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Peace Corps

The Peace Corps is an independent United States federal agency. The Peace Corps was established by Executive Order 10924 on March 1, 1961, and authorized by Congress on September 22, 1961, with passage of the Peace Corps Act (Public Law 87-293). The Peace Corps Act declares the purpose of the Peace Corps to be:
“to promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.”

Since 1960, more than 190,000 people have served as Peace Corps volunteers in 139 countries.

Purpose and function

The Peace Corps sends volunteers around the globe, to more than 70 countries, to work with governments, schools, non-profit organizations, non-government organizations, and entrepreneurs in the areas of education, health, business, information technology, agriculture, and the environment. The program officially has three goals:

  • To help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained workers
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

The Peace Corps works by first announcing its availability to foreign governments. These governments then determine areas in which the organization can be involved. The organization then matches the requested assignments to its pool of applicants and sends those volunteers with the appropriate skills to the countries that first made the requests.

History

Following the end of the Second World War, various members of the United States Congress proposed bills to establish volunteer organizations in Developing Countries. In 1952 Senator Brien McMahon (D-Connecticut) proposed an "army" of young Americans to act as "missionaries of democracy." Privately funded nonreligious organizations began sending volunteers overseas during the 1950s.

While President Kennedy is credited with the creation of the Peace Corps, the first initiative came from Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, Jr. (D-Minnesota) when he introduced the first bill to create the Peace Corps happened in 1957—three years prior to JFK and his University of Michigan speech. In his autobiography The Education of a Public Man, Hubert Humphrey wrote: "There were three bills of particular emotional importance to me: the Peace Corps, a disarmament agency, and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The President, knowing how I felt, asked me to introduce legislation for all three. I introduced the first Peace Corps bill in 1957. It did not meet with much enthusiasm. Some traditional diplomats quaked at the thought of thousands of young Americans scattered across their world. Many senators, including liberal ones, thought it silly and unworkable idea. Now, with a young president urging its passage, it became possible and we pushed it rapidly through the Senate. It is fashionable now to suggest that Peace Corps Volunteers gained as much or more, from their experience as the countries they worked. That may be true, but it ought not demean their work. They touched many lives and made them better."

Only in 1959, however, did the proposal for a national program of service abroad first receive serious attention in Washington when Congressman Henry S. Reuss of Wisconsin advanced the ideas of a “Point Four Youth Corps.” In 1960, he and Senator Richard L. Neuberger of Oregon introduced identical measures calling for a nongovernmental study of the “advisability and practicability” of such a venture. Both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee endorsed the idea of a study, the latter writing the Reuss proposal into the Mutual Security legislation then pending before it. In this form it became law in June 1960. In August the Mutual Security Appropriations Act was enacted, making available $10,000 for the study, and in November ICA contracted with the Maurice Albertson, Andrew E. Rice, and Pauline E. Burkey of Colorado State University Research Foundation to make the study.

John F. Kennedy first announced his own idea for such an organization during the 1960 presidential campaign at a late-night speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on October 14. During a later speech in San Francisco, California on November 1, he dubbed this proposed organization the "Peace Corps." Critics of the program (including Kennedy's opponent, Richard M. Nixon) claimed the program would be nothing but a haven for draft dodgers. Others doubted whether college-age volunteers had the necessary skills. The idea was popular among college students, however, and Kennedy continued to pursue it, asking respected academics such as Max Millikan and Chester Bowles to help him outline the organization and its goals. During his inaugural address, Kennedy again promised to create the program: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

Establishment and authorization

On March 1, 1961, Kennedy signed an Executive Order 10924 that officially started the Peace Corps. Concerned with the growing tide of revolutionary sentiment in the Third World, Kennedy saw the Peace Corps as a means of countering the notions of the "Ugly American" and "Yankee imperialism," especially in the emerging nations of post-colonial Africa and Asia. On March 4, Kennedy appointed his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver to be the program's first director. Shriver was tasked with fleshing out the organization, which he did with the help of Warren W. Wiggins and others. Shriver and his think tank outlined the three major goals of the Peace Corps and decided the number of volunteers they needed to recruit. The program began recruiting volunteers that following July. Until about 1967, applicants to the Peace Corps had to pass a placement test that tested "general aptitude" (knowledge of various skills needed for Peace Corps assignments) and language aptitude. After an address from Kennedy, who was introduced by Rev. Russell Fuller of Memorial Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, on August 28, 1961, the first group of volunteers left for Ghana and Tanzania. The program was formally authorized by Congress on September 22, 1961, and within two years over 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers were serving in 44 countries. This number would jump to 15,000 in June of 1966, the largest number in the organization's history.

