The Peace Corps as conceived by John F. Kennedy and his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, was first and foremost a cross-cultural program designed promote American values of volunteerism, enthusiasm, and good will in the Third World. Volunteers would be emissaries of and evangelists for the American way of life.
The Peace Corps would also serve as a personnel conduit to official development agencies of the US government. Volunteers who had served in Asia, Latin America, and Africa; who had lived in the very communities the US government intended to help; and who had seen both the potential and the constraints of the impoverished countryside, would make ideal development professionals. They would have valuable practical experience, commitment to helping the poor, and an enlightened compassion as a moral guide.
The Peace Corps also had political value. By signing a contract with the United States government to accept Volunteers and their deployment, recipient countries officially agreed to an extension of existing bi-lateral partnerships; and once countries and their constituent communities became accustomed to the presence of young Americans, it would be just a bit harder to narrow the scope of concluded agreements. In other words, Peace Corps Volunteers would become integral members of host country communities and the person-to-person relationships established would be hard to break.
Since its inception the Peace Corps has always been accused of low-level intelligence-gathering. Volunteers could very easily and innocently provide information on the location and conditions of dams, highways, and energy infrastructure; the functioning of local government and administration; and the emergence of political groups antithetical to US interests. Such information culled from hundreds of individual reports, collated, synthesized, and analyzed could add to the other more sophisticated surveillance methods of the American security, military, and foreign policy apparatus.
These accusations have never been proven, and while plausible in the early days of the program, they are highly unlikely in an age of satellite surveillance and sophisticated spyware. Nevertheless, eyes on the ground will always have a unique importance, especially when terror cells are local and political movements begin in mosques and community centers.
The Peace Corps has changed significantly since its early days. Volunteers are now technically experienced, older, placed according to local need, and follow organized work and performance plans. They can never take the place of paid professional consultants in business, law, agriculture, and marketing; but they represent a significant move up from the early volunteers who, with little training or experience, worked in poultry-raising, animal husbandry, and small-scale agriculture.
Yet the unintended negative consequences of those early years are still felt. Washington planners should have known that sending young, inexperienced, and idealistic young people to some of the most undeveloped regions of the world might result in cultural dismissiveness and hardened prejudice. The culture of most small villages in the developing world in the 60s and 70s were economically marginal. Villagers could not take risks, for one mistake could mean family ruin. While they might be tempted by the promise of greater productivity through the adoption of American methods, they could not take the chance.
Volunteers, for whom the benefits of proposed improvements were crystal clear were too young and inexperienced to appreciate the necessarily conservative and traditional methods and mores of their communities. It was not surprising that some volunteers thought them ignorant at best and stupid at worst. How could anyone expect a twenty-two year-old from Blanton, Iowa to appreciate centuries of political, economic, and social exclusion in Africa or the Indian subcontinent?
Most returning volunteers returned to the United States filled with enthusiasm, renewed energy to help the poor, and fond memories of their collegial experience with other Americans. If anything, their commitment was increased because they now understood how really backward, unschooled, and economically disadvantaged their beneficiaries were.
Here lies the problem – innocence plus inexperience plus progressive idealism always ends up badly. Unless the underlying causes of underdevelopment are studied, analyzed, and interpreted, no programs to promote economic and social progress can possibly be designed and implemented. Unless one understands the dynamics of politics within a developing context, the true constraints to advancement will be missed. Without an appreciation of the weight of history and the near impossibility of social mobility in poor, mismanaged, and corrupt countries, can one understand how progress cannot be measured by any other than local standards.
The Peace Corps is of course not solely responsible for the political myopia of US aid programs. Returning Peace Corps Volunteers who staffed both government offices and private, non-governmental agencies only added to an already existing ethos of American exceptionalism. Americans do indeed believe that the world can be a better place, and America can and should be the leader in the movement towards it. Despite billions of dollars misspent on bi-lateral development programs; and despite the billions more ‘diverted’ to the accounts of corrupt dictators, politicians, and community leaders, the US government and its constituents continue to believe in the rightness of foreign aid.
Peter Gill in a recent book noted that “Long-serving aid-receiving dictators include Idriss Déby in Chad ($6 billion in aid between 1990 and the present), Lansana Conté in Guinea ($11 billion between 1984 and his death in 2008), Paul Kagame in Rwanda ($10 billion between 1994 and the present), and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda ($31 billion between 1986 and the present).”
Not only have American foreign aid programs suffered from progressive idealism and the worst American exceptionalism, government planners have been so politically nearsighted and oblivious to the consequences of their actions, that they have made the situation far worse than it might have been with a more rational, performance-based approach.
William Easterly has written an article for the New York Review of Books entitled Foreign Aid for Scoundrels in which he criticizes the international foreign assistance establishment and that of the United States in particular, for continuing to support corrupt dictators and to ignore their abuses of human and civil rights. He refers to a seminal book by Dambisa Moyo:
Faced with this indifference to tyranny of even the most lethal kind, African intellectuals are increasingly beginning to protest. In her book Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo struck a nerve because she protested so eloquently against the paternalism, presumption, and double standards of the donor countries’ aid agencies. In many cases, foreign aid, as a review of her book put it, “fostered dependency, encouraged corruption and ultimately perpetuated poor governance and poverty.”Paul Collier, writing in The Independent focuses on Moyo’s observation that foreign aid disenfranchises the very citizens it is designed to help:
One of her (Moyo’s) central points is that aid can, in effect, disenfranchise Africans, since the population cannot “hold its government accountable. The first stage in her argument is that aid is easy money. If governments had to rely upon private financial markets they would become accountable to lenders, and if they had to rely upon taxation they would become accountable to voters. Aid is like oil, enabling powerful elites to embezzle public revenues.
In other words the US government has made missteps all along. It has misunderstood the consequences of an ideal-based foreign aid program (including the Peace Corps). It has tolerated corruption and political abuse in the name of democracy and friendship. It has insisted on ideal-based ‘conditionalities’ which were to lead to political and economic reform when the Chinese were in the wings ready to give no-questions-asked aid-for-resources deals.
Most of all it has totally misread Third World perceptions of America. It was not the exceptional, divinely-favored place of the Peace Corps, the State Department, Paul Wolfowitz and the NeoCons, George Bush, and Barack Obama; but a godless, ruthless, anethical place.
Worst of all, this misguided approach to the world has not only corrupted the very idea of foreign assistance, but has made a mockery of foreign policy. Barack Obama backed all the wrong horses in the Middle East during the Arab Spring because of misplaced idealism. Democracy will always win out, he and his supporters claimed, but he had no idea that the world was already turning away from Western-style representative government. The US has persistently misread Putin, Iran, ISIS, Turkey, the Philippines, Egypt and any number of other countries were leaders were embracing imperialism, religious caliphates, territorial imperatives, and ethnic purity.
America’s current administration has been so enamored with multiculturalism, pluralism, and the primacy of identity politics, that it failed to see how little all this matters to the rest of the world. Even now, despite decades of failed idealism in foreign policy and foreign aid, the Administration soldiers on.
The presidential election is near (8.16) and if Donald Trump and the Republicans win, there should be a revamping of our international affairs. Despite his truly revolutionary ideas about domestic and foreign policy, it is doubtful that things will change. We should have learned our lesson in Vietnam, but instead chose to repeat the same mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Terrorism is waking us up with so much shock and awe that we may finally take notice and embrace a realpolitik, amorality, America-first, win-at-all-cost approach to world events.
Given our history, however, it will take some persistent shaking to get us out of bed.