Monday, September 19, 2011

The Soft Power of the Peace Corps at 50 1961–2011

By Gary Berg-Cross

I was never a member of the Peace Corps (PC) but I have friends who were and spent 2 productive and fondly remember their overseas service. The creation PC was part of President Kennedy’s bold action during his Administration’s first forty days. It demonstrated a high commitment to what he called the fight “against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty and war itself.” His original vision was to recruit 100,000 volunteers to serve abroad annually. Even in the friendlier days of the 60s he never got to that goal and in 50 years the whole program is short of a million. Today's shrinking visions and timidity leave us with only about 8,600 volunteers serving now.

many former volunteers are coning to DC in Sept to celebrate the 50th Anniversary. There will be lots of events and DC is probably going to have a better community spirit while they are here. We should welcome them as part of the best we as a country have to give. I was reminded of this reading an article on the value of serving in the PC in China:

Like many of the five hundred Americans who have served in Peace Corps China, I arrived in 1996 with no background in Chinese language, history, or culture.

Two years later, I left as a fluent speaker of Mandarin, an achievement that is common in the Peace Corps, where volunteers enjoy remarkably close contact with local communities. Most importantly, I taught English in a college that had no other foreign teachers besides the Peace Corps volunteers. My students came from the countryside, and many were the first members of their families to go beyond middle school. Often their fathers were illiterate; their grandmothers had bound feet. And yet these young people were studying English, part of China's effort to engage with the outside world after decades of Maoist isolation.

Fifteen years later, I'm still in touch with nearly one hundred former students. Most of them teach English in rural middle schools - teacher-training has always been the main priority of the Peace Corps in China. And one of the primary goals of the Peace Corps worldwide is to promote a better understanding of Americans.

It’s worth noting that the article was written partly in response to a Colorado Republican Representative (Mike Coffman) who recently called for the Obama administration to end the program in China. He described it as "an insult to the taxpayers of the United States" because not all the volunteers now work in rural areas. Some teach English in urban areas. Coffman’s see China in terms of job competition rather than social bonding and cultural understanding or passing on that broad commitment to the fight against the enlarged version of our common enemies: tyranny, poverty and war. Maybe we have to add to that ignorance, reflexive scapegoating, pollution and overpopulation now.

We can still value the 3 simple, but proven, guiding principles for the PC:

1. A meta-help approach - help others help themselves,

2. Help them learn about the United States through individual, highly-personalized contact, and

3. Encourage volunteers share their experiences with other Americans when they return home.

Republican Reps may think differently but there’s a consensus among the past volunteers that principle 2 helped foster a better understanding of the U.S. in the communities they served. The list of heads of states political leaders that studied with PC volunteers included Alejandro Toledo of Peru, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Isaias Afworki of Eritrea and Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia. In a recent survey 93% of responders believed that the Peace Corps as a whole has improved America's image globally. This may be a bit hard to see like the effect of the stimulus on employment since the US policy has also been following other principles recently. We probably need 100,000 to overcome the legacy of recent wars, torture, backing dictators & training their militia and the like.

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