John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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The Peace Corps and American Interest in Africa

by John Campbell
September 26, 2011

U.S. President John F. Kennedy hands Sargent Shriver (L) the pen used to sign legislation creating the Peace Corps as Sen. Hubert Humphrey (2nd R) watches, at the White House in Washington in this March 1961 handout photo. (Ho New/Courtesy Reuters)

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy and his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver. President Kennedy founded the Peace Corps just at the moment that most sub-Saharan African states were moving toward independence, a process that was welcomed by anti-colonial Americans. He also tapped into the American idealism that flourished in the 1960’s, which included dramatic progress toward racial and gender equality in the United States.

One concrete example of the Peace Corps’ influence on Africa is former vice president Atiku Abubakar’s establishment of the American University of Nigeria (AUN) in Yola, Adamawa state. The AUN is a secular university and based on American education models to which Abubakar was introduced by Peace Corps volunteers working in his village when he was a boy. The National Peace Corp Association, a private non-profit supporting returning Peace Corps volunteers, honored the former vice president for his contribution this past weekend.

Last spring, I participated in a program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that also commemorated the fiftieth anniversary. Present were many Peace Corps alums from the 1960’s. Many of them talked about how serving as Peace Corps volunteers in Africa was their first introduction to a part of the world largely unknown in the United States—unlike the UK, France, Germany, and Italy, the U.S. never had a significant colonial presence in Africa.

The Peace Corps, therefore, has made an important contribution to the relationship between the United States and Africa that doesn’t lend itself to quantification, but nevertheless is real.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Khamis Kagasheki

    I could not agree with you more. I’m a product of Peace Corps teachers who were in Tanzania. I am wondering as to what happened to the programme. Is it possible to e-mail me information on this subject?

  • Posted by jim cook


  • Posted by Maduka

    We cannot thank America enough for the Peace Corps. They made a great contribution to the development of Africa.

    I am told that the inspiration for Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps was a combination of Britain’s National Service Scheme and the Peace Corps. I proudly served in the National Youth Service Corps and I have utmost respect for the Peace Corps.

    Sadly, I think the best days of the Peace Corps are behind it. America lacks anything like the enthusiasm of the Sixties and instead of a mutual desire to interact with, help and understand one another our relationships are now coloured by deep suspicion.

    The America that presents itself to the World in the 21st Century is no longer the forward-looking, optimistic America of my youth. It is paranoid, increasingly inward looking and less self-assured.

    (I visited America once in 2005 and I met a paranoid nation. I also studied in Britain and I found Britain to be much less paranoid and better adjusted to a post 9/11 and a post 7/7 World).

    It is true that more Africans live in America today than did in the Sixties, but there are less conscious efforts today to initiate meaningful person to person contacts. There is also less effort at public diplomacy than there were in the Sixties.

    This is great time to rethink how America interacts with the rest of the World.

  • Posted by Maduka

    I forgot to add that the Peace Corps no longer conducts any activities in my nation, Nigeria.

    The Peace Corps had a great impact on people from an earlier than mine (Atiku, Okonjo-Iweala), but the kind of person-to-person interaction facilitated by the Peace Corps is lacking today.

    The present generation of Nigerian youth is much less aware of the Peace Corps or any American attempts at public diplomacy than the generations before them. This should be looked into (especially when the Chinese have opened two Confucius Institutes).

  • Posted by C


    It is indeed a shame if peace corps no longer operates in Nigeria. However, the reason for this is surely that the peace corps was asked to leave the country by the government Nigeria. Peace corps must be invited to establish operations in a country, and it stays until the invitation is rescinded.

    Furthermore, as a returned peace corps volunteer who served in 2005, I can tell you that the enthusiasm of the sixties among American citizens to serve has not diminished. Many – if not most – of the 200 volunteers I served with told me that they joined the peace corps as a reaction to the events of 9/11. Many of them were mid-career professionals in finance, engineering, and business who put their lives on hold and their belongings in storage in order to go to serve in a developing country for two years. Nowdays, due to the flagging American economy, the peace corps has far more applicants for positions than they can afford to take. With a meager budget of just $400 million, the peace corps can only support 8,000 or so volunteers at once. The returned peace corps community is actively lobbying Congress and the Obama administration to significantly increase the budget of the Peace Corps so that all Americans who are qualified to serve have the opportunity to do so.

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