Honoring Peace Corps Week in the 21st Century

Remarks of Carrie Hessler-Radelet
Acting Director, Peace Corps
National Press Club, Washington, D.C

February 27, 2014

Thank you, Lauren, for that warm introduction. I’m honored to join you all today in celebrating Peace Corps Week, which commemorates the anniversary of our founding. Each year, during this week, the Peace Corps community comes together across the nation, and around the world, to renew our commitment to service.

It’s great to be here at the National Press Club. Let me tell you what the press had to say about Peace Corps in our early days. In 1961, TIME magazine described the first groups of Volunteers in this way: “Peace Corps Volunteers are patriotic and adventuresome….with the patience of Job, the perseverance of a Saint, and the digestive system of an Ostrich.” Personally, I’m not quite sure what it means to have the digestive system of an ostrich, but I think it means you can eat anything – so I think that still applies, don’t you?

Fifty-three years ago, Peace Corps began as a bold experiment. At the time, it was a model so unique, so unprecedented, that many said, “It will never work.” “It can’t be done.” Yet the idea of Peace Corps – the idea that a small group of Volunteers could serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries – struck a chord. It ignited a movement, and inspired a nation.

Since then, almost a quarter million Peace Corps Volunteers have served in 139 countries around the world, tackling some of the world’s most important challenges, from food security to youth empowerment to fostering the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Peace Corps has always made the biggest difference at the last mile. Now, we are making a name for ourselves on the edge of innovation, too.

As we speak, Peace Corps Volunteers are helping farmers in Kenya use mobile technology to connect with markets; partnering with the private sector to hold business plan competitions for youth in the Dominican Republic; promoting improved agricultural practices using podcasts in Senegal; promoting gender equality through sport in Georgia, and – as we just heard from Lauren – designing text messaging platforms to help high school students in Nicaragua learn about reproductive health.

In the face of modern-day challenges – from climate change to HIV/AIDS – we are better positioned than ever to help communities kindle change where it is needed most.

As we move forward, our charge is to forge a 21st century Peace Corps that bridges our founding ideals with the realities of our modern times. I envision a Peace Corps that remains steadfast to its timeless goals, yet poised to harness today’s revolutionary tools and technologies. I envision a Peace Corps that makes a measurable impact in the lives of the world’s poor – showing the world the generosity and compassion that has always characterized the American people. I envision a Peace Corps that opens doors and changes lives – not only in faraway countries, but also right here at home. Just as it did for me.

When I volunteered for Peace Corps with my husband Steve, I didn’t know yet that Peace Corps would transform my life. I didn’t know yet how demanding a job it would be – how it would ask everything of me, and then some. I didn’t know yet the kind of relationships that I would form – lifelong friendships that would transcend time and distance alike.

Steve and I were sent as teachers to Western Samoa. There, we found close friends and mentors in our “host parents,” Losa and Viane. Losa was just eight years older than me, but she and Viane already had eight children under the age of 15. Several nights a week, we would join them in their fale – a traditional house with a thatched roof and no walls – to drink warm beer and talk about everything under the sun: politics and religion, our families, our neighbors, and our dreams.

One day, Losa came to me weeping despondently. She had just found out that she was pregnant – again – with her ninth child. Now I knew nothing about pregnancy, but I knew that Losa needed prenatal care – something she had never received before. She had delivered all eight of her babies on the floor of that fale, attended only by her sister-in-law. That was all she had ever known, and it was what Viane expected, too. “Samoan babies enter this world at home,” he said, “surrounded by the ones who love them.”

But I knew there was a good health center just one mile down the road, and worked hard to convince Losa to accompany me there. Each month, Losa and I would go together to see the midwife. The midwife started to visit Losa at home, too, getting to know Viane and the rest of the family over cups of tea. Little by little, Viane’s viewpoint softened. And in time, Viane became convinced that Losa should deliver her baby at the health center.