Early controversy

The organization experienced major controversy in its first year of operation. On October 13, 1961, a postcard was written by a volunteer named Margery Jane Michelmore in Nigeria to a friend in the U.S. She described her situation in Nigeria as "squalor and [of] absolutely primitive living conditions." However, this postcard never made it out of the country. The Ibadan University College Students Union demanded deportation and accused the volunteers of being "America's international spies" and the project as "a scheme designed to foster neocolonialism." Soon the international press picked up the story, leading several people in the U.S. administration to question the future of the program as a whole. Nigerian students protested the program, and the American volunteers sequestered themselves and eventually began a hunger strike. After several days, the Nigerian students agreed to open a dialogue with the Americans.

Independent status

The effect of the Peace Corps at this time was minimal. By 1966, more than 15,000 volunteers were working in the field, the largest number in the Peace Corps' history. In July 1971, President Richard Nixon, an opponent of the program, brought the Peace Corps under the umbrella agency ACTION. President Jimmy Carter, an advocate of the program, said that his mother, who had served as a nurse in the program, had "one of the most glorious experiences of her life" in the Peace Corps. In 1979, he declared it fully autonomous in an executive order. This independent status would be further secured when Congress passed legislation in 1981 to make the organization an independent federal agency.

Programs diversified

At this time, the Peace Corps began branching out past its traditional concerns of education- and agriculture-related projects. In 1982, President Reagan appointee director Loret Miller Ruppe initiated several new business-related programs. For the first time, a large number of conservative and Republican volunteers joined the contingent of overseas volunteers, and the organization continued to reflect the evolving political and social conditions in the United States.

Funding cuts during the early 1980s dropped the number of volunteers to 5,380, its lowest level since the organization's early years. Funding began to increase in 1985, and Congress passed an initiative to raise the number of volunteers to 10,000 by 1992.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks alerted the nation to growing anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East, President George W. Bush pledged to double the size of the organization within five years as a part of the War on Terrorism. For the 2004 fiscal year, Congress passed a budget increase at $325 million, $30 million above that of 2003 but $30 million below the President's request.

The Peace Corps intended to double the number of volunteers it sent abroad by 2007 in accordance with President Bush's request in 2002. According to Joseph Kennedy, "The American reputation has taken a hit in the last couple of years. The need for the Peace Corps couldn't be more urgent. The Peace Corps shows what is best in America, the generosity of spirit." The Peace Corps is trying to get more diverse volunteers of different ages. This is important so that the Peace Corps can look, according to former director Gaddi Vasquez, "more like America." An article published by the Harvard International Review in 2006 argues that the time has come not only to expand the Peace Corps but also to revisit its mission and equip it with new technology to transform it into a 21st-century engine for peace through the global sharing of knowledge.

In 1961 only 1 percent of volunteers were over 50, compared with 6 percent today. Peace Corps spokesperson Gretchen Learman states, "Age is no barrier to joining the Peace Corps. In many cases, it's an asset, since senior volunteers bring so much knowledge to their work. Married couples are welcome and can work together.

Peace Corps Response

Peace Corps Response, formerly named the Crisis Corps, was created by Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan in 1996. On November 19, 2007 Peace Corps Director Ronald Tschetter announced that Crisis Corps will be changing its name to Peace Corps Response.

This change is the result of an ongoing effort by the Peace Corps to better define the work of its volunteers. The change to Peace Corps Response will allow Peace Corps to broaden their approach to their five programming areas to include projects that do not necessarily rise to the level of a ‘crisis.’

The program sends former Peace Corps volunteers to foreign countries to take on short-term, high-impact assignments that typically range from three to six months in duration.

Peace Corps Response volunteers generally receive the same allowances and benefits as their Peace Corps counterparts, including round-trip transportation, living and readjustment allowances, and medical care. Minimum qualifications for Crisis Corps volunteers include completion of at least one year of Peace Corps service, excluding training, in addition to medical and legal clearances.

