The Peace Corps: America’s best foreign policy tool

By Rep. John Garamendi 
(D-Calif.)
The Hill, July 15, 2013

The headlines coming out of President Obama’s recent eight-day visit to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania focused on partnership, trade and private investment.

But throughout the trip, there was also a foundational bedrock that allows major development initiatives to take hold. “True opportunity,” the president said at the University of Cape Town, “cannot exist when people are imprisoned by sickness, hunger or darkness.”

Grassroots development has lifted millions out of poverty and improved lives through access to quality education, improved healthcare, enhanced food security and women’s empowerment.

As the president met with African heads of state, I had the opportunity to meet an African leader of another sort.

Dr. Mohamud Said of Kenya visited Capitol Hill in late June. He is this year’s recipient of the National Peace Corps Association’s Wofford Global Citizen Award, named after former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford (D). The Wofford Award is given to an individual whose life has been influenced by the Peace Corps and whose career contributes significantly to the nominee’s home country and the world.

Having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia with my wife, Patti, I found Mohamud’s story to be inspiring and compelling, but not necessarily surprising.

In 1966, Patti and I arrived in Metu, a village in southwestern Ethiopia, to begin our two years of Peace Corps service, working as classroom teachers, learning from the local community and assisting in whatever ways we could.

At that same time, 800 miles away in rural, northern Kenya, Mohamud was also having his first Peace Corps experience. A student at Marsabit Secondary School and only three years removed from British colonial rule, Mohamud noted that at first people were frightened by the white people from America who had come to their region to teach. But America’s Peace Corps volunteers were different. Their teaching methods were more engaging. They visited people in their homes and took interest in local language and culture.

The American volunteers encouraged Said and his peers to study hard so they could one day help their countrymen. Mohamud was inspired by these individuals who took time away from their families and comforts in America to serve others. It was this experience that inspired him to pursue a path of service.

A practicing physician who owns and operates a hospital and pharmacy in western Kenya, Mohamud has touched the lives of thousands near and far. A lifelong member of the Kenya Medical Association, he helped found the association’s Human Rights Committee. He is a longtime leader and president of the Kenya Red Cross, which has 100,000 volunteers providing relief assistance and disaster response across the country.

Mohamud was also the first African president of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture, which provides treatment to more than 100,000 torture survivors in 150 centers around the world. And he coordinates the Pedro Cavadas Foundation of pro bono reconstructive surgery in Africa, performing reconstructive surgery for poor people from eight East African countries over the past seven years.

When I met Mohamud, he was accompanied by Russell Morgan of Chevy Chase, Md. Russell was one of his Peace Corps science teachers. Now, nearly 50 years later, they remain lifelong friends.

The ongoing story of the Peace Corps is a story of human capital. It is a story of our nation investing in our citizens who wish to serve others and do great things. It is also a story of individuals around the world taking advantage of the Peace Corps’s investment to achieve great things that they might not have believed imaginable. Through the Peace Corps, we are orienting hearts and minds toward the best of American values.

This was true in 1966 when Mohamud met Russell in a science classroom in Marsabit, Kenya. It remains true today among the 8,000 volunteers representing the United States in 76 nations, nearly half of them serving in Africa.

The Peace Corps remains effective because of the American investment in human capital and the timeless ideals upon which it was founded: friendship, mutual understanding, collaboration and hard work.

Garamendi has represented California’s 3rd congressional district in the House of Representatives 112_garamendi_ca10_200since 2010. He sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure, Armed Services and Agriculture committees. He and his wife served in the Peace Corps from 1966-68 in Ethiopia.