The Peace Corps: Well worth a cup of coffee per year

by Otto Koester (Ethiopia 1968-69 & Ghana 1970)

With the first 50 years of the Peace Corps behind us, it’s time for us to take stock of its original purpose and consider what still needs to be done. When President Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps in 1961, he envisioned 100,000 volunteers each year, but the maximum has been 15,000. In 2006, former President George W. Bush called for a doubling of the Peace Corps’ size, but to no avail. The current number of volunteers is just over 7,000.

Montana has done its share to support Peace Corps’ effort. Relative to population, we rank seventh nationally for the number of Montanans sent overseas. Among mid-sized universities, the University of Montana is 12th, and Montana State University 16th. In 2012, Missoula as a community was second nationwide for cities its size, and the Western Montana Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group is among the most active its kind in the country. In addition to local soup kitchens, food banks and others in need, the group supports projects in El Salvador, Moldova and other countries. Former volunteers serve in the Montana legislature, work at the University of Montana, Montana State University and Carroll College, with the Forest Service and as school teachers, and in many parts of the private sector.

President Kennedy imagined both a larger Peace Corps and a U.S. public much more engaged in helping third-world countries overcome poverty, disease and illiteracy. Despite its small size, Peace Corps has proven remarkably effective in promoting human development and America’s international interests, and demand for volunteers continues to grow. Today more than 70 countries host volunteers, with 10 more waiting in line. Peace Corps is widely recognized as one of the most cost-effective ways for representing America’s best face overseas.

With globalization and the gap between developed and developing countries widening, Peace Corps has adapted to meet 21st century challenges. Education and training of teachers continues to be major goals, but improvement of health conditions, better access to safe water, nutrition and sanitation, promotion of entrepreneurship, women’s empowerment and youth development have become equally important. At the same time, volunteers’ face-to-face encounters with everyday citizens and learning of local languages and cultures help the developing world understand that the United States is about more than wealth and power.

Peace Corps’ current priorities are also reflected in recent projects of UM volunteers, such as: helping street children in Cape Verde build a community center; helping women in Ghana and El Salvador build sanitary latrines, prevent water-borne diseases, and access safe and fuel-efficient cook stoves; and training Ethiopian HIV/AIDS workers to track patients’ treatment plans, improve childbirth conditions and reduce infant/maternal mortality. Increasingly, Peace Corps focuses on developing practical skills for addressing development problems.

But another part of Peace Corps’ mission calls on volunteers to return home with knowledge and experience that benefits their communities, and to help fellow citizens understand how our nation can assist developing countries. Why is it, then, that Peace Corps funding in FY 2010 stood at $400 million, whereas for the 2014 fiscal year, the House of Representatives wants to allocate only $356 million, while the Senate is proposing

$384 million, still below the 2010 level? With these projections, the total cost for the entire Peace Corps comes to approximately $1.20 per U.S. resident per year - about the same as one cup of coffee. Compare this to the $526 billion request for the Defense Department, which in 2014 comes to about $1,664 per person. How is it that such a disparity has come about?

All of us recall President Kennedy’s call to action when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Less well known is the next sentence in which he said, “Citizens of the world, ask not what America can do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

Would one extra dollar for every U.S. resident be too much to ask of Congress for the Peace Corps to continue its work? Think about it. Congress is scheduled to act on the Peace Corps budget in January.

Otto Koester (Ethiopia 1968-69 & Ghana 1970) is a Senior Fellow at the Maureen o_koesterand Mike Mansfield Center of the University of Montana. This article is adapted from his commentary that was aired on Radio Station KUFM on December 23, 2013. Koester has been a lecturer at Princeton, the Deputy Director of the Salzburg Seminar, a Program Officer with the United States Institute of Peace, and the Director of Grantwriting at the University of Montana. He is also the Co-Director of the Confucius Institute and maintains teaching and research interests in international negotiation and conflict management, especially between the United States and China.