Peace Corps 50 years old today

The Peace Corps was launched on this day half a century ago by President John F. Kennedy, who declared its mission in his executive order:

To promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.

The idea for an army of American do-gooders didn’t really begin with Kennedy, but he’s the one who gets credit for creating it (against the complaints of critics, like Richard Nixon, who initially opposed it as some left-wing haven for draft-dodgers).

To paraphrase Kennedy’s famous statement, the idea was: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for some other country.”

Despite the lofty language of the Peace Corps, it’s worth remembering there was a political calculus behind it all. We were in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, which was winning hearts and minds by sending health care workers all over the world.

Kennedy saw that the U.S. also needed some way to exercise “soft power” and demonstrate that Americans are willing to share their talents, labor and time to help the less fortunate around the world. Since 1961, more than 200,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps in 139 countries.

The man who probably did the most to set the course for the Peace Corps, Kennedy’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, died this year. Shriver clearly knew the political agenda, but few question that his commitment was more about achieving a social good using this new organization of eager, young and optimistic people. The program today enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support as a program almost embedded in our sense of ourselves.

The Pacific Northwest has contributed a lot of volunteers to the Peace Corps over the years. The UW is reportedly the top producer of Peace Corps volunteers four years running, though I’m told on a per student basis the University of Puget Sound has the UW beat. The point is, we’re big here on the Peace Corps.

So where does it go from here?

Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, gives his perspective in the Huffington Post. Quigley notes that the Peace Corps volunteers of today are not sandal-wearing hippies but social entrepreneurs:

The Peace Corps helps Americans know the world as it is and as it is becoming. In today’s interconnected world we need to know how the world really works, especially in developing countries where there are myriad emerging business opportunities. Basically, the Peace Corps is a 21st century job-training program. It provides the kind of training in language, adaptability, working in foreign cultures that simply can’t be taught in business school because to truly understand the world you have to live as others do, seeing the world as they do.

For a less rosy view of the current state of affairs, and worth, of today’s Peace Corps, you can read Charles Kenny’s “Corps Concerns” in Foreign Policy. Kenny says a new, more flexible approach is needed. For example:

The Peace Corps’ extended presence in its volunteer host countries, moreover, comes at a considerable cost. Lex Rieffel of the Brookings Institution suggests that more than half of the Peace Corps’ overall budget went to staffing overseas offices compared to 28 percent that went to supporting volunteers in the field in 2004.

For my part, it’s hard to imagine what this world would look like if the Peace Corps hadn’t existed. I can’t even begin to count how many of my friends had their lives and career paths significantly altered by the time they spent working as a volunteer.

This Friday, starting at 12:30 in the UW’s Mary Gates Hall room 258, several recently returned Peace Corps volunteers will make themselves available to talk with anyone interested. For more info, see the UW career center.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.