Orrin Luc posted an articleHundreds of surveys, dozens of interviews — and critiques to change the Peace Corps see more
The Death of Idealism
Development and Anti-Politics in the Peace Corps
By Meghan Elizabeth Kallman
Columbia University Press
Reviewed by Steven Boyd Saum
You might surmise from its title that this is not a book that casts the Peace Corps experience in a particularly rosy light. You would be right, sort of. But Meghan Elizabeth Kallman is not trying to argue that the Peace Corps is good or bad. Rather, she writes, “The questions of how people experience idealism, why it dies, and why that matters are the central puzzle of this book.”
Kallman is an assistant professor at the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She conducted hundreds of surveys and dozens of interviews, and visited Peace Corps programs in three countries. She documents some positive outcomes: Volunteers gaining understanding of parts of the world; forging deep friendships; seeking out work in public service. But, she argues, her research shows returning Volunteers “have lost their idealism, replacing it not with a critical or structural analysis but with a kind of cynicism and emotional disengagement that is unique and consequential in the way that it alters their politics.”
Too often, Kallman says, efforts to “professionalize” work in global development and Peace Corps in particular instead lead to “proceduralizing” the work, which “produces a sense of disengagement and muffles their idealism.”
That hardly sounds good. Though for those whose Peace Corps service has led them to understand the dynamics of flawed systems on a truly human level — including economic policies, political corruption, or journalism as practiced by reporters who parachute in for a quick hit — and for whom idealism remains a bright flame, well, they might wonder what’s going on here. Particularly interesting is how Kallman traces the way efforts to “professionalize” work in global development and Peace Corps in particular instead lead to “proceduralizing” the work, which “produces a sense of disengagement and muffles their idealism.” (There’s a form for that!)
That’s a critique to take note of for those interested in seeing the Peace Corps be its best. Which is part of the impetus behind recommendations Kallman offers, including a call for the Peace Corps and similar organizations to create “spaces for collective sense making, conversation, and meaning making that focus on larger questions of nationality, identity, history, and development.” It bears noting that when Kallman visits a Peace Corps program in an unnamed country in Eastern Europe, she is inspired by seeing collective sense making play out during an in-service conference.
The Peace Corps has a mission to cultivate understanding and peace. By embracing reforms, Kallman argues, “it may also be able to deconstruct and reconstruct norms within other American institutions.”
This book was completed before Volunteers were evacuated from around the world in 2020 because of COVID-19. There are threads familiar to those who have been part of the far-reaching conversations since — or who have read the community-driven report “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” published by National Peace Corps Association. Kallman writes: “It bears acknowledging — repeatedly, in fact — just how difficult it is for any person or organization to fully embrace justice and sustainable human and social development in a world structured by colonialism, racism, nationalism, and inequality, not to mention the pressures of rationalization and legitimacy.” However, Kallman observes, the Peace Corps, “whose explicit mission is to cultivate understanding and peace, is in a unique position to embrace reforms and rethink itself. By doing so, moreover, it may also be able to deconstruct and reconstruct norms within other American institutions.”
This review appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.
Every dollar matched to reach greater impact in Eritrean refugee camps. see more
In the Horn of Africa, a worsening refugee crisis is finding relief from Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).
By providing refugees with water, health and power, and resettlement services, and raising awareness of their plight through the power of film, the Peace Corps community is helping Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and elsewhere.
In partnership with National Peace Corps Association (NPCA), Water Charity is providing refugees with access to water, basic health services, and solar panels. Water Charity’s Averill Strasser (Bolivia 1966-68) and Beverly Rouse are confident that more desperately needed help is on the way following the recent announcement of a pledged $25,000 match challenge from an anonymous donor. Join NPCA's fundraising campaign for these water and sanitation projects.
Linked forever to Eritreans following his service in the country from 1966 to 1968, John Stauffer is the co-founder and President of the America Team for Displaced Eritreans, providing resettlement services to many of the 400,000 Eritrean refugees who have fled their homeland.
Stauffer will speak about his experiences and how the Peace Corps community can help at Peace Corps Connect following the screening of Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus, director Chris Cotter’s raw, harrowing story of following the Eritrean exodus. The screening will kick off Peace Corps Connect on Wednesday, September 21—the International Day for Peace. Tickets are on sale through September 12.
