Well, for Peace Corps specifically, they only send volunteers to countries that request volunteers. They work pretty closely with local governments and officials to make sure that volunteers are placed where they are wanted and needed. There are all kinds of high-level negotiations that go on to make sure everyone gets their visas and papers sorted out, but the exact details vary by country. In Cameroon I was issued a two year visa from the embassy in DC. No doubt Peace Corps volunteers represent a large chunk of the Americans applying for Cameroonian visas, and after working with Peace Corps for 30 years, they have it all figured out. Cameroon’s relationship with Peace Corps is very close. They know us and trust us.
In China, where Peace Corps is not as large a presence, I have a work residence permit that I am responsible for renewing with my local authorities every year. It’s much like any paid foreign teacher, except mine has no fees. I have to submit documents from my local university and from Peace Corps vouching for my legitimacy. No doubt Peace Corps is in constant contact with local authorities and the central government. For example, even my requests for vacation time are vetted by local authorities as well as Peace Corps. So they all work pretty closely together and our work is pretty closely monitored on all sides.
If a country is requesting education volunteers, it is because they have a serious lack personnel. I’ve taught for four years with Peace Corps. In my first country, Cameroon, my school had 2,000 students and about 30 teachers. The country had 17 million people and only 7 universities. Even a Bachelor’s degree was a rare thing, especially in the remote places we were posted. We were truly providing something that was not available elsewhere.
Here in China our volunteers only teach university level English, mostly in poor schools that otherwise would not have quality native speakers teaching. Without us, our students (almost all English majors) probably would not have many opportunities to converse with native speakers.
Though paid foreign teachers sometimes accuse us of depressing the value of their work, the truth is that there are not enough of us to make an impact, and in any case Peace Corps volunteers are a different breed. We do after school activities, office hours, etc. that paid foreign teacher do not do. Furthermore, out here in the sticks the paid foreign teachers often have faked degrees, no teacher training, and questionable motivations (as in they are basically here to hit on their students.) Peace Corps is generally a cut above that.
In any case, it’d be a misnomer to call Peace Corps “tourism.” Peace Corps is a somewhat competitive program that is looking for educated and experienced volunteers. We generally do not do “menial labor.” The majority of our work is working with- not in competition with- local organizations teaching, training, organizing, writing grants and doing other high-level work. It’s considered a 24 hour a day job, and we are required to be in our communities connecting and working with people, even on weekends and holidays. While we are considered volunteers, our living allowance is supposed to be on-par with local people doing the same work. I got paid exactly what a Cameroonian high school teacher makes. It’s an extremely tough job- both mentally and physically- but it can be extremely rewarding.