August 20, 2002 - Washington Post: Bigger Peace Corps, Paltry Effort

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By Admin1 (admin) on Tuesday, August 20, 2002 - 10:25 am: Edit Post

Bigger Peace Corps, Paltry Effort

Read and comment on this op-ed piece from the Washington Post by PCV Mark Shahinian who says that expanding the Peace Corps gives Bush a carrot to use with his big stick that is the war on terrorism, but it's a paltry effort to win over hearts and minds, when what we really need to do is fill the stomachs and pocketbooks of the developing world. Read the op-ed at:

Bigger Peace Corps, Paltry Effort*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

Bigger Peace Corps, Paltry Effort

By Mark Shahinian

Tuesday, August 20, 2002; Page A13

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- President Bush has proposed doubling the size of the Peace Corps -- to help, he says, "spread the good story" of American values and ideas to the Muslim world. From my perspective as a Peace Corps volunteer in a Muslim village in Africa, the plan seems whimsical at best.

Expanding the Peace Corps gives Bush a carrot to use with his big stick that is the war on terrorism. But it's a paltry effort to win over hearts and minds, when what we really need to do is fill the stomachs and pocketbooks of the developing world.

Doubling the size of the $275 million, 7,000-volunteer Peace Corps wouldn't do much to alleviate the poverty and hopelessness that foster terrorism. For, in reality, the Peace Corps does more to make us Americans feel good about ourselves than it does to fight that poverty. Instead, we need to change the economic policies that I often find punishing the very villagers I am trying to help.

I am posted in a Muslim village in Ivory Coast -- one of about 150 Peace Corps volunteers in this West African country. My fellow volunteers and I weigh babies, set up Internet terminals and build latrines. We make friends with villagers during our two-year stay and share our experiences when we go back home.

But I, as a lone volunteer, and we as a nation have failed to help the people of my village and villages like it across Africa achieve the general prosperity that they see as the real promise of America.

Take, for example, the now-infamous farm subsidy bill signed by Bush in May. U.S. cotton growers already receive $3.4 billion in annual subsidies, and the farm bill will tack on hundreds of millions more.

Meanwhile, a typical farmer in my village earns the equivalent of $900 from the sale of his cotton -- that's most of his income for the year -- and he supports a family of eight with that. Any extra income would help send children to school and buy meat for the family. Instead, these farmers have to sell their cotton into a market depressed partly by overproduction in the United States.

To help the family buy food, women here walk the eight miles to town carrying 60-pound sacks of charcoal on their heads. They sell the sacks for the equivalent of $2. Their children still die of diarrheal diseases not seen in the developed world for many years.

I can weigh all the babies I want, but in the end I'm not going to make much difference if families here have to fight the U.S. Treasury and the subsidies it doles out to American farmers.

No, I don't think this continued poverty will encourage people in my village to turn to terrorism. But the poverty does create an underdog complex, by which people think their country can't develop because they just don't have what it takes.

The few villagers I have met who support Osama bin Laden say they do so because he fights for the underdog. People living in more violent cultures might well decide to take up the fight, bin Laden-style, despite having Peace Corps volunteers in their countries. Indeed, volunteers have served in Libya and Afghanistan.

As for Bush's evangelical call to "spread the good story" of American values, the president is only making clear his ignorance of how Peace Corps volunteers operate.

The fact is, people in my village are mostly sold on American values and culture. They get excited about multiparty elections, talk about the rule of law and watch Clint Eastwood westerns. And where we don't see eye to eye -- as on the local practice of polygamy -- I have been told by Peace Corps administrators (and I happen to agree) that it is not my role to impose American values.

Expanding the Peace Corps is a nice gesture. But if that's the sort of carrot we're using alongside the very big stick of U.S. economic and military might, it isn't much of a meal.

The writer, who has worked as a journalist, is a Peace Corps volunteer. The views here are his own.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Speaking Out; COS - Ivory Coast



By Aviva Meyer on Wednesday, August 21, 2002 - 11:54 am: Edit Post

I can't really beleive that we are trying to have an intelligent discussion about yet another foolish comment by our president. There are good reasons to expand the Peace Corps but PCVs are not missionaries for American values nor can they solve problem caused by World Bank, IMF and similar organizations.
PCVs take very small steps that are important to the people they touch, but our government needs to start considering the impact of other policies on developing nations.

