Smooth Hearing for Peace Corps Director Nominee
By Jonathan Pearson on Wednesday, November 6th, 2013
Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) had a busy morning ahead of him on Wednesday, November 6th. As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, he needed to get to a 10 AM hearing with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifying on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
But Senator Isakson took a few minutes from that hearing so he could speak at another: the confirmation hearing of Carrie Hessler-Radelet (Western Samoa 1981-83) to become the 19th Director of the Peace Corps.
Senator Isakson told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he met Hessler-Radelet during the 2011 passage and subsequent implementation of the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act. Isakson praised Hessler-Radelet for her work on implementing the legislation, saying she has worked tirelessly to improve conditions and programs to improve safety, security and health issues for volunteers. “Carrie has become a friend of mine…I’m sure she’ll be confirmed unanimously by the Senate.”
If the hearing is any indication, Isakson’s statement would appear to be true, although it may still be weeks before the full Senate issues a final vote on the nomination.
Hessler-Radelet: “A Whole New Level of Engagement”
After being introduced by former Senator (and early Peace Corps leader) Harris Wofford, Hessler-Radelet told committee members that reforms enacted through a comprehensive assessment back in 2010 are helping to create a culture of innovation and excellence within the agency, adding “Our team is ready to take the Peace Corps to a whole new level of engagement.”
She emphasized her vision that Peace Corps be the place for Americans who wish to serve abroad, and
that volunteers continue to show the world the compassion, tolerance and dedication to service that brings positive difference to the world’s poor. She outlined four key areas in which to advance this vision:
- Revitalizing recruitment and outreach to ensure that every American knows about the Peace Corps. Hessler-Radelet stressed this effort also needs to reflect the diversity of our nation.
- Ensuring that Peace Corps continues to build partnerships and works with other federal agencies and private networks to advance major development initiatives in health, food security and other global issues of concern.
- Continuing to build the capacity of volunteers to bring meaningful and achievable results to the communities they serve, citing the agency’s Focus-In Train-Up strategy as a key initiative for this advancement.
- Continuing to strengthen care and support for volunteers allowing them to be healthy, safe and productive throughout their service.
Hessler-Radelet’s full written testimony should be posted shortly on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee website.
Hearing Questions and Responses:
- Accomplishments past, present and future: When Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) asked further about key goals and accomplishments, Hessler-Radelet also highlighted the agency’s country portfolio review in which a variety of criteria (volunteer need, safety/security/health, low country perceptions about Americans, etc.) are considered each year to determine future volunteer placement and country openings/closures. She noted that the agency will begin its fourth annual country portfolio review this week.
- Volunteer Expansion: With just over 7,000 volunteers currently in the field, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) asked about a goal previously stated by the Obama administration (in the President’s budget proposal from nearly four years ago) to reach 11,000 Volunteers by 2016. While the number of Volunteers has recently been declining, Hessler-Radelet said the agency is very much in favor of increasing the number of Volunteers. “We are confident we have the infrastructure in place to handle growth,” she said, adding that it should proceed in a gradual, scaled way. She said plans for a more robust recruitment and communications effort can proceed because of the other infrastructure improvements. “We are ready,” she said.
- Country Closures: Citing his experiences as a Jesuit volunteer in Honduras, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) noted the current level of violence in that country and asked about the decision making process that goes into closing or re-opening a country. Hessler-Radelet noted Peace Corps has closed nine programs in the past three years. Four were closed for security reasons (Honduras, Mauritania, Mali and Niger). She said the decision to keep a country opened or closed is not an issue that is taken lightly, nor that is done instantaneously unless a serious safety concern arises. When violence is a concern, the agency can sometimes continue programs in parts of a nation where crime rates are low and there are predictable patterns that allow for adequate safety precautions. She said those conditions were not in place in Honduras, though they did allow for the continuation of programs in neighboring countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador.
- RPCV Benefits: When asked by Senator Markey, Hessler-Radelet said she would love to see more benefits offered to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) than currently exist. She singled out student loan payments as a particular burden for many volunteers and added that the agency is working toward trying to secure deferral of loan payments for Volunteers who have private student loans.
- Sexual Assault: The nominee was asked by Markey about ongoing efforts to address sexual assault. Identifying herself as a woman, an RPCV, a mother and a sexual assault survivor, Hessler-Radelet stressed the importance of Volunteer safety. “The Kate Puzey Act has brought nothing short of culture change in our agency…in a very positive way.”
Other Hearing News and Notes:
- In speaking to the positives that result from the Peace Corps, and in recognizing Harris Wofford, Senator Kaine noted his meeting earlier this year with the 2013 winner of the Wofford Global Citizen Award, given each year by the National Peace Corps Association. Nominations for the 2014 Wofford Award closed last week. Hessler-Radelet said as many as ten African Presidents have noted the important role Peace Corps Volunteers played in their early years.
- At the opening of the hearing, newly elected Senator Markey noted this was his first opportunity to preside over a full committee hearing. “It is a great honor to make my debut today,” said Markey who added that when it comes to the Peace Corps, “It is time to leap forward.”
- Two Senators noted direct Peace Corps connections at different ends of the volunteer spectrum. Senator Kaine noted his niece just returned from her service in Cameroon, while Senator Barrasso noted a member of his staff had just been accepted into the Peace Corps and will soon begin his service in the Dominican Republic.
- In noting the four generations of Peace Corps Volunteers in Hessler-Radelet’s family, a moment was taken to recognize one of those members in the audience who has been a longtime friend to the Peace Corps and the National Peace Corps Association. Hessler-Radelet’s aunt, Virginia “Ginny” Kirkwood served in Turkey in the mid 1960’s and was identified at that time as the 10,000th citizen to serve in the Peace Corps. She later served as Peace Corps Country Director in Thailand.
Thanks to NPCA Advocacy intern Grace Lueck for assisting with this post.