I consider myself a libertarian, which means I think very little of what the government does is justified. However, one government program that is at least somewhat justifiable is the Peace Corps. Forcing a person to pay taxes to support America’s wars strikes me as much more morally problematic than forcing them to support truly destitute people, as the Peace Corps does.
That said, one of my favorite libertarians, James Bovard, wrote an essay last week questioning the achievements of the Peace Corps. Bovard argues that Peace Corps volunteers do not improve the conditions of the locals they live with:
James Bovard: Throughout Latin America, volunteers were sometimes referred to as “vagos” — Spanish for “vagabonds.” A Brazilian development expert concluded in a Peace Corps-commissioned study in 1968, “As economic developers, Volunteers have not had any lasting impact on any community. They are more efficient spokesmen for their interests than … for the poor.” One Latin American government official complained to a Peace Corps auditor in 1968, “The Volunteers I have known recently — with one exception — are not helping us at all. They created problems for us.”
In an article published on Campus Progress in 2008 called “Reevaluating the Peace Corps,” Peace Corps veteran Adam J. Welti raises similar questions about the organization’s role:
Today the Peace Corps has two main objectives: to provide physical and technical labor to countries that may not have enough trained workforce and to promote cross-cultural understanding between Americans and locals. These two objectives often cause a tension within the organization. Is it more important to provide labor where labor is needed, or to send grassroots ambassadors to strengthen America’s relationships with other countries?
Welti interviewed Ed Rowley and John Roberts, both former volunteers and country directors with the Peace Corps, to answer that question.
“In general we need to do a lot of work to change the world’s image of the United States. Peace Corps can be part of that—in terms of showing the world that America isn’t only about military power,” said Warren.
“Peace Corps is probably the most effective tool ever invented for people to people interactions. Any development contributions are icing on the cake,” said Roberts, who served in Somalia.
I’d like to hear from other Peace Corps veterans on these issues, namely: 1) Have Peace Corps volunteers had a lasting impact on the villages they serve? and 2) Is the purpose of the organization principally to promote development or improve the United States’ reputation?