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International Volunteer Service: Global Development from the Ground Up

President Obama’s emphasis on “smart power” diplomacy has thrust the need for international volunteer service into the global spotlight. On June 23, Global Economy and Development at Brookings and Washington University’s Center for Social Development (CSD) will host a forum examining how international volunteer service can address multiple global challenges simultaneously and build international cooperation. The forum will frame international service as an effective tool for increasing international social capital as well as building sustainable cross-cultural bridges.

This event begins with an address by service champion, Ambassador Elizabeth Frawley Bagley, who leads the Department of State’s Global Partnerships Initiative. Bagley is well poised to foster innovative public-private partnerships, an approach she describes as “Ubuntu Diplomacy: where all sectors belong as partners, where we all participate as stakeholders, and where we all succeed together, not incrementally but exponentially.” The need for multilateral approaches to development has been analyzed by Brookings scholars Jane Nelson and Noam Unger, who explore how the U.S. foreign assistance system works in the new market-oriented and locally-driven global development arena.

This spirit of cross-sector collaboration will carry the June 23rd forum, beginning with a research panel releasing beneficiary outcome data from a Peace Corps survey completed with over 800 host country nationals, including community members, direct beneficiaries, and collaborators. Peace Corps colleagues, Dr. Susan Jenkins and Janet Kerley, will present preliminary findings from this multi-year study measuring the achievement of “helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women” and “promoting a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served”. Aggregate data about respondents’ views of Americans before and after their interaction with the Peace Corps will be discussed.

This work complements the release of new data on the impact of international service on volunteers, which is supported with funding from the Ford Foundation and a joint Brookings-Washington University academic venture capital fund. Washington University’s CSD has studied international service over the last decade. The current research, first in a series from the quasi-experimental study, compares international volunteers’ perceived outcomes to a matched group who did not volunteer internationally: volunteers are more likely to report increased international awareness, international social capital, and international career intentions.

Building on the demonstrated potential of international service, policymakers and sector leaders will then discuss options for enhancing international service, and provide recommendations for bringing international service to the forefront of American foreign policy initiatives. This policy plenary will introduce and discuss the Service World policy platform: a collaborative movement led by the Building Bridges Coalition, National Peace Corps Association and the International Volunteering Initiative at Brookings. This powerhouse of sector leaders aims to scale international service to the levels of domestic volunteer service with increased impact through smart power policy proposals. What Service Nation did to unite Americans around domestic service as a core ideal and problem-solving strategy in American society, Service World hopes to do on a global scale.

Next week in New York City, the Points of Light Institute and the Corporation for National and Community Service will convene to further spotlight the Service World Platform at the 2010 National Conference on Volunteering and Service. This event will bring together more than 5,000 volunteer service leaders and social entrepreneurs from around the world, including local host Mayor Bloomberg. Michelle Nunn, CEO of Points of Light Institute noted in Huffington Post that “demand, idealism and presidential impact are leading American volunteerism to its…most important stage – the movement of service to a central role in our nation’s priorities.”

Nunn’s statement illustrates the momentum and power that make the voluntary sector a unique instrument in the “smart power” toolbox. According to successive polling from Terror Free Tomorrow, American assistance, particularly medical service, is a leading factor in favorable opinions toward the United States. A 2006 survey conducted in Indonesia and Bangladesh showed a 63 percent favorable response among Indonesian respondents to the humanitarian medical mission of “Mercy,” a United States’ Navel Ship, and a 95 percent favorable response among Bangladeshi respondents.

Personifying the diplomatic potential of medical service abroad is Edward O’Neil’s work with OmniMed. In the Mukono District of Uganda, OmniMed has partnered with the U.S. Peace Corps and the Ugandan Ministry of Health as well as local community-based organizations to implement evidence-based health trainings with local village health workers. Dr. O’Neil is now working with Brookings International Volunteering Initiative and Washington University’s CSD on a new wave of rigorous research: a randomized, prospective clinical trial measuring the direct impact of over 400 trained village health workers on the health of tens of thousands of villagers. 

In the words of Peace Corps architect and former U.S. Senator Harris Wofford, the pairing of new data and policy proposals on June 23rd will support a “quantum leap” in the scale and impact of international service, advancing bipartisan calls to service from President Kennedy to Bush 41, Bush 43, Clinton and Obama.

  • David Caprara is a former national director of VISTA and Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the Corporation for National and Community Service, he is an expert on related civic engagement and conflict resolution areas.

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