Now isn’t the time to cut Peace Corps funding
by Taylor Dibbert (Guatemala 2006-08)
first published by The Hill 7/5/17
Donald Trump’s transactional tendencies, proclivity for autocrats and superficial grasp of world affairs means that there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about American foreign policy in the coming years. With the release of the Trump administration’s proposed budget, it’s obvious that the president doesn’t understand the importance of American soft power. Trump’s plans to gut funding for international development, foreign aid and diplomacy are woefully misguided. He needs to urgently reconsider his current approach because it’s harmful to American interests.
More specifically, team Trump plans to reduce Peace Corps spending by close to $12 million immediately. While many had been worried about an even bigger Peace Corps funding cut, this is not good news and could portend even deeper cuts in the years ahead. It’s time for Trump to reconsider.
Spending on the Peace Corps, an institution that’s always received broad bipartisan support, is virtually nothing in a wider budgetary context — $410 million for fiscal year 2017 —yet the benefits for the U.S. are huge (though not necessarily easy to quantify).
This U.S. assistance helps people around the world and enhances America’s reputation. There are well over 200,000 Americans who have served since 1961. Over 7,000 volunteers currently work in more than 60 countries.
Peace Corps volunteers are doing important, unglamorous work that’s consistently underappreciated – from health to education, agriculture, the environment and more. Besides, volunteers are connecting with foreigners from across the globe and humanizing the U.S. for thousands upon thousands of non-Americans.
Volunteers aren’t just development practitioners. In many cases, volunteers concurrently serve as grassroots diplomats, community leaders and the personification of America abroad.
Through its network of volunteers, the Peace Corps ensures that the U.S. has a generally positive presence among communities in Latin America, Africa, Asia and elsewhere — often in some very remote locations. The organization doesn’t just provide the U.S with unique access to help people. Volunteers are part of ongoing conversations that build trust, and potentially win hearts and minds. Since volunteers live in host communities and work with local partners, doors – ones that would likely remain inaccessible to other foreigners – are open.
The Peace Corps is a commitment to work and live modestly for twenty-seven months. But volunteers get a lot out of the experience. It’s true that the skills or benefits — including cultural and linguistic skills — acquired in the Peace Corps don’t always translate neatly into a career back home. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t significant.
Because of the Peace Corps, I became a better communicator, friend and colleague. The Peace Corps helped me become a stronger, more mentally tough person. The Peace Corps helped me become more patient and less impulsive.
In Guatemala, I was part of a team that helped bring potable water to rural towns. The Peace Corps showed me the importance of approaching problems with humility, spending more time listening than talking and consistently prioritizing local knowledge and context. Besides, some of my closest friends today are those I met during those twenty-seven months.
In a more superficial sense, I’m sure that my Peace Corps service helped me gain acceptance to a selective master’s degree program (because my grades as an undergraduate were disappointing, at best). Over the years, many people have told me that having the words “Peace Corps” on my resume would only help me.
Ten years on, I’ve never been more certain that joining the Peace Corps is the best decision I’ve ever made. Besides, if you ask around, most returned volunteers will tell you that – for whatever reason – they got more out of the experience than they put in.
No American president can erode the culture of altruism, adventure and patriotism that has permeated the Peace Corps since the organization’s inception. The Peace Corps — a highly underrated part of America’s foreign policy toolkit — exemplifies the best of U.S. internationalism.
The president needs to wake up and work with Congress to ensure the organization gets the financial backing (a minimum of $410 million for fiscal year 2018) and public recognition it deserves. Doing anything less would be a colossal mistake.
Taylor Dibbert, a writer based in Washington, D.C., served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala from 2006 to 2008 and is the author of “Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth.” Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.