The Peace Corps in the post-Trump era

Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from  Alana de Joseph (Mali 1992–94)

 

Here are three arguments for why a Biden-Harris administration should prioritize this federal agency — and key steps to get there.

 

by William G. Moseley (Mali 1987–89)
MinnPost Feb. 3, 2021

 

Americans suffer from a tendency to look inward, an affliction exacerbated by isolationist political winds as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, the United States needs the Peace Corps, the brainchild of the late Minnesota Sen. and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, to help our citizens engage with the rest of the world; cultivate future foreign service leaders, and foster a more climate-friendly international development approach. Here are three arguments for why a Biden-Harris administration should prioritize this federal agency — and key steps to get there.

William G. Moseley

First, the Peace Corps could help the U.S. emerge from four years of isolationism by rebuilding person-to-person bridges between Americans and other peoples. Since its creation during the Kennedy administration in 1961, more than 240,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers in 142 countries. While the Peace Corps is commonly thought of as a grass-roots development organization that places Americans for two years of service in communities in the Global South, it also serves as a vital conduit for cross-cultural exchange. Most former Peace Corps volunteers, including myself, will tell you that they learned far more from the people they served than those communities learned from them. Many volunteers leave their service more grounded, empathetic, and willing to serve their communities back home. We need to more greatly acknowledge and value this cross-cultural exchange aspect of the Peace Corps.

Second, the Peace Corps could help train young Americans and develop vital human capital at home. As a college professor, I can tell you that young people are hurting. Recent graduates are stymied by a lack of employment opportunities, and those with international interests face even worse prospects. America’s young people need hope and a more robust Peace Corps would not only offer people jobs, but a chance to better understand the world and prepare for a career in government service, teaching or health care. Young people voted for the Biden-Harris ticket in overwhelming margins and making them a priority in government programs is an investment in the future.

Furthermore, the federal government needs talented, young civil servants. We are in the midst of a massive renewal of the civil service as the baby boom generation retires, a trend that has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. State Department has been especially hard hit, facing the one-two punch of a previous administration that was hostile to diplomacy and disease that disproportionately threatens older employees in the workplace. For years the Peace Corps has served as a pipeline of new employees into the federal government, and especially into the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. These agencies are well served by employees who, because of Peace Corps service, are grounded in the realities of the Global South and understand the day-to-day existence of working-class people in other countries.

Third, conventional development approaches that emphasize big infrastructure investments and the use of exogenous technology are not only expensive but often detrimental to the environment and food security. While the Peace Corps sends volunteers around the world to engage in many forms of work, they have long had personnel working in a variety of climate-related fields, including sustainable agriculture, urban gardening, nutrition, environmental education, conservation, forestry, and water resources management. In most cases, the Peace Corps emphasizes low-tech approaches that are accessible to the poorest of the poor and help build a more resilient natural resource base. The Peace Corps should be at the center of American efforts to address climate change and global hunger.

 

A Biden-Harris administration can do a few things in its first 100 days in office to make the Peace Corps more central to its efforts to re-emerge from global isolation, engage and employ young people, and fight climate change.

First, all volunteers were pulled back from service during COVID-19 and it will be a huge lift to reactivate the agency. This will take money. The Trump administration had asked for $396.2 million in its latest annual budget request, down from the current level of funding of $410 million. This is a ridiculously low amount given the much-needed Peace Corps reopening and the fact that many more people apply to the Peace Corps than there are positions available. A more reasonable amount would be $550 million, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the $636 billion budgeted for defense in 2021.

Second, appoint an articulate and visionary Peace Corps director to reimagine the role of agency and connect with the U.S. public, members of Congress, and foreign leaders. While a former volunteer has only led the agency a few times, ex-volunteers with extensive international experience have often made the best directors.

With the possible exception of JFK, the Peace Corps has been a peripheral agency for American presidents. As we emerge from isolationism, youth unemployment, a devastating foreign service, and climate-change denialism, the Biden-Harris Administration must recognize and elevate the import of this little agency in moving its plans forward.

William G. Moseley is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Geography, and Director of the Program for Food, Agriculture & Society, at Macalester College in St. Paul. He served in the Peace Corps in Mali from 1987-89 and currently sits on a scientific advisory body to the U.N. Committee on World Food Security.

 

18 Comments

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  • Rational and compelling! I would also emphasize the positive impact that a restoration of Peace Corps overseas will have on restoring confidence in an America that lives its values!.

  • The three most important United States programs to emerge from the experience of World War II were the Marshal Plan, the GI Bill and the Peace Corps. I believe that the time now is to reexamine key features of the Peace Corps. Now is an excellent time to do it because there are no serving Volunteers in the field. In the past, the transition time was also a time of uncertainty for those in the field.

