The Peace Corps: An Indictment
Its 'Arrogance of Power' Must End If Peace Corps Hopes to Survive, Ex-Volunteers Contend in Critique
We joined the Peace Corps because we thought it would afford us a means of helping developing nations without imposing the United States' political and cultural values on them. We assumed that the Peace Corps reflected the belief in a pluralistic world for which John Kennedy stood: that therefore its work would be the antithesis of the American colonialism that the rest of the world both fears and resents.
We were wrong. We now see that the Peace Corps is arrogant and colonialist in the same way as the government of which it is a part.
The Latins with whom we work understand this better than most North Americans who are employed by the Peace Corps. It is the reason that so many of them distrust our organization, remain skeptical of its rhetoric of generosity. They read, for example, that we are part of an Alliance for Progress that they have begun to regard as a State Department gimmick. They see us working side by side with other officials of the US government to accomplish programs, which are in the view of many Latins, part of the US' world wide struggle against Communism, not a genuine desire to help poor nations.
Attitudes and Acts
But many are even more sensitive to our attitudes than to our acts. They frequently tell us that, like members of the State Department and AID, we are victims of the disease that Senator Fulbright has diagnosed as "the arrogance of power." And we have come to feel that they are more right than wrong, although of course there are many Volunteers whose ability to adapt themselves to the culture render them immune to such generalized criticism. The more deeply we examine ourselves the more clearly we realize that we are part of a culture whose pride in itself contains, as a corollary, contempt for others. Our role in this country is a demonstration of that trait: semiliterate in its language, nearly ignorant of its culture, we still presume to teach Ecuadorians methods of thought and work that we have inherited from our North American past.
It is an arrogance that is hard to escape. Viewing ourselves as teachers, for example, it is tempting to think of Ecuadorians as our students and hence to treat them as children. Volunteers' language often reflects this attitude: it is no rare thing to hear a frustrated worker complain about "those stupid lazy campesinos," his neighbors. And Volunteers' style of life is often just as offensive, for in towns and cities the Peace Corps members tend to form small gringo enclaves.
Of course foreigners always have trouble fitting into an alien culture: they stick together, criticize their hosts. And foreigners whose mission is to help (rather than to learn, to work, or simply enjoy themselves) tend to be particularly contemptuous of natives who do not seem eager to use the particular services they have to offer.
But this attitude can be controlled when the outsiders are directly responsible to local agencies. For example in the civil rights movement white people were convinced that they knew what was best for the blacks they had set out to liberate. But where the movement was most successful white arrogance was modified by the fact that Negroes were in administrative positions, and that local people had done much of the programming.
But that is not the case in the Peace Corps, where North Americans--not local people--possess both administrative control and the authority to devise programs. They are the only people empowered to decide about the allocation of their organization's human and material resources. They do consult with Ecuadorians about the best way to work in specific geographic or technical areas, and try to see that the suggestions of this country's citizens are carefully considered: but beyond that, they are in total control of the Peace Corps' decision making process. For example, no Ecuadorians (except the two hired by the Peace Corps) are present at meetings where the organization's overall priorities are established.
The Peace Corps, then, seems to feel that to consult with an Ecuadorian about the programs that will take place here is to deal with him democratically, while insisting that the ultimate decision making power must remain with North Americans. Not only has this attitude communicated itself to Ecuadorians and caused many of them to resent the Peace Corps: it has proved to be remarkably inefficient. For it blinds the organization's programmers to the local conditions they need to understand, and deafens them to the opinions local people set forth about the best way to work here.
Instead, the fact that North Americans alone possess the power to establish overall Peace Corps policy here strengthens their determinations to develop this country according to the formula which they assume made the United States great. The integers of that formula are community development, civic responsibility, personal hygiene. So they often try to impose their own North American structures--the mothers club, the Boy Scout troop--onto communities which have for generations been highly structured according to their own culture. They try to impose the idea of civic loyalty that one finds in stable middleclass American towns onto rapidly growing Latin cities that are both poor and politically complex.
It is a blindness produced by the arrogance of a nation that thinks itself capable of solving all the world's problems with its own techniques. There is, however, one simple way of correcting the situation: internationalize the Peace Corps, incorporate Latins on all levels of the organization's work. Let Chileans, Ecuadorians and Colombians plan and direct programs in Latin America; let North Americans, if they want to serve this continent, put themselves in subordinate positions, allow themselves to be really used by the people who live here. Let them serve alongside of Latin volunteers all working in co-operation. The plans that resulted would at once accord more closely with Latin reality than those of the present Peace Corps, and be more acceptable to the Latins. There could follow a genuine exchange of ideas, of tactics, of goals.
We cannot discuss this idea seriously with the people who run the Peace Corps. They say that although we are certainly correct in theory, in practice we have to understand that any such a radical proposal would certainly be rejected by Congress. And they continue to administer the organization in the way we have tried to criticize, that Latins keep telling us they find so offensive.
The bureaucratic loyalty of these administrators is to Washington, not to Ecuador. Therefore, the only way to harness the institution's arrogance is to change the organization substantially; to create bureaucratic situations where administrative power is shared by representatives of various societies: where the interplay of their differing interests produces truly flexible programs that can be transferred from culture to culture, rather than imposed by one culture on another.
That means the Peace Corps must be separated from the US government and turned into an internationally administered agency. It is the only way we can see that the ideals for which the organization once stood can survive.