The Problem with Peace Corps

There is a problem with Peace Corps, and I do not mean the agency. It is with the Peace Corps community and our lack of progress sharing what we have learned with Americans -- our cherished “Third-Goal.”

Do a search for Peace Corps. You'll find social groups for returned volunteers, informational material for prospective volunteers, and a few documentaries produced on the subject. You may, or may not, be surprised by the number of images of John F. Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, and fond sentiments about the sixties. True, Peace Corps is a product of Camelot, and it was a group of extraordinary people who filled out the first volunteer groups to Ghana and Colombia, but it's time we stopped patting ourselves on the back. It's time to stop focusing on our creation mythology.

Why do we instinctively look back? The defining characteristic of Kennedy, Shriver, and all those young idealists who signed up to be the first volunteers was the fact that they were NOT looking back. Their eyes were on the future.

Somehow this essential element of their character eludes us as we strive to replicate the Peace Corps experience of the sixties. We make it a competition to see whose experience is the most rugged, the most rural, the most like the good old days. “Posh Corps” has become the term of choice to sling at experiences that do not fit this romanticized image.

It seems that every documentary about Peace Corps is a retrospective, a look back at those meaningful, wonderful times. Prospective volunteers are weaned on such narratives, though the situation today is a completely different story. The developing world is awakening to a technological and communications revolution. A Peace Corps Volunteer must find a place in a community that may be in the midst of an identity crisis, where everyone of working age has moved to the capital city, and traditional social structures are being circumvented or degraded as the world becomes more interconnected. We desperately try to capture a traditional experience in places which are racing toward modernism, and wonder why the equation is not quite right.

The need for Peace Corps does not end when a village gets indoor plumbing and cell phone towers. The struggles of volunteers serving in Posh Corps countries are exactly what the future of Peace Corps service will look like. If we truly want to emulate our heroes, we can't spend all our energies looking back. Peace Corps is not about the past, it's about the future, and I believe our best days are still ahead of us.

Alan Toth served in South Africa from 2010 to 2012. His documentary, Posh Corps, documents the lives of modern volunteers, and can be found at poshcorps.com


  • commented 2015-06-06 02:39:46 -0400
    I agree that human nature will want to enshrine the early years of any transformative experience into a “creation mythology” that can damper the original directives. A changing world demands changing methods. I trust RPCVs, of all people, to find the right amount of reverence for the past to propel the future. The younger RPCVs I am seeing give me much hope.
    John Young Papua New Guinea, 1981-85
  • commented 2014-11-04 11:38:38 -0500
  • commented 2014-05-28 17:44:05 -0400