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

  • John Young
    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
  • Reuben Snipper
    commented 2014-11-04 11:38:38 -0500
    As a Volunteer from the 60’s, I do hope this comment is taken seriously and the Peace Corps moves forward and embraces the new realities of a world that is much better connected and with much less poverty and better health status than in the 60’s. Also more organizations are working on these issues and the Peace Corps needs a new niche.

    An example of something PCVs can do: help communities learn empowerment: Peace Corps can help people learn to work with their neighbors on community projects. With a few successful projects, people learn to do it on their own. Each success builds confidence and experience. Once the community starts doing these projects, it pushes the local political structure to be more responsive to them.

    Also, several of the international organizations now working in Peace Corps countries are looking for partnering opportunities. PCVs could be the bridge to make these happen or work better.
    Reuben Snipper
    RPCV: El Salvador, 67-69
  • Kristina Owens
    commented 2014-05-28 17:44:05 -0400
    Alan, I agree “Peace Corps is not about the past, it’s about the future” but I disagree that the Peace Corps community focuses solely on the past. There are countless examples of RPCVs and groups such as RPCV/W taking their experiences and making an impact in both local and global communities

    First, understanding our history is essential in moving forward. For example for me and others the founding of the Peace Corps has impacted our families. Understanding the history and reason why Peace Corps was created is fascinating and important in understanding of who we are and where we are today and how we can move forward.

    On September 25, 2011, RPCV/W led a moving commemoration for the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps (you can find the documents on this website). These events were planned and implemented by over 100 volunteers. Speakers reflected on the past, the present and the future in a nearly two hour program addressing nearly 5000 RPCVs at Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Amphitheater.

    Concluding this day, over 5,000 RPCVs then walked across the Arlington Memorial Bridge with the flags of the 139 Peace Corps countries. By walking away from the cemetery, it was the symbol of hope for the future.

    Secondly, our community for the last 53 years has impacted the US and abroad in so many positive ways. Peace Corps volunteers have come home to be teachers, doctors, business leaders, and public service leaders. Our experiences impact what we do for our own communities. RPCV Alumni groups are constantly looking for ways to collectively make a positive impact. They mentor, volunteer, and fundraise. Countless RPCVs have created their own charities to focus on issues that they are passionate about.

    We have had ~70 Political Leaders at all levels making a difference in Public office, 25 are running for office in 2014. We currently have 5 RPCV Congressmen who work very hard to move our country forward; three more RPCVs are running for Congress because they are inspired by their own service.

    RPCV/W each year honors a “Peace Corps Champion”, a RPCV who continues to ensure Peace Corps remains relevant. The National Peace Corps Association, each year honors, groups, individuals who have ‘practiced’ the Third goal through programing _groups or creating Non-profit organizations-individuals.

    Our community is very focus on the future. This is evident through RPCV/W’s efforts to continue the third goal, empower our community to continue to make a difference through the Partnership for Peace program. RPCV/W also makes a point to uplift the Peace Corps community through professional development events and they facilitate opportunities to network with like-minded individuals for the purpose of helping RPCVs make a difference in the future by becoming key leaders.

    Finally the National Peace Corps Association has a strong Advocacy program where we advocate for strong funding for the Peace Corps, address key issues that impact the PCVs and recent returned as well as issues that the RPCV Community cares about(poverty, climate change). This past March we had nearly 100 RPCVs on Capitol Hill telling their story and demonstrating that Peace Corps should continue for another 50 years.

    Perhaps it seems like the community is obsessed with the past but our actions indicate otherwise. We need to remember and honor the past, persevere in the present without forgetting the future