Senate Hearing Explores Peace Corps’ Next Fifty Years
By Jonathan Pearson on Thursday, October 6th, 2011
Exactly two weeks after an historic Capitol Hill Advocacy Day attended by 500 members of the Peace Corps community, the Senate Peace Corps Subcommittee held a hearing to explore the next fifty years of the Peace Corps.
Subcommittee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) called the hearing to order, saying he wanted “A constructive discussion to make the next 50 years (of Peace Corps) better than the first 50 years…Today is the beginning of that process.” Menendez praised the Peace Corps and its volunteers, saying the program “shows the power of our values, rather than the value of our power,” adding that our nation is better because of the commitment of Peace Corps volunteers.
The forward looking hearing explored a number of issues including the safety and security of volunteers, Peace Corps staffing and the culture of staff engagement and support of volunteers, strategic placement of volunteers and expanding the activities of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in efforts to bring the world back home to America.
NPCA President Testifies: National Peace Corps Association President Kevin Quigley was among those who testified at the hearing. (Read Kevin Quigley’s full written testimony here.) He noted that the theme of the hearing coincided with the goal of the just completed 50th celebration in Washington and other anniversary events. ”Besides commemorating 50 years of service and friendships and
encouraging the next generation of volunteers, this golden anniversary year was built on a key pinciple: it should not simply be about celebrating the accomplishments of the past, but rather this anniversary year should advance the work of the Peace Corps in striving towards a more prosperous world in peace.”
During his testimony, Quigley submitted into the hearing record several dozen letters written by participants in the 50th Capitol Hill Advocacy Day on why the Peace Corps matters and how it benefits our nation. Just one of the many compelling testaments came from Nick and May Bancroft, who both served in India from 1966-68 and currently live in Medfield, Massachusetts:
“From 9/11 to the ‘Arab Spring’, from vulnerable aging populations to a generation of youth coordinating revolution on their cellphones, world governments are being tested. In this churning world, isolation is not an option for the United States. As in the past, our country’s strength comes from generation following generation of informed citizens. Only by understanding the struggles of the developing nations at first hand, can we understand the forces that compel them to act, and develop our own policies wisely as a result.”
Quigley’s testimony also shared some of the key findings in the just released report A Call to Peace: Perspectives of Volunteers on the Peace Corps at 50. He concluded by offering thoughts on several key improvements to advance the Peace Corps. These include expanded resources to support the significantly underfunded Peace Corps mission to bring the world back home; exploring creative ways to remodel re-engage Peace Corps service in key countries that allign with our national interests; and follow through with the agency’s proposed desire to re-establish a high level National Advisory Council (which is part of the original Peace Corps Act).
Former Senators Dodd and Wofford: For RPCV and former Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, Thursday’s hearing marked his “maiden voyage back to the Senate,” following his retirement last year. Dodd praised Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams for his work and noted he would not take issue with any of the six key strategies outlined in the agency comprehensive assessment and strategic plan. He emphasized several of these issues, chief among them supporting volunteers in order to maximize their experience. That goal should include instituting formal mechanisms for volunteer feedback and building the ranks of experienced volunteers who can continue to serve through a short-term program such as Peace Corps Response. Dodd also expressed his belief that there could be many cost effective ways to help support Third Goal (Bringing the World Back Home) activities.
Senator Wofford gave an historical perspective on the origins and early days of the Peace Corps, but also gave recognition and importance to the current volunteers, who he continues to visit as he travels overseas. Wofford noted that many of the early serving volunteers reflect on their years as being a golden age for the Peace Corps, “for volunteers who are there now, it is their golden time.” He said that on balance, the volunteers and country staff he encounters today “are very much like they were in the days of Shriver.” (Read former Senator Harris Wofford’s full written testimony here.)
Other Issues: Progress and praise was expressed on the issue of safety and security of volunteers. Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) noted that the Senate has unanimously passed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, believes the legislation will be signed into law soon, and praised Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams for seeing that elements of the legislation have already been put into operation. Director Williams says he welcomes having Congress codifying these changes saying the “legislation is a fitting tribute to Kate Puzey.” (Read Director Williams’ full written testimony here.)RPCV Liz Odongo (Guyana 01-02), Training and Outreach Director for the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, thanked the Senate for its action and said from her professional perspective “with confidence, I believe this bill is critical to create a stronger, safer Peace Corps in the next 50 years.” (Read Liz Odongo’s testimony here.)
Peace Corps Inspector General Kathy Buller reported to the Subcommittee that her office is completing a review of the agency’s guidelines for responding to rape and major sexual assault, noting that before the agency guidelines earlier this year, the response largely depended on the actions of country directors. The IG’s preliminary report should be issued next month. (Read Peace Corps Inspector Buller’s full written testimony here.) Chairman Menendez expressed his concern that it was negative media attention that forced the agency to take a hard look at his operations, and stressed a need for a culture within the agency that does not need negative publicity or congressional oversight to listen and respond to the need of volunteers.
Director Williams outlined other improvements underway in relation to implementing the agency assessment and
strategic plan. He also expressed a willingness to work with lawmakers to explore other potential issues. Among those are a review of the five year employment rule for most Peace Corps staff (the Inspector General’s office is conducting an analysis of the five year rule and its impacts), and the possibility of an optional ”buddy system” where volunteers would be offered the opportunity to work in close proximity to each other, in the hope that would lead to further volunteer safety and security.
Follow these links to read the full written testimony of:
NPCA President Kevin Quigley
Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams
RPCV Liz Odongo
Former Senator Harris Wofford
Peace Corps Inspector General Kathy Buller