Here and There: Evaluating the Peace Corps as a Transnational Institution

By Dechen Albero

I. ‘Here’ and ‘There’

‘Give me your tired, your poor,

Your hungry masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’

- Emma Lazarus, 1883[1]

The United States has always represented a land of opportunity.  It has offered refuge for the oppressed, a new beginning for the impoverished, and served as a haven for those fleeing war and domestic conflict.  Between 1892 and 1954 approximately 12 million people immigrated to the United States in search of a better life.  Scattering to virtually every part of the country, they established homes and businesses while endeavoring to integrate into American society.  Indeed, ethnic and group differences seemed to melt away as many immigrants sought to adopt what they perceived as a distinctly American identity.

Recently, amidst the advent of multiculturalism and nationalization processes undertaken throughout the world, the reification of ethnic identity and increased migrants’ sense of loyalty to their native lands has remained.  These days ‘home’ assumes a transnational character encompassing both the country of origin and settlement.

Paralleling the experience of transnational migrants, Americans have also undertaken migration abroad most notably through the Peace Corps.  Founded by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Peace Corps gives American volunteers the opportunity to live in developing countries for two years while providing technical assistance to host country nationals.  The experience is unique given the extent to which volunteers must integrate into their host communities by living with host families, speaking the local language, eating the same food, dancing traditional dances, celebrating host country holidays and adapting to community norms.  Yet volunteers never entirely shed their mark of difference as their very corporeality[2] often signifies the West and they thereby possess a distinct worldview opening onto two cultures.

This paper juxtaposes the experience of transnational migrants and Peace Corps volunteers. It considers a wealth of scholarship on transnationalism in endeavoring to develop a framework for evaluating the extent to which the Peace Corps can be viewed as a type of transnational institution. Although I ultimately argue the Peace Corps should not be viewed as a transnational institution, I suggest it may have a transnationalizing affect on volunteers by promoting solidarity with third world peoples and encouraging future work with transnational advocacy networks following completion of service.

II. What is Transnationalism?

Although it was seemingly coined only recently by scholars studying shifting migratory patterns, ‘transnationalism’ actually possesses a distinct etymological history dating from at least the beginning of the twentieth century.  First articulated in an article penned by Randolph Bourne in 1916, transnationalism was described as an ideal to which American society should subscribe.  Bourne bemoaned the process of assimilation where the unique cultural heritage of immigrants was sacrificed in the process of adopting an American lifestyle he deemed homogenous and mob-like.  Arguing cultural identities are imbued with spirituality, Bourne claimed a heterogeneous or transnational society was vital for a nation to flourish.[3] The term subsequently evolved and by mid-century was used to express an interest that expanded beyond a particular national boundary or frontier.           This was epitomized by multinational corporations that engaged in the transfer of money and goods throughout the world.  Within the realm of international relations theory, transnationalism found salience as a means of describing inter-state relations that existed outside the rubric of military engagement.  Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane have identified informal contracts and coalitions as instances of transnationalism and suggested the importance non-national actors may play in such relationships.  In doing so, they have attempted to clarify how transnationalism differs from regular diplomatic interactions between states.[4]

Recent fervor regarding transnationalism stems from the seminal work of Linda Basch, Nina Glick-Schiller, and Cristina Blanc-Szanton, who describe what they view as a new paradigm in migration studies.  While individuals have always undertaken the process of migration to new lands, Basch, et al. argue recent patterns represent a distinct break with the past.  Whereas traditional models of migration have been characterized by permanent settlement and the severing of relationships with those who choose to remain in the sending country, migrants are now maintaining social connections with the aid of technology and making regular pilgrimages to their homeland. Basch, et al. define transnationalism as,

‘the process by which transmigrants, through their daily activities, forge and sustain multi-stranded social, economic, and political relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement, and through which they create transnational social fields that cross national borders.’[5]

In other words, transnationalism is the product of overlapping membership in two or more communities and the commitment of migrants to participate in shaping the economic, social and political landscapes of these localities.  Rather than being limited to the domains of a given geographical setting, transmigrants are active across space and time.  In doing so, they forge a distinct identity that is constructed by virtue of their movement within and between cultures and succeeds in exposing the permeability of borders.