It was pouring rain the night Losa went into labor. We piled her into the pick-up truck and brought her down to the clinic. Within five minutes, she delivered a beautiful baby girl – Makerita. And five minutes after that, she went into post-partum hemorrhage. Losa would have died if she had not delivered her baby with a trained provider at a fully equipped medical facility.

I like to say that my career in public health was born that night as well. What I witnessed at Losa’s side opened my eyes to the difficulties of being a woman in a traditional society, one where she lacked even basic decision-making authority over her own health and that of her child; one in which she faced cultural barriers to accessing the health care she needed, even with a health facility just one mile down a paved road. I spent the next 20 years working in the field of maternal and child health and HIV/AIDS – until I came back home to Peace Corps.

My story is the story of so many Peace Corps Volunteers, who return to the United States forever changed by their experience overseas. When we talk about the future of Peace Corps, what’s at stake is not just the next chapter of a bold experiment. What’s at stake is people’s lives, people’s potential, people’s futures – here and abroad.

That has been true from the very beginning of Peace Corps. Yet there’s no doubt that ours is an era vastly different from the one in which Peace Corps was conceived. Consider this: by the end of 1960, the United Nations had 99 member states. Today, it has 193. In 1960, there were three billion people on earth. Today, there are over seven billion. Yet thanks to technology, the nations and peoples of the world are more closely linked than ever before.

In a world that has simultaneously grown bigger – and grown smaller – we have tremendous new opportunities to seize. According to the World Bank, the past two decades have seen the most rapid development progress in human history – whether quantified by rising incomes, increasing agricultural productivity, or growing life expectancy.

More than ever before, America’s security and economic prosperity is inextricably linked with that of other nations. The work of Peace Corps – helping to reduce poverty, fostering economic growth, and building relationships in some of the most vulnerable communities across the globe – has never before been more important.

And in an era of budgetary constraint, more than ever, Peace Corps must be strategic in how and where we use our resources.

Meanwhile, developing countries have increasingly high expectations of the Americans who come to their shores. Even the poorest countries now have university-trained leaders and poverty-reduction plans. Our host countries expect that Volunteers will come trained and ready to make a measureable difference in their communities.

In the words of President John F. Kennedy: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” The world has changed. And we are changing with it.

I’m here today to tell you that our gaze is set firmly on the horizon. And from that vantage point, our belief is that the future of Peace Corps has never been brighter.

Over the past four years, we have carried out the most extensive reform effort this agency has ever undertaken to modernize all aspects of our operations. Already, we have dramatically improved the quality of the support we provide to Volunteers. We have strategically targeted Peace Corps’ resources and country presence to maximize impact, using data to guide our decision-making. And we have streamlined Peace Corps’ operations by using new technology to create a culture of innovation and excellence.

These reforms have positioned our agency to make an even greater impact in the years ahead. We aren’t done yet, because the kind of change we’re talking about takes years to accomplish. But we’re well on our way.

For starters, we’re expanding our reach. We recognize that we are no longer the only pathway to service for those who are drawn to volunteer work. We are no longer the only avenue for college graduates with dreams of changing lives and making a difference. And that is to be celebrated. There should be many ways for Americans to volunteer. There should be many opportunities for dreamers and doers to make an impact.

Peace Corps service is not for everyone. But for those who are eager to see the world, to step outside their comfort zones, and become a part of something far greater than themselves, Peace Corps is the answer.

I see Peace Corps as the gold standard for Americans who are drawn to volunteering abroad – who are interested in not just imagining a better world, but rolling up their sleeves and doing something about it.

That’s why we’re revitalizing recruitment and outreach so that every American knows about the Peace Corps.We want to re-ignite the passion that characterized Peace Corps’ early days – not just among Volunteers, who are already passionate – but among the American public writ large.