  • Bill, great piece. Greetings from Arizona. Your and my memories of West Africa are compelling to both of us and to many others. I hope many others have the drive and opportunity too live and learn more of theirselves and different cultures. Both their country of service and the US will benefit immensely. Today’s world is no longer as isolated as it once might have been. We must learn to confront new realities peacefully. Patrick.

  • William,

    You have written an article, which like most in this forum, that sings the largely unheralded and unique history of Peace Corps. Clearly you have things to say that need to be heard. But what was you starting point when you sat down to write your article?

    Why is the other side of the coin never even considered by those write about the future of the Peace Corps?
    Why is no one addressing the question of whether the Peace Corps should continue its existence?

    Starting with the premise that the Peace Corps is good … therefore we must keep it and even advocate for even greater funding to do more good, hardly seems to be the place to initiate an honest dialogue.
    Clearly this venue is skewed toward the true believers. Fair enough!

    I do not have a preconceived idea whether the Peace Corps should be continued or not. I, like most rational decision makers, feel that these decisions deserve to be base the most honest and balanced discourse possible. Where is the place for this discourse to occur?

    William, I think there is clearly one place where we are in perfect agreement: The Peace Corps will not deserve to continue its existence if it does not make meaningful changes.

    The question to me is: Where does a person, RPCV or not, go to enter into honest and productive dialogue that
    has an impact on the decisions that are needed.

    • Kevin Denny: Instead of playing dialectical games, why don’t you just lay out your specific concerns? That might begin the dialogue you are looking for. Mr. Mosely outlined the reasons why he thinks the Peace Corps is needed and why its role should be expanded, I’d be interested in seeing why you think it shouldn’t, if that is your position. Seems to me this is an appropriate forum for that discussion. David

  • Bill, great thanks for taking the time to present these cogent arguments for a reimagined Peace Corps. In terms of your comment that “Peace Corps emphasizes low-tech approaches that that are accessible to the poorest of the poor”, one might look for guidance to the Marina Orth Foundation in Colombia. Its founder, Maureen Orth, was a Volunteer in 1964 when a local group from a remote mountain village asked here for assistance in building its first school. That school did get built–and from its vary beginning, it was owned by the community. It let to the initiation of a Foundation with a mission to give its students and teachers in 31 public schools the tools to compete in the 21st Century. By 2020, that mission goal has resulted in 586 teachers being trained variously in technology, socio-emotional abilities, English, STEM and Robotics. Its impact on formerly marginalized students has been equally impressive. In 2019 alone with 3,380 trained in English; 4,000 in technology; 1,005 in STEM and Robotics; 482 in Vocational Training; and 20 that won scholarships to pursue a higher education degree. In 2020, the Foundation’s students placed in the top 10 out of 55 countries that participated in the Robotics World Championship in Estonia. In 2018, its all girls team won a gold medal at RoboWAVE in New Mexico. The Foundation’s IT program has connected children in rural communities and others who live in some of the more remote areas of Colombia so they and their families can see and use a computer for the first time to reduce educational inequality. It has provided more than 7,500 XO laptops to its students. Recently, it introduced XO laptops in Colombia’s poorest and most neglected department, the Choco, where extreme poverty
    has historically been all too common.

    None of what the Foundation has accomplished is suggestive of a cookie cutter approach to development. Rather, at a time when Peace Corps’ return to the field is at a date unknown, perhaps it represents an opportunity to celebrate the Agency’s 3rd Goal–a dividend that keeps on justifying why our country should continue to support a Peace Corps. The key to the Foundation’s achievements in a Colombian village so remote that it could not be located on any map in a 6th Grade Geography Book is in its raison ‘d’etre:of ownership. It is through this concept that marginalized students are set on a path of educational advancement, allowing them to compete in a whole wide world of opportunities.

  • Kevin, I would hope that such a discussion could happen here. I don’t think it is the “other side of the coin”. Over sixty years, there have been 230,000 plus PCVs in 141 countries in hundreds of different programs, most changed as the need of countries changed and technology changed. Every experience was unique and valuable. The tragedy for me is that history is so scattered and has not been protected by the various Peace Corps administrations. The most important questions are What worked, What did not work and why. The answers to those questions should be the foundation for moving forward with Peace Corps.

    Jeremiah, Thank you so much for your excellent suimmary of all the wonderful work that Maureen Orth has done over more than fifty five years. When I read your comment, what comes to mine is the Spanish saying – “Poco a poco, se anda legos”. Little by litttle, one walks a long way. Maureen Orth began with the simple decision to listen and respond to what a group from her assigned community wanted, a “felt need” and it grew over the years, the years of turmoil in Colombia, into a powerful foundation doing exceedingly important work all over the Colombia.

