The Peace Corps in Rwanda: Organizational Values vs. Individual Volunteer Motivations

Cover image courtesy of Example.

–by Samuel Keenan–

The Peace Corps, since its establishment by an executive order by President John F. Kennedy on 1 March, 1961, has served a variety of missions, and can easily be seen as extension of the concept of humanitarianism as policy,[1] particularly as a blunt against the spread of Communism. But far from its Cold War motivations, the Peace Corps has changed significantly and spread worldwide in an effort to help those in need and promote a positive image of the United States. One of these places is in the nation of Rwanda, where the Peace Corps currently employs 173 volunteers.[2] Rwanda is associated in most American people’s minds with one word: genocide. Indeed, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda deserves to be remembered, and such an event would define a generation in any nation. However, Rwanda, just like the Peace Corps, has changed significantly since the genocide, and, under the assertive rule of its strongman president, Paul Kagame, has turned the page on traditional aid giving, “explicitly reject[ing] the moral superiority of aid providers and by setting his own agenda.”[3]

However, the reality of Kagame’s policies and the perception of outsiders on the country (and Africa in general) do not always align, and the purpose of this writing is to explore the perceptions through the lens of American volunteers from the Peace Corps, all the while keeping one eye through the lens of the needs of Kagame’s Rwanda. It will argue that the Peace Corps has been a mixed bag (albeit limited in scope) for Rwanda and Rwandans, at times providing key essential services and working hand-in-hand with local Rwandans, while at other times volunteers display some of the uglier aspects of humanitarianism such as paternalism and fulfilling the needs of the giver as opposed to the needs of the recipient.


Rwanda Today

As previously mentioned, Paul Kagame has ruled as essentially a strongman since taking over the Presidency in 2000. He was also the essential figure in ending the 1994 genocide, gaining him international notoriety. More importantly for this study, he has taken a distinct approach to international aid as an African leader. “The [Rwandan] government’s stated aim in its aid policy was to ‘assert genuine ownership and leadership in development activities’ (Government of Rwanda 2006) and the development taking place is not merely a technological project.”[4] Kagame’s successes and his disregard for ethnicity in the aftermath of the ethnically-motivated genocide meant that he soon became a popular figure in international aid circles. The topic of the motivation of western guilt aside, Rwanda under Kagame was given a grade of ‘A’ by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) “for its implementation of the Paris Agenda on aid effectiveness,”[5] and had particularly enthusiastic support from Great Britain in the wake of the genocide.

This cozy relationship has fluctuated with some nations as controversies regarding Rwanda’s support for Congolese rebel groups have removed some of the shine from Kagame, but the economic indicators that the aid industry (for lack of a better term) look for have remained strong, and so aid continues to flow, even as that economic performance renders it less necessary. What is so different than other circumstances is that Kagame sets his own agenda when it comes to aid, and has laid out the spending priorities of aid as the areas of health care, education, gender equality, infrastructure, and a lack of corruption.[6] This setting of one’s own agenda cuts against the grain of the neoliberal idea of aid in exchange for policy and market reforms, and against reliance on NGOs and their expertise. Here, we see the convergence of these ideas in the example of the Peace Corps. While not an NGO, it must be explored whether it is fitting into its own agenda in Rwanda or into Kagame’s, and whether or not the volunteers there are helping Rwanda, or merely helping themselves.


Aid’s Baggage

Before exploring the conduct of the Peace Corps in Rwanda, the concepts of what could be called the “baggage of international aid” must be discussed. The idea of the reciprocal relationship of humanitarianism and a high level of need dwelling with the giver of humanitarian aid is best explored in Liisa Malkki’s 2015 The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism. Its basic premise is that there is a large cultural and psychological need on the part of the giver of humanitarian aid to feel like they are important and making a difference in the world, regardless of the actual needs of the recipients of aid (just how much or how many of Item X do people in Africa really need?).[7] Explorations of the actual needs of Africans and how they can spend it have gained traction for the idea of purely monetary aid [8] instead of materiel decided by the giver, often second hand or unnecessary. Both of these concepts are in play in Rwanda.

