Testimony of Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan on Proposed Budget Increase
March 18, 1998Testimony of Mark D. Gearan Director of the Peace Corps Before the House Committee on International Relations March 18, 1998
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, I am very pleased to appear before you today to testify in support of President Clinton's budget request for the Peace Corps. On behalf of the 6,500 Peace Corps Volunteers serving in 84 countries, I thank you for the opportunity to talk with you about how and why we should take the Peace Corps into the next century with 10,000 Volunteers serving overseas.
I would like to begin by thanking Senator Dodd, Representatives Shays, Farr, Walsh, Hall, and Petri, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala for their eloquent and inspiring testimony today. These distinguished Americans represent our country's finest traditions in public service, and we take great pride in their service as Peace Corps Volunteers. I also wish to thank to Senator Paul Coverdell, who served as Director of the Peace Corps with such distinction under President Bush, and who remains a strong support of our Volunteers. All are good friends of the Peace Corps, and we are grateful for their support for the President's Peace Corps initiative.
Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to report to this Committee that the Peace Corps is in excellent shape, and its prospects for the future are brighter than at any time in the agency's recent history. Let me explain why I can say this with both pride and conviction.
Today, there are 6,500 Peace Corps Volunteers serving our nation in 84 countries around the world. They are making an important difference in the lives of ordinary people who want to build a better future for their children, their families, and their communities. Our Volunteers are working on development projects in education, health, the environment, small business development, and agriculture. As they have done since the earliest days of the Peace Corps, they are carrying out these projects at the grass-roots level with creativity and a spirit of determination. Since I became Director in 1995, I have had the opportunity to visit our Volunteers at their sites in more than a dozen countries, and I must tell you, Mr. Chairman, it is a very moving and inspiring experience to see their work.
I also can report to you that the training that our Volunteers receive to prepare them for the their jobs has never been better. Today, Peace Corps Volunteers are speaking more than 180 languages and dialects. They are learning how to introduce new technologies that are appropriate for their overseas communities. And we are providing our Volunteers with more information and training designed to enhance their safety and protect their security.
We are also seeing a resurgence of interest in Peace Corps service among the American people. Over the last four years, about 500,000 of our fellow citizens contacted the Peace Corps expressing interest in serving as a Volunteer. Last year alone, 150,000 people contacted us, which represents an increase of 45 percent above 1994 levels.
The Peace Corps is also expanding the means through which our Volunteers help bring the world back home. This is an important part of every Volunteers' job—to help strengthen America's understanding of other peoples and cultures. Through our World Wise School Program, for instance, more than 300,000 students in all 50 states have corresponded with Peace Corps Volunteers serving in 100 countries since 1989.
Mr. Chairman, we are also changing the way we do business at the Peace Corps. Over the last four years, we have taken a series of steps to "reinvent" the Peace Corps to ensure that the agency is lean and efficient, and that the maximum amount of resources are devoted to our primary objective—to recruit, train, place, and support as many Volunteers in the field as possible.
We have closed five domestic rruitment offices, and the number of people working on our headquarters staff is down 11 percent sincruitment offices, and the number of people working on our headquarters staff is down 11 percent since 1993. Through better management, we have reduced the per capita cost of medical evacuations of our Volunteers by 14 percent since 1996, without sacrificing the quality of our health care. This saved the Peace Corps $600,000 last year. And by streamlining our operations, we have reduced the cost of supporting an individual Volunteer in the field by 19 percent (in constant FY 1993 dollars).
By the end of the current fiscal year, the Peace Corps will have closed 16 of our overseas programs since fiscal year 1995. These closures were difficult, bittersweet experiences for the both the Peace Corps and the communities where Volunteers had served for many years. But all Americans can take great pride in the contributions that our Volunteers made to the development of these countries and the ties of friendship that they fostered through their service.
I believe that these cost-saving measures have helped make the Peace Corps a model government agency. But the good news does not end there, Mr. Chairman, because in many respects we are doing more with less. We are fulfilling the Peace Corps' mission and seizing new opportunities for Volunteer service.
