Under the leadership of Ron Tschetter, center, Peace Corps applications from volunteers aged 50 and over were up 65 percent in 2007. Photo: Peace Corps

In December 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama presented his solution to the United States’ depressed global stature.

“To restore America’s standing, I will call on our greatest resource - not our bombs, guns, or dollars - I will call upon our people,” the Illinois senator told a crowd of supporters in Mount Vernon, Iowa.

Among his promises was this: “We will double the size of the Peace Corps by its 50th anniversary in 2011.”

To some critics, the Peace Corps in middle age can seem a bit like a late model Studebaker: It’s nice to know it’s still around, embodying the unbounded optimism of a bygone era, but you might not want to look under the hood. A former country director and several returned volunteers recently did just that, pointing out flaws in Peace Corps operations and raising questions about its effectiveness.

Like any bureaucracy, the Peace Corps is cumbersome; officials believe laying the groundwork for an expansion could take years. But even in a tough budget climate, the lure of the Peace Corps endures.

A wave crests, slowly

Established in 1961, the Peace Corps was borne of President John F. Kennedy’s desire to employ young, idealistic Americans to help developing countries and foster cross-cultural exchange.

“To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves,” Kennedy said in his first inaugural speech.

Kennedy envisioned sending out 100,000 volunteers every year, and the number zipped to 15,000 by 1966. Then realpolitik intruded - the Vietnam War reversed that growth spurt, beginning a 16-year decline that led to a nadir of 4,600 volunteers in 1982.

A slow climb began under President Ronald Reagan and matured under President George W. Bush, resulting in a slightly more robust Peace Corps today. The 2007 total of 8,079 volunteers is the agency’s highest in nearly four decades. Still, after 47 years, returned volunteers total less than 200,000, a profound disappointment considering Kennedy’s original goal. Further, the Peace Corps’ global and domestic profile remains low.

“It’s a great brand, but the weight of the brand on the world scene is so small it hardly registers,” said Lex Rieffel, an expert in overseas volunteering at the Brookings Institution, an independent think tank based in Washington, D.C. “If this is a brand that is good for America - if only because it’s good for the world - then let’s build on it.”

Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, is spearheading legislative efforts to double the size of the Peace Corps. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican Party’s likely presidential nominee, also backs a Peace Corps expansion.

In summer 2008, the National Peace Corps Association’s More Peace Corps campaign, with a primary goal of doubling the program, hosted events in cities across the country. Kevin Quigley spearheads that campaign and sees a “perfect storm of conditions” buffeting his efforts: a need to improve the United States’ global standing after the bullying Bush years; both major presidential candidates’ stated support for doubling the program size; growing political awareness as a result of the Dodd bill; and widespread desire for reform in the runup to the 50th anniversary.

“We’re at, I believe, a historic moment,” said Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, an organization of alumni volunteers. “If it’s ever going to happen, it’s in the next three to four years.”

For an agency that after 9/11 had slipped from the American consciousness, the interest is invigorating.

“This is a wave that, as I see it, is just in the process of forming,” Rieffel said.

Hitting the wall

The wave may have slowed after Robert Strauss pointed out that the emperor’s clothes were looking rather tattered.

In a January 2008 New York Times op-ed, the former country director for Cameroon (2002 to 2007) complained that the volunteer selection process was not rigorous enough, that a lack of oversight and management rendered much of the work useless, and that funding shortfalls meant volunteers and staff were inadequately supported. He described how volunteers were constantly misassigned - the Peace Corps continued to send volunteers to teach English in Cameroon, for example, even though Cameroonians repeatedly listed English instruction as their lowest priority.

Strauss urged the Peace Corps to seek out and accept only the best and the brightest, to assign volunteers more effectively and to reform before it considered expansion. A few months later, he expanded these complaints in an article in the Foreign Policy magazine, arguing that the Peace Corps had “never lived up to its purposes or principles.”

Many volunteers relish their volunteer experience and return transformed. Yet others bear out Strauss’s criticisms. The latest edition of Peace Corps’ internal biannual survey found that less than half the volunteers felt their job took advantage of their skills, interests and experiences. Ecuador volunteer Jeffrey Jackson, for instance, left his Peace Corps assignment early because, as he explained on his blog, “in a school of 35 students, with eight qualified teachers and four volunteers, the role of room checks and kitchen governor didn’t seem sufficient for two years of my life and service.”

At the same time, many volunteers - often fresh out of college - are unprepared for the seriousness of the work. A perusal of Peace Corps volunteer blogs at www.peacecorpsjournals.com finds volunteers enjoying the carnival in South America, brewing their own beer in Burkina Faso, and tanning on Caribbean beaches.

“Those are not the activities the Peace Corps is hoping for from them,” Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter acknowledged in an email.

For Rieffel, such failures are related to funding and thus inherently political.

“Many of these problems would be easier to solve in the context of a very different foreign policy articulated by a new president and supported by a new Congress,” he said. “The Peace Corps has been fed scraps from the budget for the last 30 years, and that pattern has had the result of putting it inside a protective shell.”

American taxpayers might not consider the Peace Corps’ 2008 budget of $330 million mere scraps. That breaks down to about $40,000 annually per volunteer in the field; volunteers are paid about one-tenth that amount. Supporters say this is only a third the expense of maintaining military, diplomatic and aid personnel working abroad.

While the number of volunteers increased about 30 percent over the past five years, the budget expanded by just more than 10 percent, Strauss pointed out.

