The Impact of the Peace Corps on Malaysia and Volunteers

Why and How the Peace Corps Was a Success

Sargent Shriver, Harris Wofford, and Warren Wiggins--the inner circle of the founders of Peace Corps--were idealists. Their vision of the Peace Corps was the antithesis of the image of the "Ugly American"--a fictious, but believable portrait of an American diplomat blinded by cultural arrogance and Cold War ideology. Shriver and his colleagues believed that Peace Corps Volunteers could improve the plight of people in poorer countries around the world, not as experts offering advice from above, but as co-workers in schools, clinics, and community organizations, learning the local language and culture, and living at the same standard as citizens of the country. The founders' faith in the potential of the Peace Corps was inspired by college students' participation in the Civil Rights Movement and their enthusiastic response to President Kennedy's call for service. 

As described in well-researched books by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman (All You Need is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s. Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 1998, esp. see ch. 2) and Fritz Fisher (Making Them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s. Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, esp, see ch. 1), the Peace Corps founders resisted political and bureaucratic pressures to have the Peace Corps administered by the Department of State or AID. They were concerned that bureaucratic rules and regulations, staff hierarchies, and the innate conservatism of American diplomacy would stifle the spirit of Peace Corps Volunteers. Peace Corp overseas administrative offices were intentionally understaffed so that the Volunteers would be largely on their own and working directly with host country institutions and colleagues.

With unbounded confidence in their mission and the capacities of Peace Corps Volunteers, Shriver and his colleagues ignored advice to think small. Within a few a few years, there were thousands of Volunteers working in dozens of countries (A Towering Task).  And to keep the organization nimble and open to new ideas, Peace Corps mandated a "five-year rule" that required almost constant turnover in Peace Corps staff and leadership. This vision of the Peace Corps was incredibly bold, but also somewhat naive. The structural problems of mass poverty and underdevelopment and poverty in third world countries were enormous, and it was far from clear that well-meaning Peace Corps Volunteers with few technical or professional skills would be effective. Although there were some experienced doctors, nurses, engineers, architects, and teachers, most Peace Corps Volunteers were "BA Generalists" who experienced a steep on-the-job learning curve. In spite of these obstacles and many predications of failure, the Peace Corps was a success story.

The miracle of the Peace Corps was not solving the complex problems of underdevelopment, but in providing challenging and rewarding opportunities for tens of thousands of young Americans eager to make a difference in the world and in giving millions of citizens of third world countries the opportunity to meet a different kind of Americans who learned the language, were respectful of local customs, and went out their way to befriend and help students, colleagues, and neighbors. There is a large library of books, theses, dissertations, governmental reports, research studies, and journalistic accounts that assess the role of the Peace Corps in shaping the image of the United States (at home and abroad), inspiring American citizens to serve others, contributing to the needs of developing countries, and enriching American society with acquired skills, knowledge, and dedication of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Most Volunteers returned home with a sense of satisfaction that they had made a difference, both through their job assignments and in their day-to-day friendships with their host colleagues, students, and neighbors

Evaluations of the Peace Corps, or any public program, are subject to many limitations. For example, what are the criteria for measuring success and how is it possible to rule out alternative explanations? There are relatively few research studies published in peer-reviewed scholarly publications that even attempt to measure whether specific Peace Corps programs reduced poverty, raised educational levels, or improved health programs in developing countries. More common are program evaluations than describe the successful placement of Volunteers in positions for which there was a shortage of qualified local citizens, positive statements and request for additional Volunteers from host governments, and the satisfaction of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. On the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps in 2011, a major report on the history and future of the Peace Corps reported:

Peace Corps Volunteers are America’s best and most cost-effective grassroots development workers, magnifying the impact of government and donor investments at the community level and ensuring that efforts funded by others are community-owned and sustained. Peace Corps Volunteers are America’s best ambassadors, building relationships with strategic partner countries from the ground up in communities across the globe (Peace Corps 2011: page 1).

The Impact of the Peace Corps in Malaysia

Although Peace Corps Volunteers served in Malaysia for only 21 years (1962-83), it was one of the most successful Peace Corps programs of the 1960s and 1970s. The broad outlines of the Peace Corps in Malaysia are told in in Michael Quaid’s “The United States Peace Corps in Malaysia, 1962-1983,” and in other documents posted on More Reports on the Peace Corps in Malaysia. Initially, there were separate Peace Corps programs for Malaya and Sabah/Sarawak, but they were soon combined into a unified Malysia program.  In the first two years (1962 and 1963), about 300 Volunteers arrived (Malaya 1, 2, 3, 4 and North Borneo/Sarawak 1 and 2). These early Volunteers were in a variety of roles with the largest number in health care (nurses, medical technicians, doctors) but there were also some architects, surveyors and road builders, ag extension and 4-H workers, and teachers in a variety of fields (science, TEFL, industrial arts). Then the program expanded rapidly in 1964 (6 groups with 300 plus PCVs) and 1965 (5 groups with almost 450 PCVs), By the late 1960s, the Peace Corps program was one of the largest in the world. 