While the work of Basch, et. al advances a novel conception of transnationalism; some scholars have criticized their study for focusing almost exclusively on the activities of migrants and failing to consider the state. As Rainer Bauböck writes,

The term ‘transnational’ applies to human activities and social institutions that extend across national borders.  The very definition of transnationalism refers therefore to states as bounded political entities whose borders are crossed by flows or people, money or information and are spanned by social networks, organizations or fields.[6]

Put differently, states serve as a condition of possibility for transnationalism by presenting boundaries to be transgressed and regulating membership in communities through controlling entry and exit.  Bauböck argues the transmigrant experience threatens to reconfigure states as it enables individuals to compare institutional practices and gain the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively lobby for reforms in their homeland.  Transmigrants may also attempt to alter institutions in the receiving country by making them more amenable to cultural practices, language or religion, particularly on the local and regional levels.

Shifting the focus from migrants and states, Alejandro Portes concentrates on actions that extend beyond borders and develops a typology that distinguishes transnationalism as activity undertaken from ‘below.’  Portes identifies four distinct categories of action including:  a) actions committed by nation-states, b) actions committed by formal institutions based in a particular state, c) actions committed by formal institutions that maintain a presence and operate in more than one state, and d) actions undertaken by non-institutional actors.  Given that the type of actions endemic to categories a) and b) are performed by national institutions and organizations with the goal of realizing particular aims, Portes classifies them as international; and labels category c) as forms of multinational action since the institutions that assume these forms of activity undertake committed campaigns in a host of locales.  Category d) represents a distinct break with all other types of activity and constitutes the only group of actions Portes deems transnational.  He argues these actions are unique since they are entirely informal and are not regulated by state entities. Indeed, these actions may be performed solely for the benefit of specific individuals and groups and frequently serve as a means of challenging the hegemony of international or multinational actors.

While the typology advanced by Portes focuses on the informal character of transnational relations, Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink advance a more refined view by illuminating how grassroots activists collectively undertake organized cross-border actions through transnational advocacy networks (TANs).  According to Keck and Sikkink, TANs represent particular modes of organization that are designed to promote specific interests or norms through sharing information and supporting strategic intervention in politics.           Keck and Sikkink’s rendering of transnationalism in terms of advocacy networks strongly resembles Carol Gould’s work on solidarity.  Challenging accepted notions of solidarity as intra-group or societal bonds, Gould advances a broader conception in an endeavor to explain how empathy manifests between diverse individuals, groups and societies.  In her view, individuals are exposed to the plight of differently situated others through media representations, participation in cooperative projects or professional organizations.  They endeavor to understand the feelings and needs of others in response to the depictions of suffering, oppression, and exploitation they witness or actual experiences with disadvantaged and subordinated groups.      They are governed by norms of reciprocity and mutual aid and fostered by a spirit of openness and egalitarianism, which collectively empower the oppressed to voice their needs.  Indeed, individuals who participate in overlapping solidarity networks must be prepared and willing to act in the way the oppressed request.

Having examined the etymological history of transnationalism and the various ways it has been employed to explain migration and actions across borders, a number of features have emerged.  Chief among these are overlapping membership and complex relationships which exist across space and time and expose the permeability of borders.  These aspects are embodied in the activities of transnational actors like transmigrants, grassroots activists and members of overlapping solidarity networks, who challenge the hegemony of the nation state.  Although they have different aims, each of these groups engages in unregulated activities within and across borders in an effort to enact social and political change. Indeed, transnationalism gains salience through movement and action across borders that aim at building networks to foster social change.  These criteria establish a useful baseline for evaluating the degree to which any institution can be considered transnational.   They will be employed as the principle means for evaluating the case of the Peace Corps discussed below rather than any single definition.

