As the Peace Corps approaches its 50th anniversary, the service program is at something of a crossroads. The agency never fulfilled President Kennedy’s dream of sending 100,000 Americans abroad every year, and it has been criticized for parachuting too many inexperienced college grads into development jobs they aren’t prepared for. But friends in Congress have secured a 10 percent budget increase for the Peace Corps, and some of the agency’s boosters are hoping for more soon.
Enter Aaron Williams, a volunteer in the Caribbean in the late-1960s who has now returned to lead the agency. He spoke to NationalJournal.com’s David Gauvey Herbert about putting a price tag on the Peace Corps experience, the dangers of tying the agency too closely to American foreign policy and his own experience in the Dominican Republic.
NJ: You served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic from 1967 to 1970. What doors did it open for you?
Williams: Well it gave me a view of the world. I had never been on an airplane before the Peace Corps. First time I’d been on an airplane, first time I’d been in a foreign country, obviously. And to have a chance to learn a foreign language, to work cross-culturally, to really see the world from a different perspective. Peace Corps opened all those doors for me. And I always had the interest in going back into international development.
NJ: You may have read a report from Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office that it costs $50,000 a year to put a Peace Corps volunteer in the field but only a few dollars for life-saving measles medication. Do you think it’s right to be running these cost-benefit analyses when you’re talking about a development budget that is limited?
Williams: I think that the United States, as the leader in the world in terms of international assistance, it’s important that we have different kinds. The Peace Corps plays a special role because we’re the person-to-person humanitarian assistance. It gives Americans an opportunity to serve and it gives the people of many nations the opportunity to learn more about Americans. And I don’t think there’s ever any substitute for that.
Citizen diplomacy is an important aspect of America, it’s what we always do, whether it’s through churches, or volunteers organizations, NGOs, universities, high school exchanges, all this is important. And Peace Corps is a formal, targeted way of giving Americans the opportunity to do this.
NJ: You spent two decades at USAID. How will that experience help you now that you’re back with the Peace Corps?
Williams: I’ve seen the developing world close up for many, many years, starting out as a Peace Corps volunteer. And I understand all aspects of development, I’ve worked on all the continents, I’ve worked with NGOs, I’ve worked with the private sector, I’ve worked with governments. So I have a real keen understanding of what international development is all about, what it looks like, what it takes to be effective.
NJ: What do you make of the criticism that the U.S. shouldn’t be sending volunteers to countries like Fiji, Vanuatu and Cape Verde because the U.S. has no strategic interests there?
Williams: Many, many countries are interested in having Peace Corps volunteers serve there. Since President Obama was elected, the reengagement of America in the world is enormous and there are extraordinary opportunities, and we’re going to continue to look at a wide range of countries. You need to look at couple things. First of all, where are there countries that desire Peace Corps volunteers? And also, what about U.S. interests? I’m going to look at both sides of that equation.
NJ: A wide array of abroad service programs have sprung up that weren’t around when the Peace Corps was founded. Do you feel like you’re competing to the best and the brightest?
Williams: I hope we are vying for the best and the brightest, absolutely, all the time. We want the best coming to the Peace Corps. I think that’s also good for our country that there are many, many opportunities for people to serve because everybody isn’t going to go into the Peace Corps….
But I think that because we offer this wonderful, and in most instances, unique opportunity to serve in a very structured way, the Peace Corps will always remain strong and will have a chance to recruit Americans with interest in serving abroad. Right now our applications this year are up 12 percent, and we’ve got 14,000 applications for 4,000 slots.
NJ: What do you attribute that jump to?
Williams: First of all, I attribute it to the fact that the president has called on Americans to serve. We’re one of the president’s two signature initiatives in national service, the other being the National Corporation. I think that Americans are interested in serving, they want to know more about the outside world. It goes back to my earlier point that, as a nation, we’re more service-oriented than we have been in the last 30 or 40 years. All of this bodes well for Peace Corps.
NJ: There been a push for older volunteers in recent years, and now 14 percent of your volunteers are over 30. The advantages older volunteers are obvious, but don’t older volunteers contradict one of the stated goals of the Peace Corps, that your experience informs your career for decades to come?
Williams: I would think that, actually, an American coming back who has had that kind of positive experience, whether you’re 25 or 55, I think it’s equal…. Whenever a Peace Corps volunteer comes back home, they’re going to play an important role in their community just by the nature of their experience.
NJ: I spoke with former Sen. Harris Wofford [a founding member of the Peace Corps in the Kennedy administration]. He takes issue with Sen. [Christopher "Kit"] Bond’s vision for the Peace Corps as a tool of American soft power, particularly in the Middle East. Wofford worries that linking the program with American foreign policy, no matter how benign, may hurt its credibility around the world.
Williams: I think not only is that Sen. Wofford’s view, it’s also Sargent Shriver’s view and it was also Kennedy’s view, and I stand by that. It’s been a successful way of viewing the Peace Corps for nearly 50 years.
NJ: What’s your 20-second pitch for why a college graduate should spend two and a half years toiling in Uganda teaching English? [Pause] Go. [Laughter]
Williams: Only 20 seconds? You’re so generous. I thought it was going to be 10 seconds. [Laughter]… It’s a unique opportunity to find out what you as an individual can contribute to the community that you are involved in overseas. It’s a very structured environment, you’re going to get the best possible training, whether it’s cross-cultural or linguistic. You’re going to have an opportunity to work with people who care about the issues and programs you’re working on….
And then when you come back, you’re going to be better prepared for the rest of your life because of that experience. I think this is unique. There’s no better time for us to serve our country. We’ve got President Obama, who’s asked us to serve, we have opportunities to serve, and Peace Corps is a wonderful channel for that.