This growth was primarily due to the demand for more Peace Corps teachers to keep up with the expansion of secondary education in Malaysia. In a memo written in 1967, a Peace Corps official wrote that Malaysia had requested an additional 293 PCV educators in schools throughout Malaysia (teacher training, science/math, agriculture, industrial arts, primary schools, arts, TEFL and other areas). He estimates that by 1971, over 40,000 students will be directly affected by PCVs, and more than 120,000 Malaysians will come into contact with these PCVs. This expansion slowed in the 1970s with the availability of well-trained Malaysian teachers and professionals to fill the jobs that PCV BA generalists had occupied. In the mid and late 1970s, most PCVs worked in more highly skilled roles (college and university teachers, upper form math/science teachers, social work, special education, accounting, fisheries) for which Malaysia still had a shortage.

There are many other signs of the success of the Peace Corps in Malaysia. About one in five PCVs extended their service for a year (or longer) --one of the highest among all countries which had the Peace Corps. The 1983 history of the Peace Corps in Malaysia (see, pp. 24-30) notes some of extraordinary contributions of individual PCVs). A recent story in the New Straits Times recalls the many positive contributions of Peace Corps Volunteers. There are many reports on social media -- Peace Corps Online and Facebook (here and here) of Malaysian students who fondly remember their Peace Corps teachers.  There were also several contemporaneous reports by American academics on the impact of the Peace Corps, for example:

The volunteers do all of this because they have a great deal of personal energy, they like their work, and they rest well with some sense of accomplish­ment. And they do all of this an easy sense of confidence in themselves and their fellow-workers, a sense that often appears to be best characterize the democratic spirit of Americans.

(The PCVs) seemed at ease in their schools, friendly with their colleagues, and enjoying many friendships with Malaysians of all three cultures. A number of Malayan teachers told me how their attitudes towards Americans had been changed as a result of their acquaintance with Peace Corps volunteers

To be fair, there were also some reports on the Peace Corps in Malaysia that were not so laudatory. For example, see the GAO Report (1979) of Peace Corps that was critical of selected programs, including Malaysia, see pp.7-10. (Note: GAO evaluations of government programs, including this report, are largely based on hearsay and do not necessarily reflect a full or balanced understanding.)  There was also a Congressional Committee report:  "The Peace Corps in the 1970s: Report of Staff Survey Team to the Committee on Foreign Affairs," which assesses how well the Peace Corps is responding to the demand for more highly skilled PCVs. The evaluation of the Malaysia program (pp. 25-32) is generally positive.

Here, I (Charles Hirschman) would like to add my two cents on the contribution of the Peace Corps to rural development in Malaysia. I was a one of eight PCVs from Malaysia IX posted as rural Community Development (CD) workers in Malay kampongs in Kedah from 1965 to 1967. The story of CD in Malaysia, however, begins a couple years earlier and continued afterwards. Because the Peace Corps has almost no institutional memory, my interpretation for these years is largely speculative. PCVs generally serve only two years and staff turnover almost as frequent. It seems that all records and documents were destroyed when the Peace Corps office in KL was closed in 1983.  Nonetheless, many reports (for example, various Training Group syllabi and final reports) offer some clues.

There were several important initiatives in the early 1960s that placed PCVs in rural areas, including nurses in remote health clinics, agricultural extension workers, and a pioneering program that organized 4-H Clubs for youth in up-river settlements in Sarawak and Sabah. The 1965 publication, "Rural Development Handbook for Peace Corps Malaysia" by Mike Murphy (PCV, Malaya IV), provides an overview of programs in rural development and an inventory of resources for Volunteers.  The primary focus was on community development in traditional kampongs (Malay villages) and on FELDA (Federal Land Development Authority) resettlement schemes. FELDA schemes (sometimes called estates) represented a government initiative to resettle landless Malay peasant on new cleared jungle areas with that had been planted with rubber or oil palm trees. Rural development volunteers were expected to help initiate cooperative projects (vegetable gardens, fishponds, chicken-rearing, etc.) that would supplement rural incomes.

