Does The Peace Corps Really Matter?

I like this question–Does the Peace Corps Really Matter?– and the conversations and discussions that it provokes. It brings the idea of the agency back to mind.

I have been hearing people since the Nixon years trashing the Peace Corps, all of us were ‘draft dodgers” Tricky Dick said. Eisenhower called us a “juvenile experiment,” and the Daughters of the American Revolution warned of a “yearly drain” of “brains and brawn…for the benefit of “backward, underdeveloped countries.” (A year after all of these “wise” pronouncements, Time magazine declared in a cover story that the Peace Corps was “the greatest single success the Kennedy administration had produced.”)

It is good for the agency when the whole idea of ‘The Peace Corps” is in the public currency. The problem today is that while the agency is  ‘Mom’s apple pie’ in the minds of most Americans, the next question most Americans ask is: ‘Does the Peace Corps still exist?”

We know  the majority of Americans are ignorant of the world beyond the borders of their home state. Oh, they (sort of) know Disneyworld is in Florida, but that is about it when it comes to geography. Where were they in seventh grade? The other day–this is in 2009!—a woman holding a senior position at the college where I work asked me where Liberia was.

So you cannot underestimate the lack of knowledge of the world possessed by ‘our fellow Americans.’ Many of them are still trying to find Iraq on a world map. So, lets not expect too much from our citizens locked away in the United States. Why, I still can’t see Alaska from my front porch perched high in the hills of upstate New York.

But back to my point, and I do have one.

How do we make the Peace Corps matter in America, and matter to Congress, our fund agency?

The other day I suggested on this blog that the Peace Corps appoint an Associate Director for the Third Goal. A senior level person with the job of rallying the assumed 200,000 of us back home, not only to come to D.C. for the 50thanniversary, but also to have these 200,000  throw their active support behind the agency, to grow the Peace Corps through their voting power in home districts across America. RPCVs by voting as a block, and getting their neighbors to join our cause, can make the point that  America no longer influences the world through the barrel of a gun, and the work done by PCVs in the developing world is as  important for our safety here at home as any army overseas.


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  • I support the Third Goal of continuing the effort to make Americans more knowledgeable about the rest of the world. I do not support your suggestion to make the Third Goal a vechicle for promoting the Peace Corps. I don’t think “promoting Peace Corps” or lobbying for more funding is the way to go. It puts the focus on the Peace Corps and not the people of the Third World, or developing world or the host countries in which Volunteers serve/d.

    In Denver Public Schools, more than 80 languages are spoken as the first language of students. We have immigrants from all over the world, so many of them are political refugees. Many of the best teachers are RPCVs, who efforts are not to promote the Peace Corps, but to relate to these students and to bridge all the communities in Denver. Peace Corps experience was a foundation, not a current PR focus.

    I think that “Peace Corps Writers” is one of the most important elements of the Third Goal. It would be good, John, to hear both you and Marilyn discuss the independence from the Peace Corps agency helped or hinderd your efforts.

  • Joey–the VFW does a fine job of supporting themselves and making their causes known, I think we can do as much, not only for ourselves, but for the HCNs we befriended. Americans who have lived in the developing world are as close as most Americans will get to the Third World. We need to begin to help the developing world by increasing our numbers serving overseas. If we don’t rally the U.S. to the forgotten peoples of the world, who will?

    As for the Peace Corps helping or not with the efforts that Marian Haley Beil and I have been doing for Peace Corps writers since the late ’70s, I would say they have never written me or Marian about our work.

    We have been doing this as a Third Goal effort all these years, supporting it with $$$ and from contributions from interested RPCVs. The Peace Corps as an agency has never been involved, nor have we asked them to be involved.

    I do have a lovely letter from Sarg Shriver thanking us for promoting Peace Corps writers, and for the books I have edited. He sent it to me back in the mid-’90s…..I have the letter framed and hanging in my office at home! That’s enough reward for this RPCV.

  • Does the Peace Corps matter? I can say it matters to me. I remember in the middle of my second year thinking how meaningful this experience was to me personally. I was really enjoying myself and for one of the first times in my life really felt good about myself and what I was involved in and the people I was involved with. That’s when I decided to extend for a third year. Why leave something after two years when you’re just really getting good at it?

    The point is that the Peace Corps as an organization that gives people a chance to make a difference, each person in his or her own way, in a place where what we do actually makes a difference. In a way, the Peace Corps isn’t the people who make it up. It’s really that each person is an individual Peace Corps and this organization is just the umbrella that makes this possible.

    The work we do as PCVs does help the countries in which we serve. But there is something else going on as well. It’s the relationships we form among our fellow human beings in other countries that I think make the longest lasting difference. We Americans have our own culture, with all its strengths and weaknesses, just as is true of cultures across the globe.

    What the Peace Corps allows, for a very small investment, given the return, is the connection between people of different cultures to learn about and from one another, to grasp our shared humanity, and from the American perspective, to add value in the country in which we work, while broadening our personal understanding of the world and ourselves at the same time.

    It’s pretty amazing that we have this organization whose most important result is opening people up to one another. If that isn’t the foundation for peace, I don’t know what is. And in that sense, the Peace Corps is well named, indeed.

    If this seems a bit idealistic, well, it’s how I feel, and it reflects my experience of serving three years in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia. I think it also captures my son’s experience of spending two years as a PCV in Kazakhstan.

  • John:
    Most xlnt thoughts on the PC role in this world. Thank you; we needed that.
    One of my Russian students asked me, reasonably enough, “Why are you here?” Good question, I said. Then I replied that the “Korpus Mira” (Body of Peace) as they call it is an education program: We learned what Russia was about from them, and hopefully they learned about America through us. “As you can see,” I concluded hopefully, “we in the Peace Corps are good people, and there are millions more like us back home.” I usually added that our group should be named the Friendship Corps, war and peace having little to do with it.
    Two years after this conversation, “President” Bush said “Gee, we can use the Peace Corps. . .(for some political reason, I forgot what)” A few months later Russia yanked our visas and no more Korpus Mira in Russia.
    John McCafferty
    Russian Far East 4

  • How about if 1% (2,000) of the RPCVs donated $100 each for the express purpose of funding a Peace Corps lobbying arm. if this happens, I’m in.
    Paul Arfin
    Colombia 63-65

  • The Peace Corps mattered and continues to matter to millions of HCNs touched by the 200,000 odd members over the years. For example, both the President of Eritrea and the Prime MInister of Ethiopia were taught English by PCVs, as were others with whom some of us became involved through the E&ERPCV Association in attempting to stop a war between these two countries. We were warmly received by representative of both countries in our quest for peace. When President Clinton learned of these efforts, he marveled at volunteers who had served 35 years earlier still being involved with their host countries. The Peace Institute in DC credited us with being one of the reasons for the war coming to an end. The E&ERPCV Association also sponsored the first project of enCORPS, that enabled E&DRPCVs to return to share their lifelong learning, combined with their cultural sensitivity, with Eritrean government officials in a training of training workshop. I am certain that there are many other RPCVs who continue to make a contribution to both their country of service and to this country because of what they experienced during their service.

  • Fueled by Starbucks “Bold” blend, and contemplation of your thoughts, John, on “Does Peace Corps Matter?” I have some ideas for celebrating the 50th Anniversary. I would appreciate any and all comments.

    First, I think that the celebration should be year long and begin on 1.1.11 with a world wide visit to every country in which Peace Corps Volunteers served or are currently serving. The template would be that of the Millennium Celebration. A live cast from each country in turn, as day breaks, with a rolling credit superimposed showing how long Peace Corps had been in that country; how many total PCVs had served; a list of past and current projects; and, comments, if any, from HCNs. That would center the celebration squarely where it belongs. PC/W would have to coordinate. But, if outside funding could not be found, I believe that this could be a webcast of Peace Corps Connect and media could pick it up. Also, there is sufficient time for each country to plan its presentation. I would think five minutes would work.

    Then, each day of the year, an individual country could be highlighted with an in depth
    presentation of Peace Corps in that host country through the years; with a focus on the country’s history and development. Again, this could be a webcast on Peace Corps Connect and/or the Peace Corps government website.

    Suggestions for other events throughout the year, again taking advantage of existing technical platforms and programs could include:

    1) Universities that had Peace Corps training programs during the sixties and/or have current Master’s programs for RPCVs could hold conferences focusing on those efforts, then and now, and include RPCVs. Now, I know that higher education is absolutely desperate for funding for academic programs, and I would not see this has a priority for them. However, there should be ways to link this with ongoing research or programs. Certainly it is worth a try.

    2) Peace Corps Writers could host a “Festival of the Peace Corps Book.” C-Span broadcasts book festivals every week. I would think that this is a project for which funding, and not just the Peace Corps Fund, should be available; and, should be broadcast by C-Span.

    3) RPCV Alumni groups could also make presentations on Peace Corps Connect, highlighting current activities of RPCVs, both at home and in Host Countries.

    4) If Congress would schedule hearings on the future of the Peace Corps, this too could be broadcast on C-Span and could be a focus for RPCVs to testify.

    5) The National Archives and Records Administration, which administers the Presidential Libraries, could plan exhibits showing Peace Corps and training classes on how to access Peace Corps documents. Library of Congress as well as the Smithsonian could also have special exhibits. I would presume that this is already being planned, albeit on a small scale.

    6) Given today’s technology, all of this could be linked to existing blogs and journals and archived and shown over and over again. Independent websites such as this one as well as Peace Corps Online could be highlighted. We would not have to “promote” Peace Corps, we would simply show it.

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