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A world of needs, a dwindling Peace Corps

Call goes forth to rethink, revive mission JFK launched

Ben and Buffy Lenth of Boulder, Colo., are Peace Corps volunteers in Mexico. Ben and Buffy Lenth of Boulder, Colo., are Peace Corps volunteers in Mexico. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / April 19, 2009
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QUERÉTARO, Mexico - Watching proudly from the Rose Garden as the first team of young Peace Corps volunteers left in 1961 for two-year missions in Africa, President John F. Kennedy turned to his aide, Harris Wofford, and mulled the ambitious future for the international service organization he had just created.

"Think what it will be like when it's a million," Wofford, now 83, recalls Kennedy saying.

Nearly a half century later, Kennedy's dream is still far from being realized. The Peace Corps, which reached a record 15,000 volunteers in 1966, now is barely half that size. Budget constraints are forcing the agency to cut another 400 volunteers, as post-9/11 security costs and the global drop in the value of the dollar strain the Peace Corps' resources.

At a time when the Obama administration is seeking to repair the image of the United States around the world, an estimated 20 nations are ready to accept Peace Corps workers. But the agency can't afford to start new programs in all of them. And despite the Peace Corps' still potent image as a symbol of American idealism, reformers say the organization must make fundamental changes to meet modern diplomatic and technological needs.

Interviews with dozens of current and former Peace Corps volunteers and officials reveal an agency still eager to spread American goodwill around the world, but hamstrung by budget woes and bureaucratic hurdles that frustrate efforts to bring in the more experienced volunteers needed for a modern Peace Corps.

There is also, they say, a reluctance to consider broader foreign policy goals when deciding where to send volunteers. It is a stance that many say undermines the Corps' mission: An organization dedicated to demonstrating America's commitment to understanding other cultures operates in only two Arab countries, Jordan and Morocco.

The organization has no volunteers in Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, but has 109 people in Vanuatu, a remote group of islands 3,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, and scores more in Caribbean resort islands such as Antigua and St. Kitts.

"Some people get very upset when you suggest there are a few worms in mom's apple pie [but] I would like to see better pie," said one former Peace Corps country director, Robert Strauss, who oversaw operations in Cameroon.

Senator Christopher Dodd, one of the Peace Corps' top legislative backers, put it this way: "There really needs to be a top-down examination of the Peace Corps. I'm not for fundamentally altering the concept behind it, but you need to give it its own 21st century mandate."

Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic in his youth and has introduced legislation to both expand and reform the organization. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on the measure in 2007, but has not acted on it.

The Peace Corps is not an aid organization or a charity, and officials do not want receiving countries to look to the Corps as a source of easy cash for local projects. The organization's stated mission is to help international development through the work of trained volunteers and to help foreigners and Americans understand one another better.

The Peace Corps' interim director, Jody Olsen, declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed, saying it was inappropriate for her to discuss the future of the organization while President Obama has yet to appoint a permanent director.

Obama, who made national service a theme of his campaign, has called for doubling the size of the Peace Corps, and is expected to sign the Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act, a sweeping bill that includes a Peace Corps expansion. But Peace Corps supporters note that several presidents before Obama have made the same request, only to see the agency's shoestring budget be flatlined in congressional budget negotiations.

"We spend more on the military marching bands," said Mark Gearan, who was director of the Peace Corps under former president Bill Clinton. "This is 1 percent of 1 percent [of the federal budget]. There's no question that there's a wellspring of interest around the country. We just have to broaden the awareness of it and then fund it."

Rajeev Goyal, regional coordinator of More Peace Corps, a group of former volunteers seeking to expand the program, said, "It's kind of depressing to me. There are millions of people in this country who want to serve, but the government is not creating the opportunity." Still, many of the woes facing the Peace Corps are not directly related to budgeting, Dodd and others said, but to agency practices that have not kept up with the times.

While some programs may still reflect the 1960s model of young college graduates living in mud huts and digging irrigation ditches, reformers are calling for more programs like one underway in Mexico. There, highly educated scientists and economists are providing technical help to Mexican agencies. The effort is structured to allow the country's government to run its own programs without appearing to be a charity case of the United States.

