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Make America a Better Place by Leaving It

The domestic dividend of the Peace Corps can be had for the cost of a dozen eggs.

By Dan Baker & Michael P. Hassett

As country singer Merle Haggard sang “If you don’t love it, leave it” repeatedly in his 1970 hit “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” the Peace Corps released a recruitment poster encouraging the very same thing. Americans could improve their country by leaving it.

Everyone thinks of the good Peace Corps Volunteers do where they serve. Just as important is what they bring home from their time away. Peace Corps’ on-the-job skills training prepares Volunteers to be diplomats, entrepreneurs, teachers, public health workers and more. When they return home, they invest what they learned back into their communities.

Thousands of leaders credit Peace Corps service for finding their passion and preparing them for future endeavors. Some are household names, like journalist Chris Matthews, former House Representatives Donna Shalala and Joe Kennedy III, writer Paul Theroux and television host Bob Vila, to name a few. Netflix co-founder and philanthropist Reed Hastings attributes his entrepreneurial spirit, in part, to his time serving as a Volunteer in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).

Likewise, countless educators have drawn on their volunteer experiences to enhance the learning environment for their students at home. The 2018 National Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning credits her Peace Corps service in Armenia with giving her the skills and experiences to later land her first teaching job in Texas.

Furthermore, there is an army of Peace Corps alumni who continue to serve their fellow Americans through civil service and public office. Their time in the Peace Corps has armed them with the unique perspectives of community-level development, which immeasurably enhances government investment and service delivery.

In addition, the Peace Corps “template” of service has inspired scores of other volunteer organizations (AmeriCorps, Teach for America, etc.) and development agencies such as USAID have begun prioritizing the community-led, bottom-up approaches to international assistance long embraced by the Peace Corps, which can be further deployed to help address the many other critical social issues that are affecting countless people here at home.

Moreover, many Peace Corps alumni groups actively seek creative solutions to complex problems, both at home and abroad. Under the umbrella of the National Peace Corps Association, they have organized into nonprofits, foundations and civic groups in order to support their countries of service, provide assistance during disasters, and serve their communities at home.

When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, the Peace Corps Community for Refugees found homes for Afghan refugees in the United States. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine has continuously awarded small grants to provide targeted humanitarian relief. When a volcano erupted in the middle of the Kingdom of Tonga in 2022, Friends of Tonga Inc. was the first nonprofit to respond and has since coordinated over $500,000 for disaster relief efforts. Most recently, the RPCV group Friends of Morocco has raised nearly $25,000 to support rescue, relief, recovery, and reconstruction following the massive earthquake there last month.

 

Peace Corps alumni groups actively seek creative solutions to complex problems, both at home and abroad

 

Such initiatives complement and enhance America’s relations with our allies, regardless of which political party heads our government.

The Peace Corps is working in over 60 countries to fulfill its mission of promoting worldwide friendship and peace. Since its inception, nearly a quarter of a million Americans have served as Volunteers in more than 143 countries.

With a looming budget fight in Congress over appropriations, the funding of the Peace Corps should not be a partisan issue. It currently costs each American a mere $1.30 annually — the price of a dozen eggs — to fund the entirety of Peace Corps operations around the world. Over a dozen new countries have requested Peace Corps support, but without the continued support of Congress, resources for this cost-effective program that amplifies American soft diplomacy will likely remain plateaued or even reduced in the face of inflation. With Volunteers finally returning to the field after their worldwide recall during the COVID-19 pandemic, we urgently need to renew and reauthorize our commitment to promoting American ideals.

Let us continue to provide a beacon of democratic principles and build bridges to remote corners of the world, where so many have eroded, through support for the next generation of Peace Corps Volunteers.

Dan Baker is the President and CEO for the National Peace Corps Association. He served with the Peace Corps in Bolivia, Timor-Leste and other nations from 1999 to 2016. Michael P. Hassett, a Pittsburgh native who graduated from La Roche College, is the president and co-founder of Friends of Tonga. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Kingdom of Tonga from 2012 to 2014.


A version of this article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette