Is The Peace Corps Worth the Price of a Cup of Coffee? Otto Koester (Ethiopia 1968-69 & Ghana 1970) Says Yes

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.


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  • Yes, President Bush called for doubling the Peace Corps. But the response from the Peace Corps community was, “we do not want to dillute the quality of our service” and “we will not engage in a numbers game.” It costs $60,000 a year to place a volunteer in the field. Most of that money is spent in identifiying precisely the right person for precisely the right job. I am all for matching applicants to tasks at hand but not when this process consumes most of the money available. Far better I say to use most of the funds to support the volunteer in the field, rather than spend it on the vast army of consultants, staff, services and such used to build the “perfect person for the perfect job.”

    When all is said and done it is the image left by the PCV that matters, not the number of latrines he/she builds.

  • Perfect timing Coyne, and please share this with Carrie! I agree with Otto, especially the value of the Third Goal…but as my friend Leo says, quality not numbers! Though I want to see more Volunteers, like more and better trained Response Volunteers returning to serve. And what Leo says about less “staff” should have us focus on what Sarge had to say about staff: “Peace Corps has an organizational chart with Volunteers at the top and staff at the bottom!” We are the Volunteers, not staff…some, like the attorney’s, are now kept beyond the “five years.” If we need a bigger budget, let it used to equip Volunteers to do what they do best, and include a medical care for those that return home having to pay for their own medical bills. Unlike USAID with a big budget, we build Communities not Monuments!
    Thanks Otto!
    Bob Arias
    Peace Corps Response Volunteer

  • Bob,
    Did you see Tom Herbert’s questions about what happened to the Crisis Corps? You would be the perfect one to answer that, and explain Peace Corps Response.

  • “Finding the perfect volunteer for the perfect job.” Interesting concept. In my experience (Micronesia 71-73) it was hard to tell who would even finish their two years. Some volunteers appeared to have it all, possess all the tools needed to be a good volunteer, and they terminate in a couple of months. Others you’re sure will be lynched by the HCN’s if not terminated by Peace Corps and they end up settling down, marrying in, and spending the rest of their lives there. You just can’t always tell.

  • Leo, most of the Peace Corps budget is not spent on “finding the right person for the job.” Volunteer recruitment and selection (the unit charged with assessing applicants and placing them in programs) was budgeted at just over 17 million. That 17 million is spent not only assessing applicants, but also doing all of the outreach and public affairs to get folks in the door.

    The lion’s share of the Peace Corps budget is spent on direct volunteer operations — about 3/4 of the 2013 budget.

    Source: 2013 CBJ –

  • Leo,
    I could find no evidence that Peace Corps spent most of the administrative cost trying to find ““Finding the perfect volunteer for the perfect job.” That may have been true fifty years ago, but I don’t think it is now. Review the Performance and Accountability Report for 2013. Copy and paste in the URL:

    There is not a breakdown on what staff costs are by function. But, it appears much money is spent on training, maintaining technology infrastructure, and personnel turnover. Perhaps you have evidence that supports your contention.

    I also think that applications are down and so there is not a vast pool from which to select. Finally, I think the cost per Volunteer is around $50,000, not $ 60,000. Peace Corps benefits, financially, from vacancy savings. This means PCVs who ET and staff position not filled immediately because of the five year rule.

  • Leo,

    I don’t see anything evidence to support your theory about all the money going to find the “perfect Volunteer for the perfect job.” Quite the contrary. I think that applications are down, and the pool of applicants smaller. According to the agency assessments and pr releases, the “traditional volunteer” is young and inexperienced, hence the need to expand Peace Corps Response to non-RPCVs.

    I reviewed the Performance and Accountability Report for 2013 and did not see any breakdown of which functions got the most staff money. These reports are available on the Peace Corps website.

  • Joanne

    Check the accounts. Less than 20% goes to the care and feeding of the PCVs. The rest goes to overhead which is mainly contractors to help identify the right person for the right job. That is why E&E RPCVs created “Encore” 20 years ago that morphed into the Crisis Core and then the Response Core. We offered experienced RPCVs to do temporary assignments at far less cost than PCVs or development professionals. Why, because we cut overhead to a minimum.

  • Leo,
    “The rest goes to overhead which is mainly contractors to help identify the right person for the right job.” Do you have any evidence of this?

    The contract staff is mainly overseas doing support and training. The Washington DC/HQ staff is composed of civil service employees.

    Would you write an article to post about “Encore”? It sounds very important.

  • Joanne

    I was on the board of the National Peace Corps Association where I had plenty of opportunity to see Peace Corps spending up close. The Washington group is as replete with contractors as are the overseas operations. I wrote about “Encore,” since it was my idea, when we put it out in the market two decades ago. The concept was to give RPCVs a second chance to serve as is the basic concept of the Crisis Core and the Response Core.

  • Leo,
    I would really like to know more about Encore. When E&E created Encore, was it an actual operation or a plan that was successfully adopted by Peace Corps? Any idea that originates in the RPCV community and influences Peace Corps is, I think, so very important to document.

    Contractors or not, today Peace Corps is not spending the bulk of its $60,000 (your figure, not mine) on finding the “right volunteer for the right job.” Its agency reports are replete with the difficulty of finding trained applicants. Indeed, Peace Corps Response is developing into a short term program for highly trained professionals, who were not necessarily in the Peace Corps and who do not receive language and cross-culture training. This has to be done, according to Peace Corps because they can not find “the right volunteer for the right job”
    otherwise. However, PC Response is still a very small part of the overall operation.

    With the Global Seed Health Volunteer Partnership, Peace Corps does make the final selection of Volunteers, but it funds Global Health $3 million dollars to do initial recruiting and selection for professional qualifications, as well as ongoing clinical support overseas.

  • Joanne

    The heart of the matter is if the Peace Corps is a development agency or en effort to improve America’s image abroad. Of course doing good deeds influences our image. But the Peace Corps was designed to place Americans in close contact with people in other countries and through that contact better their understanding of us and allow us to better understand others. Thus as I always say the Peace Corps is far more important for the image it leaves with others, and indeed, all Americans as well, than in how many latrines we build.

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