The Peace Corps sounds like an ideal solution for Americans who wish to experience other cultures and countries. Not only do they get to travel and see the world, they have the opportunity to devote their time to serving others. Volunteering for the Peace Corps is a seemingly noble endeavor meant to enrich the lives of volunteers while improving the lives of people in impoverished communities.
Despite this reputation, some may argue that the Peace Corps’ biggest impact has been on the citizens of the United States, not on the countries it’s designed to help. This isn’t to say that the Peace Corps doesn’t do any good in other countries — just that the Peace Corps may not do nearly as much good for them as it does for its volunteers. Taking a critical look at the Peace Corps can help us understand its role on the international stage and whether it’s still relevant today.
The Mission of the Peace Corps
Though discussions of creating some kind of volunteer program began shortly after World War II, the Peace Corps wasn’t established until March 1, 1961 by U.S. President John F. Kennedy. He envisioned an organization, primarily comprised of young adults and students, that would work to help undeveloped communities.
Its mission is “to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
- To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served.
- To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”
Young trained professionals are sent to impoverished countries around the world, particularly in Africa, Asia, and South America, with the intention of upholding and accomplishing these goals.
The Benefits of the Peace Corps
Norwich University notes that while 11 percent of the world currently lives in poverty, “countries are also undergoing unprecedented development due to the efforts of national governments and various international organizations to implement major strategies designed to make a positive impact on the livelihood of people in developing countries.”
The Peace Corps is one such organization that works to make that positive impact. Peace Corps volunteers work in a variety of fields — including agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, healthcare, and youth development — to improve the lives of and making lasting positive connections with people in rural communities.
It’s important to note that volunteers are not always celebrated in these communities. Host countries must invite the Peace Corps to send volunteers, but even if a country’s leaders welcome their help, citizens don’t always feel the same way. From their reputation as inconsiderate tourists to the global destruction the U.S. has caused, many people outside of the United States do not always have a positive opinion about Americans. And sending young Americans to various countries around the world sounds alarmingly reminiscent of colonialism, especially when considering that locals may not feel comfortable with the presence of these foreigners.
The Drawbacks of the Peace Corps
The U.S. is a global superpower with an imperialistic past. With the outward focus on helping others, it can be easy to forget that’s the context in which they created and developed the Peace Corps. After all, the Peace Corps is currently active in several countries the U.S. previously held under colonial control, including Liberia and the Philippines. Though the Peace Corps is supposedly not used to advance the U.S.’s foreign policy, volunteers still remind others of the nation’s power simply because of their presence.
And what about the volunteers? Do they truly love to help others? Are they passionate enough to commit to spending two years of their life in an underdeveloped country? Is this endeavor truly about helping others, or is it solely self-serving? How much good can they do if they are more focused on personal fulfillment?
Further, does it even matter why people devote their time and energy if they are able to make a difference? Does it matter that volunteers might gain more from the experience than the people they purportedly help?
We must then question the overall effectiveness of the Peace Corps program itself. Despite initiatives to eradicate malaria or educate women and girls in rural areas, people have criticized the Peace Corps for not fulfilling its first goal of helping others. While volunteers may be helpful at a lower, individual level, the program may not be helpful as a whole.
On paper, the Peace Corps works to improve the lives of people in developing communities. However, it also serves as an unpleasant reminder that these communities are at the mercy of more developed countries for long-term improvements. While volunteers work on behalf of others, they also work to remind them of the great inequalities between that country and the United States.
Recent research shows that these intense power imbalances between nations actually hurts efforts to improve global health. To make lasting change, Prof. Ole Petter Ottersen, a researcher from the study, urges “for a political commitment to reforming a system of global governance that he says prioritizes wealth creation over human health.”
In this context, the Peace Corps is simply not adequate to improve the lives of people in underprivileged communities. Volunteers can continue to affect change to a small extent, but the Peace Corps cannot correct issues of inequality at the global scale
The organization, then, is only relevant in a world that maintains the current status quo. As long as these issues exist in various parts of the world, the Peace Corps and other volunteer programs will continue to clean up the proverbial mess.
But wouldn’t it be better to live in a world that has no need for the Peace Corps? Everyone would have access to the all of the resources necessary for a healthy, happy life, regardless of where they live. And despite the issues some have with the Peace Corps, its volunteers do work to create and live in such a world.
*Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.