between local organizations and government agencies to gather support for local projects.
That kind of work, however, has gotten volunteers in trouble. During the mid-1970s in Honduras' remote province of Olancho, a campesino land reform movement was supported b}• Peace Corps volunteers. The local militarv squads squelched the effort by murdering 12 campesinos. When word went out that the American volunteers would be next, the volunteers went into hiding until they could be flown back to the United States. A Peace Corps spokesperson acknowledged that community development work is being de-emphasized under Reagan.
The Honduran case was the exception rather than the rule. Most volunteers are placed in innocuous positions and urged to cooperate with authorities. They are instructed to stay out of political struggles and to clear out when things get hot. "The Peace Corps is there as a guest and the host government can ask it to leave anytime," Steve Smith noted. There is the rub-Peace Corps volunteers must try to do good without challenging the status quo, even though most of the countries served by the U.S. Peace Corps are ruled by military dictatorships. Since these governments are inevitably allied with the United States, it is clear that what a volunteer program like the Peace Corps is most good for is public relations.
The public relations role of Peace Corps was made clear from the start. In promoting the Corps to young Americans, Kennedy asserted. 'On your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, will depend the answer whether we as a free society can compete."
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative political think tank, was more blunt in a 1984 diatribe: "The Peace Corps was never intended to be blindly altruistic. Rather, it was designed to be an interpersonal demonstration of the fruits of democracy and free enterprise."
Many observers and some returned volunteers charge that, in addition to public relations for the United States, Peace Corps programs serve to legitimize dictators.
An American health worker in Nicaragua, recalled that when she first went to Central America with the Peace Corps during the 1970s she was assigned to collect taxes from poor campesinos.
"Governments use the Peace Corps everyday," said Deppner 'but if there's anything Peace Corps volunteers do well its use their loud mouths to blow the whistle on corruption."
In the Philippines under Marcos, Peace Corps volunteers exposed a group of urban bankers that were expropriating loans that should have gone to small farmers.
But overall, many volunteers maintain that development goals, when they are not subordinated for political objectives, are still the primary concern of the Peace Corps.
Deppner, a fellow at the Center for Development Policy, sees the Corps model as superior to that of the Agency for International Development for helping the poor. "The U.S. is too preoccupied with money. If there is a problem somewhere you throw money at it. But in the final analysis the only thing you can transfer to another person is ideas and enthusiasm."
Becky Buell, of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, agreed that a person-to-person approach to development is most effective, but she cautioned that the Peace Corps program is "still based fundamentally on the principle of increasing U.S. influence in the Third World. Its connection with U.S. foreign policy objectives is clear when you look at where volunteers are stationed and the kinds of work they do."
She also criticized the Corps' new emphasis on "small enterprise projects." In 10 eastern Caribbean nations, 160 volunteers trained in agriculture and business are helping farmers and fishermen set up small business ventures aim at income generation. Too often, these projects benefit a few individuals, but fail to address the needs of the larger community, Buell said.
A Peace Corps spokesperson defended the approach, emphasizing that many of the programs are designed to assist cooperatives.
Fighting the Communist Menace
Another duty of the Peace Corps, according to its congressional mandate, was to counter Soviet development efforts in the Third World. The original Peace Corps Act even provided that volunteers be instructed in the "philosophy, strategy, tactics, and menace of Communism."
When he began evaluating the Corps in the 1960s, Charlie Peters found "they were training volunteers to be junior diplomats. Giving them a course in American studies, world affairs and communism. Then they sent them out in the boondocks and expected them to argue with the communists. Well they didn't run into many , communists out there, just lots of poor peasants."
"They were useless," Peters added, "they didn't even speak the language. The first thing we did was increase the language training from 50 to 250 hours and emphasize training in the host culture."
Peters' managed to get Peace Corps administrators to jettison the anticommunist training.
Politics again took precedence over development work in the 1970s under Nixon. Many Peace Corps volunteers opposed the Vietnam War. Some entered the Corps in order to escape the draft. Two demonstrations against the Vietnam War by volunteers abroad infuriated Nixon and Republican congressmen. They responded by passing legislation folding the Peace Corps into ACTION, the organization that ran VISTA and other domestic volunteer programs. In those years, "Nixon and ACTION director Joe Blatchford did all they could to `kill off the Peace Corps," said Peters.
Anti-communist training was briefly reincarnated in 1981 at the behest of rightwing Republicans. At the amazing cost of $50,000 the Corps hired the consulting firm of Dean Coston Associates to produce a slide show called "Americans Abroad." Writing in The Nation Daniel Barry described the shows 1982 Miami debut before a group of Peace Corps volunteers leaving for Guatemala. The narration contrasted "open societies" (e.g., the United , States) with "closed societies" (e.g., the Soviet Union). A travelogue featured slides captioned: "American Family Worshipping" and "Thanksgiving Dinner," while the closed societies were illustrated with slides titled "Well Fed Reviewers at Parade," "Two Spy-Looking Blokes Conversing," and "Glaring Communist." The volunteers gave the show a negative review and the Peace Corps shelved the $50,000 project.
With the Company in Zaire
Although rumors that Peace Corps volunteers are spies have been around since its inception, the charges are seldom well substantiated. From the view point of a poor peasant who feels threatened by authorities, however, the reasons for suspicion are clear.