III. The Peace Corps

During his presidential campaign in 1960, the Peace Corps emerged as the cornerstone of John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy platform.  It was conceived in a late night meeting with student activists at the University of Michigan where Kennedy challenged youth to serve their country by volunteering two years of their lives to work in the developing world.  Through providing technical expertise as doctors, technicians, engineers and teachers, Kennedy argued Americans could promote peace and cross-cultural understanding while helping countries develop the skills and capabilities of their citizens.  In doing so, he believed Americans would also play an important role in fighting the Cold War by exposing diverse peoples to American ideals, garnering goodwill and laying a framework for closer relationships between developing nations and the United States.  In a world marked by dueling spheres of influence, Kennedy believed the Peace Corps could serve as an effective weapon to combat communism by winning the allegiance of nonaligned states and encouraging the adoption of democratic governing principles. Indeed, despite being marketed as a novel program to combat world poverty, the Peace Corps was actually designed as a weapon to defeat the menace of communism.

In the wake of his inauguration in 1961, Kennedy immersed himself in establishing a presidential administration and delegated responsibility for the design and organization of the Peace Corps to his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver.   Given his commitment to liberal international development, Shriver disavowed the idea of fighting communism, he believed the task of the Peace Corps was to help poor nations advance along the path of development by eradicating the causes of poverty and working to create societies where all people are afforded respect and free.  According to Shriver,

The purpose of the Peace Corps is to permit Americans to participate directly, personally, and effectively in this struggle for human dignity.  It is a world community, not an American mecca, that we are trying to build.[7]

Rather than attempting to promote American values or ways of life, Shriver believed the principle aims of the Peace Corps should be to open minds and instill belief among the world’s peoples that change is possible.  This project is vast and entails nothing less than the complete transformation of entrenched social and economic patterns that have seemingly doomed individuals to lives of impoverishment and despair.

In order to realize his vision of developing the world’s poorest nations, Shriver focused on defining the roles volunteers and host country counterparts would play in enacting reform.  He conceived volunteers not merely as goodwill ambassadors for the United States, but also as “change agents” capable of empowering entire communities to assume responsibility for their destiny.  Through speaking the local language, residing with host families in the villages where they served, living on a minimal stipend, and participating in holiday celebrations and traditional cultural practices, Shriver believed volunteers could integrate and gain the acceptance of host communities who would then be amenable to their message. Moreover, since the volunteer’s term of service extended for only two years, Shriver claimed it was vital that they work in tandem with host country counterparts who could continue the process of reform after their departure.  Counterparts were considered to be members of the local community who shared a belief in the American idea of progress and were especially receptive to the teachings of volunteers.  In Shriver’s view, counterparts would collaborate with volunteers to educate communities about the systems that facilitated impoverishment and develop the skills necessary to undertake campaigns aimed at improving social welfare.          Collectively counterparts and volunteers would seek to foster idealism within the local populace along with the belief in the possibility of change.  The symbiotic relationship between volunteer and counterpart formed the nexus of Shriver’s approach to development and signaled a fundamental shift in how the United States provided aid to underdeveloped countries.

Despite its humanist premise and commitment to idealism, the Peace Corps also functioned as a means by which the United States could intervene in the affairs of states and better control investments of financial aid.  Whereas the Marshall Plan enacted following the conclusion of the Second World War in an effort to rebuild ravaged European states was a great success, the United States had largely failed to produce similar results in the rest of the world despite granting exorbitant amounts of aid.  As Roy Hoopes Jr. writes,

We found to our sorrow that it was possible to pour great sums of money into such areas with very little helpful effect on their people.[8]

The failure to realize improvements in social welfare was believed to be endemic to the system advanced by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) which allowed governments significant latitude in deciding how grant money was spent.  The Peace Corps was believed to represent a distinct break with this pattern given that it functioned as a vehicle through which the United States could target specific issues like health, education, business and community development.  The possibility of realizing desired outcomes thereby increased as the United States invested in the training of volunteers to enact specific types of change in collaboration with host country partners.          Indeed, the approval of governments permitting Peace Corps to operate within their borders effectively granted the United States license to intervene in the domestic affairs of foreign states.  As David Hapgood and Meridan Bennett write,

On the face of it, the agreement bore no note of compulsion on the part of the United States nor submission on the part of the host country.  In this sense the presence of the Peace Corps in that country could not be called ‘intervention’ under international law.

