Peace Corps Director Describes Success, Presidential Commitment; Gearan Says Agency Commitment Transcends Partisan Squabbling
WASHINGTON—The popularity and success of the Peace Corps as an institution is a testament to "the power of an idea…that transcends both politics and partisan squabbling," says its director, Mark Gearan.
At a time when many foreign affairs agencies are being asked to trim their bureaucracies by budget-conscious members of Congress, the Peace Corps is growing, Gearan said, because "in the past 36 years we have stayed true to our mission of being field-driven and responsive to the development needs of communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America."
During an interview with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) January 9, Gearan highlighted President Bill Clinton's recent decision to expand the Peace Corps from its present level of 6,500 volunteers to 10,000 by the year 2000.
Gearan spoke the week before he sent off the second batch of volunteers to South Africa, at its request. The group included Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and great-grandson of the president's mother Lillian, who at age 68 served as a Peace Corps nurse in India for two years.
"In the final analysis," said Gearan, "the volunteers are what make the Peace Corps unique. The power of the idea that you would send talented Americans overseas to try to make a difference has over time built up the kind of understanding and—important for this town—the bipartisan [political] good will and support that have allowed us to be in this position today."
President Clinton's initiative, therefore, he said, is "a strong affirmation of the work that 6,500 volunteers are currently doing in 87 countries as well as the work of the 150,000 who have joined the Peace Corps since President Kennedy founded it in 1961."
A former director of communications in the Clinton White House, Gearan recalled that he was raised by his parents to admire and emulate the call to public service that former President John F. Kennedy extended to the nation's youth to engage in community service overseas.
"What has proven exhilarating in the little over two years I've headed the agency now," Gearan added, is "getting out and seeing our volunteers. I've had a chance to travel to 21 countries now, and I always come back inspired by their spirit and the difference they are making in people's lives."
Gearan stressed that "the exciting thing about our work in Africa is the partnerships we enjoy with our African counterparts. Our volunteers go to promote peace, friendship, and understanding" as well as teach English and engage in such activity as building wells and helping in small business development.
"But it is even more exciting now in the 1990s," he pointed out, "given the very good work" on political and economic reforms "that is going on in Africa by governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), business, and academia. It really is a partnership now." And President Clinton's commitment to Africa, Gearan stressed, "is significant and deep."
On the American side, Gearan added: "I think your African readers should be aware that there is a domestic dividend to Peace Corps service. Our volunteers take back to the United States an enhanced appreciation, sense, and knowledge of Africa, which in my view is very valuable."
As it stands now, this reservoir of knowledge is an integral part of the Peace Corps' "Crisis Corps," which Gearan said was established last year to help speed humanitarian assistance to disaster areas. It works, he said, not only because it recognizes the growing numbers of crises worldwide, but also because "it tries to capture this treasure trove of returned Peace Corps volunteers" to use their newly acquired languages, cross-cultural skills, and technical expertise for short-term assignments.
"Crisis Corps volunteers serve as relief workers with refugees in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire and typhoon victims in Madagascar," he added. In addition, "seven volunteers were recently sent ire and typhoon victims in Madagascar," he added. In addition, "seven volunteers were recently sent to the Czech Republic after the massive flooding," and relief specialists have been sent to Chile.
"At the end of the day, what I try to keep in mind, especially when recruiting," said Gearan, is "yes, it can be good for your career or helpful to you in the global economy, and yes, the CEOs of banks like to hire returned Peace Corps volunteers. But for two years the type of commitment that is required [by the agency] also speaks volumes about the personal character and integrity of the people involved.
"I think Americans understand this and are proud that we have an effort like the Peace Corps…[and] that is why they have supported our expansion."