So we’re expanding our recruitment staff, embracing new media platforms for telling our story, and casting a wider net than ever before. I’ve challenged my recruitment team to double the number of applications we receive – not just to grow our reach, but to field a Volunteer force that reflects the rich diversity of the American people, and represents the very best of the United States.We’re stepping up our efforts to recruit in under-represented communities, so that our Volunteer force represents the beautiful multicultural nation that we are.

And we’re streamlining the selection and assignment process from start to finish – creating a more efficient, more transparent, and more personalized system than ever before, so that everyone who is drawn to Peace Corps service has the best possible application experience.

Because even though we need a rigorous and competitive selection process to recruit the best and the brightest, it doesn’t have to involve miles of red tape. So we’ve thrown down the gauntlet and undertaken a sweeping effort to revamp our Volunteer application and selection process – making it easier, quicker, and more customer-friendly.

By way of preview, we’re working towards a shorter application, with plans to take it down from more than 60 printed pages that took more than eight hours to complete to a short online application that will take less than one hour to complete.

In addition, our new online platform now allows applicants to connect with projects and Volunteers on the ground through stories and interactive multimedia. And applicants will be able to map their Peace Corps futures by applying to a specific job in a specific country, with a specific start date.

Adding transparency and specificity to the application and response timeline will provide a higher-quality experience for our applicants, and enable us to connect the best candidates with the projects that are right for them and for the host countries and communities we serve.

Like I said, these changes take time. We won’t get there overnight. But this is what we’re working towards: a modernized, flexible application and placement system that meets the needs of our applicants and our host nations – enabling Volunteers to come through the door more well-informed and better-prepared to serve.

Meanwhile, we aren’t only transforming recruitment and outreach – we’re also transforming the way we train and support our Volunteers. We have undertaken an extensive reform of our technical training and program support to enable Volunteers to make a bigger development impact in their communities.

As part of that strategy, Peace Corps is creating partnerships with universities, NGOs, and other U.S. government partners, such as USAID, PEPFAR, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to ensure that our Volunteers are focusing on those projects that have proved to be most effective at achieving development results. By working with other partners, Volunteers are able to maximize the impact of development investments in their communities, and ensure that projects are implemented effectively, owned by the community, monitored, evaluated, and sustained over time.

In addition, our highest priority as an agency remains doing everything we can to support our Volunteers and ensure their health and safety. That’s why we have enacted measures to strengthen the delivery of health services, improve emergency response, and train Volunteers to better assess situations and keep themselves and each other safe.

We’ve created a new Office of Victim Advocacy to support Volunteers who have become victims of crime. We’re also reinforcing our support for returned Volunteers who are medevaced or who continue to have service-related health issues by expanding our post-service unit.

From recruitment to training and Volunteer support, Peace Corps is stronger, more strategic, and more ready than ever to meet the needs of our country and our world in the 21st century. But fifthy-three years later, I think we have to ask – is Peace Corps still relevant? I’d like to answer that question by beginning with a story.

A number of months ago, I had the opportunity to meet with President Alpha Conde of Guinea, who was invited to the United States by President Obama to meet with him in the White House. Our meeting began as a ceremonial affair, with formal words of thanks – in his case, for 40-plus years of Peace Corps service to his country; and on my part, for the warm welcome that our Volunteers have received from his countrymen. We exchanged small gifts of mutual appreciation, and then I leapt to my feet – thinking that he would want some time to prepare for his meeting with President Obama.

But he reached up, touched my elbow, and said, “Now that we have dispensed with the formalities, I’d like to speak to you from my heart. I want to tell you how Peace Corps has transformed my life, but more importantly, how it has changed the lives of my people.

“I had a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher who was the first person I can remember who believed I had a future outside the boundaries of my village. He was an agroforestry Volunteer, who every night opened up his house to students for homework help. He helped me with my math, my science, my English and my French.

“When it came time for me to take my national exams, I passed. I was one of four people that year who qualified for university. I am certain I would not be President today if not for his support and encouragement. And he is a lifelong friend to this day.

