How the Peace Corps Works


A Peace Corps volunteer cooks traditional food in Ghana.
A Peace Corps volunteer cooks traditional food in Ghana.
Photo courtesy of the Peace Corps

The Peace Corps is a U.S. government program designed to provide foreign aid to developing nations in the form of expertise, education and training. Peace Corps workers are volunteers who not only bring aspects of American culture to the places they work in, they also bring some of that nation's culture back to the United States. The Peace Corps has been in operation for almost 50 years, with more than 7,000 volunteers serving at any given moment.

The Peace Corps has a three-part mission statement [Source: The Peace Corps].

  1. Help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

The Corps is a form of foreign aid, but instead of supplying money to developing nations, the Corps supplies the knowledge and expertise of its citizens. The idea stems from the old proverb, "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime." While building a school or supplying food is certainly crucial for many nations, training their teachers or helping them learn advanced agricultural techniques could have a positive impact that lasts decades.

The Peace Corps is an independent U.S. government agency that operates within the executive branch. The director of the Corps is appointed by the president pending congressional approval. The Corps' budget is part of the federal foreign operations budget (typically about one percent of it), and is also subject to congressional approval. For fiscal year 2006, the total Peace Corps budget was $318.8 million [Source: The Peace Corps].

The current director is Ronald A. Tschetter, the 17th person to hold the position. He was confirmed on Sept. 13, 2006 [Source: The Peace Corps].

The Peace Corps has programs in 73 countries around the world. There are programs in Mexico and Central America, South America, Eastern Europe, China, India and other Asian nations, the Pacific Islands and extensive programs in Africa [Source: The Peace Corps].

Volunteers serve for 27 months. Their living accommodations are provided for the entire time, and they receive a stipend to use as spending money. In addition, volunteers receive $6,000 when they return to the United States to help them transition back into life at home.

Joining the Peace Corps

The countries the Peace Corps currently work in (orange) and the countries where the Peace Corps is currently incactive (purple)
The countries the Peace Corps currently work in (orange) and the countries where the Peace Corps is currently incactive (purple)
Public Domain image

Prospective Peace Corps volunteers can find a recruiter or a recruiting event here. Applying for the Peace Corps is a fairly extensive process that begins with filling out an application. The application has very thorough questions about work and volunteering experiences and requires a lot of diligence in reporting any hobbies or activities, because those skills could be useful to the Corps. There are also two essays to write.

After sending in the application, the applicant will be contacted to set up an interview. The interview is a vital part of the process - recruiters try to use it to weed out applicants who aren't likely to complete their term of service, and also get a feel for the areas where the applicant's interests and skills could compliment the Peace Corps' goals.

Selected applicants are then nominated by their recruiter to join the Peace Corps. However, there's still a long way to go. The nominee must clear medical and legal hurdles. Certain medical conditions preclude entry into the Peace Corps, while some may restrict the nations the nominee can work in or delay entry into the Corps until the condition has gone away or stabilized [Source: Dillon Banerjee].

Once all clearances are obtained, the nominee will receive an official invitation to join the Peace Corps, with just 10 days to decide whether to accept or decline. The invitation will include general information on the nominee's deployment - a sometimes vague region of the world where he will be sent (i.e. Asia) and a description of their volunteer job. Upon acceptance, more specific information is forthcoming. The nominee receives a departure date, an appointment for a pre-departure orientation, and then he's sent off for the three-month, in-country training period.

Although an applicant's interest in serving in a particular part of the world is taken into consideration, the Peace Corps' ability to use a particular person's skills in a given region is higher priority. In other words, the Corps will send you where they need you.

Certain skills make Peace Corps applicants more competitive. Although every volunteer receives training in the skills he'll need to do his work, it is crucial to have some foreign language experience (although all volunteers are taught the language of the country they'll be living in during training), volunteering experience, ability to organize and lead others and experience working in the same field as their volunteer work. This can include hobbies. For example, someone interested in the Peace Corps' forestry and agriculture program might have worked for a summer at a garden center or landscaping service, or helped plant and cultivate a community garden.