By Gary Geoghegan (garygeo) on Saturday, August 24, 2002 - 9:31 am: Edit Post

Of course in the near term, from the view of a developing country potential farmer, the U.S. money spent on PCVs' 2 year education is more than offset by what Congress spends on farm subsidies, but hopefully the direct impact of the protectionist policies have a shorter duration than the 2-way education does.

Part of my education in Niger '81 to '83 was an awakening to the conflicting goals of most governments---to benefit its own citizens and to promote world justice--a distinction that diappears with a sufficiently long time perspective.

Another part of my education concerned the multifaceted competition between first and second world countries and their mission in the developing world. I am thinking of the aid programs tied to such things as U.N. votes.

PCV's may sometimes be pawns, but even pawns can internalize the extreme difficulty but ultimate desirability of changing how countries relate to each other.

Still another part of my education concerned aspects of the U.S. competition with Europe and the range of tools at our government's disposal. One of the competative aspects is relative levels of agricultural exclusion. I am aware of the harsh impact on developing country agricultural markets of the recent farm bill. I have also read in the British Economist that the E.U.'s protectionist policies significantly exceeds that of the US. The desirable tools to influence the E.U. in this matter are complex to say the least.

Doubtless many PCV's did not need their years in another culture to develop their own perspectives and their long term commitment to domestic and global change, but I needed those years. To call myself an activist is certainly exaggerated, but I propose that the Peace Corps "produces" more than its share of informed lifelong activists.

Finally, for the local communities, more volunteers means that more people, who otherwise would not be able to, will have a relationship with a PCV, even if there were already a few in the village, town or city.

In summary, I believe that the U.S. investment in a PCV's education is one of the most progreesive investments it can make.

By ctower on Sunday, August 25, 2002 - 10:51 am: Edit Post

As a returned volunteer from Mali, I have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Shahinian.
The world did not notice, but the cotton farming unions of West Africa, based in Burkina Faso, sent an urgent appeal at the beginning of this year for the reconsideration of the tremendous subsidies that prop up cotton production in the U.S. Volumes of rhetoric gush forth from US lawmakers about saving family farms, and the need for the government to offset the unfair advantage that farmers in the developing world have from unpaid or child labor. Needless to say, those farmers would far prefer that their families not have to send children to the fields and see everyone in their family with a good-paying job. But the governments of their countries don't have the luxury of propping up their agricultural sectors in the same way as the US.
To my mind, Mr. Shahinian was not primarily arguing against PC, but against the hypocrisy of an administration that is more than willing to shower rhetoric on the fundamental problems of international inequality that lead to situations like that of Sept. 11, but does so mainly for domestic consumption.
My Malian friends (I am currently in Bamako for research) freely share their distaste for Republican administrations; the false rhetoric of Mr. Bush and company is quite easily deciphered when the next column of the newspaper contains details of farm subsidies.

By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, August 28, 2002 - 11:26 am: Edit Post

Following is a letter to the editor of the Washington Post on Mark Shahinian's op-ed piece that was send to us for publication by the author:

To: Washington Post Letters to the Editor

From: S. Cohen

Re: Mark Shahinian's Letter



As a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Botswana: '87-89), I read Mark Shahinian's Letter to the Editor with great interest. He hit the nail on the head regarding Bush's "policy" to double the Peace Corps and expose the world's impoverished Muslims to the wonders of America and the American people.

As Mr. Shahinian points out, most PCVs get far more out of their service than the communities they serve do. Sure we help with education, small business development, building latrines, etc. But in the end, have we really helped the communities we live in to build a better life for themselves? Perhaps in small ways we make a difference but I am hard-pressed to say PCVs change the local standard of living through their work. That's not to say that the Peace Corps is not useful - it is. But is it useful in the way that Bush wants/thinks it to be?

I was recently working in Botswana, my former country of service, and an official in the Ministry of Education (MoE) asked me why the Peace Corps had left Botswana some years earlier. I said that I did not know the exact reason but it was probably because they felt that Botswana no longer needed the assistance. He replied that they should have asked the MoE, because they would have been told that there were still not enough teachers to fill the teaching needs of the country. As I began to wonder then why Peace Corps had pulled out of Botswana when the need was still there and still appreciated, I started to realize how political these decisions are. Even though the Peace Corps is not supposed to be tied to the State Department or the CIA in any way, the bottom line is that countries who serve the American agenda get PCVs and those that do not, don't. Now Bush would like all Muslims to see how wonderful America is by scattering PCVs to Muslim countries to further his war on the "evil-doers"? It shows just how out of touch and naive Bush is to think the presence of PCVs will change how people view their own impoverished lives.