“But even more important than his impact on my life – which is profound – is the impact of your Volunteers on my people. During the course of my six month campaign for the presidency, I visited over 300 villages in Guinea. I went to villages in the far east of my country where my own campaign staff would not go, and there were Peace Corps Volunteers there. I went to villages in the remote north, where civil servants refuse to be posted, and there were Peace Corps Volunteers there. I went to villages in the center of the country, visited by NGOs who come to drop off bags of rice or cement or to do a training – and they do good work. Yet at the end of the day, they get back into their big white SUVs and drive back to the capital. But your Volunteers – they stay.

“By your presence, you tell my people that Americans care about them – that my people are so important to you that you are willing to travel thousands of miles from home to learn our language, eat our food (even though it makes your bellies sick), work with us on our priorities. Your being there validates my people in a way that giving them money, even building a school, could never accomplish. Your being there validates my people even more than the millions of dollars of foreign assistance your country sends my country every year.

“My people are proud to teach you their language, their way of life, their culture. They are proud to call you family. You give them a hand up, not a hand out. And that makes all the difference.”

I hear this story in every country I visit – though not always told by a President. Sometimes it’s a teacher, a nurse, a taxi driver, a mother. Sometimes, four decades have passed since that person last saw his or her Peace Corps Volunteer.

Most of us wonder if we really made a difference. I’m here to tell you, that you have.

Most of us also feel that we got more than we gave – although I believe it is also true that most Volunteers give more than they’ll ever know. And that is the magic of Peace Corps – the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. That is why, in the 21st century, Peace Corps and its goals are more relevant than ever.

Our first goal – to help the people of interested countries meet their needs for trained men and women – helps our country build strong, stable, prosperous developing country partners.

Although the past fifty years have demonstrated the greatest development progress in the history of the world, billions still live in heart-wrenching poverty – in conditions that foster hopelessness and breed instability. We spend billions of dollars each year to combat violence and quell insurgencies, not to mention the millions of lives lost or disrupted by war.

Peace Corps works to reduce poverty, foster economic and social justice, and prevent terror by engendering hope – at the last ten miles where most development agencies, and even host governments, rarely reach. And we are doing so at a fraction of the cost.

Consider the work of Volunteers like Ian Hennessee, who served in Senegal. Following the tragic death of his neighbor’s four-year-old niece, Ian and his best friend, Cheikh, pioneered a new community-based malaria detection and treatment approach that was designed by their small team of community health workers.

Once a week, Cheikh, Ian and their community health team went house to house in their village, to find anyone who had symptoms of malaria – headache, fever, nausea. They tested anyone who exhibited symptoms with newly available rapid diagnostic test kits, and if the test was positive, they treated the person immediately with anti-malarial drugs. Ian and Chiekh’s innovation resulted in an astonishing 90 percent reduction in malaria incidence in their village.

How many of us can truly say that we’ve saved lives? Ian and Cheikh – they saved lives.

Today, Cheihk and his team of community health workers are helping other communities and Peace Corps Volunteers in villages across Senegal to implement and refine a model that may just be the next breakthrough for malaria prevention in Africa. And Ian is back in the States, getting a Master’s in public health, working at CDC, and envisioning his next avenue for impact.

That project is one small part of our Stomp Out Malaria initiative – a multi-country partnership between the President’s Malaria Initiative and 2,000 Peace Corps Volunteers across sub-Saharan Africa. It’s just one example of how Volunteers are making a measurable impact.

Peace Corps’ second goal, to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of peoples served, is about the relationships our Volunteers develop with their host communities and countries – lifelong connections that are the heart of every Volunteer experience.

Consider the story of Peter Ter, a Sudanese “lost boy” who found his way to the United States and the University of Florida. After graduating, he joined the Peace Corps in order to give back to the country that has given him so much. Peter received an assignment to teach English in remote Azerbaijan, where many villagers had never seen a person of color before. Yet, in Peter’s words, “what surprised me the most was how human love and connection became stronger than the color of my skin.”

