The Peace Corps at the New Millennium: In the National Interest -- speech by Director Mark Gearan
June 19, 1998Remarks by Mark D. Gearan, Director of the Peace Corps Center for National Policy, Washington, D.C. June 19, 1998
Good morning. It's a great privilege to be able to address the Center for National Policy. I appreciate having the opportunity to speak to you today about the Peace Corps as we approach the next century and how this program of citizen service advances our nation's interest at home and abroad.
I want to offer a special thanks to Maureen Steinbruner and her staff here at the Center. Maureen has done an outstanding job as President of the Center for National Policy. She has ensured that the Center remains one of Washington's influential organizations, shaping the debate on the important issues that confront our country.
Now, as some of you may know, before I came to the Peace Corps, I had the honor of serving as President Clinton's Director of Communications. And my experience at the White House taught me that sometimes it's hard being the bearer of good news. When you have a good, positive story to tell, you don't always find yourself surrounded by microphones, tape recorders and journalists with Pulitzer Prizes on their minds.
But today, I get to talk about what I never tire of talking about. And on this occasion, the news is both good and important, both positive and newsworthy. Today, I will be talking about the Peace Corps in the new millennium.
We hear a lot these days about the excitement and the challenges of the 21st century. President Clinton has spoken eloquently about the promise of a more prosperous and peaceful world, and the leadership that our country must provide in the years ahead, both at home and abroad.
I am pleased to report to you that the Peace Corps and the men and women who serve as Volunteers are helping to shape that future. With hard work, with determination and cooperation, and with a spirit of service, we intend to play a vital role in making this new, post-Cold War age more peaceful, more productive, and more promising for Americans and our neighbors around the world.
This is where we hope the Peace Corps will be in the millennium: 10,000 Volunteers by the year 2000.
What does 10,000 by 2000 mean?
It means 10,000 Americans will have the opportunity to serve as development workers overseas, introducing new technology and new ways of thinking and contributing their skills to men, women, and children who are struggling to build a better future.
It means that in 10,000 communities, people who otherwise likely would have no interaction with an American will meet a hard-working partner in work that makes a difference in their lives.
It means 10,000 Americans will be front-line representatives of the best traditions and characteristics of our citizenry, forging personal ties to people from far different backgrounds, building important friendships with people in far corners of the globe.
It means 10,000 Americans will learn crucial cross-cultural skills and, in most cases, a new language or two, thus enhancing our country's collective understanding of the world's peoples and cultures.
It also means that every American who doesn't serve in the Peace Corps will have 10,000 reasons to be proud that our country and our government has the strength and compassion to sponsor such a successful endeavor.
When President Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961, I wonder how far into the future he allowed himself to dream. I wonder if he envisioned the Peace Corps as it is today, with 6,500 Volunteers working in 81 countries. I wonder if he envisioned the Peace Corps sending Volunteers to such disparate places as Ukraine, South Africa, and Jordan. I wonder if he foresaw the wide range of skills Volunteers would offer countries around the globe, from ways to conserve natural resources in Latin America to strategies to turn flagging industries in Eastern Europe into sound, profitable businesses. Perhaps he did envision some or all of this. But what matters is that over the years, thesses. Perhaps he did envision some or all of this. But what matters is that over the years, the Peace Corps has remained true to President Kennedy's vision, even as we have strengthened the ways we carry it out. We have established Crisis Corps, a new program that enables experienced Volunteers and recently returned Volunteers to use their language and cross-cultural skills in short-term humanitarian and disaster relief efforts.
Senator Paul Coverdell, who was Peace Corps Director under President Bush, set up the World Wise Schools Program, which gives Volunteers serving overseas the opportunity to correspond with elementary and junior high school students in the United States, thereby providing a unique window into other countries and cultures.
Loret Miller Ruppe, who was President Reagan's Peace Corps Director, established the Peace Corps Fellows Program, which affords returned Volunteers the opportunity to earn master's degrees in areas such as education and urban planning, while working on problems at home with the skills they learned overseas.
