Sunday, March 3, 2013
To Invest in Development, Try a Reverse Peace Corps
The Peace Corps was started back in 1961, one of the early, high profile initiatives of the Kennedy administration. Since then it has sent more than 200,000 volunteers to low and middle income countries around the world. It currently spends about $400 million per year and supports just over 8000 volunteers and trainees. That’s about $50,000 per person, about the same cost as an average US job. The volunteers earn less, but more overhead is needed to support their projects.
At the end of a volunteer’s tour, what remains? There is the project work, of course, which can be of some value. How much value depends on how sustainable it is—whether the local community has the interest and resources to keep it going. No doubt the long run impact varies quite a bit. The largest effect is certainly on the Peace Corps volunteers themselves. They have been through a transformative experience and many go on to be leaders back in the US. The Peace Corps, on balance, is an investment in ourselves.
So why not turn it around? Instead of, or in addition to, sending idealistic young Americans to foreign countries, bring idealistic foreigners here. My idea for a Reverse Peace Corps could look like this:
1. Open the program to high school graduates in low and middle income countries, with a preference for those who have not yet started college or university. The reason for recruiting at this level is to draw in those who are old enough and sufficiently educated to benefit, but who have not yet been selected for a specific career or membership in the elite. Participants should have the necessary language proficiency to be part of an English-speaking, or in some cases Spanish-speaking, team.
2. After a period of training and orientation, volunteers would be placed in community action or related development programs in low income areas of the United States. These could be urban or rural, but would draw on the sort of contributions nonprofessional volunteers can make. The Americorps program offers many examples of this. As with Americorps, there would be substantial local control of the projects, while support for the volunteers would be organized externally. Indian tribes would be invited to participate.
3. Once volunteers had left the program and returned to their home countries, there would be no formal post-participation activities. It would be up to them to decide what, if anything, to do with this experience. Of course, lots of informal networking will emerge on its own, and the agency administering the program might want to maintain a formal network as well. But that would be it.
What would volunteers gain from a working sojourn in the US? I don’t think America will be seen as a sterling role model, whose ways of doing things should be replicated everywhere else. Foreign participants will see some things that work and others that don’t. But they will have the experience of working and living in a country with relatively high levels of productivity and the organizational capacity to mobilize large numbers of people and lots of resources. Seeing how such a society functions at a granular level can be enlightening if you’ve never had the opportunity before. It can also enhance a sense of personal agency: I know we can do this because I’ve been part of a group that has done something like it. Ultimately, the idea is to propagate a global army of development activists.
And there would be large benefits over here as well. Foreign volunteers would bring energy, idealism and broader perspectives to the communities they would work in. Having them among us might instill a deeper sense of responsibility and an ambition to show them who we would like ourselves to be, beyond who we normally are. This couldn’t help but be for the good.
Development is primarily about people—their skills, values and commitment to transforming ineffective or corrupt institutions. The projects are useful but secondary. Lets do at least some of the projects here and energize people from around the world.