In 1996, Peace Corps Volunteers returned to Haiti, the poorest country in this hemisphere, after a five-year absence. Last year, Peace Corps Volunteers made history when they began serving for the first time in Jordan and South Africa. Before the end of 1998, Peace Corps Volunteers will begin serving for the first time in Bangladesh and Mozambique. And pending another review, we hope to send Peace Corps Volunteers to Georgia next year.
We are also moving forward with the Crisis Corps, a new program at the Peace Corps that enables experienced Volunteers and recently returned Volunteers to use their language and cross-cultural skills in short-term humanitarian and disaster relief efforts. Crisis Corps Volunteers have worked on relief projects in Antigua, Guinea, C™te d'Ivoire, Madagascar, Chile, and the Czech Republic. We also expect several more Crisis Corps Volunteers to begin soon serving on short-term projects in Paraguay, Thailand, and Bolivia.
Finally, Mr. Chairman, the Peace Corps is working to encourage and support the development of other volunteer organizations in countries such as Mali, Chile, the Czech Republic, and several others. I believe that when the history of the Peace Corps is written in the years ahead, this will be a very important contribution to the Peace Corps' legacy of service around the world.
These are some of our most important accomplishments over the last several years. But my report to you would not be complete without making what I believe is an even larger point about the Peace Corps. As you know, Mr. Chairman, the Peace Corps is more than just another government agency; it is far more than the sum total of the Volunteers' individual projects. The Peace Corps stands for something special: it is an agency that reflects the most enduring values and ideals of the American people—citizen service, altruism, and dedication to the cause of peace.
The Peace Corps is an agency filled with well-trained people who help educate children; Volunteer work with communities to protect the local environment; they teach people how gain access to clean water and promote sanitation at the local level; they help entrepreneurs gain access to credit and market their goods; and they work with family farmers to improve their agricultural practices. In the face of many personal and physical challenges, Peace Corps Volunteers engage in the great struggle for progress and human dignity in many of the world's poorest countries.
The men and women of the Peace Corps are a tangible expression of American idealism. But theirs is an idealism that is coupled ith a pragmatic, common-sense approach to meeting the needs of ordinary people in developing cupled ith a pragmatic, common-sense approach to meeting the needs of ordinary people in developing countries.
Mr. Chairman, as you and Members of this Committee know, Congress provided the Peace Corps with a clear mission that serves our national interests in a way that no other government agency does. We remain committed to that role today—a people-to-people organization that is independent from the formal diplomatic concerns of our government, but one that contributes to our long-term interests.
Peace Corps Volunteers, through their willingness to live and work at the level of the people they serve for two years, earn enormous goodwill and respect for our country. The Peace Corps allows the people of other countries to learn about our country, our culture, and who we are as a people. And as Volunteers and their host country counterparts live together, work together, and learn from one another, they help contribute to the foundation of peace among nations.
I recently received the views of some American Ambassadors about the contributions that Volunteers make overseas, and how the Peace Corps helps advance our nation's interests. We also received the views of several others, including Richard Celeste, the U.S. Ambassador to India and a former Peace Corps Director, who would like to see the Peace Corps open new programs in the countries where they are serving.
I am proud to say that the Ambassadors' views were uniformly positive. Many Ambassadors were emphatic in their belief that the Peace Corps does indeed serve our nation's long-term interests overseas, and that an expansion of the number of Volunteers would be a positive development. The U.S. Ambassador in Paraguay, Maura Harty, had this to say: "The United States is extremely highly regarded in this country, and I have little doubt that it has much to do with Peace Corps constant presence, and consistently positive message. I cannot travel outside Asuncion without receiving compliments about the Peace Corps."
But the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, Ralph Frank, may have put it best when he made the following observation: "I know first-hand what a difference the Peace Corps has made to Nepal," Ambassador Frank said, "and even if I did not know it, I would be reminded by every Nepali I meet, from the King and Prime Minister to ordinary Nepalis at the village level."
