Remarks to the World Affairs Council of Greater Hampton Roads
November 16, 2000Peace Corps: Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century
The Honorable Mark L. Schneider Peace Corps Director Remarks to the World Affairs Council of Greater Hampton Roads Old Dominion University The Webb Center Norfolk, Virginia Thursday, November 16, 2000 8:00 p.m.
I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to the World Affairs Council, an organization composed of people who believe in the importance of public service and care a great deal about the role of the United States in the world. And I am especially pleased to be in Norfolk, a city whose citizens embody our country's most enduring values, and who have done so much to defend our freedoms by serving in our nation's military. I thank all of you for your service.
Let me begin by thanking Admiral Ray Taylor of the World Affairs Council for his kind invitation to join all of you in the beautiful Tidewater region of Virginia.
I also want express my appreciation to Dr. JoAnn Gora of Old Dominion University for hosting tonight's dinner and reception.
In addition, I want to acknowledge Clay Drees, President of the Association of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Hampton Roads, for all of his work in helping to make this event come together, as well as all of the other returned Volunteers in the audience. Thank you for your service and for being here tonight.
I think it also is a good moment to recognize the strong regard of Ambassador Jim Bullington for this organization and this university. Before he accepted my offer to become Peace Corps country director in Niger, he insisted that I agree to speak to this Council.
This evening, I want to talk about what is happening in today's Peace Corps, and what our Volunteers are doing to help people in the developing world build a better future for themselves and their children.
I think I would be remiss if I did not say a word about the continuing saga that is playing out in Florida this week. I am sure that all of you in Norfolk have been as interested in last week's election as I have been. It's really quite amazing, isn't it? Like many of you, I've been glued to the set every night to find out the latest news.
What I find most reassuring-is the extraordinary resilience of our democratic culture and our democratic institutions. Even though we voted 10 days ago and we still are not sure who our next President will be, there is no constitutional crisis; Americans are living their lives in much the same way as they did before the election; our government continues; and regardless of our partisan affiliation, we know that whoever is inaugurated on January 20 will become our President.
As you have no doubt heard in the press, the last time we had an election this close was in 1960. Now, that election holds a special place in the history of the Peace Corps, for it was during the presidential campaign of 1960 that the idea of a new way for Americans to serve our country and the cause of peace was actually launched. It was in October of that year when John F. Kennedy made a late-night campaign stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to meet with thousands of students who anxiously awaited his arrival on the steps of the Michigan Union. His extemporaneous remarks at 2 a.m. lasted just a few minutes, but those words struck an immediate chord with the students, and they still resonate today. He challenged young people, and increasingly older people as well, to serve our country and the cause of peace in a new way.
Less than two months after he was inaugurated, President Kennedy signed an Executive Order establishing the Peace Corps. Since then, more than 160,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps, and now, as the agency approaches its 40th anniversary, the people who have served as Volunteers in 134 countries demonstrate the enduring power of an idea.
Today, I am very pleased to tell you, there are more Peace Corps Volunteers serving overseas now than at anytime since 1974. Moreover, our Volunteer corps is more diolunteers serving overseas now than at anytime since 1974. Moreover, our Volunteer corps is more diverse than at anytime in at least a decade. Fifteen percent of our Volunteers are African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. The 7,300 Volunteers living and working in 76 countries today are part of a great tradition of service, one that should be a source of pride for every American who cares about the world beyond our borders.
Let me explain why.
