KELLY: Give more to the Peace Corps

The United States government should make promoting and funding the Peace Corps higher priorities

On October 14, 1960, at 2 a.m., then-Senator John F. Kennedy spoke to a large crowd at the University of Michigan. During his extemporaneous address, he questioned the willingness of students to serve abroad. By the next day, they had responded with a petition carrying the signatures of 1,000 students who decided to rise to his challenge; thus a movement was born.

Since its formal creation in 1961, the Peace Corps has continued to succeed in its central goal of providing individuals who possess limited means with technical skills, in an effort to promote both social and economic development abroad. Even after more than five decades, the Peace Corps has retained its crucial importance to other nations. At a time when global perceptions of America focus on its materialism and wealth, the Peace Corps has the unique opportunity to reduce the global animosity towards the U.S.

America’s global image is, to put it plainly, in a state of crisis. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only 21 percent of Turkish citizens expressed a favorable opinion of the U.S. and only 16 percent of Egyptian citizens expressed the same. The problem is not limited to the Middle East, however. Citizens of both Greece and Argentina, according to the same survey, expressed favorable views of the U.S. only 39 and 41 percent of the time, respectively.

By helping people outside the United States to more fully understand American culture, through personal instruction and the development of individual relationships, Peace Corps volunteers fulfill a crucial role in helping to dismantle commonly held misconceptions about American culture.

Nevertheless, the Peace Corps is arguably the most underutilized federal agency. The U.S. currently devotes $49.6 billion — roughly one percent of the federal budget — to foreign aid overall. The Peace Corps’ 2014 budget is projected to be $379 million. To put that number in perspective, the Department of Defense spends more per year on its military marching bands.

The current amount of funding devoted to the Peace Corps insults President Kennedy’s vision and drastically underestimates the potential of its more than 7,000 highly motivated and educated volunteers. The U.S. would better serve both its own interests and those of foreign citizens by increasing the size and scope of the Peace Corps.

To truly institute a shift in world opinion, the United States should invite participation in its culture instead of stubbornly imposing it. Too often, the most visible representation of American culture abroad comes either in the form of Hollywood films or in U.S.-based fast food franchises. Foreigners who look for national values in such objects can be forgiven for identifying U.S. culture as materialistic and superficial at first glance.

The true core national values of the United States — opportunity without prejudice, liberty, and multiculturalism, to name a few — have been the central values of the Peace Corps since it was started over 50 years ago. With their commitment to foreign service and American ideals, Peace Corps volunteers are perfectly suited to the task of disseminating American values. In order for the Corps to express American values more effectively, it must be reinvented.

For an agency that can both export peace and signal the United States’ highest values to the world, the current funding circumstances should be viewed as egregious. Over the years, we have lost sight of the power of example provided by idealistic young civilians to those whom they serve. A re-budgeted Peace Corps could serve as a peace- and value-exporting instrument of significant benefit to U.S. interests.

On the matter of funding, increased cash could be provided through diverting funds from other government agencies, such as USAID, that are involved in foreign aid. USAID receives nearly triple the amount of funding as the Peace Corps. A more equitable distribution of funds would give heightened standing to the Peace Corps within the foreign aid system. Even a minor increase in the Peace Corps budget would be both practicable and substantial.

To increase the Corps’ prominence in the public eye, it may be fruitful to appoint someone with high stature as head of the Corps, or at least as a nominal head of its public relations. UNICEF’s current practice of appointing celebrity ambassadors has been quite successful in attracting volunteers and donations. Comparable administrative reform could help to attract more enthusiastic volunteers to the organization.

For partner countries, a policy of greater inclusiveness is in order. Of the 139 countries that the Peace Corps has served in its history, the organization currently operates in only 65. The Corps should have to judge a country based only upon how much it needs the Corps services, not upon the government’s opinion of its leaders. In the 1970s, the Peace Corps was visibly and deliberately removed from India in response to military developments in the region that the U.S. had disapproved of. The use of the Peace Corps as political leverage, for whatever reason, is egregious.

Our generation has been passed the torch for the Peace Corps’ stewardship, but that flame will not burn unless we can provide it with a new spark.

Conor Kelly is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.

Published February 25, 2014 in Opinion

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