Bren Flanigan is a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, where he serves as a community economic adviser. He is a recent graduate of Washington and Lee University. This commentary does not represent any official view of the Peace Corps.
After surviving nine hours in a non-air-conditioned bus in the hot West African climate, during which the only escape from the jolting ride is a “pee-pee stop,” the last thing I wanted to do was converse in my extremely limited French with my Peace Corps host father. But I was instantly interrogated on the then-ongoing tumultuous 2016 presidential election: “Why do all Americans hate Muslims?”
It’s humbling to find people in Benin following U.S. current affairs with intense interest, when many Americans could never locate Benin on a map. Addressing questions like these gives Peace Corps volunteers the opportunity to shatter the stereotypes about the United States portrayed in television and movies.
These conversations represent the public diplomacy of the Peace Corps. They do not occur behind closed doors or classified offices in Washington, but at a grass-roots level in a community, and it’s not limited to policy discussions. Hosting my landlord, his wife and their three young daughters to try pizza for their first time is a small, but enduring, act of cultural exchange. My guests came in their Sunday best, wearing shimmering matching fabric, to go less than five feet from their front door.
Even though the parents hated the pizza — eating only one or two pieces — they praised my “cooking skills,” rather than offend their host. The girls wiped their plates clean. They later returned the favor, inviting me to dine at their house and offering me the larger of only two pieces of meat.
These small interactions are invaluable to our foreign policy. Playing Whitney Houston’s version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” during July 4th to a group of more than 50 locals — while also sharing a bit of A1 Steak Sauce — made people elated to celebrate our American independence and hear our national anthem for the first time.
There is no such thing as a cultural “ambassador” who can represent the melting pot of the United States, but Peace Corps volunteers are frequently interpreted as direct extensions of American values and principles. That gives the Peace Corps an unrivaled position to promote a positive perception of our country and learn from the citizens of others.
The way to influence societies is not solely through intimidation or economic isolation but also through an integrated cultural exchange, whose effects will endure through political administrations and fluctuating diplomatic relations. No organization does a better job of forging this exchange than the Peace Corps.
In 2016, the Peace Corps published a survey of 21 countries on five continents that studied perceptions of Americans in volunteer communities. More than 60 percent of the 928 host country nationals surveyed reported they had a “much better” or “better” understanding of Americans after having a volunteer, and the trait most frequently used to describe their perceptions of all Americans was “kind.” Even country nationals who worked with volunteers more than five years ago still reported the same level of improved understanding as communities with current volunteers.
Volunteers promote this understanding by entering a society ready to experience everything with their local communities. Living in a family with four wives and close to 20 children forced me to respect a different way of life. Defecating in latrines full of flies and cockroaches, bucket-bathing and sharing the frustration when the electricity or water supply got cut for several hours all taught me to recognize real necessities.
Now, with the largest budget cut for the Peace Corps in more than 40 years proposed by the Trump administration, Congress should not forget that volunteers are immersing themselves and serving in more than 60 countries around the world for modest sums. (My living allowance is less than $10 per day.) For many communities, we are the real American ambassadors, the only ones they will ever meet, and the ones they will remember.
The Peace Corps tells volunteers that it’s the hardest job you’ll ever love. The Peace Corps is hard when it is 100 degrees in my house. The Peace Corps is hard when I cannot move away from the trash can because of the latest bout of food poisoning. But I loved the Peace Corps when my host mother came to my rescue after I woke up with a mouse on my neck. I loved the Peace Corps when my friend spent hours searching food stands for bananas to settle my stomach. I loved the Peace Corps when my French instructor told me she fasted the entire day before my language exam, in the hopes I would attain the results I wanted. These actions of kindness and the knowledge that I have a responsibility to help foster a rapport between the United States and Benin motivate me — and they confirm that President John F. Kennedy’s 56-year-old Peace Corps has a vital purpose in U.S. foreign policy.