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Peace Corps: A Program for the 21st Century

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If the president proposed a program today that was cost-effective, inspired public service, trained Americans for 21st century jobs, strengthened our interests abroad, countered anti-American propaganda and had bipartisan support, we would consider it miraculous. Yet, we already have a program that does all those things. Today is the 50th anniversary of the executive order signed by President John F. Kennedy that established the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, much of the discussion about the program recently seems to be stuck in a time warp. Supporters and detractors alike talk about the Peace Corps as if it were a 1960s-era program -- a disservice because it's actually more modern than many realize.

When the Peace Corps started, many thought government could do just about anything: send a man to the moon, win the Cold War, and end poverty. The Peace Corps was born of that optimism. Although poverty remains far too pervasive, having sent a man to the moon and won the Cold War, we know that some of those ideas weren't entirely fanciful.

Today, we live in a far more cautious time, which blurs the fact that the Peace Corps makes every bit as much sense now as it did in 1961. To start, it's a remarkably cost-effective program. In its entire 50-year history, we have spent less money on the Peace Corps than one percent of the defense budget for just this year, approximately $7 billion in 2011. Given that, the Peace Corps is less than a rounding error in the U.S. budget. Yet, it supports 8,600 volunteers in 76 countries and directly affects at least one million lives each year.

Considering how little we've spent on it, the Peace Corps has a very powerful influence on the American public and global perceptions about our country. Many notable public servants like Ambassador Chris Hill, former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, Senator Paul Tsongas, Governor Jim Doyle, and former Executive Director of UNICEF Carol Bellamy got their start in public service as Peace Corps volunteers.

While they are still "the sandals on the ground" as in the early days, who Peace Corps volunteers are and how and where they work is very different. Responding to present-day needs, today's volunteers are more skilled and tech savvy, and are focused on combating HIV/AIDS, addressing food insecurity, promoting job creation, and building capacity to educate the world's youth.

The Peace Corps helps Americans know the world as it is and as it is becoming. In today's interconnected world we need to know how the world really works, especially in developing countries where there are myriad emerging business opportunities. Basically, the Peace Corps is a 21st century job-training program. It provides the kind of training in language, adaptability, working in foreign cultures that simply can't be taught in business school because to truly understand the world you have to live as others do, seeing the world as they do.

As a result, the Peace Corps also fosters social entrepreneurs. By necessity, volunteers are entrepreneurial because they often work independently or in small groups in areas where there are limited resources and weak government services, forcing volunteers to be creative and self-motivated in devising innovative solutions to problems. Figuring out how to provide a remote village with drinkable water with limited resources is a challenge that has a lot more in common with running a shoestring Internet startup than you would think. But don't take my word for it. Former volunteers have gone on to create Netflix, lead the Red Cross in Haiti, and start a telecom company out of Central America.

The Peace Corps also helps us maintain international ties and strengthen America's interests abroad in the most tangible and important way: human connections. Current or former heads of state like Paul Kagame of Rwanda or Alejandro Toledo of Peru praise the Peace Corps for helping develop their countries and staying connected. With al Qaeda spewing anti-American propaganda and state-run television in some countries casting Americans as the Great Satan, we should not discount the powerful influence that the simple act of spending time with an American can have on others.

There are very few programs today that can bring both parties together, yet the Peace Corps is popular with both Republicans and Democrats and enjoys bipartisan support in Congress. It's also been touted by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

It is almost inconceivable to think of a program that could do all of this on such a small budget. So today, on its golden anniversary, let's take a moment to commemorate the Peace Corps as a modern-day initiative and recognize its successes over the last five decades. President Kennedy created a valuable program that was amazing in 1961, and is still remarkable 50 years later.

Kevin F. F. Quigley (Thailand 76-79) is president of the National Peace Corps Association, the nation's leading nonprofit organization supporting Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and the Peace Corps Community. To learn more, visit: www.peacecorpsconnect.org

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