The Crisis Corps title will be retained as a unique branch within Peace Corps Response, designed for volunteers who are deployed to true “crisis” situations, such as disaster relief following hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions and other catastrophes.

Laws governing the Peace Corps

Executive orders

  • 1961 - 10924 - Establishment and administration of the Peace Corps in the Department of State (Kennedy)
  • 1962 - 11041 - Continuance and administration of the Peace Corps in the Department of State (Kennedy)
  • 1971 - 11603 - Assigning additional functions to the Director of ACTION (Nixon)
  • 1979 - 12137 - The Peace Corps (Carter)

Time limits on employment

Peace Corps employees receive time-limited appointments and most employees are limited to a maximum of five years (60 months) of employment with the agency. This time-limit is referred to as the "five-year rule" and was established to ensure that Peace Corps' staff remain fresh and innovative. Another rule related to the "five year rule" specifies that former Peace Corps employees cannot be re-employed by Peace Corps until they have been out of the agency's employment for the same amount of time that they worked for the Peace Corps. Service as a Peace Corps Volunteer overseas is not counted for the purposes of either of these rules.

Directors of the Peace Corps

Director service dates appointed by notes
1 R. Sargent Shriver 1961–1966 Kennedy Three days after President Kennedy signed an Executive Order establishing the Peace Corps, Shriver became its first director. Deployment was rapid: volunteers arrived in five countries during 1961. In just under six years, Shriver developed programs in 55 countries with more than 14,500 volunteers.
2 Jack Vaughn 1966–1969 Johnson Vaughn took steps to improve Peace Corps marketing, programming, and volunteer support as large numbers of former volunteers joined the Peace Corps staff. He also promoted volunteer assignments in conservation, natural resource management, and community development.
3 Joseph Blatchford 1969–1971 Nixon Blatchford served as head of the new ACTION agency, which encompassed U.S. domestic and foreign volunteer service programs including the Peace Corps. He created the Office of Returned Volunteers to help volunteers serve in their communities at home, and initiated New Directions, a program emphasizing volunteer skills.
4 Kevin O'Donnell 1971–1972 Nixon O'Donnell's appointment was the first for a former Peace Corps country director (Korea, 1966–70). He worked tirelessly to save the Peace Corps from budget cuts, and believed strongly in a non-career Peace Corps. He resigned as director six years after first joining the Peace Corps.
5 Donald Hess 1972–1973 Nixon Hess initiated training of volunteers in the host country where they would eventually serve. With this came the greater utilization of host country nationals in the training programs. The training provided more realistic preparation, and costs dropped for the agency. Hess also sought to end the down-sizing of the Peace Corps.
6 Nicholas Craw 1973–1974 Nixon Craw sought to increase the number of volunteers in the field and to stabilize the agency's future. He introduced a goal-setting measurement plan, the Country Management Plan, which gave a firm foundation for increased congressional support and for improved resource allocation across Peace Corps' 69 countries.
7 John Dellenback 1975–1977 Ford Dellenback worked to make the best possible health care available to volunteers. He also placed great emphasis on recruiting generalists. He believed in taking committed applicants without specific development skills and providing concentrated training to prepare them for service.
8 Carolyn R. Payton 1977–1978 Carter Payton was the first female director and the first African American. As director, she believed strongly in reflecting America's diversity in the corps of volunteers and worked tirelessly to convince young people that Peace Corps service would enrich their lives.
9 Richard F. Celeste 1979–1981 Carter Celeste focused on the role of women in development and was successful in involving women and minorities in the agency, particularly for staff positions. He invested heavily in training, including the development of a worldwide core curriculum, so that all volunteers had a common context in which to work.
10 Loret Miller Ruppe 1981–1989 Reagan Ruppe was the longest-serving director and a champion of women in development. She launched the Competitive Enterprise Development program to promote business-oriented projects. She also established the Caribbean Basin Initiative, the Initiative for Central America and the African Food Systems Initiative to help address regional challenges. Ruppe was highly regarded by volunteers for her tireless energy and enthusiasm.
11 Paul Coverdell 1989–1991 G.H.W. Bush Coverdell established two programs with a domestic focus. World Wise Schools enabled U.S. students to correspond with volunteers serving overseas in an effort to promote international awareness and cross-cultural understanding. Fellows/USA assisted Returned Peace Corps volunteers in pursuing graduate studies while serving local communities in the U.S.
12 Elaine Chao 1991–1992 G.H.W. Bush Chao was the first Asian American to serve as director. She expanded Peace Corps' presence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia by establishing the first Peace Corps programs in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and other newly independent countries.
13 Carol Bellamy 1993–1995 Clinton Bellamy was the first RPCV (Returned Peace Corps volunteer) (Guatemala 1963–65) to be director. She reinvigorated relations with Returned Peace Corps volunteers and launched the first Peace Corps web site.
14 Mark D. Gearan 1995–1999 Clinton Gearan established the Crisis Corps, a program that allows Returned peace Corps volunteers to help overseas communities recover from natural disasters and humanitarian crises. He supported expanding the corps of volunteers and opened new volunteer programs in South Africa, Jordan, Bangladesh and Mozambique.
15 Mark L. Schneider 1999–2001 Clinton Schneider was the second RPCV (El Salvador, 1966–68) to head the agency. He launched an initiative to increase volunteers' participation in helping prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, and also sought volunteers to work on information technology projects to enhance development of overseas communities.
16 Gaddi Vasquez 2002–2006 G.W. Bush Gaddi H. Vasquez was the first Hispanic American to serve as director. His focus as director was to revitalize the Peace Corps through a comprehensive outreach and recruitment program focused on attracting a diverse group of volunteers and staff.
17 Ron Tschetter September 2006 - present G.W. Bush The third RPCV to head the agency, Tschetter served in India in the mid 1960s. Confirmed by the Senate September 13, 2006 and sworn in on September 26, 2006.

