RPCV suggests Peace Corps outmoded and in need of major reform

With the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination having recently passed, some news outlets used the occasion to take stock of one of his most important legacies, the Peace Corps.

Ryan Rommann served as Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia from 2009 to 2011 and recently wrote a provocative essay in The Guardian on Peace Corps, drawing on some data and his own personal experience. He suggests that the model is in deep need of revision. Having been out of the Peace Corps for more than a decade, it is unclear to me if Ryan captures the contemporary reality. My sense is that volunteers are much more connected to home, to each other, and to information than they once were. That certainly has its advantages in terms of the ability to tap in to knowledge, and I imagine that it has transformed the paradigmatic notion of your solo Peace Corps volunteer isolated in a rural village. I also gather, from following Peace Corps Ecuador and some interesting programming from a country director in Senegal, that some country directors are making great strides to try and shake things up, with more professionalism and teamwork. Still, Ryan raises some important points. Read on for more details.

Ryan writes that the Peace Corps remains in countries far after they appear not to need the Peace Corps:

Out of the 68 currently active countries, 20 countries have high human development, 29 have medium human development, and 19 have low human development on the UN’s Human Development Report. With stressed budgets and so many countries in need of assistance, it’s regrettable that limited resources are allocated to countries that have already achieved the Peace Corps’ first goal.

He laments the level of training of your average volunteer:

According to its own 2010 assessment, approximately 85% of the agency’s volunteers are recent college graduates with little or no professional experience. While a college degree was sufficient to qualify as expertise in the 1960s, it is not satisfactory now.

He suggests that monitoring and evaluation needs a major overhaul:

While many development organisations are moving to programme evaluation based on randomised control trials, there is a complete absence of empiricism in the Peace Corps. This is not for a lack of measurement opportunities, given that 76% of volunteers work in education, health, and economic development – sectors perfectly apt for quantitative analysis.

Some of this rings true from my experience, but I’ve been away from Peace Corps too long to know how true these observations are. It’s hard to imagine the Peace Corps being able to attract people with many more qualifications and experience than your typical college graduate, though I recognize many PCVs have considerable skills. If PCVs are being paid anything like the $200 per month I received ten years ago, then the money (along with the paltry readjustment allowance) just won’t allow people with kids or mortgages to make a go of it, unless they are near retirement, have already amassed considerable savings, and their children are out of the house.

Once you get in to the world of commitments, relationships, and possessions (which is the standard arc for professionals as they grow up), you cannot do Peace Corps. That is why I think Peace Corps attracts the young like me fifteen years ago, because we are idealistic, are not tied down, and don’t own property. That means your typical volunteer is still largely going to be drawn largely from the pool of recent college graduates with whatever mix of skills are educational institutions are producing.

Your thoughts?

3 thoughts on “RPCV suggests Peace Corps outmoded and in need of major reform”

  1. The Peace Corps mission remains “promote world peace and friendship”. Ryan and many others continue to focus almost exclusively PC as a development agency. The 1st goal is “to meet the need for trained men and women” in interested countries. This does have clear development focus, but is limited to people development. The 2nd and 3rd goal focus of better understanding both at home and overseas are as equally important to the 1st goal, yet are often ignored or forgotten. Understanding is more challenging to quantitatively measure.
    I agree that the Peace Corps like all institutions must change, grow, and improve. Better teamwork, communication, and professionalism improves any organization.
    The preponderance of recent college graduates adds a dose of idealism that is lacking in many organizations. Their youth also gives them greater time to work on the 2nd and 3rd goals. I applaud the older volunteers and would love to see their ranks grow but there are currently tremendous economic challenges facing the 30-50 year olds.

  2. I’ve been ‘returned’ along time myself (Ecuador 74-76). Romman makes some interesting points. I went in with a BS in Earth Science and worked as a surveyor for an indian tribe. I know another volunteer with a similar back ground who surveyed the Afghan borders in the mid-60s. During my time there were 3 licensed surveyor who volunteered for the program but did not last more than one trip out. Living conditions were too harsh.
    Most of the good I see in Peace Corps – or any of the various volunteer organizations – are done in basic small business advice/training or in health training. Given the failure of economic theory, I don’t see how a business student fresh out of college who had to work through college to pay for it wouldn’t be better than someone with long experience. In some countries pre-med students would be better than what exists now. Same goes for engineering students. The program I was in was started by a couple of sociology majors. Their kind of expertise is needed but I suspect it would not be welcome.
    Romman’s other comment about why are we still in countries that have achieved development is also well taken. I suspect there is some politics involved.

  3. Putting aside the three goals of the Peace Corps for a moment, it would have been (and still is) advantageous to collect data on PCV performance – what was accomplished for whom at what site during what time frame? Not that such limited information uncovers any clues to development transformation, but as a minimum, the potential is there to avoid past mistakes. I would have greatly benefited from knowing what had been tried before and with whom and in which sites while a PCV working with the rural population of Turngurahua in the mid-70’s. And had I the foresight to capture the same information at that time, some PCV (or other domestic or international volunteer) working there right now might benefit as well. Yes, technologies and the application of technology have changed over the years, but lessons learned (especially when localized) are always useful.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top