Retirees and mid-career professionals are increasingly applying to the Peace Corps, but many say their entry was delayed - and greatly complicated - by stringent health and financial standards geared more toward recent college graduates.

For example, Peace Corps rules demand that applicants report virtually every health problem they have ever had, even relatively minor ones, delaying the process for older people likely to have had illnesses or surgeries. "It takes too long. A physical for 20 minutes in the military, and I was in," Dodd quipped.

Applicants must report any change of marital status during the application process (since the Peace Corps does not want anyone using the program to escape financial obligations), and must be free of debt (except some student loans), making the process complicated for anyone with a home mortgage. "I had a house in San Francisco. I had to undo my affairs - something a 22-year-old doesn't face," said Scott Belser, a 59-year-old now posted in Mexico.

On a strategic level, reformers say, the Peace Corps needs to rethink where it sends volunteers. The organization is adamantly apolitical, and volunteers do not want to be used for short-term foreign policy objectives. But many officials said the Peace Corps is missing an opportunity to improve relations in critical regions, while keeping volunteers in areas where such people-to-people diplomacy is no longer needed.

Byron Battle, the country director in Mexico and former director in Mali, wishes the Peace Corps would expand to India, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Indonesia and - when it's deemed safe - to Pakistan. Other officials would add Vietnam and Brazil to the list.

Mark Schneider, who directed the Peace Corps during the last two years of the Clinton administration, hopes volunteers will be sent back to Haiti, where security worries forced the suspension of the Peace Corps there in 2005.

"You've got to make sure that the places they're living and working make sense," Schneider said.

Meanwhile, others wonder why the Peace Corps is still in Caribbean vacation spots, or in Romania and Bulgaria - both of which are now in the European Union, and could look closer to home for developmental help. The Peace Corps sends English teachers to China, but Strauss believes that China - which owns a great deal of US debt - should be able to pay for the teachers, many of whom work at universities.

"I am a firm believer in Peace Corps, but I am not a firm believer that Peace Corps needs to be in every one of the places it is, or that it's an effective use of this very limited amount of money," Strauss said in an interview from Madagascar, where he now is a business consultant.

Current and former Peace Corps volunteers are passionate about their mission, describing their years of service as transformative and beneficial for both the volunteer and the foreigners in their Peace Corps communities. Joseph P. Kennedy III, a Harvard Law School student and great-nephew of the former president, called his time in the Dominican Republic "one of the most rewarding experiences of my life so far," and has twice gone back to visit the community where he lived from 2004-2006.

Kennedy saw that young men in the country's touristed waterfall areas were being paid just 10 cents an hour to "literally haul tourists on their backs" as they traversed the area. The practice fueled resentment between the young Dominicans and the visitors, who had paid luxury tour groups up to $100 for the trip, and balked at being asked for tips by the young men, unaware of the low wages the Dominicans were being paid.

Kennedy helped the local community gain regulatory control of the tourist area, and charge an admission fee, which subsidized a visitor's center, local community projects, and training for the guides. The young guides, now professionally trained, were paid more by the tour companies.

Peace Corps volunteers "do represent some of the best foreign diplomacy you can get," Kennedy said.

But many volunteers say it's difficult to bring about creative solutions because the Peace Corps fails to provide resources that many church groups and private aid organizations have at their disposal. The Peace Corps mission is to provide people - not cash - so volunteers must raise money to pay for even the smallest expenditures.

In one African nation, Peace Corps volunteers completed a project to grow more food, but did not have the $200 needed to build a fence to keep out hungry goats - a project a private aid organization could have done easily, a Dodd aide reported. Dodd's bill would allow volunteers more leeway in raising funds for their projects.

"For nearly 50 years, it's been an historic accomplishment," Dodd said of the Peace Corps. "But you can't only look at past successes. Every organization, including the Peace Corps, needs to make adjustments if they're going to continue to succeed."