Kagame has taken ‘ownership’ of the aid given to his country, much of it given directly to his government’s budget. Again, his stated policies drive where such aid is spent, and his own definitions of stability and his own (if often controversial) ways of achieving it mean that “aid dependence does not prevent the government from forging its own path in the face of donor hesitancy.”[9] The U.S.’ relationship, like many western countries, is colored by the genocide and its lasting memory. President William Clinton issued a famous apology in 1998 upon a state visit to the country,[10] and such feelings of regret and guilt do not disappear easily. Still, the Peace Corps only began operating in Rwanda again in 2008, and its projects revolve around health and education, rather than implication of governing practices or bringing peace between ethnic groups.[11] Fittingly, education and health are two of Kagame’s stated policies referenced earlier. At the ground level, the Peace Corps volunteers themselves achieve some excellent results, even in a limited capability (these will be explored in more detail later), but for the purposes of this paper, the focus will be on the proverbial baggage that those volunteers bring, and whether they are fulfilling the needs of Rwandans or simply their own needs as explored by Malkki.


Peace Corps in Rwanda

As previously stated, the PCV in Rwanda focuses on two ‘projects’ in Rwanda: Health and Education, per its own website.[12] Interestingly, both of these projects, in their descriptions, mention their partnership with the Rwandan government. The Health Projects focus on the goals of the Rwandan government’s ‘First 1000 Days’ campaign, focusing on the health of mothers and newborn babies from conception to the child’s second birthday. The Peace Corps’ primary goal “is to identify and provide support to pregnant women and mothers/young children. With their Rwandan colleagues, they follow them over time to make sure that they are supported in their efforts to stay healthy, have healthy/safe births, and to promote optimal physical development of their children in accordance with the Government of Rwanda’s First 1000 Days priorities.”[13] Again, an example of the Rwandan government taking ownership of the aid given to them, even the priorities of the aid workers in its country (the Peace Corps is by no means unique in helping Rwanda’s First 1000 Days program). And while there are few, if any, things more universal than the desire for healthy and happy babies and mothers, the fact that the Peace Corps feels the need to identify their priorities with that of the Rwandan government speaks to who is setting the goals in the relationship. And after all, given the previous suffering of the Rwandan people and the stability of the government, who would want to be the one to tell Rwandans what their goals–even something as universal as maternity health­–should be?

A Peace Corps Volunteer helps measure a baby in Rwanda.
A Peace Corps Volunteer helps measure a baby in Rwanda. Healthcare for newborns and mothers has been a stated priority of both the Peace Corps and Rwandan government. Source:

The other ‘project’ in Rwanda revolves around education: “The Ministry of Education has asked the Peace Corps to be a part of their efforts to enhance English proficiency throughout the school system.”[14] Again, an example of the Rwandan government setting a policy, asking for assistance, and receiving aid in the form of volunteers from the Peace Corps (and by extension, the U.S. government). This kind of priority is also far less universal than that of healthcare. Expansion of language capability (not to be confused with literacy) is far from a traditional form of aid, and bucks against many of the modern ideas of “development”. There are no traditional economic indicators that measure literacy in foreign language, and its effects on development are not immediate. The primary audience for this training is Rwanda’s teachers, and the government has dedicated significant resources of its own to the program.[15] A theme of Rwandan development going against the traditional pathways of aid is emerging, but its effects on the volunteers of the Peace Corps themselves requires more exploration.

A Peace Corps Volunteer speaks with a young mother as part of the Peace Corps efforts to provide healthcare to mothers and newborns in Rwanda.