Community development (CD) was a very popular idea in Peace Corps Washington and a major program in a number of Latin American countries.  The basic idea is that Peace Corps Volunteer would first study social networks and leadership (formal and informal) in the community to understand how power and influence are exercised.  With this knowledge, the Volunteer could then encourage the community leaders to identify collective needs and organize themselves collectively (self-help) for social betterment. The theory of community development is sometimes seen as a self-directed democratic path to modernization.  The practice of community development is, however, fraught with a number of obstacles. For example, the theory assumes that local democratic leadership is latent in every community and just awaits someone (the CD volunteer) to activate the process. At a minimum, this seems too simplistic. Moreover, given the apolitical nature of the Peace Corps, the focus was on small scale self-help projects. Finally, PCVs with a short time horizon of two years (and with limited language facility in their first year of their service), the program was expecting results too quickly.

The first foray of Peace Corps into rural community development (CD) was the placement of a small number of PCVs on FELDA Schemes in 1963 (Malaya IV and V PCVs). Settlers on FELDA schemes were supposed to eventually own their homes and agricultural holdings, but they were often treated as recalcitrant workers by FELDA staff, akin to a private sector estate. Moreover, FELDA schemes were often located in remote areas that limited entrepreneurial activities. PCVs on FELDA schemes were generally caught in the middle between staff and settlers with an uncertain identity. The hope was that CD PCVs in more natural settings--traditional Malay kampongs would be more effective.

The first PCVs placed in a Malay kampong were Bill and Carol Cull (Malaysia VI 1964-66) in Kampong Sungei Seluang, near Kulim, Kedah (see this story in Peace Corps Volunteer, pp. 6-7). Bill had an undergraduate degree in anthropology (UC Berkely), an intense commitment to CD, and a quiet charisma that impressed Peace Corps staff and Malaysian officials. At the end of his Peace Corps service, he received a medal for his service from the Sultan of Kedah. He also did a reconnaissance survey of Malay villages that informed a joint Peace Corps-Kedah state government program of placement of eight more PCV CD workers in Malay villages (Malaysia IX, 1965-67). There were also PCV nurses assigned to rural health clinics (Toni Lawrie and Karen White Pettigrew) who were part of a Kedah CD program. 

I was one of the eight PCV-CD workers from 1965-67 in Kedah. Even though none of us were " Bill Culls" and there was a long gestation period before our language skills and cultural awareness were sufficiently developed, my impression is that most of the PCV-CD workers were eventually engaged in constructive rural development projects, including promoting water-seal latrines (jambans), wells, CARE-supported chicken projects, and encouraging village development councils (Jawatan Kuasa Kemajuan Kampong). Like others, I wrote several papers on the CD work that reflected my day-to-day problems and recommended strategies for engagement. Several of us extended for a couple of months to conduct in-country training for 20 (ten married couples) PCV-CD workers (Malaysia XV) that continued the project though in different kampongs in Kedah. Like Peace Corps staff and local officials, I assumed that the PCV-CD program would continue to grow and spread to all of Malysia. This did not happen -- the Malaysia XV PCVs were the last batch of general CD workers. 

The end of the generic CD PCV program did not mean the end of the Peace Corps commitment to rural development in Malaysia.  For the next 5 years, many PCVs served in rural health projects (public health sanitation, TB Control, Malaria Eradication) and support for Farmer's Associations (including business management and accounting). My impression is that PCVs were much more effective, and their morale was better when they were posted to work in (or with) Malaysian agencies with specific job responsibilities. The problem with our more open-ended CD mission was the lack of a clear job definition that could be understood by the community and Malaysian colleagues. The CD role of just talking and listening to neighbors was often perceived as non-work. 

My conclusion is that the idea of posting PCV BA generalists as CD workers in Malay kampongs and expecting immediate social change was too ambitious. Although Sargent Shriver and his colleagues thought that unstructured community development work would be the ideal role of Peace Corps Volunteers, it was a mission that the early CD workers in Malaysia, including me, struggled to fulfill. As enthusiastic pioneers, we charged on and eventually found meaning in our day-to-day work.  We also recommended that the CD program be continued, albeit with married couples who could work with both women and men in rural villages. My impression is that our successors, not having direct exposure to the charismatic Bill and Carol Cull and not being pioneers, encountered the reality of undefined jobs with unrealistic expectations. As an organization, Peace Corps responded wisely by designing future PCV assignments in rural development with more clearly defined objectives and linked to Malaysian agencies. And it worked.