Long considered the North Korea of Africa, Eritrea has caused one of the largest, yet lesser-known refugee crisis in the world through gross human rights violations. Refugees are largely confined to camps in Ethiopia, and many attempt a treacherous and often deadly trek to resettlement in Western Europe.
Following several successful projects in Ethiopia with currently-serving Peace Corps Volunteers and after viewing Refugee, Water Charity’s Strasser decided it was time to help in the camps. The NPCA-Water Charity partnership is well underway, and the $25,000 match challenge will add to progress already being made.
Ethiopian and Eritrean RPCVs have been actively involved in their host countries for many years, especially since war broke out between the two nations in the late 1990s. For their efforts to broker a peaceful resolution to a border dispute in 1999, the Ethiopian and Eritrean RPCV group was awarded NPCA’s Loret Miller Ruppe Award.
You can donate to NPCA-Water Charity projects in Ethiopia here, and join us at the screening of Refugee to become part of the conversation led by John Stauffer at Peace Corps Connect.
RPCV Camillia Freeland-Taylor helps community build school in Southern province of Zambia. see more
The Community Fund: Perpetuating a Lifelong Commitment to Peace Corps Ideals
At National Peace Corps Association (NPCA), we understand the impact Volunteers make in host communities, as well as those host communities make upon Volunteers. Both resonate for decades. The Community Fund thrives on sustaining that relationship and impact.
An example are Camillia Freeland-Taylor’s (Zambia 2013-15) efforts to support the children of her village, Magalela, who must walk nine miles and cross two rivers to attend school. Many families do not allow their girls to attend because of the two-hour walk. During Camillia’s service, a first grade boy drowned on the journey.
The village children need a local primary school to ensure their basic human right to education. Camillia worked both during and after service to meet this need.
The grant she originally received as a PCV provided the amount necessary to lay the foundation of the school. As an RPCV, Camillia sought out NPCA to purchase cement and other building materials to complete the project by plastering the school's walls, finishing the floors, building latrines, and fitting windows with glass. The Zambian government will then provide teachers.
“It’s good to have a school because our children won’t have to walk so far (usually six-eight kilometers one way), and they don’t have to worry about crossing the river during the rainy season, which is extremely dangerous. Right now we have no choice, but we are trying to change that through the new school” says Jethrow Siatubi, Magalela Village Head.
Education has a compounding effect, and the result of allowing an entire community of children access to a primary education is profound. Studies show that with each additional year of education, an individual will earn more as an adult and prevent extreme poverty. Moreover, women who receive a primary school education are less likely to lose children in the first five years of the child’s life.
“I remember one time I went to the hospital and they gave me the wrong medicine. If I wasn’t educated I wouldn’t have been able to tell the medicine was meant for someone else and for a different problem. I was able to do so because of education. I want my children to have a better education and a chance at a brighter future” remarked Julius Simombeh, a school committee member.
In June 2016, NPCA in partnership with CALL and Cigna, embarked on an adventure to Thailand! see more
The National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) is a proud partner of Northeastern University's Cultural Agility Leadership Lab (CALL). NPCA continually seeks out opportunities to increase the impact of the Peace Corps community; with CALL, our organization pulls from the invaluable cultural knowledge and expertise of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) to support projects abroad.
In June 2016, NPCA, CALL and our private sector partner, Cigna, created a team to address the needs of three nongovernmental organizations in Bangkok, Thailand. Twelve Cigna corporate volunteers provided pro bono IT support, while experiencing a crash course in cultural agility led by three RPCVs and Northeastern's Dr. Paula Caliguiri.
Cigna representatives partnered with cultural coaches and Thailand RPCVs Jessica Martin, Joel Saldana Jr. and NPCA’s own J.M. Ascienzo.
With the guidance of RPCV cultural coaches, accomplishments of the Bangkok program include:
Baan Nokkamin Foundation
Cigna volunteers laid the groundwork for website design and strategy for the Baan Nokkamin Foundation, an organization that provides housing and opportunities for over 350 orphans. Cigna volunteers learned about Baan Nokkamin’s holistic approach to providing residents the skills they need to excel, and partnered on the project with Baan Nokkamin staff who first came to the foundation as young children in need.
Employees from Cigna supported the NGO, Childline Thailand, which cares for the country's most vulnerable and abused children, often the victims of child prostitution. Childline Thailand’s hub is a safe place near Bangkok’s Hua Lomphong train station for street children to receive a warm meal, extra schooling, or access to health and legal services. Cigna volunteers worked with staff from Thailand and Russia to design a website called Ya Tee Dek, which translates to “Don’t Hit Children.” The Ya Tee Dek campaign is an anti-corporal punishment resource for students, teachers and community members.
