The Real Job of the Peace Corps
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The Real Job of the Peace Corps (page 3)

A Whole Generation of Americans
I think it is not extravagant to state that a whole generation of Americans — roughly, those whose conditioning occurred after the Second World War — understand the need for a new approach to development assistance in the have-not world. Their own personal struggles to develop competence and effectiveness have been colored by growing up in an era in which progress does not always seem to go in a forward direction. Their era is one in which nineteenth-century optimism has found its final contradiction in the potential of the human race for complete self-annihilation. These Americans are eager for the intellectual challenge of understanding and using the tools by which competence in problem solving can be created and made a constructive force for peace without coercion.
     The Peace Corps was born in a time of contradiction between the values being acquired by American youth and the values being expressed abroad by official American agencies caught in the paradoxes of the Cold War. In 1961, for the first time, an agency of the United States Government established itself in overseas operations with the capability of expressing the diversity of American life — a diversity all too often observable only when one gets down deep into the fabric of life at home. The Peace Corps not only has no official foreign policy to promote; it would be incapable of imposing one upon its Volunteers, who come from a great diversity of backgrounds and who, in any case, did not volunteer their services to be told what to think or say. The Peace Corps has therefore been able to remain an official agency and at the same time to a large extent non-partisan in the Cold War.

A Typical Peace Corps Evening
I once ate supper in Latin America with two Volunteers and a Latin friend of theirs. One Volunteer had been active in liberal activities on his campus in America; the other had been a staunch Young Republican. The two Volunteers got to arguing American politics. The Latin said to me, in an aside, “I’m glad to discover that these two gringos are manly enough to argue about politics with each other. Up to now, they only argued with me!” The discussion waxed and waned, gathering a few participants who happened to drift into the restaurant. “Look, friends,” said our Latin companion, “I’m not a Communist, but if your Marines ever land here I’ll join the Communist guerillas and take to the hills — then I’ll have to shoot you both!” Everybody laughed, and the conversation drifted on to women and futbol, then the Volunteers and their friend said goodbye and hurried off to a meeting of their newly-formed credit co-op.
     It was a typical Peace Corps evening — nobody got shot, everybody had his say, nobody agreed, and we all put away a satisfactory dinner. When it was all over, the Volunteers and their friend went off to perform the kind of constructive work which somehow cuts neatly across partisan lines and strikes at the root of basic development problems. When the chips are down, Peace Corps Volunteers do not get shot. People everywhere have quickly realized that the kind of help which brings hope is not easily come by.

The Real Work of the Peace Corps
The things that the Peace Corps has learned about its real work it has learned thanks to its Volunteers. They are the ones who have discovered time after time, place after place, what works and what doesn’t. The common element that emerges out of all their experiences, what I have called the real job of the Peace Corps, has been a voyage of discovery, which we have undertaken with the warnings of the seasoned experts and old hands. The Peace Corps believes it has hit upon something vitally important. Yet it is always the Volunteers who come up with new discoveries as to how we can make the work of development assistance more effective. They will continue to do so for a long time. The Peace Corps must still expend a lot of energy to give Volunteers what they want — a meaningful job overseas — and the countries requesting help what they want — development assistance. But a start has been made, and the Peace Corps still depends for direction and substance on the Americans who volunteer their services for two years.
     Little by little, these Americans, the Volunteers, have been increasing their effectiveness in development assistance. Little by little the Peace Corps bureaucracy is learning to systematize those methods by which effectiveness is obtained. I sometimes think the pace is too slow; on the other hand, after having seen some of their year’s crop of Volunteers I realize that the Peace Corps is still getting those men and women who see the grave injustice — and the threat — of underdevelopment and who want to do something practical about it beyond simply raising their voices in protest. The Peace Corps still offers them the chance to become instruments of change. It still offers them an alternative to graduate school. It offers those with intelligence and an interest in people a chance to do something other than become mindlessly rich.
     What encourages me most: the Peace Corps is learning to train its people to be effective instruments of change. To acquire that training, and to use that skill for peaceful ends, produces a vocational bias in life which, I should imagine, is not easily found at home in this day of the packaging revolution and the two-ton car. The job overseas is not teaching, digging ditches, planting hybrid corn, healing the sick, building the roads and bridges, running the civil service. The job overseas is to help people find out how change operates in the kinship, the economic, the religious, the political and the associational systems of their community. The job is to find out where and how change can be introduced to mitigate the dehumanizing forces of hunger, sickness, poverty, ignorance and fear. This, in my view, is what constitutes effectiveness; it is what constitutes the real work of the Peace Corps.

Agents of Change: A Close Look at the Peace Corps is available at for between $14 and $25. Meridan Bennett evaluated several overseas programs in the early days of the Peace Corps, and, with David Hapgood (PC/W Evaluation 1964–66), wrote one of the first books that assessed the work of Volunteers entitled, Agents of Change: A Close Look at the Peace Corps.
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