Peace Corps Follies
THE SOURCE: “Grow Up: How to Fix the Peace Corps” by Robert L. Strauss, in The American Interest, Jan.–Feb. 2010.
On the eve of its 50th
birthday, the Peace Corps finds itself in remarkably bad shape. Born of lofty Kennedy-era ideals, it has never come close to its founders’ vision: an army of young volunteers who would ease the pain left by colonialism and bring new nations into the Western fold. Instead, the corps is a mess, sending “the wrong people to the wrong countries to do jobs that are ill defined and under supported,” contends Robert L. Strauss, a former Peace Corps country director for Cameroon.
The corps has lucked out in one regard: No one pays it any attention. Its budget of $375 million—equivalent to the amount the United States spends every 28 hours in Iraq— is “dryer lint at the bottom of the federal budgetary pocket.” Its one powerful friend in Con gress, Senator Christopher Dodd (D- Conn.), recently announced his retirement. And aside from presi dential candidates’ election- year promises to expand the Peace Corps, it remains outside the political limelight. Strauss says the organization should seize upon its relative obscurity to take risks and revive its fieldwork.
For starters, it should “get serious about working with serious part ners.” If a country doesn’t have basic respect for the rule of law and press freedom, and a substantial commitment to economic development, the Peace Corps is just wasting its time.
The corps must also get smarter about whom it recruits for its more than 7,500 overseas postings. It has too many volunteers who sign on in the hope that “life overseas will stimulate personal growth and, ulti mately, maturity.” Forget it, says Strauss. “Life overseas in loosely structured, poorly supervised situations is, with few exceptions, a formula for bore dom, depression, desertion, and generally getting into trouble.” The Peace Corps should tighten its standards and hire more permanent staff. And those who join up should be sent to cities. More and more of the world’s poor aren’t out in the bush, but that’s where the Peace Corps continues to send its eager recruits.
Get real, Strauss says. The corps’ original vision is “wildly naive and excessively optimistic.”