President Kennedy saw in 1961 that the traditional means of providing assistance to developing countries were inadequate. He recognized the importance of establishing clean channels of communication and greater understanding among the peoples of the world at a time when government-to-government communications and relations were enormously complicated by Cold War suspicions and tension. Many of those observations hold true today.
And in our country, he saw men and women whom he trusted could provide a type of help that was needed and represent the values and traditions of the American people. These models of citizen service still make up the heart of the Peace Corps program today.
But in realizing and expanding on President Kennedy's dream, we've come to understand that the Peace Corps isn't only in the world's interest. It's in our interest as well. In doing good for the world, Peace Corps Volunteers are doing good for America.
Sometimes it's hard to quantify all the positive aspects of Peace Corps Volunteers work, and similarly to assign a value to it. How much, for instance, is it worth when a Peace Corps Volunteer in a remote part of Kenya helps a community dig a well that, for the first time, becomes a reliable source of clean drinking water? Is it worth fifteen dollars in material it cost? Is it worth a little more because of the labor involved? Or is its worth priceless because of the two children's lives it saved—the children who would have been infected with parasites if they had drawn their drinking water from the polluted river?
And how many lives does the Peace Corps Volunteer who promotes AIDS education and prevention in Thailand or Cameroon save? Or the Volunteer in Guatemala or Morocco who teaches a mother how to protect her children from diseases?
And from a larger perspective, how can we possibly quantify the lasting bonds of friendship and understanding that tens of thousands of Peace Corps Volunteers have established with the people of more than 130 nations over the last 37 years? We could speculate all day on such topics. And while I don't think we'd agree on an exact dollar figure to pin on the worth of each interaction, I have no doubt we'd agree that they are all intrinsically valuable, each in their own way.
But for the more concrete-minded, for people who want their facts in cold numbers, try this: A decade ago, more than five million people, mostly in Central Africa, were infected with Guinea worm. It's a parasite that invades a person's body when he or she drinks impure water. It lives and grows inside the body for a year before breaking the skin. The Guinea worm is a horrible experience that can lead to severe health complications, even death.
Today, thanks to hard work and dedication of Peace Corps Volunteers and others, fewer than 100,000 people suffer from Guinea worm. From five million to 100,000 in ten years. Those are impressi00,000 people suffer from Guinea worm. From five million to 100,000 in ten years. Those are impressive numbers, but they are just one of the many quiet success stories that are so central to the Peace Corps experience. The same could be said of what Volunteers do every day in education, the environment, small business development, and agriculture.
And it's because of this kind of work that President Clinton has proposed that we make it possible for more Americans to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers. It's time to offer more Americans the chance to do what more than 150,000 Americans have already done since the founding of the Peace Corps in 1961. In time for the new millennium, we want to see 10,000 Volunteers in the field, contributing their skills, encouraging progress, and in the process, advancing our nation's interest in thousands of communities in dozens of countries.
Ten thousand Volunteers by the year 2000.
As President Clinton said, "We must do everything we can to revive the spirit of citizen service in the new century. Every American ought to have the chance to serve."
It's time to offer more Americans the opportunity to begin a career in public service by joining the Peace Corps. This is what Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut did when he served as a Volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1966 to 1968. It's what Representatives Sam Farr, Tony Hall, Thomas Petri, Christopher Shays, and James Walsh did when they decided to join the Peace Corps. Each of them supports our goal of 10,000 Volunteers by the year 2000.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala reminds people across the country and around the world that she began her career in public service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. Drew Days, professor of Law at Yale and former Solicitor General at the Department of Justice, served as a Volunteer in Honduras. So did seven current United States Ambassadors.
Former Volunteers have found success in the arts, like the author Paul Theroux. They are leaders in the media, like Leon Dash, a reporter for The Washington Post, Karen DeWitt, a producer at "Nightline," and television journalist Chris Matthews.
