After COVID-19 evacuations, volunteers fear for future of Peace Corps

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Pedro Razo, one of the thousands of Peace Corps volunteers who were called back to the U.S. due to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by: Jose M. Osorio / Abaca Press via Reuters

NEW YORK — One month after COVID-19 prompted the Peace Corps to temporarily halt operations, former and prospective volunteers are wondering how the organization can regain its footing. Funding challenges could continue to complicate a return to normal, even once international travel and nonessential work resume, they said.

“A lot of us, when we saw the news of the worldwide evacuation, we immediately worried about the long-term survival of the Peace Corps. Peace Corps is one of those programs of soft diplomacy, based on partnership and the belief that development rises the tide and that rising tide helps communities empower themselves,” said Greg Emerson, a member of the New York City Peace Corps Association board and a former volunteer in Morocco and Peru.

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“It seems a likely target for the current administration to further punish the people in government or the programs favored by Democratic voters. That said, who knows? I think it is a 50-50 chance that the Peace Corps survives at all,” Emerson continued.

The Peace Corps conducted its largest mass evacuation of more than 7,300 American volunteers from 61 countries in mid-March, as nations closed their borders and international airlines canceled flights. The agency had completed regional and country evacuations before, such as during the Iraq War and the Ebola outbreak, but had never withdrawn all of its volunteers at once.

“It is a 50-50 chance that the Peace Corps survives at all.”

— Greg Emerson, board member, New York City Peace Corps Association

The evacuation was chaotic for many volunteers based in remote locations, from Ukraine to Colombia, due to flight cancellations and a scramble to charter private planes. In some cases, volunteers had only a few hours to pack their things. The lack of flights restricted the organization’s ability to perform safe aeromedical evacuations for sick or injured volunteers, the Peace Corps press office told Devex in an email.

“This is unprecedented, this scale of a complete and entire evacuation of volunteers. We have never seen anything quite like it,” said Glenn Blumhorst, president and CEO of the nonprofit National Peace Corps Association, which supports returned volunteers.

For the Peace Corps to reestablish operations, country borders will first need to be reopened, and the number of international flights must increase, Blumhorst said.

“A number of the programs will have to be rebuilt from the ground up again,” Blumhorst continued.

Some volunteers, such as a 23-year-old who asked their name be withheld, returned to the U.S. without a home to stay in or family to stay with. Returned volunteers were directed to self-quarantine for 14 days once they reached the U.S. This posed a challenge for the volunteer, who grew up in foster care.

“The fact you are saying I have to find somewhere to quarantine for 14 days — that is not possible in my situation,” the volunteer said. “We put pressure on them for those of us who do not have the traditional family narrative, that you need to support us more.”

The Peace Corps paid for this volunteer to self-quarantine in a hotel in New Orleans for two weeks, and they are now staying with friends while they search for work.

The organization is providing returned volunteers with monthly “readjustment allowances,” which range from $375 to $475, in addition to an emergency evacuation allowance. The stipends will continue to be paid for the number of remaining months that volunteers were scheduled to serve, not exceeding 12 months. Returned volunteers are no longer eligible for health insurance through the Peace Corps and cannot receive federal unemployment benefits since they were not considered employees.

Peace Corps continues to recruit for future posts and pay its country staff, who coordinate with and lead American volunteers in their work.

“We have seen evidence that many communities around the world are continuing the work they began with their volunteers,” the Peace Corps media team said in a statement. “These evacuations represent the temporary suspension of volunteer activities. We are not closing posts, and we will be ready to return to normal operations when conditions permit.”

The temporary closure has placed financial pressure on the several thousand accepted volunteers who were set to begin their 27-month missions in mid-April. One prospective volunteer told Devex that he had acquired only short-term housing and employment as he waited to depart for his host country. He is now continuing to look for work and staying temporarily with a friend.

The evacuations were expensive, former volunteers said, and a likely hardship for the U.S. government agency that has had ongoing funding problems. Its budget has remained flat for the last few years, and President Donald Trump in February proposed cutting its baseline funding to $401.2 million, a drop from the current $410.5 million budget.

”The budget has been flat for three years in a row, and they have not received any increase in budgeting. That is one of the biggest challenges — there are budget issues involved,” said a former volunteer who follows ongoing Peace Corps work.

Many returned volunteers have expressed interest in returning to their countries of service as soon as possible, according to Blumhorst.

“There is this huge cloud of uncertainty now. The unknown is the greatest concern.”

— Glenn Blumhorst, president and CEO, National Peace Corps Association

“The undetermined factor here is: When will that actually happen, and what are the conditions for being safe? No one knows that right now,” Blumhorst said, adding that as more time passes, returned volunteers are likely to move on to new projects and work opportunities.

There have been public calls for returned Peace Corps volunteers to support the COVID-19 response in the U.S.

U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen, Susan Collins, Elizabeth Warren, and others issued a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Corporation for National and Community Service in early April, asking that returned volunteers join FEMA Corps or AmeriCorps programs that are currently engaged in COVID-19 response efforts in the U.S.

Blumhorst said he hopes that this possibility can “materialize soon.”

“There is demand out there — Peace Corps volunteers are very uniquely qualified to support this work, through their language and cultural skills. They can really assimilate and adapt into any environment and are quite gritty and know how to make the best out of the situation,” Blumhorst said.

The longer-term question of the Peace Corps’ return to international community service work, though, remains unanswered.

“The Peace Corps has taken a proactive approach to keeping the offices in the field open and keeping the staff on the ground to work on the programas and continue their recruitment process. I just think there is this huge cloud of uncertainty now. The unknown is the greatest concern,” Blumhorst said.

Update, Nov. 12, 2020: This article has been updated to anonymize one source, to protect their security.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.