Open Letter from a Peace Corp Volunteer

In our series on “What People Who Want to ‘Help Africa’ Should Know,” we highlight both problematic and helpful examples of humanitarianism in Africa. In this post, we repost a letter that was penned by an education Peace Corps volunteer in the Upper-west region of rural Ghana who served from August 2016 until she recently early terminated her position.

We repost Ms Kim’s piece which first appeared on her blog, There is No Utopia, and invite you to comment below with your responses and thoughts.

Featured image source:


My Letter to Peace Corps

By: Hyoyoung Minna Kim

August 20, 2017

Below is the letter I submitted to the country director when I met with her to discuss my early termination.  I’m not sure what the point of the letter was, given the likelihood that the letter was dismissed.  If anything, it was cathartic.

I offer it publicly as a way to provide insight and perspectives that often get left out of the conversations about PC and the PC experience.

The Peace Corps experience is truly like none other and will be something you will take with you for the rest of your life.
-Drake Mayo, Peace Corps Volunteer[1]

Dear Peace Corps,

Thus far, my experience in Peace Corps Ghana has been invaluable, which is why I must early terminate.  I invite you to regard the following message with the same flexibility and open-mindedness that are expected of Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs), as this is offered with the aim of enhancing PC by strengthening PC staff leadership and awareness and deepening PCVs understanding of their roles and impact in host countries.

I applied to Peace Corps (PC) with the naïveté and unchecked privilege of many PC community members.  Despite the nagging skepticisms about neocolonialist implications of PC, my curiosity upstaged my decision to join.  The little that I could intellectualize was not enough to steer me away from the dominant narrative that serving abroad in a country deemed underdeveloped is somehow noble and self-sacrificing, in addition to the allure of a unique cultural adventure.

While I acknowledge that some PCVs build positive relationships and collaborate successfully with community members to meet needs and exchange culture, since its inception during the Cold War to act as a soft diplomacy against the harsher United States (US) militarism, PC continues to import ideologies of savior complex, white superiority, and US exceptionalism into host countries while inadvertently positioning host country nationals (HCNs) as incapable or inferior.

… Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism…Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.”[2]
-Teju Coles, writer, art historian, photographer

This narrative of a crusader, typically a white individual, uplifting the “uncivilized” or “less fortunate” is a blueprint that dates back to colonialism and, to this day, remains the infrastructure of systems and institutions of the US; as such, this narrative is not unique to PC nor is it surprising.  In Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol describes a well-resourced school in Chicago attended by white students as an institution that “…flatters the privilege for having privilege while calling it aspiration.”  Similarly, PC flatters the privilege for having privilege while calling it service.  Just as the well-funded schools in the US are benefitting from institutional racism, such as gerrymandering and redlining, the US profits from taking advantage of its political power by offering “help” to the very countries it exploited (i.e. Trans-Atlantic slave-trade) to gain said power in the first place.  Plainly put, PC is simply another broken extension of unexamined US politics rooted in white supremacy and Americentrism.[3]

As our country was built on such principles, it is not difficult to understand that well-meaning US PC staff members and PCVs arrive in host countries with our baggage of provisions, along with our baggage of misinformed ideologies and our lack of awareness of the interrelation of power, privilege, and oppression and how it imprints on us.  Consequently, seemingly harmless and well-intended training sessions and support have had oppressive consequences.  Training sessions have reinforced the US-white power structure by neglecting to acknowledge it and in its place, inculcated trainees with romantic ideas of being change agents.  During preservice training, a staff member admitted that training is intentionally loaded with positivity since cynicism and harsh-realities await newly minted volunteers.  In times of distress, the support I sought from PC staff (majority US PC staff) has been superficial at best and invalidating at worst; I recognize that the efforts from staff were coming from a place of unknowing.  Thus, it is critical for PC to thoughtfully address the lack of quality training and education on cultural responsiveness and the dynamics of power for both US and HCN staff members, the lack of historically and politically relevant information about the host country PCVs are serving in, and the lack of effective facilitation of information and providing of support.  In doing so, PCVs will be better prepared and empowered to approach interactions and challenges with critical consciousness.

Likened to the narrow perceptions of many US citizens regarding HCNs, there are HCNs preserving these harmful illusions, as well.  Back in September, I surveyed the junior high school staff and students on their thoughts of the US and Ghana.  Their responses about US citizens were unanimous: rich, white, and only speaks English.  These ideas were received from the various media platforms and from US visitors.  One student responded, “I get it from you and Ms. Carol[4] (an RPCV).”  Several others responded that US residents do yoga.  Another volunteer introduced yoga to the students without detailing the origin of the practice – the PVC’s negligence inadvertently extended the Western appropriation of yoga.  Without cultivating our own critical consciousness, we are more likely to promote neocolonialism than peace and friendship.

