I am one of thousands of Americans who have applied to and decided to join the Peace Corps, and I will be leaving next week for my service in Morocco. President Kennedy conceived of Peace Corps in 1960 on the steps of the Michigan Union (go blue!). It is a U.S. government-funded overseas volunteer program, run via its own federal agency, created with the overall aim of "promoting world peace and friendship."
I have heard many criticisms of Peace Corps being a waste of money for the U.S. government and the world at large. The work that mostly-unskilled, naive Americans do doesn’t actually help the people in their communities — these Americans end up walking away gaining much more than they could ever hope to give at site. People have told me that volunteering for Peace Corps is a uniquely selfish decision, and that my impact will be non-existent since the “developing world” would look no different without Peace Corps.
I have been obsessively wrestling with this perception since college, when I became aware of effects from neocolonialism, the white savior complex, and other interlocking power structures out of which Peace Corps has emerged. While Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) — transformed by their experiences — advocate for the growth of Peace Corps, others have sought to abolish it altogether.
Peace Corps as Cultural Exchange, Public Diplomacy
Peace Corps’ inception may very well be grounded in American exceptionalism. But instead of abolishing Peace Corps for arrogant aims, we can focus on its merit as an instrument of public diplomacy and cultural exchange today. The U.S. government understands public diplomacy as achieving foreign policy goals and objectives through engaging with and influencing foreign publics, primarily through people-to-people ties. Peace Corps is primarily a way for the American people to interact with a diverse group of people in places where U.S.-outbound exchange would not otherwise be present.
While many RPCVs find jobs in the development sector, Peace Corps itself is only tangential to the development sector. Indeed, Americans in the international development sector could abolish their expectations of Peace Corps without abolishing the entity itself. Since the term public diplomacy was coined after President Kennedy initiated Peace Corps, Peace Corps was not explicitly framed as a public diplomacy initiative when it began. Now is the time to re-frame Peace Corps through the lens of public diplomacy rather than development.
Through this lens, the work that Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) do is a secondary bonus to the relationships that are formed. Some volunteers have been, by American standards, productive. They have helped build schools, initiated reading clubs and soccer teams, ran girls’ empowerment camps, and so much more. On the other extreme, some volunteers come up against frustrating social and political barriers that make it seemingly impossible to be productive. But in 100% of Peace Corps experiences, exchanges occur. And that is the real point. Crosscutting people-to-people exchanges are vital for furthering U.S. national security interests AND overall peace.
As a former Peace Corps Volunteer from Mongolia told me, during Peace Corps you begin to “dismantle the idea that your value comes from your productivity.” After working for Atlas Corps, which brings emerging non-profit and social change leaders to the U.S. to serve at mission-driven host organizations for a year to 18 months, I have only begun trying to embrace this idea. Most Atlas Corps Fellows say that the biggest take-away from their fellowship would be the network they formed with other Fellows, colleagues, and friends. The most satisfied Fellows are not tied to specific work plans or visions for what their year will look like. It sounds idealistic, but in my experience, overseas volunteers — regardless of nationality — derive more real value from interactions with others above any concrete accomplishment.
Atlas Corps Fellows give to the U.S. social sector just as much as they gain, since they bring 2–10 years of professional experience and skills that are specifically suited to their positions. But no matter what deliverables emerge from the placement, programs like Atlas Corps and Peace Corps will always be worthy investments for the U.S. government and every other country in the world. Bringing talented changemakers to the U.S., and sending more Americans to countries where there are not many Americans, gives the U.S. new stories from a country where we might have only heard a single story. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her Ted Talk, single stories promote ignorance and misunderstanding. Conversely, exchanges promote knowledge and understanding among peoples, regardless of relations at the government level.
Thanks to Peace Corps, taxpayers have gained more open-minded Americans with more stories. The world has gained exchanges of ideas, perspectives, and resources. Moreover, the assumption that American people have nothing to learn from people in developing countries supports the top-down development model international aid mechanisms are trying to reverse today. Despite differences in resources, histories, climates, and cultures, problems everywhere are complex.
“What will you be doing?”
