Last week, Sargent Shriver, President Kennedy's brother-in-law, passed away, at the age of 95. President Clinton said at the funeral that Sarge was the living embodiment of Kennedy's quintessential challenge, "Ask not what your country can do for you." President Obama described the founding father of the Peace Corps as "the brightest light of the greatest generation." As awe-inspiring as the man being eulogized were his five children, Bobby, Tim, Mark, Tony and Maria, who have helped millions through the Special Olympics, Save the Children, and the One Campaign. As I watched the funeral on my laptop in Kathmandu, I thought to myself, this is no ordinary family.
Without Shriver's genius and boundless energy, Kennedy's 1960 campaign promise to create the Peace Corps, would have been a hollow dream. Shriver was its master builder. He crafted the Peace Corps at lightening speed by drafting the sharpest, grittiest minds in America onto his staff. If there were problems hurting the volunteers, he wanted to know. If something needed to be done, he got on a plane and did it. He was the best kind of leader, one that viewed rules as dispensable if they obstructed the ideals they were meant to realize. In just 5 years, he had 15,000 volunteers on the ground in nearly 50 nations, and Peace Corps was the darling of the American media. It was at once America's culture and counter-culture. It was a political statement against war but existed outside the breaking dichotomy of party politics. It was the rare label that even those against the establishment embraced.
Though I never met Sarge, I know he would have wanted us to use his passing away as a chance to propel the Peace Corps to greatness again. Before he developed Alzheimer's disease which he fought with incredible grace, he spoke at Yale University in 2002 as a vociferous critic of the Peace Corps, saying it had not gone far enough and had become mired in bureaucracy and protocols.
As an example of the lackluster administration of Peace Corps, even today, it takes nearly a year to get in. Peace Corps loses thousands of qualified candidates by making them wait a near-eternity for an acceptance. It's time for us to challenge the agency itself, as Sarge did, even as we advocate for greater funding.
The new Peace Corps leadership, has had two years to bring reform but has not delivered. Many people have researched and documented what needs to be done but Peace Corps has not listened. Even in terms of growth, Peace Corps has announced it will stall out at just 9,500 volunteers. Rather than challenge the Obama Administration when it issued a directive to freeze the number of volunteers, they followed suit and did what they were told. Sarge never would have done that, especially if he had a third of the United States Congress endorsing a $100 million increase in 2012. He would have called everyone he knew in power to challenge that directive. While it's true he had the advantage of being President Kennedy's brother-in-law, we all have advantages in life but the question is whether we learn to use them.
One of the things that has frustrated me in this campaign is the lack of tolerance for subtlety and nuance within Congress and the media. I feel we can advocate for both robust growth and robust reform of the administration, and now is the time to shift in that direction. If anything, the problems should highlight the need for better funding, rather than obviate that need.
I along with thousands of others have been a champion of expanding the Peace Corps budget and remain so. Considering how much federal money is squandered, it's pitiful that we spend just $400 million a year on the Peace Corps, which is basically equal to the budget of the army marching band. As one Republican Senator said to me, we should sell an F-22 military plane and give that money to Peace Corps volunteers. It's condemnable that President Obama promised to double the budget to $750 million by the 50th anniversary in 2011 and did nothing. However, from this point on, I will also challenge the Peace Corps admin itself to deliver substantial and major reforms within the next 6 months. We will lobby the Peace Corps Director as hard as we push the Congress. I call on all people working within the agency to write me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to tell me what problems you see and how they can be fixed. I will post your comments anonymously here and on PeaceCorpsWorldwide.org. If Peace Corps does not reform soon, we will call you out.
Sarge would have wanted it that way.