"Some volunteers get real close to AID people," said Hellinger. "They get in the habit of discussing with them what's going on in their village. I don't think volunteers should be seen communicating on a regular basis with established agencies of the U.S. government. [There is] too great a chance an operative will use them for intelligence."
Many of the names of local Guatemalan Indian leaders killed in political violence in Guatemala turned out to be people who were identified to Guatemalan government agencies by U.S. Peace Corps volunteers as contacts for community development projects.
Political appointees who end up in country directorships have also come under suspicion. Zaire Country Director, William H. Crosson, Jr., had been in Army intelligence for 30 years when Nixon appointed him to the job in 1972.
A controversy arose when Reagan nominated Thomas Pauken, a former Army intelligence operative in Vietnam, to be director of ACTION in 1981. The Peace Corps still fell under the auspices of ACTION at that time and Ruppe opposed the nomination, claiming the intelligence connection would damage the Corps' credibility abroad. The Senate confirmed Pauken, but shortly thereafter legislation was approved separating ACTION from the Peace Corps.
Although President Kennedy ordered the CIA not to use the Peace Corps as cover, former Corps director Sam Brown once stated that he had been "assured" by the CIA that it had not used Peace Corps for cover since 1975. This was the only official admission that the agency had ever done so.
Louis Wolf, editor of Covert Action Information Bulletin, said there had been discussions in Congress recently over proposals to include the Peace Corps among organizations that could be used as cover by the CIA. Ruppe strongly opposed this proposal, as did longterm congressional supporters of the Corps. In the end the Peace Corps was exempted from the list.
Although it seems unlikely that the Peace Corps is used in covert operations, wittingly or not it is often used in conjunction with U.S. military interests.
Honduras, the linchpin of U.S. military policy in Central America, now has the largest contingent of Peace Corps volunteers in the world. As the number of U.S. built airships and military troops in the area has grown, so has the number of Peace Corps volunteers assigned there. the number of Peace Corps volunteers assigned there.
Deppner, who recently evaluated a development project in Honduras, said that many of the new volunteers were without pre-arranged homes or jobs. "The Honduran government asked for them and the Peace Corps recruited them."
A Peace Corps spokesperson denied that political consideration had anything to do with the surge of volunteers assigned there. She cited growing Honduran development projects and recent efforts to build the number of volunteers abroad as explanations.
The Peace Corps also marched dutifully along with the Reagan administration's Caribbean Basin Initiative.
"The Caribbean Peace Corps program is not in any way serving the grass roots," said Hellinger. "It was set up to serve U.S. business and it's not even very successful at that. Why a tremendous increase in volunteers for the Caribbean and not for Africa? Because Reagan wanted them there, that's why."
He notes that our large Peace Corps contingents in Kenya, The Philippines, and Honduras are directly related to the locations of U.S. military bases.
The Corps is conspicuously absent from poor countries with socialist leaning. The Peace Corps is also absent from nearly all the impoverished nations neighboring South Africa.
A 1982 attempt by Ruppe to introduce volunteers to Zimbabwe was squelched by the State Department. The opposite scenario occurred after the Marines stormed ashore in Grenada in October 1983. Although pressured by Reagan to send in a large contingent of Peace Corp volunteers to replace deported Cuban teachers and technical experts, Ruppe resisted. Eventually she compromised and sent a small contingent to the island.
Older and Wiser
Like many well-ensconced government programs, the Peace Corps has gotten a little fat. The Corps' budget suffered large declines in constant dollars in years when inflation was high in the 1970s. But inflation doesn't explain why a volunteer abroad now costs $20,000 a year to maintain, compared with $7000 in 1968. Both a larger bureaucracy (over 1000 fulltime employees in 88 countries) and poor management play a role.
Most returned volunteers are quick to point out that they are seldom called on to help design projects. Washington, D.C.-area returned volunteers have begun a campaign to raise private funds for a national center run by the returnees where new volunteers can be trained and temporarily housed at much lower costs than the Corps now incurs. The plan will be presented to Ruppe later this month.
In a review of the Peace Corps in March the House Select Committee on Hunger praised the agency for effective work in the areas of agriculture and conservation, while recommending that the Corps expand its African Food Systems Intitiative, increase the number of volunteers in the field, recruit more women, and move to depoliticize country dictatorships.
A call to enlarge to Corps to 10,000 volunteers was incorporated into a 1986 foreign appropriations bill, but no additional money has been forthcoming.
Meanwhile, developing counties requests for volunteers continue to outstrip the agency's ability to meet them and the Corps' popularity is stonger than ever. Over 13,000 applicants vied for the 3,426 trainee slots filled in 1983.
If the Corps is truly intended to benefit the "poorest of the poor" it should be expanded and depoliticized.
"Americans tend to be liked," says Hellinger. "Volunteers have done tremendous things for our image abroad. The greatest thing the Peace Corps could do for this country is to fight totaltarian and authoritarian governments and work for democracy and grass-roots change in the countries it serves.
The Peace Corps is the epitome of Kennedy's Camelot mythology. It is a tall order to expect a small program appended to an immense superpower, to make a difference, but it is a goal worth striving for.
Sandy Smith is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.