Former Volunteers are using the skills they learned in the Peace Corps to run some of our country's most successful businesses. Robert Haas, the president of Levi Strauss, and Priscilla Wrubel, founder of The Nature Company, and Mike McCaskey, owner of the Chicago Bears, are all returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
And the list goes on. Just as importantly, it includes many ordinary citizens in every state who are bringing their Peace Corps experience to bear as teachers in local schools, in international development organizations, in social services and the environment, in state and local governments. Returned Volunteers contribute their time, energy, and skills to their communities in countless ways.
Peace Corps Volunteers have found their callings both abroad and at home. Doing good for the world. Doing good for America. This is why, I believe, that the idea of expanding the Peace Corps has received bipartisan support. Senator Paul Coverdell, Congressman Ben Gilman, Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and other distinguished Republicans have joined with Congressman Lee Hamilton and many Democrats and endorsed the idea of 10,000 Volunteers by the year 2000.
Today, we are seeing a huge resurgence of interest in Peace Corps service. Last year alone, 150,000 people contacted us seeking information how to become a Volunteers, an increase of 45 percent from 1994. Thousands of people want to give two years of their lives to become part of our effort. They recognize the good Peace Corps Volunteers do for the world. They also recognize how valuable returned Volunteers are to the United States.
By providing more Americans with the opportunity to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers, we can further our nation's need to build a work force that can compete most effectively in the internatin further our nation's need to build a work force that can compete most effectively in the international economy. Peace Corps Volunteers learn more than 100 languages; they gain extraordinary cross-cultural understanding; and they learn to think in new and creative ways. This is just one aspect of what I call the "domestic dividend" of Peace Corps service.
There are far more applicants to the Peace Corps than available positions. In this light, asking for 10,000 Volunteers is far from ambitious. In truth, it's modest. Moreover, having 10,000 Volunteers by the year 2000 is an opportunity the world would embrace: We have more requests for more Volunteers than we can fulfill. And if Congress funds our budget request, we believe that many of the additional Volunteers could serve not only in the poorest countries of the developing world; they will also be serving in the emerging republics of Central Asia and the Caucuses, places where Americans have had little if any contact over the last forty years.
In fact, inspired by the example of the Peace Corps, countries around the globe have created their own volunteer organizations. Next week, the Peace Corps will host the second Conference on International Volunteerism. The leaders of volunteer organizations in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Mali, South Africa, Chile, and other countries will come to Washington for a week of meetings and discussions about how our Volunteers can collaborating more effectively in the field. We will develop plans to help other countries strengthen and establish their own volunteer organizations.
The Peace Corps has become a model for these organizations. By setting up the infrastructure for volunteerism in these countries, Peace Corps Volunteers are realizing their dream of seeing their work carried on by host country nationals. If you give a country a Peace Corps Volunteer, you've enriched it for a long time. But if you teach a country how to produce its own volunteers, you've enriched it for a lifetime. I believe that, in the next century, encouraging the spirit of volunteerism in other countries will be an integral part of the Peace Corps' legacy of service.
How important is Peace Corps to our nation and the world? Barely a week goes by before another Ambassador comes to my office to thank the Peace Corps for the Volunteers who are serving in his or her country.
Since I became Director of the Peace Corps, I have traveled to more than 20 countries to visit with Volunteers and to learn from them. And on every trip, Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, teachers, doctors, farmers, environmentalists, and ordinary people have told me in very inspiring words how much they appreciate the contributions that Peace Corps Volunteers in their countries. We recently asked some American Ambassadors what they thought about the role that Peace Corps Volunteers play in promoting our nation's interests. While we remain separate and independent of the day-to-day concerns of our nation's foreign policy, more than 40 of our own Ambassadors were emphatic in their belief that the Peace Corps does indeed serve the world's—and our nation's—long-term interests, and that increasing the number of Volunteers would be a positive development.