Peace Corps in the media

Books about the Peace Corps

Hundreds of Returned Peace Corps volunteers have written books about their countries of service but five books that are among the most notable for capturing the positive and the negative of the Peace Corps experience are the following:

  • Published in 1969, Moritz Thomsen's Living Poor recounts the author's service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. RPCV Paul Theroux said that Living Poor was the best book he ever read on the Peace Corps experience and Tom Miller wrote that Thomsen was "one of the great American expatriate writers of the 20th century." "And as an expat, he was free to judge us all, an undertaking he finessed with acute observations, self-deprecation, and a flavorful frame of reference that ranged from a Tchaikovsky symphony to a Sealy Posturpedic mattress."
  • Alan Weiss's 1968 account of Peace Corps training, High Risk, High Gain, has been called "perhaps the most obscure, least known, and most unread" of all the great books written about the Peace Corps experience. Trainees in those days were classified by risk and by gain and Weiss discovered in his training days that he had been classified as High Risk/High Gain, a potential "Supervolunteer" or a potential "crash and burn." Weiss's book is funny, outrageous and sad but also valuable because it captures the “craziness” of those early years at the Peace Corps.
  • George Packer's The Village of Waiting (1988) is "one of the most wrenchingly honest books ever written by a white person about Africa, a bracing antidote to romantic authenticity myths and exotic horror stories alike," wrote Matt Steinglass. Isak Dinesen, Packer notes, wrote of waking in the Kenyan highlands and thinking, "Here I am, where I ought to be." Packer himself woke up sweating, hungry, "mildly at ease, or mildly anxious. But never where I ought to be."
  • For a history of the Peace Corps' early days, Coates Redmond's Come as You Are recounts the birth of the Peace Corps and how it was literally thrown together in a matter of weeks. "The book works as a charming, first-person history of the people who made the corps what it was in its formative years," says Charles DeBenedetti at the University of Toledo. "This book is highly readable and essential to understand the evolution of the unique Peace Corps spirit and style that continues to characterize the agency almost 45 years later," wrote Maureen Carroll, an early Peace Corps volunteer.
  • Tom Bissell served as a Peace Corps volunteer for a few months in Uzbekistan in 1996 before he "early terminated". However, Bissell felt he had really failed the people he joined the Peace Corps to help, so he returned to Uzbekistan in 2001 to write Chasing the Sea about the Aral Sea. However, "the secret, personal point of the journey was revisiting this failure of mine, to try to make something up to the country and people I’d abandoned," says Bissell. "My ambitions were actually pretty modest. I wanted to write a book that everyone who traveled to Central Asia would want to read, and I wanted to write a book that everyone who joins the Peace Corps has pressed upon them," Bissell said.