Yet what the volunteers were doing in their remote village must certainly be called interference in the affairs of that forgotten, static community.[9]

Moreover, it appears the possibility to intervene in foreign societies and working to facilitate cultural transformations were significant motivators for individuals to enlist in the Peace Corps.  As one of the earliest volunteers states,

‘I was not coming here [Malaya] to sell American culture….  I was coming here to help these people solve any particular problems they might have.’[10]

While the type of interference these volunteers describe should not be confused with historical forms of imperialism, some have questioned the degree to which the Peace Corps actively engages in nation building.[11] Yet the institutionalization of Peace Corps over the last fifty years as a premier mechanism for delivering foreign aid has largely silenced this debate.  Nowadays the only questions concern the degree to which volunteers can be deemed successful and how their efforts should be measured.

Not only do Peace Corps volunteers succeed in enacting changes in the country where they serve, but many also experience significant personal transformations as a result of their time abroad; frequently developing feelings of solidarity for the people they meet and the communities in which they live.  Historically volunteers have worked in remote villages located far from the Peace Corps office in the capital city and seemingly a world away from the bureaucratic headquarters in Washington.        The lack of modern communications like telephone, e-mail and television increases the sense of isolation experienced by volunteers.  Through the integration processes enumerated above, as well as undergoing shared hardships and the solidification of working relationships, strong bonds sometimes form between volunteers and community members.  As one volunteer wrote in a letter to family and friends,

‘You must realize that what I write about is in reality unseen and thoroughly unspectacular.  When it happens those concerned are only vaguely aware of its presence, and because they do not understand why it happened or how to nourish it they never speak of it out of some nameless fear of despoiling it; they do not try to analyze it; like young lovers they accept what has happened to them with gratitude and with hope, perhaps naïve, that it will last.’[12]

Although the volunteer struggles to describe the precise feelings she is experiencing, it seems clear that they are characterized by an intense affinity for the people and place where she is living.  Fritz Fischer argues the universal humanist values stressed by Peace Corps officials, and the strict practice of egalitarianism to which volunteers adhere, encourage the formation of these bonds.   As he writes,

Volunteers were egalitarian to a fault, not only respecting the cultures and viewpoints of their hosts but occasionally adopting them as well.[13]

Through daily interaction and discussion over a two year period, volunteers and host country nationals alike often discover an array of similarities including a shared commitment to a core set of universal values and beliefs.  The exchange of experience and perspectives inherent to the project of Peace Corps seemingly imbues the organization with the potential to erase borders.  As Fischer reveals,

The volunteers made it plain, the evaluation reads, ‘that they now feel some loyalty to people and places beyond the borders of the United States, and they cannot be expected to automatically side with the United States on every issue….  A number said [given a revolution opposed by the United States] they would work actively against the American position.’[14]

No doubt the revelation that Americans, who were motivated in part by patriotism to join the Peace Corps, adopt positions on world politics akin to their hosts would come as a surprise to Kennedy and Shriver.  It is indicative of the extent to which Peace Corps volunteers frequently develop feelings of solidarity with their hosts and sometimes even the broader developing world.  Following the completion of service, some volunteers seek outlets for their feelings and frequently work in advocacy networks that promote issues important to their host communities.  They may also undertake political campaigns in an effort to raise awareness regarding the plight of people in the developing world.  Others maintain contact with individuals from their host community and engage in acts of transnational solidarity by attempting to respond to expressed needs.  In short, the Peace Corps is a transformative experience for host country nationals and volunteers alike and may mark only the beginning of a lifelong commitment.

Despite fostering feelings of transnational solidarity and encouraging the formation of advocacy networks following the completion of service, the Peace Corps should not be viewed as a type of transnational institution.  The expressed commitment to enacting social and economic change in the world’s poorest countries belies a stridently realist framework and the fact that the Peace Corps represents a state-sponsored program of soft power which originally aimed at bolstering support for American foreign policy throughout the world.  Through responding to the needs articulated by foreign governments in bilateral agreements and improving the infrastructure of local communities, Peace Corps generates goodwill among world peoples and effectively relieves internal pressure on host country leaders for reform thereby strengthening developing states and affirming existing borders.  Indeed, neither volunteers nor their host country counterparts are active across space and time.  They perform carefully prescribed roles in particular localities seemingly isolated from the rest of the world.   These do not entail the norms of reciprocity that are conditions of possibility for transnational solidarity, but clearly designate a provider and recipient of aid.   The volunteer is cast in an altruistic position that inhibits her from obtaining full membership in the host society.  Regardless of how well she succeeds in integrating into the host community, the volunteer remains an elite figure.  Much like the idealism and belief volunteers seek to instill, they remain somewhat removed from the demands of ordinary life.

