Jun 14 2009

A “Corps” Network to Peace

by at 11:28 pm under Uncategorized

Throughout my undergraduate career, I have always been attracted to the idea of joining the Peace Corps. This desire stemmed from my childhood aspiration to become a foreign correspondent—to experience global trouble spots for myself, to immerse myself in unfamiliar cultures and unrecognizable languages, and to understand locales struggling with development so that I may bridge the gap between those who come from privileged communities like mine and those who weren’t so lucky. Later on, I aspired to do more than to report—I wanted to get my hands dirty in the field and “make a difference,” the typical maxim that most idealistic young people swear by.

I never did end up applying to the Corps. I was dissuaded by the pessimistic impressions of others who asserted that a volunteer can only do so much as one individual. I heard horror stories of jaded volunteers who gave up their initial idealistic goals and resigned themselves to their conclusion that “the culture [of the communities they were placed with] was too different” for them to make progress with the projects they had hoped to accomplish. Many weren’t sure whether they were truly making the world a better place by helping only a single farmer, town, or group of children.

Yet, after my exposure to network theory, I feel no reason to be dissuaded anymore. I see more opportunity, more hope in grassroots-based development. Buchanan, Jacobs, Putnam, Storper, Greif, and more have given me a new set of spectacles through which to view the local. Now, I see how proper action on the local level can bring forth global change and virtuous cycles. North accentuated institutional considerations, Gereffi pointed me toward the organization of structures, and Ernst and Rogers allowed me to chart the stages necessary for successful knowledge diffusion. With this new repertoire of perspectives and analysis, I can answer to what extent the Peace Corps model utilizes networks to forge successful economic development, and I can evaluate its prospects for living up to its mission statement.

The Peace Corps mission statement is listed in the following three goals:

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americas.

The Corps doesn’t simply strive to facilitate development—it also seeks to foster a better sense of understanding between Americans and the communities they work with. The building of social capital, as such, is an essential dimension of these goals, in which its consequences prevail in the roots of latent transnational activism. Putnam and Narayan’s works will be used to measure the Corps’ inclination to use social capital as an active causal factor in the development process.

More specifically, through research, network analysis, a series of interviews, and hopefully concrete case studies, my paper will trace how network theory plays out in the following:

1.    Peace Corps History
2.    Operationalizing the Peace Corps Function
3.    The Peace Corps Application Process and Applicant Pool
4.    Life in the Peace Corps
5.    Feedback on the Peace Corps
6.    Projected Long Term Effects of the Peace Corps

An overview of the history of the Peace Corps and an operationalization of its function will describe the organization’s architecture, where it stood in relation to the hegemon of the 1960s narrative it emerged out of, and how it has evolved ever since the intensification of globalization. An evaluation of the Corps’ applicant selection process, as well as the applicant pool it attracts, will look at how the organization molds a mosaic of players for development. Life in the Peace Corps and its feedback investigate the risks, opportunities, constraints and criticisms of the Peace Corps process, and how these variables have changed over time from both the viewpoints of volunteers and the host countries involved. The last section on long term effects will analyze the Corps’ role in bringing about incremental changes and its implications for the social, political and economic landscape.

Overall, this paper will map out the interconnected network of cooperation that the Corps aims to nurture, and where its network cluster stands in relation to the overarching network of globalization. Mainly, this inquiry will examine how the agency establishes ties and connectors between countries, and its role in bringing about agglomeration, positive externalities and interstices for change and innovation. Suggestions for improving upon the current Peace Corps model may also be offered to ensure that the organization remains viable and adaptable for the ever-changing process of globalization. Furthermore, this exploration will offer a ground-up alternative to Stiglitz’s grim view of global economic institutional prescriptions.

With Obama “extolling the volunteer agency as an exemplar of public service and US diplomacy” in the face of the financial crisis and with more young people applying to the Corps as an alternative to traditional paths after college, it is more important than ever to ground the idealism espoused by the organization into a concrete, strategic platform. While much of the impact of the Peace Corps is intangible and arguably hard to measure, we can still draw upon network theory gauge to what effect the agency forges patterns of  development that open more windows of opportunity. Here, theory can challenge how the Corps can best manage complexity and unpredictability—and it can ultimately challenge jaded volunteers to adhere to proper sequencing and flexibility, hold onto their bootstraps, and find value in expanding a developing country’s institutional thickness.

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