Peace Corps Director Dr. Josephine (Jody) Olsen highlighted the Peace Corps’ contribution to the U.S. image and mutual understanding at the First Monday Forum on December 3.
The talk reminded me that around the clock, two U.S. agencies join hands to help countless souls in other countries improve their lives in the finest tradition of compassionate sharing. It’s not just Christmas in April, or Christmas in December, but helps change lives every hour of every day throughout the year.
The two agencies are:
- the U.S. Peace Corps established in 1961. Today, it has approximately 7,000 hard-working volunteers in 64 needy countries and has served 141 countries altogether since its founding.
- the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has helped the Peace Corps fund its activities in other lands in this generation and will continue to do so in 2019 and in the future.
Thirty-five years ago, the two agencies joined forces to enhance President Kennedy’s dream of improving the lives of many millions abroad. They’ve energized mostly younger Americans to assist impoverished neighborhoods circling the globe.
In 1983, they created the Small Project Assistance (SPA) Program. It so far has helped more than 26 million people. Uniquely, SPA requires that the communities themselves contribute. To date, they’ve borne about 43 percent of the $57 million invested in the program.
The current director of the Peace Corps, Dr. Jody Olsen, led discussions describing her organization at two major Washington sites this month, the Public Diplomacy/Public Diplomacy Alumni Association on December 3 and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) exactly a week later.
As Dr. Olsen explained, the Peace Corps consists of these major priorities:
—to help 64 countries to meet their need for trained men and women;
—to help promote a better understanding of Americans by people served; and
—to help Americans have a better understanding of others on the globe.
To this observer, that all sounds very much like a description of public diplomacy, close up, in remote regions of the planet.
The Theaters of Action
Drawn from all corners of the United States, Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) work to encourage communities spanning the globe to address challenges in agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health and youth development. They are doing so even in a rapidly evolving communications environment.
As Director Olsen explained: “In Ghana, PCVs are setting up a computer lab, “a hackathon for good.” It will contain tips to user families on malaria prevention, and new apps on women’s empowerment. There’ll eventually be variations of this laboratory across non-governmental websites in a number of continents.
The Peace Corps website offers projects designed to empower people around the world, “small self help activities which will have an immediate impact responding to unique local needs of communities suggested by citizens in even small towns and villages.” The average age of PCVs today is 27, and all are equipped with cell phones to help communicate with others any place in the world. This can enhance their expertise in specific specialties and help them request help in emergencies.
At the PDC/PDAA forum, Ambassador Greta Morris inquired about a general profile of volunteers over the years. According to Dr. Olsen, the original class of PCVs was 60 percent men and 40 percent women. Today, 63 percent are women, and 37 percent men.
Peace Corps projects span the globe. Notable ones:
—in The Gambia, a solar-powered water supply project. In a village in Gambia, there is only one well that requires local women and girls to spend hours to hand pump in collecting water for their families. Now SPA funds are being used to increase the volume of water by installing a 4000-liter water tank with four solar panels and four taps to be constructed throughout the village. This will increase girls’ attendance at schools (reducing the hours they now spend pumping water). It will improve water quality, and decrease diarrhea and water-borne illnesses in the community.
— In Macedonia, the USAID/Peace Corps small projects assistance fund (SPA) enabled local authorities to build a technology platform that will enable civic organizations to redistribute food surpluses to village families in need.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Macedonia explained: “With the new platform, businesses are able to post food surplus donations with several clicks in under two minutes, and community service organizations in need can respond in the same time — a vast improvement over telephone advisories.”
—In Albania, a PC volunteer used SPA funds and training on mobilizing local support to construct a playground. “Because we were working in a team,” the volunteer reported, “and the entire community was excited about a safe place for children to play, we were able to implement our project much more easily.”
—In Guatemala, a PC volunteer and community leaders trained rural and indigenous women on the importance of self-esteem, starting and maintaining gardens, and growing a variety of herbs and vegetables to prevent malnutrition in their families. The team also used SPA money to build a local health center, complete with classrooms for community use.
What is the impact of all this shared activity by local citizens and Peace Corps volunteers? Director Olsen quoted Jiang Hua of the Peoples Republic of China Foreign Ministry, who recently offered his views at a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the Peace Corps in his country.
“These volunteers,” Mr. Jiang said, “have met our great needs. Their devotion was fruitful. With all their ideas and practice, they have helped our students to master English, to respond to many scenarios, to get a better understanding of authentic American culture, and to broaden their minds through new ways of thinking… Many years later, the students will still remember so vividly that there was once an American volunteer who impacted his or her life, shared with them valuable knowledge, showed them how to put this knowledge into practice and shared with them different perspectives.”
America’s Peace Corps, public diplomacy at its best.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More