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Peace Corps as a foreign policy tool: Faded idealistic vision by Drew Chebuhar
Peace Corps as a foreign policy tool Faded idealistic vision by Drew Chebuhar Daily Columnist
The Daily article "Volunteers enjoy tough travels of Peace Corps" (Feb. 10) says the Peace Corps offers "countless opportunities to serve others." Much of the article is essentially correct. The Peace Corps does "help others all over the world," but the important question to ask is who the "others" are. The "others," as the naive may think, are not primarily the people in the countries the Peace Corps visits. The "others" are multinational corporations and other investment interests.
The Peace Corps is an arm of U.S. foreign policy, and its primary aim is to make the world safe for multinational finance capital. It attempts to do this by ensuring that no countries develop what Henry Kissinger called a "virus," by which he meant countries using their land, labor and resources to provide a better life for their people.
U.S. foreign policy benefits neither the majority of people in the United States nor the majority of people in the world. For well-documented arguments on this point, any number of books by Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, Edward Herman, William Blum and others are available in the library.
Rhetoric about U.S. dedication to human rights, democracy and self-determination are fine for political science courses and the mass media, but when you look at the crimes of the U.S. empire, you realize those ideals are just that -- rhetoric.
In the early 1960s, many Americans were dazzled by John F. Kennedy's vision of the Peace Corps and the U.S. as a benevolent superpower. Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) increased from 124 its first year to 15,000 by 1967. As the '60s wore on, the idealistic visions of volunteers began to fade. By 1968, 55 percent quit before finishing their two-year tours, and the dropout rate remained well above 40 percent throughout the mid-1970s.
Many who have spoken out have described a pattern of neglect, violence against women and an institutional agenda quite different from the one that inspired them to enlist.
As the growing resistance to the Vietnam War matured into a general critique of U.S. foreign policy, volunteers were reprimanded for speaking out against the war. "We have been ordered to support the war," wrote five volunteers in Ecuador to The New York Times, "at least with our silence."
The "Pentagon Papers" that Daniel Ellsberg leaked in 1971 reveal the intended function of the Corps. While some volunteers may have had doubts about their role, the planners of the American Empire did not. In Vietnam, "teams" were designed to "develop agricultural pilot-projects throughout the country, with a view toward exploiting their beneficial psychological effects."
The Peace Corps program was part of a broader war strategy of covert operations, military deployment and "public information" campaigns.
Politico-economic forces in the U.S. fight and kill so they can use the labor, raw materials, and markets of Third World countries to enrich themselves. Due to low wages, low taxes, nonexistent work benefits, weak labor unions and nonexistent work safety and environmental laws, U.S. corporate profit rates in the Third World are 50 percent higher than in the First World. A mere 2.5 percent of landowners control nearly 75 percent of the world's land. These are the kinds of constraints with which the Peace Corps has to deal. PCVs have to make the most of the resources that do happen to trickle down to Guatemalans, Hondurans and others.
The theory is that Western investments will help poor nations escape poverty as they become "developed." The only problem is that this theory doesn't quite work that way.
A study of 20 of the poorest countries, compiled from official statistics, found that the number of people living in what is called "absolute poverty," the poorest of the poor, is rising by 70,000 people a day and should reach 1.5 billion by the year 2000 (San Francisco Examiner, June 8, 1994.)
All this is taking place while corporate investments and profits in these countries are at record levels.
The people in the Third World don't need PCVs teaching them how to farm, fish and eat. They need land to farm. They need boats, nets and access to oceans to fish. They need Dow, Dupont, Cargill and other companies to stop dumping chemicals in their rivers and lakes that kill the fish.
Rather than using corporate-centered technology transfer, proudly promoted by Iowa State, they need to do what some people in Peru and Bolivia have been doing with the help of a University of Pennsylvania archeologist. In these countries, tractors that were once part of a technology transfer program called the "Green Revolution" are rusting away, while the indigenous people are using a 2,000-year-old agricultural method. This method yields up to seven times more food than tractors and chemicals.
At best, the Peace Corps is a compromised institution linked to larger objectives of U.S. foreign policy. At worst, the Corps, a 36-year-old institution, is a disruption of autonomous Third World development that serves the John Deeres and the Monsantos of the First World
Drew Chebuhar is a senior in journalism and mass communication from Muscatine.
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This article was published on Friday, February 21, 1997. Copyright 1997 by the Iowa State Daily Publications Board. All rights reserved. No redistribution without the express written consent of the Iowa State Daily Editor in Chief.