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Stephen P. Groff

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The Peace Corps: Is Fifty Years Enough?

Posted: 08/28/11 03:38 PM ET

Fifty years ago today, in the Rose Garden of the White House, President John F. Kennedy addressed the very first group of Peace Corps volunteers who were departing for service in Ghana and Tanzania. Twenty-five years later, I flew to San Francisco to join nearly 300 others bound for service in the Philippines.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of what Bono has referred to as one of the few things "that both parties can agree on," though such bipartisanship now occurs against a backdrop of serious rancor on the Hill and major cuts proposed to all US foreign assistance operations. In widely publicized hearings, women have also recently testified to the Peace Corps' failings in the aftermath of rape or sexual abuse.

Harkening back to the 1994 World Bank/IMF "Fifty Years is Enough" campaign, is fifty years enough for the Peace Corps?

President Kennedy created the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961 by executive order. On September 22, Congress authorized the agency "to promote world peace and friendship." setting three goals: to provide trained men and women to work in developing countries; to promote better understanding of Americans; and to promote better understanding of other people by Americans. These goals have guided the Peace Corps over the past fifty years and I count myself and some of my closest friends among the more than 200,000 Americans who have served under them in 139 countries around the world.

Today, operating under a $400 million budget, the agency has more than 8,600 volunteers and trainees in the field. Their work ranges from HIV/AIDS to business development and environmental preservation -- clearly important issues in the developing-country context.

But in a tight budget environment, does the Peace Corps offer value for money? The US created the Peace Corps during one of the most precarious moments in the Cold War. Between the March 1 executive order and the September 22 legislation, the world witnessed the construction of the Berlin Wall and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. President Kennedy observed at the time that the Soviets "had hundreds of men and women... prepared to spend their lives abroad in the service of world communism". In this protracted stand-off, "winning hearts and minds" was thought critical. Likewise, the demand for trained men and women in the developing world was dramatically different than it is today.

Given these realities, has the agency outlived its purpose?

Since 1961 we have learned a lot about what works in development, what does not, and how to make foreign assistance work better. We know that leadership by the country receiving aid -- and the use of their own systems of budgeting, accountability and financial management -- is critical. It is similarly crucial to develop capacity in the country, coordinate among development agencies and actors, and measure impact and results. We also know that individual stand-alone projects -- designed, implemented and managed by the donor -- do not produce sustainable development. Though often laudable, more often than not these projects run parallel to the country's own institutions, coming to an abrupt end when the individuals responsible leave -- an experience familiar to many former volunteers, myself included.

A year ago, the Peace Corps published its "Comprehensive Agency Assessment," acknowledging that "the three goals are not sufficient for setting the agency's future direction". The Assessment sets out an ambitious strategy for the future, taking into account the "changing face of both the United States and the countries it serves". Yet while it refers to the Peace Corps as one the "one of the most cost effective US foreign assistance programs", the 204-page document is practically devoid of practical references to sustainability, capacity development and country ownership -- concepts that are the cornerstones of other forms of US foreign assistance. An additional concern centers on the fact that the agency is nowhere to be found in last September's Presidential Policy Directive on Development, nor does the Directive seem to feature anywhere on the Peace Corps' website.

In an atmosphere of fiscal restraint and demand for tangible results from tax-funded spending in developing countries, it is critical that the Peace Corps become more integrated within US development policy. And while elements of the Comprehensive Agency Assessment are moving in the right direction, more needs to be done to turn the Peace Corps into a 21st century instrument. This includes ensuring that volunteers are providing services for which no local expertise exists and that aim to develop local capacity; and that these are imbedded in national or local development strategies. These activities also need to be coordinated with other development programs, be they US-sponsored or otherwise. Lastly, they should be designed -- together with the host countries and communities -- to permit measurement of actual development impact and results. At the macro level, the agency's place in the Presidential Policy Directive also needs to be defined.

Like many thousands of former volunteers, I am forever indebted to President Kennedy and his vision of a "peace corps of talented men and women" -- a vision to which I owe my family and my career. Even so, is fifty years of Peace Corps enough?

Certainly not -- serious demand for the type of skills brought by volunteers still exists in many parts of the world. That said, goals designed in 1961 are simply not enough to carry the Peace Corps through its next fifty years. In today's fiscal environment, passion and sentiment alone are unlikely to sustain Congressional appropriations. A clear vision of the agency as an instrument for supporting development -- producing solid, sustainable and measurable results for the people and countries its volunteers serve -- is the foundation of a "new" Peace Corps.

Stephen P. Groff is the Deputy Director for Development Cooperation at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris and was recently elected to the board of the National Peace Corps Association.