The main question is whether we indeed should send assistance workers into post-colonial situations in which the corrupting and demoralizing effect of their presence would, to such a degree, overshadow the few positive values given to the aid recipients. I do not know the answer, but I feel from my experience in America that racism is far more destructive than poverty. Poverty does not destroy the initiative and self-reliance of a people. But that is precisely what racism does.[5]
–Jacob Holdt, writer and lecturer

My presence as a light-skinned volunteer from the US is enough to reinforce the belief that a foreigner, particularly one that is perceived to be white, is going to provide.  Simply existing in Ghana invites demands for money, requests to be taken to the US and justifies inflated prices of goods.  The frustration is often misdirected at HCNs.  In reality, foreigners – from colonizers and missionaries to volunteers and even tourists – instigated and continue to propagate these aggravating interactions.  PC grants, which are relatively easily awarded, are an example of how PCVs are couriers who continue to preserve the idea that (white) foreigners are synonymous with handouts.

What has been particularly jarring for me is being identified as white.  As a Korean American struggling against the US perception of “forever foreigner,” suddenly being identified as a white person is shocking and unsettling. [6]  Equally upsetting is being called Chinese, China, China-baby, Japanese, Japan, ching-chong in addition to the mimicry of martial arts and Asian languages.  By failing to acknowledge and address these phenomena that aggressively racializes our identity, PC has done a disservice to PCVs who identify as people of color (POC).  Other volunteers who identify as POC (and even LGBTQ) shared that they have felt unsupported by PC staff, explaining that they were dismissive or unhelpful because of PC staff’s ignorance of cultural responsiveness.

It has also been brought to my attention that many PC staff choose not to disclose the reality that awaits PCVs for fear of discouraging volunteers from choosing to stay in the host country.  Some of us argue that by being honest and open, PCVs have the opportunity to make informed decisions, including mentally preparing ourselves for unfavorable situations that may even trigger past traumas.  Please consider having more faith in PCVs, that not only can we handle this kind of information, we have already experienced a lot of the unpleasant and even violent repercussions because of the way we self-identify or are perceived by others.  In fact, the honesty is likely to be received with respect and gratitude for being mindful and responsive to our situations, that PC cares about our safety and is making efforts to support us.

As PC and PCVs share the accountability for the reputation of PC, the well-being of PCVs, and the impact of service, the following suggestions are meant to improve upon the mission and all three goals:

After much deliberation, the Peace Corps mission “to promote world peace and friendship” feels disingenuous.  Nigerian writer and editor, Kovie Biakolo, vocalized that “many Americans who want to “save the Africans,” are the same troupe that ignore Black and Brown bodies that are marginalized in [the US] every day.”[7]

In July of 2016, a month into my arrival to Ghana, news of police brutality against Philando Castile and Alton Sterling was just the beginning of that summer’s relentless violence against Black lives in the US.  A few weeks later, the director of PC offered a delayed sympathetic response to the unjust tragedies – criticized by some that the message was merely lip service, it added to the distrust of PCVs who were already feeling disheartened.  Nearly ten months into my service, every single African delegate invited to the African Global Economic and Development Summit, taking place in California, were denied visas, in addition to the dismay that the summit was held outside of the very continent it was regarding.[8]  “I don’t know if it’s Trump or if it’s the fact that the embassies that have been discriminating for a long time see this as an opportunity, because of talk of the travel ban, to blatantly reject everyone,” Mary Flowers, organizer of the summit, said in an interview.[9]  While some may point out that PC is not involved in the racist violence and discrimination occurring in the United States, bear in mind that PC is an organization directly established by the same powers that institutionalized and continues to institutionalize racism by way of law enforcement and diplomatic offices, to name a few.

A 2015 New York Times doc-op questioned the motives of US citizens for providing service abroad when there is a significant need for support at home.[10]  Kenyan photojournalist and activist, Boniface Mwangi, points to the racial inequality in the US, highlighting the staggering and disproportionate rate of incarceration for African-American men, nearly six times the rate for white men.[11]

This itch to serve abroad is anticipated, given the messages about communities already flooded with foreign aid, like Africa: primitive, diseased, and impoverished.  As a result, on varying levels of consciousness, many US citizens believe (subconsciously or consciously) that Africa and other “developing” communities around the world 1) need to be saved and 2) cannot save itself.  In other words, there is a ubiquitous ideology that members of “developing” communities are fundamentally inferior and are inherently incapable of “achieving” what “developed” communities have – also regarded as a form of racism.

On the contrary, African countries are rich in resources and possibilities:

I often have to remind people in the West, that Africa is not poor. But it has been robbed and pillaged and devastated for the gains of the West, who now look down on much of the continent and its people with contempt on one hand, and a frustrating paternalism, on the other.

