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Peace Corps Volunteers and the Boundaries of Bottom-up Development

  • Author(s): Schuckman, Hugh Erik
  • Advisor(s): Cohen, Sol
  • et al.

From President Kennedy's first announcement of a non-military US volunteer corps in 1961, the Peace Corps has been one of the preeminent government grassroots volunteer development agency. This study explores the history of the ambiguities inherent in this contention, pressure primarily stemming from the organization's role as both a governmental diplomatic and a popular grassroots development agency. The genealogy of conflict stems from three ill-defined and considered elements: the grassroots volunteer, development, and the discourses of grassroots programming. In bracketing these terms, this study illustrates the ways organizational epistemology is fractured among political actors, staff, and volunteers. Though the Peace Corps organizational rhetoric has shifted these categories over the years, the organization's political face has remained dominant in organizational attitudes and expressions.

This dissertation underscores the disproportionate weight of this side of the discourse, which is simultaneously most at odds with the idea of the horizontal, grassroots rhetoric of the organization. In demonstrating the paradox of the Peace Corps' simultaneous rhetorical role as a grassroots development organization and US political theater, I combed archival resources such as pamphlets, reports, internal memos, and posters produced by the organization to better understand the particular messages contained in these documents. While the images and narratives concerning the grassroots volunteer, development, and programming are varied, the overwhelming message is one of unexamined US benevolence. For comparison with volunteers with actual experience with these concepts, I conducted ethnographic interviews of volunteers and staff in one Peace Corps country, Outer Mongolia. In order to contextualize the Peace Corps' struggle with other similar governmental agencies, I also interviewed volunteers of the Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteers working in similar projects in Mongolia. Through an ethnographic semi-structured interview model of volunteers working in education, health, community economic development, and youth development sectors, I assessed volunteers' 1.) motivations and awareness of development, 2.) understandings of "empowerment" and "participation" among current development constituents, 3.) perceptions of host-country partners culture and history and 4.) visions for re-constituting the Peace Corps.

Findings suggest that while some of the volunteers reiterated the Peace Corps' rhetorical perspectives of volunteer roles, development, and programming, many had either not considered these important aspects of their development experience or expressed views starkly opposite to that of the organization. The resulting investigation reveals not a splintered, failed program, but one internally odds with stated participatory, democratic ideals. Far from condemning this notable organization, this dissertation argues for greater organizational imagination through self-reflection among volunteers and staff about the horizon of possibilities of grassroots cooperation untethered from political rhetoric.

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