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Kudos for the US Peace Corps – and Happy 50th Birthday!

On February 28th, President Obama issued a proclamation lauding the Peace Corps on their 50th anniversary. The document states, in part: “Over the past five decades, Peace Corps Volunteers have served in nearly 140 countries, bringing a wealth of practical assistance to those working to build better lives for themselves and their communities. From the first group of volunteers to arrive in Ghana and Tanzania in August 1961, they have been emissaries of hope and goodwill to the far corners of our world, strengthening the ties of friendship between the people of the United States and those of other countries.”

The President correctly recognized that: “…the United States Peace Corps remains an enduring symbol of our Nation’s commitment to encouraging progress, creating opportunity, and fostering mutual respect and understanding throughout the world.

Noting the passing of the 50th anniversary of this institution, it occurred to me that my nephew Kevin Duncan served in the Corps between his undergraduate and graduate college years. I decided to ask him about his experience.

Kevin served as an HIV/AIDS Educator at St. Vincent and the Grenadines (located in the eastern Caribbean) between July 2001 and August of 2003. I remember reading Kevin’s application for admission to graduate school (Kevin obtained his graduate degree at the University of Michigan). It opened with an account of Kevin’s Peace Corps experience that went something like this:

“I was crossing a river on a Caribbean island in the Grenadines, fighting against the surprisingly strong current which at that point was well up over my waist. I was holding my flip chart and other educational materials up over my head so that they wouldn’t be ruined by the splashing water, and it struck me: I was exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I wanted to do.”

Kevin has always been a source of pride for the Duncans – me included – and so I wasn’t really surprised to read these words; but they were certainly still gratifying.

The US Peace Corps was established in 1961 by the executive order of President John F. Kennedy. Some believe that the establishment and continuing work of this agency forever changed the way the rest of the world views the United States of America. Indeed, recent estimates reflect that over 200,000 current and former Peace Corps Volunteers have collectively given over a half century of service. Kevin agrees with that assessment:

“As long as there are other countries and people that are struggling, the Peace Corps will be just as relevant as it has always been. As a Peace Corps volunteer, your whole job is to help others have a better life and you are doing that while practically having an American flag tattooed across your chest. It helps the world be a better place and helps other nations have a better opinion of America.”

This makes the work of the Peace Corps a bright spot against what is otherwise a pretty dark background of world opinion. Recent international opinion polls reflect a world that believes the US does not behave responsibly and effectively as a global leader. According to Keith Porter, reporting on a survey by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and

“Majorities in 13 out of 15 publics polled say the United States is ‘playing the role of world policeman more than it should be.’ On the question ‘How much do you trust the United States to act responsibly in the world?’, 84% of Argentineans answered ‘not at all’ or ‘not very much.’ Peru (80%), Russia (73%), France (72%), and a majority in 10 of the 15 countries also expressed high degrees of mistrust regarding the United States.”

Nevertheless, I believe that doing some good is better than doing no good, and to a great extent I believe that envy and selfishness often play a significant role in others’ perceptions of US policy. It is unlikely that any amount of US donation or service will drive numbers like these into favorable territory.

One of the greatest benefits of Government service, especially at a young age, is the impact it has on the volunteers. I know from my own experience in Iraq and Afghanistan that seeing is believing when it comes to understanding the plight of third world countries. It also provides a legitimate sense of accomplishment and satisfaction about making a real and meaningful contribution in the world. Finally, it represents a tremendous training ground for future US Government employees to provide future leaders in diplomacy and economic development. Kevin said this about his own experience:

“The things that I found the most rewarding were: the work that I accomplished, the fact that I stayed through my whole 2 year service time (our training group had a 66% attrition rate), learning about and becoming part of another culture, the deep and rewarding friendships that I developed withVincentians, other volunteers, and Expats. And, of course, one can’t forget to mention that it was a marvelous adventure!”

Now a public school teacher, Ken says:

“I would recommend it to my children and do recommend it to my students. It is a life-changing experience that I would love to see many others have. My only hesitation would be if my daughter were to choose a country where woman are not respected and the rate of assault on volunteers is high.”

That last comment struck a resonant chord with me. Consistent with my own observations in various parts of the world, Kevin also experienced the dark side of working in regions of conflict, lawlessness, and financial hardship as a Peace Corps volunteer. When I asked him about the most significant challenges and obstacles he faced during his service, he said:

“Adapting to a new culture always has its difficulties. Vincentians have their own way of doing things and a very different speed in which they do them. Another thing that was hard to deal with was the lower level of value that was placed on human life – I saw some policemen shoot/kill a man because he was being a nuisance. The children were often barely fed at an orphanage where I volunteered, cutlass (machete) and gun fights were common, crimes were committed without repercussion, doctors and nurses did very little for their patients, and Americans would come down to steal babies for adoption agencies without the government caring. Fighting against these kinds of things was often like hitting a brick wall.”

At least from the perspective of Kevin Duncan, the Peace Corps was managed pretty well. And for a US Government agency, that’s high praise indeed. For example, he reports:

“I really liked the Peace Corps’ focus on sustainability. They did not want us to have volunteer positions that were filled on a rotating basis by a new volunteer every two years. They wanted us to train our replacement from the local population and find funding for them so Peace Corps could move on to other projects and the people would be helping themselves.”

When I pressed him about whether the results of his efforts were measured or documented, he said:

“I believe the work I did was very beneficial. My Country Director was very flexible and allowed us to shape our own experience. That enabled me to get a lot more done and meet needs to a deeper level then if my job had been more specified and preplanned. As for the results of my work, my Country Director checked in with all of the NGOs, government agencies, and schools agencies that I worked with. He would visit our worksites and homes, and I was also required to make quarterly reports on my work. Also, at the end of my service, a ‘Description of Service’ document was completed that listed all of the work that I had done.”

Bravo! It would appear that – now in their 50th year, at least one US Government agency is getting some things right. Good for the Peace Corps, and good for America.

What do you think?

One Response to “Kudos for the US Peace Corps – and Happy 50th Birthday!”

  1. Reva Lee says:

    Good job Kevin. Wish more would understand the work of the Peace Corps.

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