As Mr. Shahinian also points out, many Muslims live in abject poverty and poverty can fuel ugly and desperate ways of thinking. For a person who has no hope in life, thinking like a terrorist is not so bizarre. How will having a PCV in his/her village help someone like this to "love America" and all it stands for? For most of the world's oppressed, life often consists of loveless marriages, too many children, not enough food, sub-standard housing, lack of access to education and appropriate health care, and no real income to speak of. These are the people that the Osama bin Laden's of the world prey on. Mr. Bush could make a more profound difference for such people by simply easing restrictions on provision of reproductive health care and education for the very people he wants to save from the "evil-doers." To enable an impoverished family to better understand something as simple as the benefits of family planning, so that they can provide better care and love for smaller families, this makes the difference between desperation and hope. An impoverished family who uses family planning and birth spacing can dramatically reduce the burden on their family resources, enabling them to actually increase their standard of living - assuming that other complimentary services are in place - like appropriate health care so that the family's fewer children can survive and thrive; and appropriate skills development so that the parents can better their income and earning potential. These are the things that the world's impoverished really want. How will doubling the Peace Corps accomplish that? Unfortunately, these are the very things that Bush also holds back on, in an effort to appease his ultra-conservative supporters who seem to equate reproductive health care to abortion.

How can Bush use the Peace Corps to show the world's Muslims what we stand for when America doesn't even know what it stands for? In an American era of drive-by shootings; teen school shootings; drug trafficking; out-of-control youth; and lax parenting, why would any country - impoverished or not - want us as its role model? Don't we need to fix what's wrong here at home before we start holding ourselves up as the model country of the world?

S. Cohen, RPCV

By Skeptical Observer ( - on Monday, March 08, 2004 - 12:28 am: Edit Post

Of course doubling the size of the Peace Corps will not have revolutionary effects on poverty in the villages Mark Shahinian mentions, but then again, neither will his simplistic call for reducing US cotton subsidies have much effect either. It is another variation on the "blame Bush" obsession so popular in many quarters, as if by a stroke of the pen, the "cowboy" can solve the problems of poverty stricken African villagers.

Let's get back to reality. Raising incomes will take more than simplistic calls for subsidy reduction. It requires somethng even more urgent- cessation or reduction of the policies and practices by LOCAL governments that hinder people from raising their incomes-- from endemic corruption, to the grasping bureaucratic paws overregulating local markets, to the effective expenditure of aid monies (as opposed to the effective lining of personal pockets), to focus on projects with practical local benefit (local feeder roads or airstrips as opposed to white elephant 'prestige' projects), to a change in the cultural practices of local peoples that are not conducive to economic development, to a reduction in the economic mismanagment so prevalent in much of the Third World (Zimbabwe anyone?)

It is a decades old observation that reduction in the subsidies of the rich world will help poor world exports and incomes, but unless the poor world SERIOUSLY undertakes the reforms noted above, it will remain just that, a decades old observation- good for lip service only.

Futhermore Mark Shahinian's notion that "we as a nation have failed" to help the villagers achieve "general prosperity.." is another example of simplistic hokum. Just what is America supposed to be- welfare nanny to the world? And even if the cotton price were higher, what use if the gains are siphoned off or extorted by predatory local elites? The "Marketing Boards" of many West African countries are notorious examples of HOW NOT TO encourage or reward the local initiative or hard work of farmers. What use higher cotton prices if more and better local roads to GET the cotton to market in the first place are not in place? It is typical Eurocentric arrogance on Shahinian's part to think that distant decisions by white politicians thousands of miles removed, will simply have much significant effect on local peoples, absent the LOCAL reforms noted above.

Inherently the Peace Corps is limited in what it can do. Since when is it supposed to transform Third World societies? At least more volunteers will produce direct practical benefit to the locals- whether it be in vaccinations or building latrines, and they can do it in a relatively short time frame. A vaccinated child, a well of clean water, or a demo plot filled with usable plant seed will have much more benefit for said villagers in the short run, until the structural reforms needed are seriously implemented. This is a realistic recognition of the Peace Corps' limits.

But of course, it much easier (and more gratifyingly simplistic) to rail against "Bush" than to confront these hard realities.

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