Today, Peter is a graduate student at Brandeis University, with dreams of joining the Foreign Service. “The best way to learn about the world and to make a difference,” he says, “is by being fearless for the sake of wanting to do good things for humanity.”

If the United States wants to make friends in an increasingly interconnected world, we need to develop strong personal relationships with host country leaders and citizens. Peace Corps Volunteers are our presence overseas – not just among the leaders of the country, the well-educated, the rich, or the powerful – but also among the vulnerable, the undiscovered, those with untapped potential; those who – like Cheikh – could be a catalyst for good in their communities and, indeed, their nations and the world.

And through the relationships our Volunteers build with their communities, they ensure that our partner nations share our values, have positive perceptions of Americans, and are interested in collaborating with our country and the world.

Peace Corps’ third goal, to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans, is sometimes the hardest to capture, but perhaps the most important to our country’s future.

In a global age, what America needs to maintain our position in the world – and thrive as our own population is becoming increasingly diverse – are people who can speak other languages, communicate across different cultures, and understand diverse perspectives. Who is more globally competent than a Peace Corps Volunteer who has spent two years of his or her life in total immersion in another culture?

And when that Volunteer returns to the U.S., forever changed by their experience, the ripple effect of their global outlook spreads wherever they go. That may well be the most important impact of Peace Corps.

People like Jerry Park, who served in India, and his wife MJ, who founded Little Friends for Peace, an innovative organization that helps children, parents and teachers in tough inner-city neighborhoods develop skills in conflict resolution and healthy decision-making.

Or Meg Garlinghouse, who served in Niger, West Africa. Today, Meg is head of Social Impact at LinkedIn and responsible for identifying partnerships and programs that leverage the LinkedIn platform to create positive social impact for the world.

From helping the people of developing nations tackle some of the most pressing challenges of our time; to building bridges between our nation and the world; to bringing home the dividends of international service, Peace Corps remains one of America’s best ideas.

And what’s the price tag for all of these essential contributions? Roughly $1 for every American funds our entire annual budget.

Peace Corps continues to be one of America’s most cost-effective investments, and we remain as committed as ever to demonstrating the return on that investment to taxpayers, Congress, and future Volunteers.

People ask me sometimes why it is that I am so passionate about Peace Corps, why it is that I believe so much in what a single Volunteer can do. Every day – every single day – I hear a story about a life changed as a result of Peace Corps.

Just last week, I had a conversation with a returned Volunteer who reminded me of the power of Peace Corps’ “bold experiment.” The Volunteer’s name was Vic, and he, like me, served with his spouse. He and his wife, Adrienne, served in Malawi, in southern Africa.

He was a middle school teacher, teaching math and science. Adrienne was a health educator. At home, Adrienne and Vic shared household tasks, even though housework was considered women’s work in Malawi. Vic helped with cooking and cleaning, and sometimes even helped to wash the clothes. In their spare time, they went on bike rides together and came to know the community as their own. And together they worked on girls and boys camps to encourage gender equality.

I asked Vic if he felt that he had made a difference. Vic answered as I would have – in the form of a story.

As he was packing up his house, ready to return to the U.S., one of the boys from his class came to say goodbye. He was a quiet boy – not one who spoke up much in class. But this time, he came with something to say. He said, “Mr. Vic, when I grow up, I’m going to treat my wife like you treat yours. I’ve seen how you treat her with love and respect, and I want to do that too.”

This is the power of Peace Corps. Our stories – the stories of our Volunteers – are fundamentally stories about hope. They show what is possible when willing communities and passionate, dedicated, hardworking men and women come together side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, to work toward a better future in this world that we share.

In the 21st century, in the face of shifting, sometimes tangled, fractured frontiers, this is why Peace Corps makes a difference. This is why Peace Corps matters – now, more than ever.

Thank you.

# # #

Contact us

All contacts
Call toll-free

Get press releases emailed to you right when they are issued.

Sign up now