Promises to Keep
Assessing Peace Corps four years short of its 50th year suggests that despite significant contributions by more than 187,000 who have served as volunteers in 139 nations, we’ve not done enough.
When President John F. Kennedy proposed it, he had in mind a corps whose ranks would swell to 100,000 volunteers each year. But Peace Corps never fielded more than 16,000 volunteers, and despite President George W. Bush’s pledge in his State of the Union address to Congress five years ago to double the number of Peace Corps volunteers to 14,000, it never happened. The current corps of 7,800 volunteers is far short of what President Kennedy expected in 1961.
Kennedy had also imagined, as a result of a larger international volunteer corps, a U.S. public far more savvy and empathetic to the plight of the people elsewhere because by the new millennium there would be more than 4 million returned Peace Corps volunteers who understood the world.
In its first 45 years, Peace Corps proved a highly effective if small-scale means of promoting human development and advancing U.S. interests. Given modest resources, Peace Corps has a proud record-perhaps unequalled by any other international development or cultural exchange organization of its size.
As a consequence, demand for the Peace Corps continues to grow. While Peace Corps is now active in 73 countries, more than 20 others have requested Peace Corps programs for which Congress has authorized insufficient resources. There is also growing desire by Americans young and less young to serve in Peace Corps or in other some other form of national service. A handful of political leaders who want to become President and change the U.S. government’s course overseas have stepped forward. One of them, Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, a member of Congress who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s, recently introduced a bill in the Senate to authorize doubling the size of the Peace Corps.
Scaling Peace Corps Up
The Peace Corps Act of 1961 sets three simple but ambitious goals: train the citizens of interested countries; promote understanding of Americans by those countries; and enable all Americans to better understand other peoples. These goals are neither strictly about development nor cross-cultural understanding, thus complicating any assessment effort. Generally, Peace Corps has succeeded best in achieving its first goal, moderately in its second, and least in its third.
Assessing our service
Education continues to be the largest and most important Peace Corps sector: strengthening the educational infrastructure, writing curriculum and training new teachers. But Peace Corps’ role pales in comparison to that of the World Bank or the U.S. Agency for International Development. Peace Corps’ most dramatic and compelling educational impacts are with individuals. Most are untold stories, but a few stand out: Peru’s former president, Alejandro Toledo, tells us that without the support and encouragement of two volunteers-Joel Meister and Nancy Deeds-that impoverished shoeshine boy would have never left his rural home, attended U.S. schools, and returned home to be elected president.
Health remains a major Peace Corps goal. The emphasis has shifted, however, from access to potable water, nutrition and sanitation to combating HIV/AIDS. For example, two country programs-Botswana and Swaziland-are exclusively committed to HIV/AIDS. Since joining with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to combat HIV/AIDS, Peace Corps’ role has quickly grown, proving the high value of having volunteers who live and work in remote communities where the need is great. But Peace Corps’ $14 million share in the President’s Emergency Plan is modest in comparison with the Plan’s $2 billion annual budget.
In all these development sectors, the limited scale certainly contributes to Peace Corps’ modest impact.
Measuring the second goal is more difficult.
Many of our nation’s leaders, Republican and Democrat, appreciate the value of our service. President George H. W. Bush said we served as “influential emissaries of hope and goodwill.” President Bill Clinton said, “The Peace Corps is a remarkable tradition that emphasizes that our country is about more than power and wealth.”
I’ve personally heard testimonials from more than 4,000 women and men that the work you performed, the people you worked with and the culture you absorbed changed your own lives. Now you are in offices, classrooms, clinics and public service across America and you tell me, “It all started with Peace Corps.”
You and I changed because we saw first-hand the poverty and suffering in the poorest countries of the world. We learned that we can prevent it. We are outraged that problems such as poverty, hunger, malnutrition, inadequate access to water, sanitation and health care persist even when significant resources exist to solve these inequities.
Although we get it … overall, the Peace Corps community has not done enough to promote America’s understanding of other peoples and their problems. We must share with our fellow citizens what we did, what we learned, and why our country must do more to combat poverty and suffering. In doing this, we must declare it with all of the available tools: on the internet, in schools, churches and service clubs, through our hometown newspapers and volunteering in our own communities.
Greater need for the greater good
The challenge is here. The recent Pew Global Attitude Survey reports that overseas perceptions of the United States are declining precipitously.
Given that, the need for Peace Corps couldn’t be greater. The agency known as “the best face of America overseas” is one of our nation’s most cost-effective means of international engagement. In reality, however, there is an overwhelming pressure on the federal budget and increases in the Peace Corps’ budget are unlikely. Current funding patterns suggest the number of volunteers and trainees will inevitably decline. So the solution must necessarily go beyond numbers.
Adapt the model
To place more volunteers in more countries might require reductions in the length of service or negotiating broad cooperative partnerships with such international volunteer organizations as the United Nations Volunteers, the British Voluntary Service Organization, or Japan’s International Cooperation Agency or with multinational corporations sponsoring overseas volunteer programs. It may also be time to launch a reverse Peace Corps, a suggestion President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana made to Sargent Shriver when Peace Corps began.
Strong resistance to each of these proposals is likely. However, if Peace Corps is to remain relevant in human development programming and to answer the precipitous decline in America’s reputation, we need to adapt and to grow significantly Peace Corps in size and scale. As we pilot new approaches, we must carefully measure the effects of modifications in the length of service and the expansion of international partnerships.
Following the recent significant mid-term elections, our nation has a chance to rethink its engagement with the rest of the world. A necessary part of that new role is to deploy many more Americans in the pursuit of peace. Peace Corps must necessarily be a part of that effort.
Now is the time to lobby Congress to achieve the goal that President Bush set to double the size of Peace Corps. We need to expand the number of volunteers, the numbers of purposes served, while enhancing the volunteers’ impact. We should do this by the 50th anniversary in 2011.
In the 20th century’s most famous call to action, President Kennedy said, “… ask not what your country can do for you: ask what you can do for your country…” However, it is the next line in his 1961 inaugural address that best reflects his boldest vision: “Citizens of the world ask not what America can do for you … but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
With the benefit of decades, we can now see that Peace Corps is the clearest expression of President Kennedy’s call for a new global vision. And it resonates deeply today. So now is the time to expand Peace Corps. And we’ll need to work together-relentlessly and effectively-to achieve this. '