“The potential is still there for the Peace Corps to be a wonderful organization and a tremendous American initiative,” Strauss said. “That’s never going to happen as long as people respond to criticism by defending the orthodoxy.”

Mission statements

That orthodoxy is represented by Peace Corps’ three goals: development, cross-cultural exchange and understanding. Strauss sees the cultural exchange aspects as mere icing.

“If you don’t have a cake, there’s not a lot of point in having icing,” he said. “What Peace Corps sells to other countries is that it’s a development organization that’s going to help them with trained personnel; if that’s what the United States is promising, that’s what we should be delivering.”

Peace Corps Deputy Director Jody Olsen has several problems with Strauss’s criticisms. Firstly, host countries are not under the impression that the Peace Corps is primarily a development organization.

“I’ve had those conversations setting up Peace Corps programs with host country ministries,” the former country director for Kazakhstan said. “It’s made clear that we will learn the language, be part of the community, live with host families, and we learn from you and bring that back.”

Olsen added that host countries are aware that a good number of volunteers will be relatively inexperienced. More importantly, Olsen said, Strauss misses the point.

“We have never been and are not seen as nor should be seen as a development agency,” she said, referring to the three goals of Peace Corps work. “It’s the integration of those goals that creates the trust. which is where in small-scale ways Peace Corps volunteers make a difference, make a development difference.”

Rieffel called the goals debate narrow-minded.

“A federally funded international volunteer program is going to work best when it doesn’t have arbitrary constraints and defines useful activity broadly,” he said.

But how broadly can one define useful activities when projects involve goal-oriented development funds? The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, for instance, has given the Peace Corps more than $50 million over the past five years. Some of that money has been used in Ethiopia, in fact, where officials recently told Peace Corps Country Director Peter Parr that volunteers sent to work on HIV and AIDS need expertise, not mere zeal.

Fine-tuning the approach

In mid-June, Rieffel and Quigley attended a weekend conference on re-envisioning Peace Corps for its next 50 years. Most attendees - a group that included architects of the program, former directors, analysts, and representatives from nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations - agreed that the core idea, while good, needed considerable tweaking.

“We can be a lot more innovative with how the program is run,” said Quigley, who is convinced Peace Corps could expand to 10 or 20 times its current size via partnerships with the aid agencies of other governments, nonprofits and NGOs like World Teach.

“This would allow Peace Corps to experiment in a way that it just hasn’t for years and years,” he said.

That’s news to Olsen, the Peace Corps deputy director.

“Peace Corps already works with many, many NGOs all over the world,” she said.

She pointed to Peace Corps volunteers reporting to the local official of AED as part of an HIV and AIDS project under PEPFAR in Malawi, and estimated that 50 percent of volunteers work with either local NGOs or local offices of international NGOs.

“We work with NGOs all the time, but the critical element is we work with them in country,” she noted.

The need for innovation remains.

“We can’t only do what Peace Corps has done in the past,” Rieffel said. “There have to be other flavors of Peace Corps service.”

He and Quigley believe the 27-month service requirement should be just one option among several time commitments, that the agency should invite more older volunteers, and that it should build a group of experienced aid workers and former volunteers to use in a variety of ways, including more development-oriented work.

Under Tschetter’s leadership, the Peace Corps has made some moves in this direction. His campaign to bring in more older volunteers has proved a quick success - with applications from volunteers aged 50 and over up 65 percent in the past year. His use of Peace Corps Response, which offers four- to six-month tours to returned volunteers, and the creation of an office to perform annual field evaluations that will include effectiveness feedback from host country communities suggest a leaning toward impact-oriented development work.

Volunteer Service Overseas, a British volunteer organization, moved much further in this direction years ago. Today, applicants need to have development experience and are placed in jobs that match their credentials. Service commitments can be anywhere from one month to two years and the emphasis is on combating global poverty, not cultural exchange. As a result, there are fewer volunteers (1,500 in 2007) but work more effectively, and the average age is 41, compared with 27 for the Peace Corps.

Bigger should be better

If the Peace Corps is to double to 16,000 volunteers by 2011, it needs to get moving.

“It would be, I think, a several-year effort,” said Olsen, who has been with the Peace Corps since serving as a volunteer in Tunisia from 1966 to 1968.

She said the various host countries would first need to request the additional volunteers. The Peace Corps would have to prepare, too.

“The proper structures need to be in place to support a doubling in the number of Volunteers,” Tschetter said in an email. “We have to maintain the quality of the program and most importantly, the safety and security of the volunteers.”

The demand is there; at least 20 countries have requested new programs, according to the More Peace Corps campaign. Rieffel pointed out that no volunteers are serving in India, Russia, Brazil or Indonesia - four major developing economies of clear geostrategic significance.

Perceptions of the United States abroad have improved in response to humanitarian relief initiatives, according to a study by Terror Free Tomorrow, a Washington-based nonprofit group whose advisory board includes McCain, the likely Republican presidential candidate. Polling data indicated nearly 60 percent of Indonesians and 75 percent of Pakistanis held a more favorable view of the United States following tsunami and earthquake relief efforts. Like Obama, many believe an expansion of the Peace Corps could further such efforts.

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About the author

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    David Lepeska

    David has served as U.N. correspondent for the newswire UPI and reported for several major newspapers, including the New York Daily News and Newsday. He was chief correspondent for the Kashmir Observer in Srinagar, India, and regularly contributes to the Economist, among other publications. Since 2007, David has reported for Devex News from Washington, New York, as well as South Asia.