Over the years, our Volunteers have touched the lives of people throughout the developing world.—They have taught millions of students or trained the teachers who have taught those students.—They have helped rid the world of smallpox by immunizing children in their villages and they are doing the same today in the fight against polio and measles.—They have helped budding entrepreneurs start new businesses and market their products to generate income for their families.—They have worked with farmers to introduce sustainable new agricultural methods to boost production and to protect the environment. Just as importantly, Peace Corps Volunteers have helped shape the way that people around the world view us and our multi-cultural society. Because they live and work at the grass-roots level for two years, in communities that are often remote and too often ignored, the first American that many people have ever met was a Peace Corps Volunteer. Since I became Director, I have had the chance to meet national political leaders, Ministers of state, senior business and community leaders, and foreign ambassadors in Washington who were students of Peace Corps Volunteers, and each of them holds fond memories of their American teachers. This is an extraordinary thing if you think about it, and it demonstrates the important role that our Volunteers play as "Citizen Ambassadors" overseas. At the same time, many Peace Corps Volunteers have helped shape the way that Americans see other people and cultures. When they finish their service, Peace Corps Volunteers bring back with them an extraordinary cross-cultural experience that they share with their families, friends, and neighbors. Many of them go on to pursue careers in education, international development, the private sector, and government. Indeed, just last week another former Peace Corps Volunteer was elected to Congress, bringing the total to six. So this is a little about the Peace Corps' past. But what are our Volunteers doing today? Is what they are doing still relevant 40 years after the agency was established? I would argue that the work of our Volunteers has never been more important. Because millions of individuals awaken each day to poverty, hunger and ill health, Peace Corps Volunteers still are teaching in classrooms, carrying health and nutrition messages to distant villages, and working with farmers to find more sustainable ways of growing food. But one of the great things about the Peace Corps is that we change to meet the contemporary needs of the people our Volunteers serve. So they are also responding to the 21st-century challenges that our friends in the developing world face. Let me tell you about two initiatives that our Volunteers are working on: preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, and promoting the use of information technology to help create new economic opportunities and reduce poverty in developing countries around the world.
I know that all of you here tonight have read about the devastating toll that AIDS is taking on millions of people in Africa. Since the AIDS epidemic began, 18.8 million children and adults have died worldwide; nearly l5 million of them have been Africans. Today, almost twice that number live with HIV, and in 1999, there were some 5.3 million new infections, 4 million of them in Africa.
Moreover, 13.2 million children - 96% of them in Africa - have lost their mothers or both parents to AIDS while t2 million children - 96% of them in Africa - have lost their mothers or both parents to AIDS while they were under the age of 15. This is a health and humanitarian crisis that the world has only recently begun to address.
But the spread of HIV/AIDS is not only a health and humanitarian crisis; it also has had a devastating impact on the hopes of African nations for social and economic development. AIDS is expected to wipe out half a century of development gains in Africa, measured by life expectancy at birth. In 1990, life expectancy in developing countries had risen from barely 40 years in 1950 to 63. Now, if current trends continue, a child born between 2005 and 2010 in countries hardest hit AIDS will likely not live beyond 45, and in some countries not even 40. I attended the International AIDS Conference in South Africa earlier this year, and I was stunned when the education ministry officials from Tanzania told me that more teachers had died from AIDS the previous year than had graduated from the nation's teacher training centers.
While we should all be sobered by these statistics, we also should be reminded of the human factor that is involved-the heartbreaking images of people watching their families and friends fall victim to this disease. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that widespread tragedy inflicted by AIDS is not going to be confined to Africa. Today, the nations of the Caribbean have the second-highest rates of infection. And if current trends continue, in the future we will see more people infected with AIDS in Asia than in Africa.
We also know that when governments act, positive results can follow. We have seen a halt to rising infection rates in countries such as Uganda, Senegal, and Thailand due to strong and active leadership by the governments in those countries. And after seeing the major commitments recently announced by the United States, other countries, the World Bank and UN agencies, I am convinced that the world is starting to respond appropriately and the Peace Corps also is playing a heightened role in international efforts to prevent the spread of this deadly disease.
At the end of June this year, I announced a Peace Corps initiative aimed at helping to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in the countries where the Peace Corps serves in Africa. All 2,400 of our Volunteers in Africa are being trained to be HIV/AIDS prevention educators to help their communities confront this pandemic. This marks the first time in the history of the Peace Corps that we are mobilizing every volunteer to join in a continent-wide campaign against a disease.