Leaving Home for the Peace Corps

Not all volunteers work in agriculture or teaching, some train people on computers and other technology.
Not all volunteers work in agriculture or teaching, some train people on computers and other technology.
Photo courtesy of the Peace Corps

Preparing for more than two years living in a developing country takes some forethought. If the volunteer owns a house, someone has to take care of it. If not, he'll have to find storage for his possessions or sell some of them. The Peace Corps doesn't allow volunteers to bring pets, nor is there any accommodation made for volunteers with boyfriends or girlfriends - in fact, being in a serious relationship is a red flag that could prevent someone from being accepted into the Corps in the first place. However, married couples who both qualify can be sent to the same location to complete their Peace Corps service together. There are few spots open for this type of arrangement, but it's possible.

Packing presents its own problems. The Peace Corps asks volunteers to pack up to two bags with a weight limit of 80 pounds (36.287 kilograms). How can you possibly pack everything you'll need for two years and have it weigh less than 80 lbs.? The solution is to pack those things that you can only obtain in the United States. Toiletries, basic clothing, towels, pots and pans and other essentials can be purchased without much difficulty in the host country. Previous volunteers recommend bringing good, comfortable underwear and any specialized clothes, such as a good pair of hiking boots, rain gear and cold weather gear if you're heading to a country where that might be an issue. A camera, a few recently published books (older books can usually be found in the country), a shortwave radio for listening to news and a small portable CD player for listening to music will also be invaluable. Some volunteers bring laptop computers, though access to electricity can be hit or miss (or just miss) in some areas [Source: Dillon Banerjee].

Life in the Peace Corps

Living quarters for a volunteer in Tavio Del Rio
Living quarters for a volunteer in Tavio Del Rio
Photo courtesy of the Peace Corps

Peace Corps volunteers encounter a wide variety of living circumstances during their time in their host country. The stipend provided to volunteers generally allows them a standard of living higher than that of the people around them (the basis for some criticism of the Corps). Most volunteers have their own home, though some choose to live with a host family. While conditions will certainly not approach those in the United States, life in a developing country is rarely as primitive as many people envision. Thatched huts are the exception - poor towns with no municipal water supply or isolated farming communities are far more common. Some volunteers may have stable electricity and running water, while for others such services will be intermittent at best. Volunteers may be placed in (or can choose to go to) places completely without electricity and running water.

Day-to-day life in the Peace Corps is often very open-ended. Volunteers are set loose to accomplish their project goals with very little supervision. If they are part of an education program, their work hours will be dictated by school schedules, but many volunteers set their own hours. Interacting with people from the host country socially is considered a key part of the Peace Corps' mission.

It's possible to receive packages and letters from home. However, unreliable mail systems in developing countries mean some packages go missing or arrive pilfered by corrupt mail workers. All mail takes rather a long time to arrive -- volunteers should have their families start sending them letters and packages before they even leave the United States so they will get some mail in the first few months.

Volunteers do have the opportunity to travel at their own expense, visiting capital cities or other volunteers in nearby towns. They can receive visitors from home, also at their own expense. Getting around is usually accomplished via mountain bike -- volunteers are trained in repair and maintenance. A few receive motorbikes instead.

One of the most difficult parts of the Peace Corps experience for many volunteers is readjusting to life in the United States when they return. However, being in the Peace Corps provides returning volunteers with several advantages in the job market. Having Peace Corps experience on a resume is almost always beneficial. Former volunteers also have an inside track on jobs with the federal government, allowing them access to unpublished internal promotion jobs and non-competitive access to other jobs (meaning they are given a higher hiring priority than a non-Peace Corps job applicant, even one with better qualifications).

The Good and the Bad of the Peace Corps

Volunteers will teach children the importance of the environment.
Volunteers will teach children the importance of the environment.
Photo courtesy of the Peace Corps

Accomplishments

While the Peace Corps' budget is a pittance compared to the rest of the federal budget, anything that costs more than $300 million each year is open to the question, "Is it worth the money?" Or more precisely, does the Peace Corps accomplish what it's supposed to accomplish? It's virtually impossible to answer that question because so much of what the Corps does accomplish is intangible. Do people in developing countries look more fondly upon Americans than they once did? Are the lives of people in those countries improved by their contact with the Corps? Are the Americans who volunteer better people because of it? These things are impossible to measure.

Many volunteers report that their initial idealistic goals (often broad "make the world a better place" type goals) are quickly replaced by more pragmatic aims, like making their town a better place, getting a group of children to understand the importance of the environment or teaching a few farmers how to make their land sustainable. Measuring one or two lives at a time, it's certain that the Peace Corps has helped many people. Whether they're "making the world a better place" will always be open to debate.

Almost all volunteers feel that they have bettered themselves with their Peace Corps experience. The technical training, opportunity to travel to an exotic place, experience with different cultures and ability to deal with hardships stays with volunteers for decades.

While volunteers do get to have fun, it's not a vacation in the Peace Corps.
Photo courtesy of the Peace Corps

Criticisms

Overall, the Peace Corps and its volunteers enjoy a positive reputation in the United States and internationally. However, it is not immune to criticism.

In the United States, critics sometimes characterize volunteers as aimless, liberal youth taking an extended trip abroad at tax-payer expense. However, volunteers' political leanings cover a wide spectrum, and there are many older volunteers.

Host countries sometimes view the Peace Corps with suspicion, particularly when the Corps first introduces a program to that country. There are fears that the volunteers are CIA spies or are plotting to undermine the economy or government for the United States' benefit. Volunteers have found that the more contact people have with the Corps and the volunteers, the more quickly such suspicion dissipates.

Another criticism of the Peace Corps is vulnerability of volunteers to crime. Serving in isolated areas in cultures with different values and attitudes, combined with extreme poverty in some cases, has lead to many cases of robbery and some assaults. A 2002 report by the General Accounting Office found that the rate of crimes against volunteers was steadily increasing, and that the problem might be even worse due to underreporting. The report blamed poor reporting practices and a high turnover rate in Peace Corps administration and training (a rate actually enforced by Corps policy) for a lack of preparedness for host country crime [Source: United States General Accounting Office].

Peace Corps volunteers have been murdered, though it's rare. Deborah Gardner was stabbed to death by another volunteer in Tonga in 1976 -- a series of strange legal quirks allowed the murderer, Dennis Priven, to go free [Source: New York Magazine]. In 1966, a volunteer was accused of beating his wife to death in Tanzania, but he was acquitted [Source: Peace Corps Writers]. More recently, in 2007, 40-year-old volunteer Julie Campbell was murdered in the Phillippines, possibly by a local carpenter [Source: The Honolulu Advertiser].

Peace Corps History

President Kennedy greets the very first Peace Corps volunteers in August, 1962.
President Kennedy greets the very first Peace Corps volunteers in August, 1962.

President John F. Kennedy is considered the father of the Peace Corps. In 1960, while campaigning for the presidency, then Senator Kennedy made a late-night speech at the University of Michigan. He outlined his proposal for a civilian service corps in which college graduates would devote two years of their lives to aiding developing countries. After being elected, President Kennedy brought the Peace Corps into existence with an executive order on March 1, 1961. Congress later made it official by authorizing the new organization's budget.

President Richard Nixon placed the Peace Corps within a larger federal department, but in 1979, President Jimmy Carter made the Corps a fully independent and autonomous organization [Source: The Peace Corps].

In its history, the Peace Corps has had a total of more than 187,000 volunteers, with between 6,000 and 10,000 serving at any given time. Currently, more than 7,700 volunteers are working for the Peace Corps.

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Sources

  • Banerjee, Dillon. "So You Want to Join the Peace Corps: What to Know Before You Go." Ten Speed Press (January 2000). 978-1580080972.
  • Cerojano, Teresa. “Police ID suspect in Peace Corps murder case.” Honolulu Advertiser, June 22, 2007. http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2007/Apr/23/br/br2798560143.html
  • Coyne, John. “PCV Accused of Murdering His Wife.” http://peacecorpswriters.org/pages/2001/0101/101pchist.html
  • General Accounting Office. “Peace Corps Initiatives for Addressing Safety and Security Challenges Hold Promise, but Progress Should Be Assessed.” http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d02818.pdf
  • Hoffman, Elizabeth Cobb. "All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s." Harvard University Press (May 6, 1998). 978-0674016354.
  • Peters, Celeste. "Peace Corps (International Organizations)." Weigl Publishers (August 2002). 978-1590360231.
  • Peace Corps. “About the Peace Corps.” http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=learn.
  • Weiss, Philip. “Stalking Her Killer.” New York Magazine. http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/crimelaw/features/n_10403/