Poverty is not an accident. And the poverty that exists, and is experienced by some Africans, is not an accident.[12]

Aid is tiny, and the very least it can do, if spent well, is to return some of Africa’s looted wealth. We should see it both as a form of reparations and redistribution, just as the tax system allows us to redistribute wealth from the richest to the poorest within individual societies. The same should be expected from the global “society”.

To even begin to embark on such an ambitious programme, we must change the way we talk and think about Africa. It’s not about making people feel guilty, but correctly diagnosing a problem in order to provide a solution. We are not, currently, “helping” Africa. Africa is rich. Let’s stop making it poorer.[13] 

I do not know of any international aid organizations or foreign volunteers being invited to the US to serve our struggling communities.  If there are, it looks nothing like the foreign aid that saturates Africa with unqualified individuals to take on such assignments.

Western countries would never let inexperienced people build their houses or let untrained youths teach their children, which is why we neither should allow for it to happen in Asia or Africa…[14]

It seems that the US largely feels it is not only capable of attending to our own issues (I mean, look at what a great job we have done so far), the US is also uninterested in aid from other nations, all the while offering US aid, that is not always credentialed, worldwide.  This model of unidirectional service is a perversion of “peace and friendship.”  To mitigate some of the superiority narrative, PC should consider ways of providing education on implicit biases and how it subconsciously informs our behaviors, thereby equipping PC staff and volunteers with tools to be more thoughtful and reflective.  Additionally, consider quality over quantity: instead of striving for recruiting a cost-efficient or quota-driven number of volunteers, it would be most responsible to recruit those who are best suited for the tasks at hand.

The first goal in “helping people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women” is, by and large, antiquated.  Africa is home to an increasing number of nationals who are accessing higher education and are connected to the global network.  It comes across as condescending to suggest that volunteers with little to no experience in the sector they have been assigned to are sufficiently meeting the need for trained men and women.  “The developing world is now better trained; so too should be today’s volunteers.”[15]  I was surprised and disappointed to learn that most of the PCVs I have met during my service are relying on the ten weeks of pre-service training to prepare them for their sites as “experts” and “change agents.”  Certain roles, such as that of a teacher, not only takes away job opportunities for locals, it also disincentivizes government and local accountability.  Some have insisted that PCVs meet host country demands and criteria for a qualified teacher or that a PCV would teach better than a HCN.  Again, this mentality is patronizing and potentially adds to the lack of initiative for HCNs to meet the needs of their own country.  Instead, PCVs co-teaching or collaborating with local teacher trainers may be a more effective and sustainable model, assuming PCVs enlisted for this role are coming in with a minimum requirement of teaching experience.

As of last year, Teach for Ghana, a NGO modeled off of Teach for All, was founded by a native of Ghana to address the need for quality education.[16]  The competitive program recruits locals who have recently graduated from university to teach in Ghana’s rural communities.[17]  Aside from the criticisms of the Teach for All template, the purpose of sharing this is to emphasize that HCNs are not only capable of addressing their own needs, they are already doing it.

The second and third goals of cross-cultural exchange are notable reasons for the existence of PC.  In a 2011 survey, over ninety percent of RPCVs indicated that their motivation for joining PC was to live in another culture, better understand the world and help people attain a better life.[18]  The majority also indicated that PC changed their life, gave a different perspective on the US, and became more open to different races/ethnicities/religions.[19]  In response to a question about who benefits from PC, the first PC director, Sargent Shriver replied, “If you talk to the people going in, it’s for the benefit of the host country. If you talk to the people coming out, it’s for the benefit of the United States, or for themselves.”[20]

In most African communities people are used to see[ing] the West bringing aid. They get excited, women ululate and the men clap hands because their expectations for a better future are raised, and then everything disappears like rain. Who gains and gets empowered in this process? Outsiders’ resumes and curricula vitæ are powerful and rich, and yet, ‘the insiders’ resumes are empty and labeled with corruption and laziness. Whose reality of development is it?[21]

Likewise, a number of PCVs and RPCVs I have spoken with admit that they gained more than they offered or that they are completing their service for job opportunities in the future.  Not too long ago, a PCV advised a friend inquiring about PC that she should join for selfish reasons – her honesty was refreshing.

Another PCV in Ghana described her recent realizations about her PC experience:

I think [Peace Corps] really put it out there that you’re saving the world and that you’re really doing this great thing. And it’s not that it’s not a great thing, it’s just frustrating because there are other people who don’t get recognized for all the great things that they’re doing [outside of Peace Corps]. And I don’t think it’s something people shouldn’t be proud of to be a part of but it breeds these egos or white savior complex – if people aren’t careful or aren’t aware.  If you read what [Peace Corps] is putting out on social media posts, they seem to encourage that complex. They highlight the volunteers so much. It doesn’t help the situation. 

