International Volunteering: Smart Power

June 1, 2006


The face of America that has been welcomed most enthusiastically in the rest of the world for decades has been the face of a volunteer: assisting with disaster relief, building houses for poor families, teaching English to university students, and so much more.

International volunteer programs contribute directly and indirectly to our nation’s security and well-being. They represent one of the best avenues Americans can pursue to improve relations with the rest of the world. The scale of these programs, however, is far below the levels suggested by their benefits. The federal budget for FY 2006 supports 75,000 AmeriCorps volunteers working domestically but only 7,800 Peace Corps volunteers working in foreign countries.

Reflecting the value that Americans see in volunteering overseas, programs in the private sector have grown rapidly in the past ten years. In 2005, at least 50,000 Americans participated in NGO and corporate programs. The number could be much higher, easily more than 100,000, with a program like AmeriCorps that leverages private funding. The number could be doubled again by offering additional options suitable to large pools of talent, such as retiring baby boomers.

The potential dividends from scaling up international volunteer programs are impressive relative to most other “soft power” programs of the U.S. government. The time is ripe for a breakthrough in this area, with policies aimed at strengthening existing programs such as increased funding for the Peace Corps, raising the public awareness of volunteer programs overseas, linking service and studie, and measuring effectiveness. It is a smart way to knit the United States more effectively into the fabric of this rapidly changing world.

Policy Brief #155

The United States is seeking a leadership role that protects its vital national interests while effectively engaging other nations as willing partners. Global challenges such as terrorism, poverty, and HIV/AIDS call for new policies to promote mutual understanding and cooperation with the citizens of other countries.

The disadvantages of acting alone or in small coalitions have become clearer in recent years. Furthermore, the experience in Iraq has made the American public more aware of the limitations of “hard power.” Hard power can topple unfriendly regimes, but it cannot build stable and prosperous nations.

The appointment of Karen Hughes as under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in March 2005 showed that the Bush Administration is committed to relying more on the kind of “soft power” that Harvard professor Joseph Nye has been advocating for more than a decade. Soft power is exercised through a vast array of public sector activities, from the Fulbright program of academic exchanges to the new Millennium Challenge Corporation. Condoleezza Rice underscored the move toward soft power in a speech on January 18, 2006, that highlighted the State Department’s plan for a new “transformational diplomacy.”

Overseas volunteer work is a form of soft power that contributes measurably to the security and well-being of Americans. Volunteers working in other countries develop life-long relationships and promote cross-cultural understanding in ways that few other federally funded programs can do. They bring home to the U.S. an understanding of foreign cultures that enriches our country and informs our policy choices. Volunteers also contribute to institutional capacity building, social capital, democratic governance, and a respect for human rights, all of which help to make the world a safer place for Americans both at home and abroad.

International volunteer programs represent one of the best avenues Americans can pursue to improve relations with the rest of the world. Despite the obvious benefits, however, the scale and effectiveness of these programs remain far below their potential.

NGOs and corporations can take steps by themselves to scale up their international volunteer programs and make them more effective. These programs could grow faster, however, with the help of a campaign to raise public awareness of the benefits of international volunteering, and more of the kind of catalytic support the federal government provides for AmeriCorps and other domestic volunteer programs.

U.S. Government Support for International Volunteer Programs

The Bush Administration gave a big boost to volunteer programs generally when it created USA Freedom Corps in 2002 and Volunteers for Prosperity in 2003. The support has been primarily rhetorical, however. Budget funding for these two programs has been very limited.

  • USA Freedom Corps was created by President Bush as a coordinating entity in the White House charged with “promoting a culture of service, citizenship, and responsibility in America.” With an emphasis on domestic volunteering, USA Freedom Corps has created a database of volunteer opportunities (Volunteer Network), it administers the President’s Volunteer Service Award program and the Presidential Greeter program, and it supports the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation. It is a focal point for five national service programs (AmeriCorps, Citizens Corps, Learn and Serve America, Senior Corps, and Peace Corps), and for government-sponsored volunteer service initiatives such as Volunteers for Prosperity.
  • Volunteers for Prosperity (VfP) was created by Executive Order in September 2003 as a web-based program to promote the use of volunteers in six presidential initiatives, and to assist highly skilled Americans in finding suitable volunteer assignments overseas. Prospective volunteers can find links on the VfP website to 220 partner organizations. In 2005 a total of 12,000 volunteers were placed overseas by these partner organizations. VfP’s office is located in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
  • The Peace Corps was created in 1961. It had 7,810 volunteers serving in 72 countries at the end of FY 2005. This was the highest level in 30 years, but well below its peak in 1966, when the Peace Corps had more than 15,000 volunteers in the field. It is a shadow of the 100,000-strong Peace Corps that President Kennedy believed would be desirable. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush proposed doubling the number of volunteers to 14,000 within five years. His budgets for FY 2003 and 2004 were consistent with that target, but Congress only appropriated enough funding to sustain an 18 percent increase. Peace Corps volunteers commit to 27 months of service, and receive a $6,075 relocation allowance upon return. One hundred percent of Peace Corps funding comes from the federal budget.
  • Other federally funded international volunteer programs. Several private sector programs are heavily dependent on federal funding, primarily from USAID, and several others use federal funding to supplement funding they receive from individual and corporate donors. Examples of these programs are ACDI/VOCA (in agriculture), the Citizens’ Development Corps, and the Financial Services Volunteer Corps. The number of volunteer assignments they support each year appears to be fewer than 1,000.