  • I’ve often wondered whether the Peace Corps, the original concept, had an expiration date and if it wasn’t time for a reformulation and maybe a new name.

  • Joanne,

    You write:

    “The most important questions are What worked, What did not work and why. The answers to those questions should be the foundation for moving forward with Peace Corps.”

    Thank you. Thank you. That is precisely my view.

    But, before proceeding any further, there is a prior question I wrestle with: Is this a useful venue to express our thoughts if the real goal is to have a seat at the table where the decision are to be made about the future of the Peace Corps?

  • Kevin, The National Peace Corps Association has been holding town halls during the last few months, virtually, of course. They have developed a plan for the future. They will be holding a virtual forum on February 11, 2021.
    The focus will be on Peace Building and Equity. My impression is that there may not be much opportunity for discussion.

    Here is the link: https://www.peacecorpsconnect.org/events/peace-corps-and-peace-building-through-a-diversity-lens?utm_source=National+Peace+Corps+Association+E-Newsletter&utm_campaign=5f63f1340d-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_03_03_04_55_COPY_02&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_be0534d28a-5f63f1340d-118547649&mc_cid=5f63f1340d&mc_eid=edb727065d

    Peace Corps has not had an open discussion/conference with people, particularly RPCVs. since the early 60s, as far as I know. Perhaps someone has more information than I.

    • Joanne, NPCA has pulled together an extensive document called “Peace Corps Connect to the Future”, a suggested roadmap for the future of Peace Corps written by various RPCV focus groups. You can Google it and pull up a summary or the whole report. It is a compelling read and would be interesting to get a discussion going on how our readers react to the document, or other thoughts on the Peace Corps of the future.

      I also very much appreciate William Moseley’s well written, thoughtful article about the endearing value of Peace Corps and would welcome a discussion of potential improvements, as you point out, Joanne, at a time when there are no Volunteers in the field.

  • Another great argument for Peace Corps is the wonderful percentage of female PCVs. PC is a great place for women to hone their leadership that is crucial to America’s future.

    Regards to all,
    Will Newman, Nepal 1963-65
    Nepal Country Director, 1992-95

    • Hi Will,

      Very much appreciate your comment about the number of women RPCVs who got their professional start in Peace Corps. That’s what “Women of Peace Corps Legacy” is founded on–bringing together RPCVs who pay it forward in support of women and girls empowerment.

  • Now is an opportune time for reflection on Peace Corps’ efficacy and appropriateness going forward. Do the initial three goals still make sense? Has Peace Corps adapted to changing needs and attitudes toward development, inter-cultural exchange, and attitudes around neo-colonialist tendencies? How does Peace Corps fit into the national service paradigm? Peace Corps has Volunteers have long engage in education, food security, public health, technology, is there not an opportunity to expand Volunteer service to address social justice, climate change, and reconciliation?

    During this imposed hiatus, is there not an opportunity to forge a new vision of a re-energized Peace Corps that is open to a broader swath of Americans to serve the global community in meaningful ways? I certainly feel this to be the time!

    • I agree with you that now is time to re-examine the Three Goals. However, I believe we have to begin at the beginning. Specifically with the First Goal, we need to answer the questions: What worked and why and What did not work, and why.

      As to the question of re-energized Peace Corps, it is so important to remember that Peace Corps only goes where invited and the programs are what the host country wants and not what we feel woud “be best for them.”

  • Thanks Joanne.

    In as much as “it is so important to remember that Peace Corps only goes where invited and the programs are what the host country wants and not what we feel would ‘be best for them,” experience shows that, in some cases, Volunteers also represent political currency and have been “invited” under many pretexts. For example, are PCVs continuing to teach English or Math in countries where Peace Corps has been present for generations displacing local teachers? Are there evidence-based data that justify Peace Corps service as an effective development initiative. With 60 years of experience, Peace Corps can/should make the case from a position of supportive qualitative and quantitative data. I fully support Peace Corps service (and readily submit that having served as a PCV has changed my life and my worldview in immeasurable ways), nevertheless, we do a disservice if we rely on emotive recruitment literature and personal testimony alone to plan for and adapt Peace Corps for the future.

    • Thank you so much. I could not agree with you more. Right now, we are in a celebratory mood, promoting all the good which Peace Corps has done. We need to figure out how to do that and still do the kind of re-examination you are suggesting.

      President Biden seems to be moving quickly to staff the Peace Corps. In the past, sometimes it was months before the new staff was appointed and approved. I think what is happening is good.
      In 2019, there were attempts in Congress by some Republicans to defund the Peace Corps for one year. There are “critical” observations about the Peace Corps coming from non-Peace Corps quarters, that might want to capitalize on facts in a “re-examination” of the Peace Corps. So having a strong staff in place is prudent.

      I really appreciate your thoughtful comments.

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