We also are calling on those who served as Peace Corps Volunteers in the past to take part in our Crisis Corps program, which makes it possible for former Volunteers to serve on short-term assignments of up to six months in African nations hardest hit by HIV/AIDS. We now have more than 20 Crisis Corps Volunteers working in Africa, and I hope that number will rise to 200 over the next year.
The Peace Corps is also receiving support from organizations here at home to help our Volunteers spread the word about how to prevent HIV/AIDS. A few months ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $500,000, and the Packard Foundation donated $250,000 to help us fund the costs of materials for training and prevention projects. We have had discussions with the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other international organizations about how we can collaborate on AIDS prevention projects. And we have received strong, bipartisan support and confidence from Congress, which just passed the largest budget in the history of the Peace Corps.
Some day, our grandchildren may ask us, "What did you do when the AIDS epidemic attacked the human family?" I believe that we all must be able to say that we did not stand idly by. This is an extraordinary effort by our Volunteers, and I am very proud that so mnot stand idly by. This is an extraordinary effort by our Volunteers, and I am very proud that so many of them have embraced this effort to help the people in their communities in Africa and elsewhere combat this attack on the human family.
Another important issue that faces the developing world is one that Peace Corps Volunteers are well equipped to help address.
An international debate of historic proportions is underway-from the streets of Seattle, to the corridors of corporate power, to the situation rooms of government policymakers-about the realities of our increasingly global economy. Globalization is not just an economic theory. It is a reality.
The question for all of us, I am convinced, is: Will the benefits of globalization be confined to those of us fortunate enough to live in prosperous countries? Or will people everywhere see their incomes rise, their institutions grow stronger, and their communities made more modern through the affects of a global economy? Peace Corps Volunteers can play a significant and positive role in answering those questions. They can help make globalization "personal" and "local" by extending the reach of the information technology revolution to the students, health workers, the campesino cooperatives, women's groups, indigenous artisans, and the teachers with whom Volunteers live and work.
Today, virtually every Peace Corps Volunteer goes overseas with the kind of computers skills that are still rare or non-existent in the community where he or she will serve. There may be 50 million websites, but most of the people in the developing world have never made a telephone call, much less sat in front of a computer and surfed the Internet.
In the 21st century, I am convinced that Peace Corps is more uniquely prepared and positioned than any other institution to bring information technology to the task of poverty reduction. To be sure, technology is no panacea-it will not solve all of the problems that confront people in the developing world. Yet if the poor are unable to participate in the information technology revolution that we now take for granted, the equity gap will widen even further. It is within this context of coping with the reality of globalization that Peace Corps has launched its own 21st century e-initiative. The World Bank, USAID, the UN, and others have teamed up with the information giants in an ambitious effort to create the information technology portals through which connections can be made to the world of e-commerce, e-knowledge, and e-systems. And so has the Peace Corps. I believe that Peace Corps Volunteers can carry the information revolution right through those portals and far beyond. Let me give some examples of what our Volunteers are doing right now.
In the West African nation of Ghana, where the very first Peace Corps Volunteers were sent in 1961, I met a young man from Seattle, who thought he was going to teach math at a high school in the capital city of Accra. The school director, however, asked him if he knew what could be done with 15 computers that had arrived but seemed not to work. Because he had spent a good portion of his young life in front of a computer, the Volunteer suddenly became the director of the school's computer literacy program. For a year, he was the only teacher who taught computer operations to 1,500 students and their teachers.
In Central America, I met an outstanding senior Volunteer, who had spent 40 years as a marketing executive at the Goodyear tire company. He served two years as a business Volunteer in Ukraine. He then went on to sign up for a second tour as a business Volunteer in Guatemala, where he worked with a small company that helps Mayan women's cooperatives, in the former conflict zone, expand their markets, and improve their products. He taught them how to create a Web page that now is advertising their traditional fabrics in the e-commerce marketplace.
