The Long-Term Impact of U.S. Peace Corps

A friend from Afghanistan tells me that if it weren’t for the Peace Corps, he wouldn’t be in the U.S. today pursuing a master’s degree at Georgetown.

My friend—we’ll call him Ahmad—grew up in the early 90’s, a time of savage internecine warfare in Afghanistan.  Ahmad doesn’t like to talk about this time. Of the 30 or so people he shared a classroom with at his Lycée (high school), he can’t name a single one who was still alive when the Taliban consolidated control in 1996, bringing the civil war to an end.

U.S. Peace Corps volunteers were last in Afghanistan in the 1970’s, before the Soviet invasion, a time of relative peace that the country hasn’t regained since. Four or five volunteers, men and women, worked at the Lycée in Ahmad’s town, where they taught math and English. They also wrote curriculum and trained local teachers, including women who would later teach Ahmad.  Ahmad’s father sought out and befriended the volunteers.  He became a local guide and interpreter for them.

Ahmad’s father was astounded that these volunteers had come from so far to such an obscure place–and that they had learned the local Pashto–with no other motive than to try to make a difference in people’s lives.  He remembered them as going beyond their professional commitment, visiting a family’s home to help a struggling student for example.  He committed himself to studying and learning English, and to training as an educator himself.  He became an English instructor after study at the University in Kabul.  Years later he would press his son Ahmad to study English, not the Russian that was pushed in the Lycée under Soviet influence.

Ahmad went on to work for the United Nations in Afghanistan, and eventually achieved his dream of coming to the U.S., serving as a culture and language instructor for U.S. personnel deploying to stabilize and build his home country.  His dream now is to reopen the U.S. Peace Corps mission in Afghanistan, a dream that won’t become a reality until the country emerges from decades of continuous warfare.

This story is unique in its particulars, but there are any number of stories like it.  Ahmad and his father achieved their goals because of their own efforts, but they credit Peace Corps with opening up new possibilities in their lives.  The Peace Corps is a foreign policy tool with a diffuse but deep effect. We can’t leverage the Peace Corps to accomplish a given task next week, but the long-term effects, though unplanned and unforeseeable, can be profound.

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A Box of Hammers

Someone said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you will treat every problem as if it were a nail.  Many Americans would be forgiven for thinking that the U.S. foreign policy tool box contains only hammers.  When confronted with realities in the world that we object to, we are tempted to choose between the extremes of crushing the problem with military force or else turning away.

The truth about U.S. engagement in the world is much more complex.  We interact with foreign peoples constantly through commerce, diplomacy, aid, and cultural exchange.  When we have a conflict with a foreign nation–or other foreign entity–we may employ a wide range of approaches to resolve it.  We have many tools in our tool box.

This site is dedicated to stories and perspectives on everything that falls between non-engagement with the world and hitting it with the hammer.  The goal is to present stories that didn’t find their way  to the Washington Post or cable news, perspectives that may be too nuanced for politicians to make use of.  The stories will be short, clear, honest, and free of jargon.

Above all I hope the site will prompt you to read, comment, and involve yourself in the way Americans act abroad.