After all Peace Corps Volunteers were withdrawn from around the world in March 2020, an unprecedented community-driven effort has charted a course for how to reimagine, reshape, and retool the Peace Corps for a changed world.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Washington, D.C. (November 13, 2020) — Amid a time of unprecedented crisis for the Peace Corps and our nation as a whole, the Peace Corps community has come together to chart a way forward: with specific, actionable steps that will help reimagine and retool the Peace Corps for a changed world. Those steps are outlined in “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” a report months in the making and made public today.
The report itself was prepared by a special National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) advisory council drawn from the broad Peace Corps community inside and outside the United States. It provides specific and actionable recommendations for multiple stakeholders: policymakers in the Peace Corps agency and the federal Executive Branch’s leadership; the United States Congress; and the Peace Corps community, particularly National Peace Corps Association.
The report comes at an inflection point for the Peace Corps, which was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Its mission of building world peace and friendship has motivated more than 240,000 Americans to volunteer in nearly every corner of the world. Peace Corps sets the gold standard for service, and its brand is a cultural icon with near universal recognition. But this year that service came to a halt.
In the spring of 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Peace Corps evacuated all of its roughly 7,300 Volunteers from service around the globe. They came home to a country hit by pandemic and economic maelstrom, and soon one convulsed by protests against racial injustice.
“We heard loud and clear from the community that the Peace Corps needs to change and adapt if we want it to endure,” said Glenn Blumhorst, President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. “That’s from Volunteers who have served across the decades and around the world, and from people who live in communities where the Peace Corps has worked.”
For the first time in the nearly 60-year history of the agency, no Peace Corps Volunteers are serving overseas. This abrupt interruption of Peace Corps service has dramatically altered the lives of the Volunteers, and it has profoundly disrupted the work and relationships in communities where they were serving. The global evacuation of Volunteers also brought to the fore some longstanding challenges for the agency and the broader Peace Corps community. All this called for an unparalleled response.
Harnessing the experience, commitment, and innovative ideas of the Peace Corps community, in July National Peace Corps Association convened a series of national community discussions and a global ideas summit to ask some far-reaching questions about the future of Peace Corps in a changed world. The conversations tackled two key questions. First, whether the Peace Corps as an agency should continue to exist; on that count, the response was a resounding “yes.” And second, when the Peace Corps returns to the field, what should it look like? The responses to this second question yielded the far-reaching report, “Peace Corps Connect to the Future.”
“We heard loud and clear from the community that the Peace Corps needs to change and adapt if we want it to endure,” said Glenn Blumhorst, President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. “That’s from Volunteers who have served across the decades and around the world, and from people who live in communities where the Peace Corps has worked. They’ve offered big ideas in conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as recruitment and recalibrating programs, including critical health support. They’ve looked hard at the three goals of the Peace Corps agency, as well as policies, funding, and how Peace Corps communicates.”
“Peace Corps should reflect the fullness of America and provide the country’s best and truest face to the world,” the report notes. “It should return to the field better, bolder, more inclusive, and more effective.”
Three Cross-Cutting Themes
Each of the eight chapters of the report can stand alone with its own unique set of recommendations. But during the community conversations, it was made clear that three primary themes cut across the entirety of the issues Peace Corps faces:
- The Peace Corps community must be a leader in addressing systemic racism. The Peace Corps agency, like American society as a whole, is grappling with how to evolve so that its work fulfills the promise of our ideals. This means tackling agency hiring and recruitment, and greater support for Volunteers who are people of color, to ensure an equitable Peace Corps experience. It also means ensuring that perceptions of a “white savior complex” and neocolonialism are not reinforced. These are criticisms leveled at much work in international development, where not all actors are bound by the kinds of ideals that are meant to guide the Peace Corps.
- The Peace Corps agency needs to stand by its community — and leverage it for impact. The agency’s work is only as good as the contributions of the people who make it run. This does not mean only staff but includes, in particular, the broader community of Volunteers and returned Volunteers. In programs around the world, it absolutely includes the colleagues and communities that host Volunteers.
- Now is the moment for the Peace Corps agency to make dramatic change. The opportunity for a reimagined and re-booted Peace Corps now exists and it should be taken. This report shows the way.
This moment of international crisis and domestic change has provided a period of critical reflection to restructure, retool, renew commitment, and get things right. The Peace Corps must meet the challenge of this moment. And once more it can lead the way. “Peace Corps should reflect the fullness of America and provide the country’s best and truest face to the world,” the report notes. “It should return to the field better, bolder, more inclusive, and more effective.”
The Peace Corps agency has reported that partner nations have all asked for the return of Volunteers as soon as conditions permit. A small number of Volunteers are scheduled to return in early 2021. The first will be Cambodia and Saint Lucia, in January 2021, as Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen revealed on November 12 at a program hosted by The Commonwealth Club of California.
The act of Volunteers returning — or their arrival in countries for new programs — will signal that a country can engage internationally in a post-pandemic world.
The report takes as a touchstone some remarks by diplomat Kul Chandra Gautam at NPCA’s global ideas summit. Gautam was born and raised in Nepal, and as a student he was taught by Peace Corps teachers. His career has included serving as Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF. “Our increasingly interconnected world demands global solidarity, not charity, to solve global problems that transcend national borders like the specter of war, terrorism, racism, climate change, and pandemics like COVID-19,” he said. “I sincerely believe that the Peace Corps can be a great organization dedicated to promote such global solidarity at the people-to-people level.”
And here is a handy URL to share: bit.ly/peace-corps-connect-report
Listen Up: A special podcast diving into “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” with Marieme Foote, Chic Dambach, Joel Rubin, and host Dan Baker.
Story updated November 20, 2020.
Steven Boyd Saum is Director of Strategic Communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96. For questions and interviews with Glenn Blumhorst, members of the report advisory council or steering committee, or former Peace Corps directors about this report, please contact [email protected] or (202) 934-1532.
About National Peace Corps Association (NPCA)
National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) is a mission-driven social impact organization that encourages and celebrates lifelong commitment to Peace Corps ideals. NPCA supports a united and vibrant Peace Corps community, including current and returned Peace Corps Volunteers, current and former staff, host country nationals, family and friends in efforts to create a better world. NPCA exists to fulfill three specific goals:
- Help the Peace Corps be the best it can be
- Empower members and affiliate groups to thrive
- Amplify the Peace Corps community’s global social impact
In 2019 NPCA marked its 40th anniversary with a vibrant community of over 240,000 individuals and more than 180 affiliate groups. The affiliate groups are organized by city and region, country of service, places of employment, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and around causes such as environmental action and work with refugees.