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Peace Corps’ time over—A Commentary by Matias A. Sueldo

The following commentary was published in the Boston Globe on December 10, 2011.

Peace Corps’ time over
By Matias A. Sueldo

We should eliminate the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps’ objectives are to: (1) provide trained professionals to host countries; (2) promote understanding of America abroad; (3) promote understanding of the world in its volunteers.

But according to Peace Corps data, 10 percent of volunteers do not even hold a bachelor’s degree. Those who do are mostly recently out of college and have little transferable experience. No wonder then that roughly six out of 10 Peace Corps volunteers work in education, teaching English to elementary school students; in youth development, running weekend camps and cleanup days; and in public health, setting up hand-washing stations, to name a few typical activities. These volunteers have good intentions, but they’re hardly pulling countries out of poverty.

Some volunteers specializing in business, info-tech, the environment and agriculture are indeed doing valuable work, but they constitute less than one-third of total volunteers. Their work could be completed more cost-effectively as part of existing development programs such as the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The volunteers’ inexperience might be excused if they were at least worthy ambassadors for America. However, testimonials abound of locals who hardly remember their Peace Corps volunteer or, if they do, cannot recall whether they were American, Canadian or from another English-speaking country. Many who do suspect they were CIA operatives.

Surely some genuine good will is being created, but where? About 61 percent of host countries are in two regions: Latin America and Africa. Not surprising given that foreign governments must request a Peace Corps presence, in part because their protection helps keep our volunteers safe.

Furthermore, volunteers are placed with low-income populations in rural or blighted urban areas whose populations have little influence on their country’s policies toward the United States.

There are existing public diplomacy programs that operate more effectively than the Peace Corps, such as the Broadcasting Board of Governors. It distributes programming in 59 languages to an estimated weekly audience of 165 million people across a variety of media to decision-making elites in strategic countries. Other federal programs bring key foreign officials, technocrats and educators to America for training and immersion.

There is one bright spot.

The Peace Corps has succeeded best at its third objective of promoting a better understanding of the world among its volunteers. In that sense, the Peace Corps was absolutely necessary back in 1961 when few other structured programs existed for young Americans to move abroad, learn foreign languages and think globally.

But we spend approximately $47,000 a year to “change the life” of each Peace Corps volunteer. We’re not even changing that many lives.

Since 1961, the Peace Corps has placed around 200,000 volunteers abroad. Meanwhile, the Institute of International Education reports that 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad during the 2008-2009 academic year alone. Those students pay for themselves.

As the United States lurches out of recession, we must make sure that every federal program is achieving its intended goals and doing so more cost-effectively than existing alternatives.

The Peace Corps does neither and should be eliminated.

Matias A. Sueldo is a J.D. student at Yale Law School and an MPA student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.