Embrace the future and the uncertainty: Advice from former Peace Corps Director Hessler-Radelet

Former Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet. Photo by: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan / CC BY-ND

The former Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet has three pieces of advice for development workers struggling to cope in a world of “rancour and division” where she warned the future of foreign aid is “more uncertain than ever before.”

Hessler-Radelet — who stepped down as director of the U.S. volunteer program in January after five years on the job — said that development professionals and returned Peace Corps volunteers should use their skills and experiences to “embrace” a current climate of budgetary uncertainty for development projects and work to foster “peace and justice” at home, not just on placements abroad.

Speaking at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., Hessler-Radelet described the development community as being at a crossroads due to President Donald Trump’s “America first” philosophy, which has lead to a perceived threat against aid budgets.

“The future is uncertain. Probably more than at any time I can remember in the past, there is a great deal of fear about the future of foreign aid as we struggle to understand what it means to be “America first,” she said. “We have a choice on how we are going to embrace the future and the uncertainty right here.”

Instead of responding to uncertainty with hostility or by withdrawing, Hessler-Radelet urged development workers to redouble their efforts to understand the situation “at home.”

“As we work to promote peace and justice overseas, can we also commit to doing the same thing right here at home? Can we find a way to step into each other’s shoes and really, truly listen to one another even if they voted for a different candidate? Can we reject alternative facts but allow others to speak their truth from their own personal perspective even though it’s radically different from our own?” she said.

Hessler-Radelet, who is set to take up a new position as president and CEO of Project Concern International, recommended the development community “challenge” themselves to do three things.

1. Take courage and actively fight for what is good and right.

Carrie Hessler-Radelet on how Peace Corps can remain a 'vital force for the future'

The 19th Peace Corps director handed over her duties to a new administration and transition team on Jan. 20. Here's what Carrie Hessler-Radelet has to say about authentic leadership, the business of development and the future of the agency she reformed.

“In times of change, it’s really easy to seek safety and to want to put your head down and not take action,” Hessler-Radelet warned. But, she said the development community should use this time of change as an opportunity to “do something that really makes a difference.”

“I challenge you to be courageous in pursuit of what is good and right, to resist the urge to steer towards safety and instead be bold and creative in our thinking,” she said.

2. Cultivate strange bedfellows.

With foreign aid budgets coming under greater scrutiny and threat, it is more important than ever for development workers to communicate the value of their work to people outside of that community, Hessler-Radelet said.

“If we want others to understand the importance of our work… we in the development and diplomacy community really need to reach out much more proactively to the business, military, and domestic audiences,” she said.

In reaching out and collaborating with these other sectors, the aid community needs to demonstrate not only the benefits of its work for those living in foreign countries, but also articulate its benefit for those at home, she said.

“We need them to understand that by helping other nations build the foundations of prosperity, stability and peace, we ensure our own nation's economic growth and security. We need strange bedfellows to carry the message that economically stable countries… are safer, more prosperous and better global partners,” she said.

3. Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Hessler-Radelet urged development staff to apply their experiences gained from working in foreign countries to how they treat their fellow U.S. citizens. She said a key thing she learned through her career — both as a Peace Corps volunteer and then its leader — is that cooperation is the key to promoting “peace and justice” and she urged today’s aid workers to “choose” this path.

“At a time when the nation's focus has been so firmly fixed on everything that divides us, we in the development community have a singular advantage: We have seen through our own work… that finding common ground and fostering cooperation in the face of seemingly intractable differences is not just the best way forward, it is often the only way forward,” she said.

“Finding common ground is a matter of choice, even when we do not see eye to eye with someone we can stand with them heart to heart, we can choose to build bridges where others build walls,” she added.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration means for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.