To preserve and to learn
The Real Job of the Peace Corps
     — One Man’s View

by Meridan Bennett (PCstaff: Cyprus CD 1962–64; Washington 1964–67)

More Peace Corps history:

A Peace Corps Test 

 Establishing the PC

Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux

The Marjorie Michelmore Postcard

2/15/62 - PA newspaper doubts future
of Peace Corps

I HAVE BEEN EMPLOYED BY THE PEACE CORPS for more than three years, first as an overseas staff member, then as an evaluator of the Peace Corps’ overseas programs. During this time I have naturally formed some notions as to what the real work of the Peace Corps is. I do not mean the breakdown as between teaching, agriculture, public health and so on. I mean the character of the work underlying all these assignments, for there is a common element that I have observed overseas in all types of Peace Corps jobs when performed well. What I am describing is a personal view. My interest in the work of the Peace Corps is, if anything, stronger now than it was when I came to the organization in the first year of existence; but it is a different kind of interest.
     When I came to the Peace Corps I came attracted by an idea. Now that idea has become a demonstrated reality. What interests me now is effectiveness. I think most who have worked with the Peace Corps share my shift in emphasis.
     The Peace Corps is important and has relevance only so long as it is effective in assisting the development of those nations which have requested its help. This is the criterion by which the Peace Corps will eventually be judged, not only by the host countries, but by the Americans who agree to volunteer their services for two years.

The Developing World
What is meant by development assistance? In the nineteenth century, one gets the feeling that all too much of the assistance being rendered those parts of the world that we now call “developing” was rationalized as assistance to bring them qualities of mind and spirit which, it was felt, would result in their eventual ennoblement. Today, with the vast majority of those areas recently freed from colonial rule, many people feel that we have no business messing with their qualities of mind and spirit but instead must assist them in every way possible to overcome their problems of hunger, sickness, poverty, ignorance and fear. There are, in fact, few people who still believe that development can occur as a result of the single-handed efforts of outsiders. More and more people are coming to see that each nation and ethnic grouping must take a sizeable, even a dominant, role in its own development if any significant change is to take place. It is my view of development assistance that it must be aimed at those basic problems — hunger, sickness, poverty, ignorance and fear — and leave the qualities of mind and spirit to the peoples who must eventually live with them. By discovering solutions of those hard problems — not global solutions, but solutions that are appropriate to each local situation in which those problem are the agonizing facts of life — the people that we are trying to help will learn the process through which problems are solved. The attitudes and values thus formed will be their values, their attitudes, and will be a source of increasing self-esteem.

Peace Corps Reality
The foregoing is the substance of the idea that has become a reality in the Peace Corps. But how does one go about solving those problems of low agricultural productivity, poor distribution of what is produced, low gross national product, lack of foreign monetary reserves, non-existent public health measures, school systems that do not reach out to the mass of the population with anything like an educational program geared to the needs of the people, and patchworks of divided, suspicious communities unable to unite for collective action so as to alleviate the personal, local and national insecurity which increasingly threatens the future of civilization? Does one send American food and dollars, transported in American planes and ships, parachuted on isolated villages? Does one supply the doctors and nurses to set up and run a health establishment? Does one build and staff a school system with American money and teachers? Does one set up a political administration patterned along lines that Americans think to be workable? These solutions, which smack more of disaster relief than development, have been tried singly or in various combinations and have not worked in the past, and show no sign of working in the future. Colonialism, whether of the dollar-plus-food variety or by political administration, is also a dead letter, whether for benign or sinister purposes.

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