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The Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary

peacecorps_logoA call for increased strength and a new commitment
In less than a year, on March 1, 2011 in Washington, D. C., there will be vibrant speeches and sustained applause for the United States Peace Corps. The agency will be 50 years old. More than 200,000 volunteers will have served in 139 countries around the world.  The Peace Corps volunteer contributions deserve both commendation and recognition.  

My hope, however, is that this historic occasion will not be limited to celebratory cheers and speeches. Our country and the urgencies of our time call upon President Obama to not only invite more Americans, young and old, to volunteer, but also for the Peace Corps to accept a new role and responsibility to promote peace and nonviolence at home and abroad. Our very soul as a people requires us to recognize the obsolescence of war, and to dedicate ourselves to the humane strategy of peace.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines from 1962-64. Full of excitement with the challenge, I left law school to volunteer as a co-teacher and community organizer in an elementary school on the island of Cebu. It was a life-changing experience. As a result, I returned home to graduate school, and then began a 30-year career in international development. I worked with government agencies and NGOs in more than seven Asian and African countries, lived and worked in Pakistan for two years—and for five years with communities on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.

Fortunately, I’m not just a single voice urging an increase of volunteers and a meaningful new role for the Peace Corps. Our own 17th District Congress Representative Sam Farr, who earlier served with the Peace Corps in Columbia, is presently urging new levels of funding by 2012 to $750 million from the current $400 million. This increased budget would allow a doubling of the number of volunteers to 15,000.

Currently there are 7,671 volunteers serving in 76 countries. Sixty percent of the volunteers are women, 40 percent men, and the average age is 28. Seven percent of those serving are 50 or over.  Last year the Peace Corps had 15,000 applications for 4,000 job slots. Twelve countries are presently requesting new programs, and numerous countries with current programs are asking for additional volunteers.

Thoughtful reflection on this past 50 years should bring to our fullest awareness that during this same time frame the United States has been involved in an almost continual state of war: Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, and of course today, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is reliably projected that just the monetary cost of the Iraq War is $3 trillion. We also know that it presently costs $1 million a year for each soldier deployed to Afghanistan.

After 9/11, the first Director of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, stepped forward and urged that a fourth goal of peace and nonviolence be added to the mission of the Peace Corps.  Representative Farr gave specific articulation to Shriver’s proposed initiative: “To help promote global acceptance of the principles of international peace and non-violent coexistence among peoples of diverse cultures and systems of government.”

Shriver’s vision and Farr’s specificity of a fourth goal for the Peace Corps is a vital and dramatic next step for the United States. Their proposal presents our people with a viable and positive alternative to engage in the work of peace, and not just in espousing, enlisting in, and paying for war.

Today in the United States, television and newspapers over-report on Americans who are angry and negative toward others. Little is said about the Americans acting from their hearts toward those facing extraordinary human dilemmas. Many know, for example, that Greg Mortenson is the author of “Three Cups of Tea.”  Most are unaware that his institute, due to the generous donations by Americans, has been able to build 131 schools and educate 58,000 children in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

If we rededicate the Peace Corps to the cause of peace and nonviolence, many Americans, especially the record number of baby-boomers coming into retirement, will embrace a significant challenge to serve.


Dick Vittitow lives and votes in Santa Cruz. Send comments on this article to [email protected]

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