Here's what Ambassador David Shinn in Ethiopia had to say: "Most Ethiopians have never met an American diplomat, but they've met a Peace Corps Volunteer. In this sense, Peace Corps Volunteers are our most effective 'ambassadors.' The message that Americans care about Ethiopians and like Ethiopians is transmitted loudly and clearly. For many Ethiopians who will never meet other Americans, a Peace Corps Volunteer is America."
From Ambassador Ralph Frank in Nepal: "I know first-hand what a difference the Peace Corps has made in Nepal. 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."
As a nation—and, more broadly, as a world e Minister to ordinary Nepalis at the village level."
As a nation—and, more broadly, as a world of nations—we are confronting a challenging time. The Cold War is over and we are in the process of defining a new era. We've seen peace come to places that hadn't known the word in years, from Central America, to Southern Africa, to Northern Ireland. As a nation we've reached out to countries that want to better themselves through democracy and free enterprise, and freedom. As we look around the globe, we can see a great deal to be hopeful about; we can see hints—and more—of a world beginning to embrace peace.
But it is only a beginning. Because we are in the early stages of defining this post-Cold War era, now is not the time for caution. Now is the time to err on the side of more peace, of more democratization, of more engagement with people who want and need our help. Now is the time to reach out. Now is the time to plant the seeds of peace and progress wherever there is fertile ground.
From time to time in our history, our country has slipped into a fascination with isolationism. While there are a few who still yield to the isolationist temptation, the vast majority of Americans understand the need to reach out to other nations in a variety of ways. Peace Corps is one of those ways—and an almost universally popular one at that. We are an organization that Americans of all political persuasions can be proud of.
Every American can identify with Peace Corps Volunteers because Peace Corps Volunteers are our nation. They come from our big cities and small towns; our East Coast and our West Coast; our Great Plains and our Deep South. They are young and old. They are just out of college and just too active to be content with ordinary retirement.
The goal of having 10,000 Peace Volunteers in the field was actually conceived in 1985—by Congress. In that year, Congress passed a bipartisan measure that called for the Peace Corps to field 10,000 Volunteers. Now is the time to realize that bipartisan dream.
The Peace Corps' budget request for 1999 is $270 million, an increase of $45 million. President Clinton's 1999 budget request is the first of a three-year plan to make it possible for 10,000 Volunteers to be serving overseas by the year 2000.
Let me remind you that the Peace Corps accounts for only about one percent of the entire foreign affairs budget for our government. And 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. This is a small price for peace. And a small price for the good Volunteers do for the world and our nation.
Some may say that we can't afford to send 10,000 Volunteers overseas. In an era of unrivaled prosperity at home and enormous opportunity abroad, I say that can't afford not to.
Achieving peace is, at heart, a matter of recognizing our commonalty, our shared humanity. And Volunteers do recognize this. Yes, they are attracted to the richness—the exoticness—of other lands. But for most of them, what is most important and impressive about their experiences is discovering not what divides them from the people with whom they live and work but what unites them. The same is true of the people they meet overseas, who instead of thinking, "Here comes the American," soon think, "Here comes my friend."
Today, we are recruiting our "Millennial Volunteers," people who will be serving in the Peace Corps when the twenty-first century arrives. These future Volunteers carry with them our country's hopes for a more peaceful world. They are the future of the Peace Corps, the first heralds of a time when—we hope—all Americans who have the skill and desire will be able to serve their country as Volunteers.
When midnight approaches on December 31, 1999, these Peace Corps Volunteers country as Volunteers.
When midnight approaches on December 31, 1999, these Peace Corps Volunteers won't be watching the ball drop in Times Square. They'll have to settle for seeing a shooting star in the sky over Tanzania or listening to the snap of firecrackers in a mountain village in Mongolia. I wonder who has the better deal?
It has been an honor and a pleasure to speak with you today. Thank you.