Reimagining the Peace Corps for the next 60 years
The Peace Corps celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic there are currently no Peace Corps volunteers serving abroad. As the Peace Corps program practices resiliency and adapts to a post-COVID landscape, it should also use this moment to answer long-existing questions that can redirect the Peace Corps to a more impactful and relevant future.
About the Peace Corps
The book “The Ugly American” caused a sensation in foreign policy and national security circles when it was released in 1958. It painted Americans as arrogant, out of touch, and insensitive to the needs of the rapidly de-colonizing developing world. It was so influential that then-Senator John F. Kennedy bought 99 copies of the book and gave it to every other Senator to read. “The Ugly American” was the impetus for major foreign policy changes in how we engage with the world. As president, Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 creating USAID, initiated the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, and launched the Peace Corps.
The Peace Corps was envisioned to “promote world peace and friendship” by sending Americans to work on a grassroots level in developing countries. Over the years, the Peace Corps has sent over 240,000 Americans to 143 countries. Numerous volunteers have gone on to have successful careers across the U.S. government. There are several dozen countries where country expertise comes from former Peace Corps volunteers.
The Peace Corps is a good thing. Having volunteers commit to two years of service in another country contributes to international understanding and diplomacy.
At the same time, the world has significantly changed. Before 1991, there were no Peace Corps volunteers in Central Asia or Eastern Europe. Some countries have become too dangerous to have volunteers (I.e., El Salvador, Mali). Because of globalization, there has been a proliferation of shorter-term volunteer initiatives also trying to leverage American volunteerism (I.e., International Executive Service Corps, Farmer to Farmer). Unlike 1961, English is now the global lingua franca, and 40 percent of Peace Corps volunteers teach English, math, and science.
Questions for the Peace Corps
There have been several revisions to the Peace Corps over the decades. On the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps, we need to answer long-standing questions about it and consider its direction for the next 60 years.
One question is: Where should we deploy volunteers in the age of great power competition? We could continue to deploy Peace Corps volunteers where we have traditionally deployed volunteers: where volunteers can make a difference. Or, we might consider geopolitical considerations more heavily than we have in the past to optimize engagement. The Peace Corps has slowly trended in that direction, narrowing its scope from 69 countries in 2009 to 61 countries in 2020, and terminating some country-specific technical programs. There is also a reasonable argument to increase volunteers to population growth centers in Africa, the Indo-Pacific, Central Asia, and South Asia.
Another question we should ask is: What kinds of Peace Corps volunteers should we send? The quintessential Peace Corps volunteer is a college graduate. However, the Peace Corps has worked at trying to tap into a cohort of older volunteers with specific technical expertise, which is a welcome change. There is potential to do more with military veterans who could enter the Peace Corps after completing their active-duty service. Veterans might get preferential treatment to encourage more veterans in the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps has been a historic feeder to USAID and other development and diplomatic agencies. In the developing world of the future, we will need government officials who are comfortable in security-ambiguous locales.
Peace Corps service could be an excellent additional training opportunity for veterans who want to stay in international affairs. One step might be to vet potential Peace Corps volunteers for a lower-level federal government security clearance. Such a clearance process would signal to the volunteer the seriousness of going overseas as a volunteer and might prune out the small percentage of potential Peace Corps volunteers who might see their service as an extension of spending time at a college fraternity or sorority.
Can we bring in more technical and skilled volunteers? Peace Corps Response is a more technical program that sends professionals and returned volunteers with specialized certifications to work in a developing country for a shorter time frame, 3 to 12 months. However, even that commitment may be too long for many working professionals, who are more likely and willing to invest in a few weeks to two months to make a rapid social impact.
Peace Corps Response might consider adopting some of the practices of the “Volunteers for Prosperity” program, started by President George W. Bush in 2003, that partnered with nonprofit organizations and companies to recruit skilled workers. Doing so might help to better manage the schedules and technical niches of professionals hoping to volunteer abroad. Peace Corps Response might also think about pairing skilled professionals with longer-term Peace Corps volunteers to give them rapid technical training that they can implement into their multi-year service.
Can we encourage the Peace Corps to have a more permanent presence in the countries they work in? A 27-month service sounds like a long commitment, but the length of service and high turnover rate of Peace Corps volunteers, 21 percent in FY2015, means that the work and agenda in a community change every two years. We ought to find ways to encourage volunteers to remain in a country, should they wish to do so. This is especially applicable in countries with American cohorts who are fluent in lesser-known languages, like Bahasa Indonesian, Ukrainian, or even Portuguese. For example, the Peace Corps could arrange for a 5-year residency visa in the country where the former Peace Corps Volunteer has done service, offer former volunteers a 30-day “entrepreneurship boot camp” and a $20,000 loan to start a small business in the country they worked in. For the global future, we need Americans who seek their fortunes in emerging markets to deepen ties with countries and encourage greater prosperity.
The Peace Corps has long been an independent agency, separate from USAID or the State Department. Would tying Peace Corps to one of the other international affairs agencies overseas create synergies? For example, there could be value in joining the Peace Corps’ work with USAID for the purpose of measurement and evaluation functions, merging HR and accounting with another international affairs agency.
Political capital for moving organizational boxes around has waned due to the significant difficulty and time spent in merging agencies, and it is very unlikely something like a merger would happen in a Biden administration.
The Peace Corps has lasted for 60 years and continues to be much beloved by former Peace Corps volunteers. It is part public diplomacy, part global development, and part self-discovery for volunteers. In the new world that we live in, post-COVID 19 — and in an era of great power competition — the Peace Corps should adapt and evolve.
Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president and William A. Schreyer chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank Group, and in investment banking, with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.
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