And in the remote reaches dvertising their traditional fabrics in the e-commerce marketplace.
And in the remote reaches of Kenya, a Peace Corps Volunteer who is serving as a science teacher had a laptop but no electricity. So, in a classic example of Peace Corps ingenuity, he rigged some discarded solar panels to power his laptop. He was able to connect to the Internet and draw down the information he needed to improve the work plans for his fellow teachers.
In the past month, I traveled to the Dominican Republic, where I met a Volunteer who was teaching children at a public school how to use computers and surf the Internet. In fact, while I was there, about 20 junior high students were all talking to each other on Hotmail-and this in a community where there was no available phone. So the Volunteer engineered a satellite-based hook-up, and he already has taught a teacher to take over for him when he leaves.
Also in Macedonia, Volunteers working municipal development are helping their local government colleagues to set up a computer-based system to track city revenues and expenditures. The potential is enormous. These are examples of how Volunteers are using technology to help their communities develop and prosper. These Volunteers are smarter and certainly more computer savvy than I was when I was a Volunteer. But we can do even more to assist Peace Corps Volunteers in transferring the extraordinary skills they possess in information technology. The transfer of knowledge must be sustainable. It must be part of a project owned by the local community. And it must be a tool that does not separate the Volunteer from the community but, instead, offers the community a window to the world's bounty of knowledge.
We launched the Peace Corps e-initiative earlier this year to expand the role that our Volunteers play in bringing the power of information technology to the task of poverty reduction. Last month, I announced a new partnership with America OnLine to provide "Peace Packs" which may revolutionize the way Peace Corps volunteers integrate information technology into health, education and microenterprise projects. Through "Peace Packs" provided by America Online, Peace Corps volunteers will be able to access the Internet and obtain basic computer equipment in remote communities to advance health, education, small business and other development priorities.
Thirty years ago, when my wife and I served together in the Peace Corps in El Salvador, we worked with our neighbors to build a bridge across a gully so that students could reach school safely. Today, Peace Corps' "e-initiative" will enable Volunteers to help build bridges across the digital divide to connect people in the poorest communities to the world of learning and, hopefully, to more promising futures.
In that way, we can make globalization "personal" and "local" and begin to give those who traditionally have been left on the margins of technology a link to the center of the information revolution.
There are many other challenges that Peace Corps Volunteers are helping people address in the 21st century, including assistance with natural disasters, biodiversity preservation, and efforts to work with municipalities in overseas communities to better manage their local governments.
I would like to conclude by saying that as impressive and inspiring as these contributions are to the process of development in poor countries, the Peace Corps also stands for something else that is intangible but equally important. Our Volunteers embody the spirit of service that is a vital part of who Americans are as a people. They reflect our enduring commitment to help other people help themselves. And they stand as examples of our sense of practical idealism.
There is a need for an organization like the Peace Corps, one that is filled with people who are willing to sacrifice their ease and comfort for a greater cause-the cause of peace and progress.
Last ming to sacrifice their ease and comfort for a greater cause-the cause of peace and progress.
Last month, when I was in Russia, I swore in 80 new Peace Corps Volunteers. I could not help but think that even President John F. Kennedy would have been stunned by what his idea, expressed in those wee hours of that cold October morning, had come to be. But maybe not. He once said, "Peace does not rest in the charters and covenants alone. It lies in the hearts and minds of all people. So let us not rest all our hopes on parchment and paper, let us strive to build a peace, a desire for peace, a willingness to work for peace in the hearts and minds of all our people. I believe we can," he said. "I believe the problems of human destiny are not beyond the reach of human beings."
Those words have stood the test of time and give us hope that when dedicated people marshal their talents and energies, we can indeed build a better future for our country and the world beyond our borders.
I thank all of you again for inviting me to come here this evening, and I congratulate you for your interest in and dedication to international issues.
I would be glad to answer some questions.