Peace Corps is an opportunity that, for various reasons, not every American can access. Socioeconomic status or political stance should not determine who benefits from exchange, but right now it does. My going to Morocco is a great privilege for me to see a new country, learn new languages, and develop professionally and personally. It is not an altruistic service — Moroccans know the context and complexities to help their communities much better than I ever could. And while many of my peers are working hard in the U.S. to hone their skills in vital areas such as medicine, chemistry, engineering, public health, or social justice here at home, I struggle to answer the often-asked question “so, what exactly will you be doing in Morocco?”
I don’t know what I’ll be doing; for now I just know I’ll be forming new relationships. I hope that my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer — which is exchange at the individual level — helps me administer exchange programs across all sectors later on. But exchange is not only important for people that are passionate about making a career of it. Exchange is also important for my talented and skilled friends in medicine, chemistry, engineering, public health, social justice, art, or any other field. I hope to open more doors for them to meet their counterparts around the world.
Why to Increase Exchanges
International relationships can weather more storms if they are not predicated on just “leader-to-leader, government-to-government” ties. No matter which entities founded and are dominating the international system, people listening to and learning from one another can surpass some power structures put in place by history. I can't point to a concrete historical example of people-to-people ties saving a diplomatic crisis. But in the long term, relationships between people of different countries promote a more nuanced image of each country's identity.
For example, Pakistan has one of the highest levels of anti-American sentiment in the world. While this sentiment is mostly due to U.S. foreign policy towards the region, people-to-people relationships have become more important for strengthening tenuous ties between governments. The Fulbright Program in Pakistan is currently one of the largest Fulbright Programs in the world, and Atlas Corps also has the highest number of applicants and Fellows from Pakistan. Now, when I think of Pakistan, I think of my talented and loving friends who are social change leaders, rather then the one-sided images of Pakistan displayed on American television screens.
Especially given anti-Americanism around the world, the idealism behind exchange program promotion can be grounded by public diplomacy, which is in national interest. As former Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale said of U.S. public diplomacy efforts, “this is not a propaganda contest — it is a relationship race. And we have got to get back in the game.” If people in the U.S. government agree on this point, exchanges should become an even bigger part of our foreign policy. Right now, under 1.5% of American undergraduates have studied abroad, and only 7% of college students in the U.S. were enrolled in a language course last year.
Exchange Advocates as Policymakers
Though we might be small (and relatively privileged) in numbers, beneficiaries of U.S. exchange programs do exist. In fact, alumni of high school, college, and post-college exchange programs make up most of my American friends. My internationally-minded peers have sought out jobs in the mission-driven sphere, social sector, or the State Department. Here, like-minded, culturally sensitive exchange advocates work tirelessly and passionately under tight budget constraints.
However, public diplomacy and international exchange should have advocates at all levels and points of influence within the U.S. government, not just in the State Department. Americans that have engaged in long-term exchange can help develop foreign policies that are more in touch with and humbled by diverse global perspectives. How can we, the beneficiaries of U.S. exchange programs, contribute broadened worldviews within the national security sphere towards a more transparent U.S. foreign policymaking process?
Programs like the National Security Education Program (NSEP) are a great beginning to this answer. NSEP was created to develop a strategic partnership between the national security community and U.S. students studying critical languages and regions. The creation of NSEP recognizes that international exchange should not be siloed to one federal agency, since people-to-people relationships and civil society empowerment have been identified as national security priorities.
Moving beyond NSEP, exchange programs using defense funds should mirror State Department efforts in engaging even broader groups of American and foreign civilians. There have been books and articles written on extensive U.S. defense funding and influence, especially as compared to U.S. diplomacy efforts. As we spend one-sixth of our federal funding on national defense, more of this money could be invested in the long-term strategy of cross-border relationship building in critical countries and regions.
In the MENA region right now, Morocco is the only country hosting Peace Corps Volunteers. I aim to spend my post-Peace Corps life making the case for and multiplying the kinds of relationships I hope I’m lucky enough to make and learn from during my service. That is how I plan to measure my success while I’m in Morocco and after I come back home. Maybe my decision to do Peace Corps is selfish, but it’s a selfishness that I hope makes our world more connected in some small, humble way.