“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. I sincerely believe that the Peace Corps can be a great organization dedicated to promote such global solidarity at the people-to-people level.”
—Kul Chandra Gautam
Nepalese diplomat and former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF
at the Peace Corps Connect to the Future Global Ideas Summit, July 2020
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. For the first time in the nearly 60-year history of the agency, no Peace Corps Volunteers are currently 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 mission of the Peace Corps has motivated more than 240,000 Americans to volunteer in nearly every corner of the world. But that service has come to a halt.
This crisis is unprecedented. On a scale never seen before, the global evacuation of Volunteers 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, National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) 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 in the Peace Corps community 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 are contained in this report.
The report itself, Peace Corps Connect to the Future, was prepared by a special NPCA advisory council drawn from the broad Peace Corps community inside and outside the United States: including recently evacuated Volunteers and those who served in the 1960s, diplomats and educators, NGO leaders and filmmakers, to name a few. The recommendations in the report are based upon NPCA’s extensive engagement with the Peace Corps community. NPCA hosted eight town hall discussions that crystallized an understanding of the urgent needs impacting Peace Corps Volunteers and their work. To ensure that views about the future Peace Corps are broad and deep, NPCA also built upon multiple community-driven efforts, such as those led by Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS) and the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Washington, D.C. (RPCV/W).
This report provides specific and actionable recommendations for multiple stakeholders: policymakers in the Peace Corps agency, the federal Executive Branch’s leadership; the United States Congress; and the Peace Corps community, particularly NPCA. In each chapter, recommendations are divided into three categories of sequential importance:
- BIG IDEAS
- TARGETED RECOMMENDATIONS
- ADDITIONAL IDEAS FOR RECOMMENDATION
As a critical next step, we strongly recommend that a commission, jointly appointed by the Peace Corps agency and NPCA, be formed to monitor and address the recommendations in this report. In addition, NPCA and the Peace Corps agency should work closely with Congress and relevant stakeholders to pass new comprehensive authorizing legislation, along the lines of Rep. John Garamendi’s (D-CA) Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2019 (H.R. 3456), which will address many of these systemic issues.
First and foremost, the basic mission of the Peace Corps — to promote world peace and friendship — must be reaffirmed, embraced, and incorporated with greater innovation and intentionality into operations and programs. The world has changed dramatically from the binary Cold War paradigm to a multipolar and complex environment. Yet the pursuit of peace remains paramount, and it requires responding to climate change, inequity, and injustice by empowering people. Bridges of friendship between people and communities are essential to foster broader mutual understanding across cultures and nations. The Peace Corps embodies and amplifies America’s commitment to peace and goodwill.
Sargent Shriver’s foundational report to President John F. Kennedy in February 1961 recommended U.S. deployment of a full array of volunteer sector partners in the original Peace Corps model — including universities, faith-based and other nonprofit institutions, and the private sector. This concept should be reinvigorated with bold initiatives in the re-envisioned Peace Corps of the 21st century. Arising from the common global suffering of this pandemic, Peace Corps and its counterpart American domestic service partners, such as AmeriCorps (formerly the Corporation for National and Community Service) and the robust nonprofit voluntary sector, are well poised to provide leadership for an American and global recovery together with nations that host volunteers. That is why we recommend the White House convene a summit to reinvigorate the nation’s alliances with a more robust brand of service at home and abroad.
Over the last 60 years, the world as a whole has become far more peaceful, and poverty has declined. The Peace Corps, even as a small agency, has contributed to that progress both through the impact of Volunteer service and through lifelong contributions of returned Volunteers who continue to live and promote Peace Corps values throughout their communities and careers. Yet by some inescapable measures, the past decade has seen the world become less peaceful; the number of refugees has doubled in the past 10 years. Nearly 80 million people, or one percent of humanity, qualify as refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced. And for communities that have been riven by conflict and are suffering increasing economic hardship from climate change and the pandemic, it’s not global averages but their particular experiences that define reality. The need for — and the value of — the Peace Corps remains as compelling as ever.
