The Best Diplomats: American Volunteers

David L. Caprara
David L. Caprara
David L. Caprara Former Brookings Expert

January 7, 2007

As the 110th Congress convenes this week, it faces an opportunity — fuelled by the American public’s mandate for change — to develop and employ new bipartisan policies that enhance global security and peace while improving the world’s opinion of our country.

Central to this effort should be an increased role for the American volunteer, who has served as one of the best diplomats and representatives of this country to communities across the globe. From the Peace Corps to the rapidly growing field of corporate volunteers, Americans have invested their time, skills and energy in service initiatives abroad and in doing so, exhibited our traditional spirit of good will and concern for others while building bridges between countries.

Take Kimberly Priebe of Schaumburg, Illinois, who was recently honored by the White House Freedom Corps during an event at the Brookings Institution for her service as a World Teach volunteer teaching English in a community college in Vicabama, Ecuador. While serving in Ecuador for one year, Kimberly published columns back home that described the serious educational needs of the population in Vicabama. After reading the columns, the local residents of Schaumburg responded by sending contributions to establish 100 scholarships for young people to attend the Vicabama community college. This support, generated by an American volunteer abroad, will foster generational benefits and bonds that last beyond the scholarships.

From personal experience, I can attest to the power of volunteer efforts to deepen the understanding of those who are served and those who serve alike. Last summer, my teenaged son and I participated in a Global Peacemakers international service initiative in Cambodia, where we worked alongside rural villagers in Siem Reap to build a home with and for an expecting couple. This joint effort forged lasting ties of respect and friendship across cultural boundaries that continue today as our Cambodian friends send updates via phone calls and e-mails.

The effects of the power of service can also be seen in the results of a recent Terror Free Tomorrow poll, which showed a markedly positive change in major Muslim nation perceptions of the United States in response to humanitarian relief and service initiatives. Polling data indicated that nearly 60 percent of Indonesians and 75 percent of Pakistanis held more favorable views of the United States following humanitarian assistance after their tsunami and earthquake tragedies. Importantly, this change in perception lasted beyond the initial aid and service, underscoring that America’s actions can have lasting impact.

Recognizing the potential benefits of increased U.S. volunteerism abroad, the Brookings Institution recently announced a major new collaborative initiative aimed at doubling the number of U.S. volunteers abroad within a three-year period, while promoting enhanced local capacity to strengthen the impact of indigenous volunteer efforts in local communities. This international volunteering coalition is comprised of more than 50 groups, including corporations, non-governmental organizations, leading universities and government agencies who will work to encourage more international volunteering and reciprocal exchanges with Americans and their foreign counterparts from all walks of life.

While the Brookings initiative is a step in the right direction, much more could be accomplished if this effort is boosted through Congressional support and engagement. Therefore, we ask the new Congress to pursue an expansion of the Peace Corps and to empower new international volunteers through Congressionally-nominated Global Service Fellowships, increased technical assistance, and multilateral exchanges in concert with UN Volunteers. These actions will link the efforts of American volunteers in a variety of service projects to a broader national effort aimed at enhancing international and intercultural understanding while improving lives through service. If we are serious about combating terrorism and enhancing national security then we should include the natural proponents of America’s optimism and generosity — our volunteer — as part of the solution.