Chris Honoré: Why preserve the Peace Corps? (Colombia)

Why preserve the Peace Corps?
Mar 6, 2017 at 12:01 AM
By Chris Honoré

One of Donald Trump’s first acts as president was to eliminate funding for nongovernmental organizations in poor countries if they offer abortion counseling as a family planning option or if they advocate for the right to seek an abortion in their countries. The freeze applies even if the NGO uses other funds for such services. Republicans have supported this policy since the Reagan administration.  chris

But the reality is that despite how freighted with ideology the above policy is, it’s not a one-off. The Trump administration has submitted a budget that will propose severe cuts to foreign aid programs as part of a 37 percent cut to the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development. As well, Trump has told interviewers that he does not plan on filling hundreds of currently vacant posts in State or at USAID, believing them to be redundant.

America currently gives assistance to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (there are now some 65 million worldwide), Children’s UNICEF, the World Food Program, health programs that fight malaria and HIV/AIDS, international disaster relief, peacekeeping, educational and cultural exchanges, as well as environmental/global warming programs and worldwide humanitarian aid. The 2017 aid package totals $50.1 billion. This is who we are.

The new administration’s rationale for truncating foreign aid and downsizing the State Department is to offset a $54 billion increase in military spending. Currently, the U.S. military expenditure is roughly the size of the next seven largest military budgets around the world combined. The Department of Defense’s 2016 budget was $526 billion, and yet the Trump administration insists it is in need of massive rebuilding.

Assume, then, given the above, that an agency that would clearly be most vulnerable to either significant cuts or perhaps elimination is the Peace Corps.

Find below my defense of this remarkable organization (its budget was $410 million in 2016; 220,000 volunteers have served in 140 nations since 1961).

I would argue that the Peace Corps is one of the most remarkable ideas to emerge from the 20th century, its scaffolding constructed of a tenacious hope and an abiding idealism. Think of it: Americans stepping forward, volunteering to live and work in some of the most desperate and precarious corners of the world.

Clearly, the volunteers are not simply passing through, snapping pictures, finding as quaint the barely habitable thatched huts on narrow, dusty streets, or people standing for the better part of a day at a well, waiting for potable water.

Volunteers know the bitter truth that children around the world are hungry for education. Many wait, seated on the hard-pack floors of schoolhouses, absent desks or notebooks, even pencils. Volunteers also know that malnutrition and disease haunt the lives of generations, turning their existence into a shadow of what could be possible.

Peace Corps Volunteers make explicit, with their presence, that those in the Third World are not alone. The volunteer says to those who struggle, “I know you are balanced on a precipice of poverty and daily survival and I will join you. I will live where you live, I will share your table, I will teach your children, fashion a well or plant a crop. I will work alongside you, I will speak your language, I will understand and respect your customs and stand with you shoulder to shoulder. Your days will be my days. The rhythms of your life will be mine.

“I know — I’ve come from another universe, a place apart. Unimaginable. Yet I also know that we are more alike than we are different. Our common ground is vast; this is a truth often lost in the global cacophony. From you I will learn lessons that will remain with me for the rest of my life and hopefully I will leave something behind.”

To be in the Peace Corps is to view the world through a vastly different prism. Would that this agency — the Peace Corps — will always be with us, elegant in its simplicity, astonishing in its potential, asking only that Americans go forth, do what they can, embrace the experience and then return and, in returning, continue the mission.

— Chris Honoré of Ashland, Oregon is a Daily Tidings columnist. Chris was in Colombia 1967-69. Born in occupied Denmark during WWII  he immigrated to America. He went to public schools and then attended San Jose State University and the University of California, at Berkeley, where he earned a teaching credential, an M.A. and a Ph.D. After teaching high school English for two years, he joined the Peace Corps. He’s a freelance journalist based in Ashland, Oregon.



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  • Cheers for Chris H, articulating the essence of PC service. I wonder what he would say about my proposal that the PC be recognized as an expression of the American PEOPLE, rather than a government function, with financing coming from private philanthropies, and matched by the Fed Gov’t. I think the current Trump Administration has brought all of this to the fore.

    I was already in West Africa (Saltpond, Ghana, on the coast) when we heard that night in 1963 on the shortwave from BBC Overseas Service that Pres Kennedy had been killed. Come sunup, I was drinking my morning coffee when our cook, Johnson (a Nigerian) came in and said there were “Big Mahn” outside. I came out and there was a delegation of leaders and elders from the village. Apparently they had been listening to the BBC also. They knew I was American. Their spokesman said, “We want to express our regret on the death of your paramount chief.” I thanked them, trying to blink back the tears, and they turned and left for the village. Afterward, I began to realize that this new thing called the Peace Corps is far bigger than I had thought, and ever since I’ve made an effort to support the concept. I was one of the earliest to suggest “internationalization” of the Peace Corps, together with similar programs like VSO, CUSO, Norwegian Aid, and eventually hoping to see Ghana field the first “Africa Peace Corps”. I’m still hoping, and know that when the first group of Akan young people from Ghana, much like those earliest American volunteers, get on the plane headed perhaps for someplace like Ethiopia or Mocambique, my hopes will be complete.

    Thanks, again, Chris. Come visit us in New Mexico sometime. Se havla Espanol, y seis lenguas mas. John Turnbull Lower Canoncito, NM

  • The Trump administration has not submitted a budget to Congress, yet. I appreciate the eloquence of Chris’s
    defense of Peace Corps. But, I think it would be wise until we see the actual budget.

  • Chris’s commentary is very timely as the new direction of the Trump administration moves forward. With all the cabinet members with military backgrounds you can see the writing on the wall in regards to our government’s budget. It’s nice to have a professional journalist in our ranks to express the essence of the Peace Corps experience and its ramifications for how we deal with others outside our border. The message is also timely when you consider the growing level of hate talk and misinformation about refugees, immigrants and the country’s we’ve had traditionally good relationships over the year.

    I’ve just sent my new book, “Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond” off for a final review and I hope to enter this dialogue by highlighting how my experience promoted a more peaceful world respectful of different cultures and traditions. I’m sure other such stories will be emerging a long with “The Towering Task” documentary about the history of the Peace Corps so more people appreciate what an important role the Peace Corps has been over the last fifty plus year.

  • I fear the PC will suffer similar budget cuts that the State Dept and USAID are facing. We are facing an ideology that rejects multiculturalism. I served in Colombia 63-65

    We all know how effective, on so many levels, our efforts were and continue today with cuurent volunteers. The Trump Adminitration is trying eliminate what made America great.
    We will need organize and fight this misguided vision of an isolated, white Christian America.
    that they are promoting. It is propaganda.

    It is not who we were or are. We are a multicultural limmigrant nation who grossly mistreated native Americans, African slaves brought here, and African Americans. We still
    have work to do to reduce discrimination and gross inequalities in income and political power.

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