Brighter Thailand Foundation
Representatives of the Brighter Thailand Foundation traveled from Thailand’s northeastern Isaan Region to work with Cigna volunteers on improving its database and finance platforms. In partnership with the University of Missouri, the Brighter Thailand Foundation provides Thai youth with the opportunity to learn and strengthen leadership skills at week-long camps, often in coordination with currently-serving Peace Corps Volunteers.
Throughout the week Cigna employees joined their NGOs away from the office to learn about Thai culture and the challenges local NGOs face. Since returning stateside the Cigna volunteers continue to collaborate with their respective NGOs, and the partnerships will last through December. The Bangkok trip followed last year’s inaugural CALL program in Indonesia.
To support NPCA partnerships that leave a sustainable impact on NGOs abroad, visit peacecorpsconnect.org/missionpartner today!
NPCA supports community-driven projects of impact through the Community Fund see more
National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) is proud to support community-driven projects of impact through the Community Fund. NPCA supports grassroots initiatives led by members of the Peace Corps community that have a lasting and sustainable impact. One of our newest initiatives is supporting the continuation of the micro-loan programs facilitated by The Colombia Project Global (TCP Global).
Where it all began
In 2000, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of South Florida (RPCVSF) established The Colombia Project (TCP), a committee that was created in response to the drastic internal displacement rates in Colombia. Social workers, attorneys, leaders of the displaced community and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) gathered at a meeting in Bogota, Colombia and decided the most effective solution was to provide resources to people ready to rebuild their lives through a sustainable micro-loan program.
The mission of TCP is two-fold: assist marginalized entrepreneurs with micro-loans and strengthen the grassroots organizations that effectively serve marginalized communities.
In Colombia, as in much of the developing world, affordable loans for marginalized entrepreneurs are available only from the daily lenders who charged up to 10% per day and often used harsh collection measures. The larger micro-finance institutions tended to focus on population centers where it is easier to scale their operations. The TCP model, however, is created for small and remote communities where the lending gap is greatest.
For TCP loan recipients, a marginal increase in family income means the difference between young adults continuing their studies and dropping out to help feed the family. Those who successfully repay several TCP loans often qualify for bank loans for their business or for constructing their own homes. In addition to loan recipients, TCP partners used earnings to benefit the communities where they work. Projects included the first latrine for the handicapped in Aguadas, a facility for the handicapped in Cartago, repairing homes for the poorest residents of Puerto Tejada, establishing a sewing cooperative and completing a community center in La Victoria.
"I no longer look at myself as a displaced person but as an entrepreneur"
- Gloria Beatriz Barliza Epiayu, Woman Entrepreneur of the year for the Guajira Region of Colombia 2011
Moving onto the next phase
In 2014, The Colombia Project became independent of RPCVSF, and evolved in to TCP Global. In 2015, TCP Global opened new programs in Niger, Guatemala and Peru with one hundred percent loan repayment in the first 16 months. In this next phase, TCP Global has seeded $10,000 from the U.S. and supported $21,000 in loans to 100 recipients and earned its current partners $5,000 to date.
TCP Global partners have found that increasing the income of their clients provides each a hand up to reach a better standard of living. These loans help keep children in school, provide healthier diets, access to clean drinking water and protection of the environment. Women entrepreneurs are often empowered by their success and progress to become community leaders.
TCP is a results-oriented model that keeps the focus on the loan recipient. If they do well, the organizations that administer the loans are compensated for their good results. The first allocation is typically $1500. Once that has been invested twice with at least a 95% repayment rate, additional allocations are sent until the permanent loan pool is sufficient to meet the needs of the community.
NPCA's Community Fund is currently supporting a new program that will open in the Philippines and in a Colombian community where there is a Peace Corps Response Volunteer. These programs are projected to need up to $12,000 each over the next 4 years.
Since funds are released in $1500 increments or less, with a promise to send more if those funds are invested successfully, the risk is small. The repayment rate for loans given since 2007 exceeds 95%. TCP’s oldest site, in Genova has invested each donated dollar eight times in nine years. That is the level of success NPCA and TCP Global hope to continue globally as this program expands with the help of the Community Fund.