Peace Corps at 50

This week, our nation reflects on the 50-year legacy of the Peace Corps, which President John F. Kennedy signed into law on September 22, 1961. The passing earlier this year of Sargent Shriver, the indefatigable founding director of the Peace Corps, furthered national and international recognition of America’s longstanding traditions of service to the world. The time is right to expand the national policy discussion to include a broadened array of global service actors inspired by the example of Peace Corps volunteers to address critical human needs.

The largest independent representative survey of Peace Corps volunteers to date is being released this week as part of the 50th anniversary assessments by Civic Enterprises and the National Peace Corps Association with Peter D. Hart Research Associates. The survey documents responses from 11,138 Peace Corps volunteers who served from 1961 to 2011.

Among the survey findings of the returned Peace Corps volunteers:

  • 82 percent view Peace Corps service “effective in promoting a better understanding of Americans in the communities they served,” and 74 percent indicated they view it “helps the U.S. adapt to globalization.”

  • 59 percent view their service as, “effective in meeting the needs for trained workers.”

  • 98 percent would recommend Peace Corps service to their family members.

Enhanced international awareness among volunteers was underscored in prior research assessing international NGO service released at a Brookings-Washington University joint forum. The Center for Social Development (CSD) report found that cross-cultural service also contributes significantly to international social capital, by developing a group of volunteers abroad who can leverage additional resources and connections to coordinate humanitarian aid projects.
Impacts of the broadened field of global and local volunteers are being demonstrated in critical issue areas such as basic hygiene and malaria reduction by Peace Corps and Malaria No More in Senegal, and a promising demonstration project led by Omnimed and Makarere University in Kampala, Uganda. The Omnimed model has utilized an innovative combination of international medical volunteers, supported by Volunteers for Prosperity at USAID and Peace Corps, to train and equip local village volunteers in Community Health Teams in sustaining malaria prevention. By expanding this network of public and private partners, and empowering local social entrepreneurs and village volunteers, potential exists to spread effective, results-based malaria health service corps across Sub-Saharan Africa and worldwide.

A steadily growing recognition of the importance of the wider landscape of volunteers— including NGOs, faith-based institutions, corporations and universities—is furthering goals for multi-sector inclusion in international service that Peace Corps’ founding director Sargent Shriver articulated to President Kennedy in his original 1961 report.

The Call to Peace and accompanying Service World recommendations represent a fresh call to action which should be taken up by foundations and both national parties to develop innovative and results-oriented solutions to today’s challenges of development and peace.