Commentary - December 12th, 2013
2:45 pm
Thu December 12, 2013

Peace Corps

With the first 50 years of the Peace Corps behind us and more than 200,000 former volunteers, we need 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 a volunteer corps of 100,000 Americans each year. But at its high point, the maximum number sent has been 15,000 volunteers in a given year. In 2006  former President George W. Bush called for a doubling of Peace Corps' size, but to no avail. In 2012 and 2013 there have been just over 7,000 volunteers, significantly less than the original goal.

Montana has done its share to support Peace Corps' effort. Relative to  population, nationally we rank 7th for the number of Montanans sent overseas. Among mid-sized universities, the University of Montana currently ranks 12th, and Montana State University 16th, for students who become volunteers.  In 2012 Missoula as a community was 2nd nationwide for all metropolitan areas its size.

Given these rankings, it is no surprise that the Western Montana Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group is among the most active organizations of its kind in the country.  In addition to supporting local soup kitchens, food banks, and others in need, the Association donates money toward projects in El Salvador, Moldova and other developing countries where Montana volunteers serve. In western Montana,  former Peace Corps volunteers currently hold office in the Montana legislature and on a county commission, work as faculty and administrators at the University of Montana, Montana State University,  Carroll College, the U.S. Forest service, as teachers in the schools, and in a variety of capacities in other organizations.

In addition to a much larger Peace Corps, President Kennedy also imagined a U.S. public that would become much more engaged in helping third world countries overcome poverty, disease and illiteracy.   Although the size he envisioned has not been achieved, Peace Corps nevertheless has proven itself  to be remarkably effective. Its record for promoting human development and American interests is virtually unmatched, and the demand for volunteers by countries in Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and Asia continues to grow.  Volunteers now serve in more than 70 countries, with 10 additional countries waiting in line.  Peace Corps is widely recognized as representing the best face of America overseas, and as one of our nation's most cost-effective ways for promoting our international interests. 

With rapid globalization and the widening gap between the developed and developing world, Peace Corps has adapted its priorities to meet 21st century challenges. Education, creation of better educational infrastructure, development of curriculum, and training of new teachers continue to be major goals as before, but improvement of health conditions, better access to safe water, nutrition and sanitation, together with promotion of entrepreneurship, women's empowerment and youth development are receiving increasing priority. At the same time, face-to-face encounters with everyday citizens and learning of local languages and cultures helps people of other countries understand that the United States and its citizens are about more than wealth and power.

These priorities are also reflected in projects undertaken by recent University of Montana volunteers, such as working with street children in Cape Verde to raise funds for a community center, or teaching local women in Ghana to build more sanitary latrines to prevent water borne diseases. Or helping women in rural El Salvador access safe and fuel-efficient cook stoves, and training Ethiopian HIV/Aids workers how to keep track of victims' medication and treatment plans, improving conditions for childbirth, and reducing infant/maternal mortality.  More than ever before, Peace Corps is focused on developing practical skills and addressing problems of development.

But part of Peace Corps's original mission also is for volunteers to return with knowledge and experience that benefit their communities at home, and to help fellow citizens understand how our nation can assist developing countries with their needs. Why is it, then, that actual Peace Corps funding in FY 2010 stood at $400 mil., whereas every year since then it has decreased to the point that for the 2014 fiscal year, the House of Representatives wants to allocate no more than $356 mil.  With these projections, Peace Corps's total cost will be no more than approximately $1.20 per person –- about the  same amount as a single cup of coffee for an entire year. Compare this to the 2014 budget request of $526 bil. for the Department of Defense, which is projected to come to about $1,664 per person  in 2014.  Is it not time to ask why such a disparity has come about?

All of us recall President Kennedy's famous call to action when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”. But 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.”

Is one extra dollar for every resident of the United State too much to ask of Congress in order for the Peace Corps to continue its work? Think about it. If you can, contact Montana's Congressman and two Senators to let them know your views.  Congress is scheduled to act on the Peace Corps budget in the next few weeks.

Submitted by Otto Koester, Senior Fellow, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, and Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia and Ghana from 1968 to 1970.