While each chapter of this report can stand alone with its own unique set of recommendations, during the community conversations it was made clear that three primary themes cut across the entirety of the issues discussed in the report:
1. 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. Conversely, many in the U.S. bristle when hearing these terms; but it’s important to both recognize the context and address them head-on to enable a more effective and welcome return for Volunteers. NPCA and its affiliate groups must also demonstrate leadership in this space.
2. 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. NPCA has demonstrated that it is both possible and beneficial to become community-driven to promote the goals of the Peace Corps. Community-driven programming will keep the work both current and relevant to the world around us, ensuring that the agency succeeds in its mission in a changed world.
3. 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.
The core issues highlighted in this report focus on the following topics and are divided into eight separate chapters:
- CHAPTER 1: FOSTERING RACIAL DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION IN THE PEACE CORPS
- CHAPTER 2: RECRUITING THE NEXT GENERATION OF PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS
- CHAPTER 3: SUPPORTING RETURNED PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS DURING READJUSTMENT AT HOME
- CHAPTER 4: FUNDING FOR THE PEACE CORPS AND CAPITOL HILL MOBILIZATION
- CHAPTER 5: RECALIBRATING PEACE CORPS PROGRAMS FOR THE FUTURE
- CHAPTER 6: REEXAMINING THE PEACE CORPS’ SECOND AND THIRD GOALS
- CHAPTER 7: REFORMING PEACE CORPS’ MANAGEMENT POLICIES FOR A CHANGED WORLD
- CHAPTER 8: COMMUNICATING, INTERNALLY AND EXTERNALLY, WITH THE PEACE CORPS COMMUNITY
Because there are themes that cut across multiple areas, you will see similar recommendations echoed across more than one chapter. As you read this report, we also urge you to view the Peace Corps as a critical part of American foreign policy, development goals, and public diplomacy. Individually, many returned Volunteers serve in federal roles. Collectively, the Peace Corps has built incalculable soft power influence throughout the world, doing good in partnership with others while doing good for the United States. The more effective the Peace Corps is, the more effective American foreign policy is as well.
When it was established in 1961, the Peace Corps was given the mission of promoting world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
- Help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
- Help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
- Help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
As one recommendation in this report makes clear, we should not take for granted that these are the only goals that should define the work of the Peace Corps going forward — or that these are the words in which the goals should be articulated. Language matters. Emphasis matters, especially in work that is meant to empower individuals and communities. And the context of the post-COVID world matters profoundly.
The question right now for both the United States and the Peace Corps agency isn’t whether to engage the world after the coronavirus. We must. The question now is how to do it. This moment of international crisis and domestic change has provided us with a period of critical reflection to restructure, retool, renew commitment, and get things right. The Peace Corps must meet the challenge of this moment just as it did at the height of the Cold War in 1961.
It is in this spirit that the special NPCA advisory council affirms that the Peace Corps should reflect the fullness of America and provide the country’s best and truest face to the world. 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 act of their return — or arrival in countries for new programs — will signal that a country can engage internationally in a post-pandemic world.
Peace Corps’ first general counsel, Bill Josephson, is co-author with Warren Wiggins of the 1961 report that laid out the scope of what founding the Peace Corps entailed. They called the report A Towering Task. Assessing the challenges of 2021, Josephson surmises that relaunching Peace Corps will be an even greater towering task, with the agency requiring extraordinary leadership to return it successfully to the field.
This means that the next Peace Corps director should be appointed quickly. They should be an individual of national stature, preferably a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, who is committed to transformational change at the agency by advancing the recommendations included in this report. They must have the gravitas to advance the Peace Corps’ interests with both Congress and the White House while also making the case to the American people about the value of a renewed Peace Corps for the United States.
We, the members of the special NPCA advisory council, hope that as you read the report, you too will hear the voices of the Peace Corps community, just as we heard them throughout this process. America’s place in the world depends on it.