Peace Corps in a Bottom-Up and Troubled Era

Considering the economic and political challenges facing the United States and the world today, and given the lessons learned in foreign assistance since it began after World War II with the Marshall Plan, now is the time that the Peace Corps should amend the role that its volunteers play in international development.

The Peace Corps, founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, currently supports more than 8,000 American volunteers who live with local communities in 74 emerging countries around the world, where they promote community development and international friendship.

In the current issue of WorldView magazine, a publication of the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA), President-elect Barack Obama states his support for doubling the number of volunteers to 16,000 by 2011. He also recognizes great opportunities that might have been realized for the United States and other countries around the world had President Kennedy’s vision of a corps of 100,000 volunteers been fulfilled. The NPCA recently spearheaded a campaign to double the Peace Corps’ size and move closer to Kennedy’s expansion goal.

Now is the moment to at least double the current number of Peace Corps volunteers. Peace Corps can easily be part of the new economic stimulus package being fashioned to address America’s quickly rising unemployment. Volunteers are U.S. federal government employees and receive a modest living stipend and health care coverage.

The spreading economic crisis is challenging the stability of developing nations and putting them in greater need of international assistance. Volunteers serve among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable communities and contribute to the local economy as they live and work.

There is nearly universal agreement that the United States needs urgently to rebuild its image in the world. Volunteers, as good neighbors and in their dedication to meeting human needs, contribute to public diplomacy and to goodwill among nations.

Foreign governments also understand, today more than ever, the promise of bottom-up development to decrease poverty, and the potential contribution volunteers can make to its processes. But achieving this potential will remain elusive until the primary role of volunteers in development is transformed to what they are optimally suited to do: act as third-party facilitators to help organize inclusive community meetings, and apply participatory planning activities that help groups prioritize and implement socio-economic and environmental initiatives.

There has been a paradigm shift in the field of international development since the Peace Corps began. By the 1990s, the vast majority of international and domestic, public and civil organizations dedicated to socio-economic development and improving the natural environment came to require the participation of local communities (the beneficiaries) in determining and managing projects. Today globalization is also empowering localities with more information, better communication, and more control to promote the change they want to see. The Peace Corps has shown to be a forerunner of this gradual shift toward community-driven development and away from top-down decision-making and control.

The global proliferation of bottom-up development strategies is due to their efficacy, including the sense of ownership local communities come to feel toward initiatives because they reflect their own interests, which in turn encourages project sustainability and the attainment of development goals.

It is often perceived as ironic, however, that for new self-reliant development projects to be implemented, third-parties outside the benefitting communities are needed to spearhead local development planning meetings in rural villages and neighborhoods. Outsiders do not have a personal vested interest in the community initiatives, other than to help ensure that they are inclusive of marginalized groups and they reflect the interests of the community as a whole. For this reason, outside facilitators of community development are more often better positioned than local individuals, at least initially, to help work through conflicts and draw in government and civil groups to partner with communities to advance development.

Peace Corps volunteers are ideally positioned to fill this essential third-party role. They are regularly assigned to host-government ministries to help advance social service plans related to health, education, natural resource management, and economic development. Volunteers live in communities targeted to benefit from development, and therefore are natural links between government agencies and local communities. Their overall mission to promote international understanding and their tenure of two years elicits trust, enabling them to catalyze participation in development. Whether they are assigned to teach English or promote public health, help develop small businesses or agricultural opportunities, they are able to organize community meetings driven by what local people want.

Too often, the training of volunteers emphasizes the transference of technical skills, which many evaluations suggest they are ill-suited to deliver (usually due to limited prior professional experience) and are, moreover, likely to already exist in-country. For example, farmers in developing countries hardly need to acquire skills related to animal husbandry, but they can utilize Peace Corps volunteers to bring together people to discuss their own challenges and opportunities, and create plans of action to achieve their own self-identified important goals.

The Peace Corps goals of cultural exchange and international development are most effectively achieved when volunteers are trained to elicit and respond to the deep interests of communities and community members’ own visions of change. It is on this basis that President Kennedy’s and NPCA’s ideal expansion to 100,000 volunteers is well justified.