50 Years of Peace Corps – The Celebration Continues
By Guest Contributor on Friday, February 3rd, 2012
Even though the anniversary is technically over, The Center for Strategic & International Studies celebrated fifty years of Peace Corps this week with a panel discussion on the successes and challenges facing the agency. The panel included Peace Corps architect and former Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford, current Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams, as well as Congressmen Sam Farr (D-CA) and Tom Petri (R-WI).
One of the topics discussed was the formative nature of international service. For Senator Wofford, the Peace Corps is an important tool towards ensuring better governance: “JFK was right, Americans need to understand the world to inform better foreign policy.”
Aside from creating engaged citizens, the program is also instrumental in encouraging a more favorable perception of the US abroad. Williams, Farr and Petri – all being Returned Peace Corps Volunteers – recounted how delighted they were when their service revealed ample amounts of admiration for the United States. Congressman Petri stressed that “Peace Corps Volunteers represent the American people, not the American government. This has been an important element of their success.” It has been an important element that though difficult to replicate, “embraces
the highest ambitions of the US and our belief in what is possible.”
The Peace Corps’ success has been visible. “The international development world is now headed in the direction that the Peace Corps has always been,” remarked Senator Wofford.” Similarly, the Peace Corps is working more directly with the business community. According to Director Williams, “Corporate leaders want the skills Peace Corps volunteers develop, like “cultural agility.” Williams added closer cooperation with local organizations is also being developed in order to increase the sustainability of Peace Corps projects. “We want to build up global partnerships with international organizations working on development.”
Tough Budget Climate
On the other hand, budgetary concerns are making advocates weary of possible cuts to funding. “We need to capture the spirit and imagination of our people and in order to do that we need the resources,” admits Williams. “If we want to sell ideas [like freedom and democracy] we have to speak the language of the buyer” added Congressman Farr. “Host country demand is the best market survey of the Peace Corps, and it’s always increasing.” But, said Williams, even if funding were increased, the demand is so high, it would be difficult to meet.
Congressman Petri suggested the agency could adjust to new budgetary priorities through innovative programs, such as linking volunteers with organizations that need them on shorter assignments, without as much organizational investment. However, with 2012 elections approaching, Congressman Farr offered an alternative proposal: “Don’t elect anyone who isn’t willing to double funding to the Peace Corps.”
The Peace Corps has become so respected worldwide that it now serves as a model for new agencies around the world. Japan, South Korea, the African Union and others are organizing volunteer efforts along similar lines. This appreciation has lead to new collaborations. The Peace Corps and its Korean equivalent are discussing ways to collaborate on a shared project in Nepal. “The Peace Corps is the Gold Standard for volunteer corps,” said Williams.
Thanks to Alejandro Castano for preparing this update.