Evidence of the Peace Corps’ efforts in Rwanda are not hard to find. The Peace Corps itself puts out dozens of public relations stories in efforts to publicize its efforts and to help its recruiting. The stories are written by the volunteers themselves and shared on the Peace Corps website, and can be a unique look into the mindset of the volunteers and their priorities and how their work affects them. One article profiles two local teachers and discusses their feelings on their work. While not foreign volunteers, the topics of the interview (done by a foreign volunteer) shed light on priorities of both the locals and the volunteers. The brief interview revolves around the topic of what it is like to be a woman in Rwanda, and some of the things that entails.[16] The interview is by no means exhaustive, but can be looked at two different ways. One is that the idea of feminism and non-traditional gender roles is a western luxury that people in other places in the world have no time nor desire to embrace. Another way to look at it is to examine Kagame’s stated policies covered earlier. One was gender equality, and to that point, Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in its Parliament of any country in the world: 64%![17] In this light, the experiences of women in Rwanda are important and merit focus. But in another light, why would the Peace Corps be focusing on this? This Peace Corps’ stated projects in Rwanda are English language education and maternal/newborn health, not discussions on women’s place in society (however brief the discussion). However, in the end this topic does not take away anything from the Rwandans themselves, and is likely more useful as a recruiting tool–the audience for the message being Americans, not the Rwandans themselves. Again, the question of need arises. Does Rwanda need to focus on more gender equality? The makeup of parliament would suggest the answer is ‘no’–although that is hardly the whole story. What seems to be needed, however, is for the Peace Corps and its American volunteers to display their credentials as caretakers of all people, even if that includes viewing situations through a western lens.

An equally interesting anecdote comes from one volunteer who wrote a piece not about her experiences in Rwanda, but rather her experiences coming home. She writes that “a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer does return for a reason; after 27 months of service, they return closer perhaps to the authentic person who resides in them, the one who has been there all along but with whom they just have not become well-acquainted.”[18] The echoes of Malkki here are deafening. Malkki writes at length about the idea of “self-transformation” amongst the Red Cross workers she interviews, including one who expresses “a sense of being trapped, possibly in the wrong body, and in the wrong nationality.”[19] So, here is an example of a Peace Corps Volunteer expressing her own experiences regardless of those she sought to help. The person she helped in the end was herself, and her experience was transformational. There is nothing in the article about the children and teachers she taught English to, rather the experience was personal to her, in keeping with Malkki’s findings, where the Red Cross workers repeatedly express feelings of transformation and “critical self-reflection.”[20]

But what of the projects themselves? Are they the kind of thing that helps with the needs of the Rwandans themselves? Unfortunately, since Paul Kagame is the most preeminent Rwandan, and is written about extensively rather than ordinary Rwandans, we must fall back to his priorities and (naturally, if unfortunately) apply them to the Rwandan population as a whole. At the same time, the priorities of basic humanity can be applied. For example: preventing premature births and promoting healthy pregnancies is a priority that can be considered universal. In addition, westerners must admit that their own biases and cultural values color the lens with which they view humanitarian situations. As expected, most of the evidence of projects revolves around the Peace Corps’ twin goals of English education and healthcare relating to the Rwandan government’s First 1000 Days program.

For example, one story covers efforts to help curb growth stunting in babies through hygiene and production of soy milk.[21] Another, from 2016, breaks down the author’s efforts supporting an NGO that helps build infrastructure for clean water.[22] What is most interesting, however, is that this is the volunteer’s second stint volunteering overseas with the Peace Corps, and much of his article focuses on his personal motivations for doing so and what he has learned about himself in his brief time in Rwanda. Interestingly, nothing is said about the effectiveness of the sanitation projects he is supporting. Even when doing something that is beneficial (clean water and sanitation would fall under the category of “universal” values and would also be in keeping with Kagame’s focus on health), the volunteer cannot help but relate the experience to himself and his feelings and what it means for him. This is both natural and a product of his position as someone comfortable to give up a job for a second overseas tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Everyone is self-reflective, but rather than focus on the benefits of the projects and the people it helps, the author focuses on his own motivation to “have that impact so many of us in international aid seek.”[23] No word on what that impact is, but there is an impact, according to the author. What goes unsaid is that this impact just may be more personal for him than it is for the locals who stand to benefit materially from clean water projects.