IV. Concluding Thoughts

Our goal is, as well, to make sure we have the Peace Corps go to nations, particularly Muslim nations, that don’t understand America.  They don’t understand our heart; they don’t understand our compassion; they don’t understand that we share the same values.[15] – President George W. Bush

President Bush sought to mobilize the Peace Corps in his “war on terror.”  Although his statements carefully avoided impinging on the professed neutrality of the Peace Corps, Bush’s stated goals of development, education, and opportunity nicely coincide with his larger project of spreading democracy throughout the world.  Certainly host country nationals are not ignorant of the possibilities the Peace Corps represents for change as it is often a motivating factor for communities to request volunteers. It seems as if the Peace Corps has never been able to escape the realist underpinnings that first structured the organization as a form of soft power.

However, if the Peace Corps is not a transnational institution, the question remains:  what kind of institution is it?  Following the typology advanced by Portes, the Peace Corps might best be classified as a multinational agency given that it maintains a headquarters in Washington while actively working in a number of states around the world.  Moreover, it engages in the same types of activities in every locale ostensibly with the aim of improving socio-economic conditions.  Indeed, the Peace Corps has succeeded in accomplishing many good works since its inception and international aid agencies would do well to study the unique approach to development it champions.

Yet the greatest success of the Peace Corps arguably emerges from the relationships it fosters between American volunteers and the people in developing countries with whom they work.   These are characterized by feelings of solidarity that emerge from shared struggle, regular interaction and the discovery of a core set of universal values.  They serve as inspiration for returned volunteers to immerse themselves in the work of transnational advocacy networks and political campaigns that promote the cause of the developing world and respond to the needs articulated by these peoples.  In doing so, returned volunteers may one day succeed in enacting the type of fundamental social change the institutional structure of the Peace Corps seems to preclude. g


[1] Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” Statue of Liberty National Monument, 19 April 2008 <http://www.libertystatepark.com/emma.htm>.

[2] Volunteers’ difference is often made apparent by their race, eye color, hair style, clothes, body piercings, tattoos and accent.

[3] Alejandro Portes, “Introduction:  The Debates and Significance of Immigrant Transnationalism,” Global Networks, 1 (2001):  185.

[4] Patricia Clavin, “Defining Transnationalism,” Contemporary European History, 14 (2005):  425, 430-34.

[5] Quoted in Portes 182.

[6] Rainer Bauböck, “Towards a Political Theory of Migrant Transnationalism,” The International Migration Review, 37 (2003): 701 (my gloss).

[7] Sargent Shriver, “The Peace Corps Can Do the Job,” The Peace Corps:  Missionary Society?  Peace Army?  Or What?, Ed.  David Christensen (Aspen:  American Foundation for Continuing Education, 1966) 19.

[8] Roy H. Hoopes, Jr., “Peace Corps’ Objectives,” The Peace Corps:  Missionary Society?  Peace Army?  Or What?, Ed.  David Christensen (Aspen:  American Foundation for Continuing Education, 1966) 47.

[9] David Hapgood and Meridan Bennett, Agents of Change:  A Close Look at the Peace Corps, (Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 1968) 25.

[10] Quoted in Fritz Fischer, Making Them Like Us:  Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s, (Washington:  Smithsonian University Press, 1998) 60.

[11] Hapgood and Bennett 25; See also E. Konovalov, “The Truth About the Peace Corps,” The Peace Corps:  Missionary Society?  Peace Army?  Or What?, Ed.  David Christensen (Aspen:  American Foundation for Continuing Education, 1966).

[12] Quoted in Hoopes, Jr. 50.

[13] Fischer 183.

[14] Quoted in Fischer 183.

[15] Quoted in Peace Corps, “What is the Peace Corps?,”  About the Peace Corps, 21 April 2008

<http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=Learn.whatispc.history.decades.2000> (my gloss).