             People brag about getting an ICT lab and the next PCV arrives and I see no one’s using it but that person goes home and has an elevated sense of pride about what they’ve done yet they’ve left [the host country] and the people [in the community] are left in the same place.

             I think it should be called “Go Hang Out in Another Culture and Have Fun.” I don’t want to put people down as if they’re not doing anything. From what I’ve seen, it seems more realistic [than calling it Peace Corps].[22] 

Frankly, PC is an outdated institution with an underlying nationalist agenda that continues to sustain dependency on external aid in some of the most vulnerable communities while glorifying an adventure-seeking volunteer for doing something that HCNs and US citizens do every day in their own communities.  Good intentions are not enough to yield thoughtful actions.  And self-reflection without the context of history and geopolitics is shallow and egocentric. Finally, service at the expense of diplomatic function mars the integrity of altruism.  I believe PC has the potential to be a platform for the critical analysis of historical, geopolitical, and sociopolitical influences and the interconnectedness of all human lives.  I also believe that PC, like all US systems and structures, is blinded by its hubris, thus significant reform is merely a speculation.

I am fully aware that this is not the first time nor will it be the last time a PCV has strong critiques of PC.  In fact, other PCVs I have met share disillusionments about their service and the institution.  I am also aware that PC will continue to exist and people will continue to join.  So, I urge PC to thoughtfully attend to improving the quality of training and education, for both staff and volunteers, on cultural responsiveness and the dynamics of power, education on the historical and geopolitical relevant information about the host country PCVs are serving in, evaluating the effectiveness of the facilitation of information and competent support, and assessing the effectiveness and impact of roles PCVs take on.  The hope is that PCVs will be better prepared and empowered with critical consciousness, even after leaving the host country.

I am under no illusion that leaving PC means I no longer have to confront my privileges, wrestle with the disruptions to my relatively comfortable lifestyle, or actively contest the ways my country uses its power to continually exploit and oppress.  Admittedly, I imagine it will be easier to disengage, as Ghana’s uncensored demands to deal with discrepancies are likely to be dulled in the United States where I can exercise my select privileges more freely and anonymously.  Fortunately, my PC experience (and trusted friends, colleagues, and mentors who I have sought guidance from during my time in Ghana) has encouraged further conscientization.[23]

I have exhaustingly mulled over my decision to early terminate.  At times, it has felt negligent to leave – if I feel strongly about the changes that need to be made in PC, I should stay and work towards it internally.  On the other hand, I feel I am taking up space when other voices have already been decentralized.  PC and most PCVs have been co-opting HCN spaces since 1961, centering their reputed mission to help while crowding out the voices and efforts of HCNs, inadvertently prolonging neocolonialism.  After a great deal of deep reflection and counsel from those who have dedicated their work to social justice, including RPCVs and others who have had experience in international aid, I feel it is more meaningful for me to do this work alongside my social justice-driven community back in the US.  I have recently reconciled that my criticisms of PC are fair – that I do not agree with this work and I do not feel that choosing to stay and improve it will be productive.  Furthermore, my criticisms of PC and this work to undo oppression (such as neocolonialism) is not just about PC, it is about a broader social justice mission and it is also personal (i.e. my experience as a female Asian American).  Decidedly, it is wiser for me to leave PC and return to Baltimore.

Resist the reductive seduction of other people’s problems and, instead, fall in love with the longer-term prospect of staying home and facing systemic complexity head on.
-Courtney Martin, author and founder of Solutions Journalism and Fresh Speakers[24]

As I recall from preservice training, PC values capacity building for HCNs and critical thinking opportunities for HCN students.  Respectively, I urge PC community members to take this as an opportunity to consider how our capacity needs to be developed in order to take on our roles as foreign aid volunteers more thoughtfully and to consistently examine our own motives and impact.  It will not be without mistakes or frustrations, as we are so obviously human (i.e. please see Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Rolf Straubhaar’s The stark reality of the ‘White Savior’ complex and the need for critical consciousness[25],[26]).

We might fight the same battles over and over again.  They are never won for eternity, but in the process of struggling together, in community, we learn how to glimpse new possibilities that otherwise never would have become apparent to us, and in the process we expand and enlarge our very notion of freedom.
-Angela Davis, writer and activist

Undoubtedly, I have gained much more than I have offered during my stay in Ghana.  I will continue to thoughtfully question foreign aid, decolonize my own mind from oppressive ideologies, and consciously examine the impact of the roles I take on.

Peace Corps, thank you for this profound and affirming experience.

With Gratitude,
Hyoyoung Minna Kim

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[18] From Karaim, R. (2013, January 11). Peace Corps challenges. CQ Researcher23, 29-52.

[19] From Karaim, R. (2013, January 11). Peace Corps challenges. CQ Researcher23, 29-52.

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