The most egregious example found of a Peace Corps volunteer seeming to satisfy his own needs over those of the recipients of the aid comes not from Peace Corps materials, but from an alumni magazine for Cal Poly. In the article, the former volunteer states that while he was sent to Rwanda to teach English (in compliance with the Rwandan government’s request), he “didn’t join the Peace Corps just to teach English; I wanted to put my planning degree to good use.”[24] Here the focus is clearly not on the needs as defined by the local population or government, it instead lies in the giver’s need to feel useful and fulfilling what he sees as his potential. The project he eventually plans was to build new community volleyball and basketball courts. While stating that “I worked closely with a Rwandan counterpart [unnamed], and we brought together multiple community and government stakeholders from the beginning of the process,”[25] the project cuts against the needs of Rwandans as outlined by the Rwandan government, and the volunteer gave up his work teaching English–which was identified as just such a need—in order to plan the project. Whether or not the Rwandan village wanted or needed sports courts is irrelevant (perhaps it was a more affluent village that had sufficient healthcare and English education). What is relevant is that a Peace Corps volunteer put his needs to put his degree in planning to what he perceived to be good use rather than what was identified by the Rwandan government and promoted by the Peace Corps itself.

While just a few examples, these stories show the overall mixed bag that the Peace Corps has been for Rwanda. While the institution supports the Rwandan government’s priorities through English education for students and teachers and healthcare for pregnant/new mothers and their babies, the volunteers themselves seem to have mixed priorities, if only based on their first-hand accounts. The benefits of aid to Rwanda have been borne out by the successes Rwanda has had in development since the end of the genocide, but this does not change the fact that western volunteers and aid workers still come to Rwanda with their own agendas and needs to fulfill. Their efforts, like those interviewed in The Need to Help may be noble, but their own needs can hinder development that would have true benefits for Rwandans as defined by Rwandans. The Peace Corps as an institution seems to buy into this idea given its acceptance of Rwandan government priorities of support, but at the micro level, the given examples show that western volunteers still view the world through their own lens and that their most meaningful experiences continue to be within themselves.



Paul Kagame’s vision for Rwanda is dependent on aid; the nation, while growing into self-sufficiency, simply did not have the economic capacity in the aftermath of the genocide to do without aid. However, Kagame’s ability to stabilize his country (not without controversial methods not discussed here) and his ability to use aid to the benefit of his country and withstand the typical ‘aid trap’ are certainly noteworthy in modern East Africa. One can see how in Rwanda “controlled development is the overarching theme. It’s been that way since Kagame has been in power,”[26] through the setting of goals and the usage of aid to their benefit, including the Peace Corps’ efforts at English language education and support for Rwanda’s First 1000 Days program. This ‘ownership’ of the aid sent to Rwanda puts the country in a situation to also own its own destiny, regardless of the varying opinions of the world. The Peace Corps, a U.S. government organization, has been an example of the support Rwanda has received for its own priorities.

However, the volunteers themselves have alternated between doing the work of supporting Rwandan priorities and focusing on their own experiences and needs–a thoroughly mixed bag. This is not to condemn these volunteers; their focus is a product of a longstanding outlook towards Africa and their own life experiences. Contrast Kagame’s success at ‘owning’ the aid sent to Rwanda with the continued self-fulfillment of the American volunteers. This shows that changing how aid is presented in Africa is likely to be easier done at the macro level, where one leader can make a difference. But it’s rather more difficult at the micro level, where cultural shifts are necessary to change the way volunteers and aid workers approach humanitarianism.

This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.


Works Cited

Primary Sources Accessed 18 January 2020.

Heater, Michael. “Conversations with Alumni. Back to Basics: Planning in the Peace Corps, Rwanda.” Focus: Vol 14: Issue 1, Article 29, 2018, 128-131.

Isaac, Pete. “Finding new motivations the second time around.” gov. 2 August 2016. accessed on 17 January 2020.

Kerry, Elaine. “Returned.” gov. 11 January 2019. accessed on 17 January 2020.

Lovell, Grace. “Reducing Child Stunting with Village Kitchens.” gov. 5 December 2019. accessed on 17 January 2020.

