As Sargent Shriver is eulogized for his deep and enduring commitment to public service, Congress should take the opportunity to put numbers behind their words. They should expand funding for the Peace Corps, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and of which Shriver was the first director.
In this time of aggressive budget-cutting rhetoric, it’s tempting for some to dismiss the Peace Corps as an anachronism, a '60s program for Birkenstock-shod recent college graduates to help villagers in Africa and Asia dig trenches. In fact, it is much more—and always has been. The grassroots diplomacy the Peace Corps provides and the goodwill it extends at a time when the United States is seeking to repair its reputation abroad is enough of a reason to beef up the program. But returning Peace Corps volunteers will tell you that they, too, change for the better because of their experiences, and they bring that vision and commitment with them when they return to work here. [See who donates the most to your member of Congress.]
More mid-career Americans are joining the Corps, too, bringing their professional experience to help countries whose needs are beyond rudimentary plumbing and irrigation (although those are critical, too). In Mexico, where a long-held suspicion of "help" from the country’s wealthier northern neighbor kept the Peace Corps away for decades, volunteers are now working on a variety of programs to help Mexico with eco-tourism and other projects. Indonesia, the largest Muslin country in the world, last year came to an agreement to accept Peace Corps volunteers, giving the United States a critical opportunity to build a relationship with Muslims. The announcement was huge, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her team deserve more credit than they received for it. The Peace Corps cannot impose itself on any country. The host country must invite the volunteers, and Clinton’s successful pitch to the Indonesians was an enormous accomplishment toward building trust and understanding between disparate cultures.
The Peace Corps budget—$400 million—is a pittance, and less, its supporters note, than what we spend on military marching bands. The team of volunteers now stands at 8,655, barely more than half of the 15,000 the Peace Corps sent around the world at its height in 1966.
When President Kennedy, whose 50th-year inaugural anniversary is being honored this week, stood on the South Lawn and watched the first team of volunteers leave for Africa, he turned to his aide, Harris Wofford. Imagine, Kennedy mused, what it will be like when there are a million volunteers.