Mr. Chairman, these are just some of the reasons why the Peace Corps is so important to our country and the people of the developing world, and all of them together, I believe, provide clear justification for the President's fiscal year 1999 budget request for the Peace Corps.
As our budget presentation indicates, the President's request for the Peace Corps is $270 million. This request represents an increase of $45 million, or about 20 percent above our current appropriated resources of $226 million. I must point out that President Clinton's FY 1999 budget request is the first of a three-year plan to make it possible for 10,000 Peace Corps Volunteers to be serving overseas by the year 2000. As you know, Mr. Chairman, Congress passed a bipartisan measure in 1985 that called for the Peace Corps to field a volunteer corps of 10,000. I am convinced that now is the right time to put the Peace Corps on the path toward this goal.
It is important to remember that the Peace Corps accounts for just about one percent of the entire foreign affairs budget for our government. And as this Committee knows, the foreign affairs budget is just over one percent of the entire federal budget. If the Peace Corps receives full funding for our plan over the next three years, our budget will still account for just one percent of the resources our government spends overseas. But as they have over the last thirty-seven years, these additional resources will yield far more in returns for our country and our people.
Lt me assure you that we thought long and hard about this plan before we presented to the Admine.
Lt me assure you that we thought long and hard about this plan before we presented to the Administration and ultimately to the Congress. It reflects our best judgment about how to recruit, train, field, and support 10,000 Volunteers by the year 2000. We believe that this growth in the number of Volunteers must be done carefully and over the course of three years. We want to ensure that Volunteers will have meaningful jobs when they arrive in country, as well as the support they need and deserve. This is a challenge that we accept with enthusiasm.
As I have already noted, there is a growing interest in Peace Corps Service among many Americans, and just as importantly, we believe that there is a growing demand in the developing world for the kinds of skills that Volunteers can contribute. Therefore, I urge you and the other Members of this Committee to see this funding request for what it really is: an investment in our people and in our ability to encourage progress at the grass-roots level in the developing world.
We believe that putting the Peace Corps on the path to 10,000 Volunteers by the beginning of the next century should be a bipartisan effort, and we would, of course, be very pleased to work with you and the Committee to achieve this goal. With your support, we will continue to recruit the most qualified people to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers. We will provide them with the support and training they need to do their jobs. And we will do everything we can to ensure their safety and security.
Mr. Chairman, there are those who argue that our country can no longer afford to support our ideals; that our resources should instead be devoted only to the momentary calculations of what is perceived to be our in the interest of our national security.
Let me say that I, too, believe in pursuing our national interests. And as I said a moment ago, the Peace Corps does serve the long-term interests of our country. I firmly believe, however, that our citizens can be very proud that our government sponsors a volunteer agency that is made up of ordinary people who, for no pay or perks, want to devote two years of their lives to help lift the hopes of people in developing countries.
I would like to close my remarks by sharing with you a few words from a letter that Mrs. Jeanne Pouliot, a mother from my home state of Massachusetts, wrote to President Clinton after she and her husband visited their daughter, who is serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the west African nation of Mali. Mrs. Pouliot told the President the following about her two-week visit:
"Our daughter made certain that we saw Mali the Ôright way'—Peace Corps style. We traveled as the people do, packed into gutted vehicles for long periods of time, through the heat and the dust and the flies, and the many invariable breakdowns. We had the privilege of meeting so many truly remarkable, dedicated, and selfless people. They cannot be praised enough for the unbelievably difficult job they do. Mali is a hard country in which to live . . . The efforts of these volunteers are realizing amazing results towards Americans and the United States. They are America's finest. We could not have a better return for our tax dollars."
Mr. Chairman, we often receive letters like this one from Massachusetts—from parents of Volunteers, friends of Volunteers, and from the Volunteers themselves—which speak to the enormous impact that the Peace Corps can have on people. With your support, we can make it possible for 10,000 of our citizens to take part in the Peace Corps experience at the beginning of the next century.
I thank the Committee again for allowing me to testify in support of President Clinton's budget request for the Peace Corps. I appreciate the support that the Members of this Committee have offerpleased to answer your questions.
Thank you.k you.