Perrin, Michael. “An Interview With Colleagues,” gov. 3 January 2019. accessed on 17 January 2020.

Secondary Sources

Barnett, Michael. Empire of Humanity. Cornell University Press, Ithaca & London, 2011.

Hanlon, Joseph; Barrientos, Armando; & Hulme, David. Just Give Money to the Poor. Kumarian Press, Sterling VA, 2010.

Hayman, Rachel. “Milking the Cow: Negotiating ownership of aid and policy in Rwanda,” in GEG Working Paper, No. 2007/26, University of Oxford Global Economic Governance (GEG) Program, Oxford, 2007.

Kinzer, Stephen; Pimentel, Miguel; & Kim, Carol. “Reconcilliation and Development in Kagame’s Rwanda,” in The Brown Journal of World Affairs. Vol 20 No. 2, 2014, 93-101.

Malkki, Liisa. The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2015.

Marriage, Zoe. “Aid to Rwanda: unstoppable rock, immovable post,” in Aid and Authoritarianism in Africa, Tobias Hagmann & Flip Reyntjens, ed. Zed Books, London, 2016.

Other Sources

Clinton, William Jefferson. “Text of Clinton’s Rwanda Speech,” CBS News. accessed on 17 January 2020.

Nkurunziza, Michel. “Govt unveils $20m plan to improve English proficiency among teachers,” in The New Times. 9 Oct 2018. accessed on 17 January 2020.

Warner, Gregory. “It’s the No. 1 Country for Women in Politics – but not in daily life.” in Com. 29 July, 2016. accessed on 17 January 2020.


[1] Michael Barnett. Empire of Humanity. Cornell University Press, Ithaca & London, 2011.

[2] accessed 17 January 2020.

[3] Zoe Marriage. “Aid to Rwanda: unstoppable rock, immovable post,” in Aid and Authoritarianism in Africa, Tobias Hagmann & Flip Reyntjens, ed. Zed Books, London, 2016, 46.

[4] Marriage, 50.

[5] Ibid, 51.

[6] Steven Kinzer, Miguel Pimentel, & Carol Kim. “Reconcilliation and Development in Kagame’s Rwanda,” in The Brown Journal of World Affairs. Vol 20 No. 2, 2014, 94.

[7] Liisa Malkki. The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2015.

[8] Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos, & David Hulme. Just Give Money to the Poor. Kumarian Press, Sterling VA, 2010.

[9] Rachel Hayman. “Milking the Cow: Negotiating ownership of aid and policy in Rwanda,” in GEG Working Paper, No. 2007/26, University of Oxford Global Economic Governance (GEG) Program, Oxford, 2007, 2.

[10] “Text of Clinton’s Rwanda Speech,” CBS News. accessed on 17 January 2020.

[11] accessed 17 January 2020.

[12] accessed 17 January 2020.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Michel Nkurunziza. “Govt unveils $20m plan to improve English proficiency among teachers,” in The New Times. 9 Oct 2018. accessed on 17 January 2020.

[16] Michael Perrin. “An Interview With Colleagues,” in 3 January 2019. accessed on 17 January 2020.

[17] Gregory Warner. “It’s the No. 1 Country for Women in Politics – but not in daily life.” in NPR.Com. 29 July, 2016. accessed on 17 January 2020.

[18] Elaine Kerry. “Returned.” In 11 January 2019. accessed on 17 January 2020.

[19] Malkki, 45.

[20] Ibid, 42.

[21] Grace Lovell. “Reducing Child Stunting with Village Kitchens.” In 5 December 2019. accessed on 17 January 2020.

[22] Pete Isaac. “Finding new motivations the second time around.” In 2 August 2016. accessed on 17 January 2020.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Michael Heater. “Conversations with Alumni. Back to Basics: Planning in the Peace Corps, Rwanda.” Focus: Vol 14: Issue 1, Article 29, 2018, 129.

[25] Heater, 130.

[26] Kinzer, et al, 95.



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