European Affairs

The Peace Corps Remains Relevant and Independent     Print Email
Gaddi H. Vasquez

Gaddi H. VasquezWhen President John F. Kennedy called for the Peace Corps during the presidential election in 1960 and then founded it in 1961, there were many who thought it would be a disaster, a public diplomacy nightmare. But 45 years later, over 182,000 Americans have served in 138 countries around the world and have built one of the most powerful American legacies that this nation has ever witnessed. Today we continue to be the largest organization of its kind in the world because Americans still embrace that vision to promote peace, friendship and understanding.

One of the main reasons for the Peace Corps’ sustainability is that it has been an independent agency within the executive branch of the U.S. government. Our volunteers, Americans who receive a small monthly allowance and some basic benefits such as health insurance, can go into a community at the grass-roots level, attached to nothing but the Peace Corps and its mission within that country.

There is a profound commitment and belief in the U.S. Congress and in the White House that the independence of the Peace Corps is one of the cornerstones to preserving its strength, its viability and its capacity to carry out its mission, which is to engage in sustainable development work and, in the process, to promote cross-cultural understanding and build the kinds of bridges that only people can build.

A case in point is Peru, where, as a small boy, Alejandro Toledo got his first early education from Peace Corps volunteers in his village.With the help of his volunteer teachers, who had stayed in touch with him, he attended school in California and ultimately earned a doctorate in economics from Stanford University. He returned to Peru and eventually was elected president. Meanwhile, a previous Peruvian government had asked the Peace Corps to leave the country. But one of President Toledo’s first acts was to extend an invitation to the Peace Corps to return to Peru after a 27-year hiatus.

The Peace Corps remains viable by virtue of the fact that it serves at the invitation of the host country. Our emphasis on development work is important, but only our independence can ensure against any perception that we are affiliated or associated in a structural sense with any other agency of the U.S. government.

 

I am often asked how 20 percent of the volunteers from the United States today can serve in Moslem countries. The answer is simple. There is a clear and definite understanding that we are in that host country to train men and women. That has been the understanding from the Peace Corps’ inception, and it remains so today – as re-enunciated by President George W. Bush and as Congress has insisted.

This organization has succeeded so well because it has never lost sight of the critical importance of building crosscultural understanding. This is especially true in a post 9/11 world. During my visits to host countries, people have looked at me and remarked, “You don’t look like an American.” Those reactions remind me that we have much work to do in closing the gap of cross-cultural understanding. We at the Peace Corps believe that it is one of our responsibilities to put a human face on America.We have the crucial ability to illuminate the fact that America is made up of people of all faiths, all origins, and all backgrounds. And our capacity to do so with a clear and effective voice means that we must do it without any of the background noise that could be generated by distractions and deviations from our mission and the purpose of our work.

We believe in collaboration and partnerships. But we have been successful over these 45 years because of our independence, which is not only perceived but real. It allows us to work in countries where the government may have policy disagreements with the United States but where our volunteers can continue their work unabated and uninterrupted – and never engaging in the public debates that can create divisions and diminish their capacity to do their job, which is development work.

The Peace Corps is well positioned for the 21st century. We have more countries today inviting us to open programs than we can manage right now, given our funding levels. In addition, this year we achieved the highest number of volunteers that we have seen in 30 years. This says to me that against the backdrop of war, conflict, terrorism, AIDS and all the challenges that we are facing, Americans are still willing to do this incredibly difficult work.

We also have to deal with current global realities, and we are today expending more resources on developing safety and security planning.We are very forthright with the volunteers when they apply for service and inform them of the risks involved. Every country has a director, a staff, and a safety and security coordinator. There is an infrastructure and an emergency action plan for every possible scenario. During my four years as director, I have evacuated Peace Corps staff from nine countries under emergency circumstances.Not one volunteer has been injured in the process…Volunteers in Morocco, where we have had a very successful program for over 40 years, will tell you that they feel absolutely complete in their ability to do their job. Even with events that have occurred in the last several years, our volunteers in Jordan continue to do their work because the communities in which they serve become part of their protective bubble. The people in the village refer to “our” volunteers. They become a circle of family and friends, surrounding a volunteer, because they want to benefit from the work and the leadership that the volunteer is providing.

We have had to restructure some things and, most of all, we have improved our education. New strategies have been very successful. For example, in the eastern Caribbean, volunteers are teaching students with learning disabilities and other special needs. As a result, some education ministries are recruiting “special education” staff of their own.

In short, to remain effective the Peace Corps must remain relevant.

Gaddi H. Vasquez is the Director of the Peace Corps. In May 2006 he was nominated by President Bush to become U.S. representative to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 1-2 in the Spring/Summer of 2006.

 

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