Films about the Peace Corps

In popular culture, the Peace Corps has been used as a comedic plot device in such movies as Airplane, Shallow Hal, Christmas with the Kranks, and Volunteers or used to set the scene for a historic era as when Frances "Baby" Houseman tells the audience she plans to join the Peace Corps in the introduction to the movie Dirty Dancing. The Peace Corps has also been documented on film and examined more seriously and in more depth in movies such as the following:

  • Jimi Sir, released in 2007, is a documentary portrait of Peace Corps volunteer James Parks' experiences as a high school science, math and English teacher during the last 10 weeks of his service in Nepal. James speaks Nepali fluently and brings you into a culture where there are no roads, vehicles, electricity, plumbing, telephone or radio. Jimi Sir has been called the best movie ever made about the Peace Corps experience.
  • The 2006 movie Death of Two Sons, directed by Micah Schaffer juxtaposes the deaths of Amadou Diallo, a Guinean in America who was gunned down by four New York City policemen with 41 bullets and Peace Corps volunteer Jesse Thyne who lived with Amadou's family in Guinea and died in a car crash there. The two men never met, but their destinies intertwine in this unique documentary.
  • While it may seem preposterous to many Americans, many Colombians believe that Peace Corps volunteers first taught Colombians how to process coca leaves into cocaine. U.S. officials and Peace Corps volunteers have long denied the allegations, but some Colombian historians and journalists have kept it alive for years. The movie El Rey directed and written by Antonio Dorado in 2004 attacks corrupt police, unscrupulous politicians and half-hearted revolutionaries but also portrays Peace Corps volunteers as having participated in the beginnings of cocaine processing in Colombia.
  • The 1970 movie ¿Qué Hacer? filmed in Chile and directed by Saul Landau on the eve of the election of Salvador Allende as president of Chile, tells the story of CIA agent Martin who is sent to Chile to recruit Suzanne, a Peace Corps volunteer. Suzanne instead falls for the Chilean revolutionary Hugo and gets involved in a plot to kidnap Martin. Suzanne finally realizes that the revolution must be fought, but that for her the fight is back in the USA.
  • In the 1969 film Yawar Mallku/Sangre de condor/Blood of the Condor, Bolivian Director Jorge Sanjines portrayed "Peace Corps volunteers in the campo as arrogant, ethnocentric, and narrow-minded imperialists out to destroy Indian culture. One particularly powerful scene showed Indians attacking a clinic while the volunteers inside sterilized Indian women against their will." The film is thought to be at least partially responsible for the expulsion of the Peace Corps from Bolivia in 1971. Peace Corps volunteer Fred Krueger who was serving in Bolivia at the time said, "It was an effective movie - emotionally very arousing - and it directly targeted Peace Corps volunteers. I thought I would be lynched before getting out of the theatre. To my amazement, people around me smiled courteously as we left, no one commented, it was just like any other movie."

Peace Corps in the news

To provide a flavor of what the Peace Corps is doing today, ten recent news stories about the Peace Corps are provided organized by most recent:

  • More Young People Looking for Post-College Stints in Volunteer Corps. "One of the unexpected consequences of the current economic malaise is that more recent college graduates are reportedly deferring their entry into the work force in order to spend a year volunteering." Date: July 3, 2008
  • Life in Prison for Killer of Peace Corps volunteer in Philippines. "A judge found 25-year-old woodcarver Juan Donald Duntugan, the lone suspect in the April 8, 2007, killing of Campbell in Batad village, guilty of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment." Date: June 30, 2008.
  • Peace Corps/Kenya Program Reopens. "After a four-month hiatus due to unrest after elections in December, a group of 24 Volunteers will arrive in Nairobi on June 10." Date June 6, 2008.
  • Peace Corps reopens Program in Liberia. "After an absence of nearly two decades, experienced Volunteers will be serving in the country through a program called Peace Corps Response." Date: June 4, 2008.
  • Peace Corps Volunteers in China Are Safe after Earthquake. "There are currently 111 Peace Corps Volunteers serving in China. Individual Volunteers and local counterpart schools have collectively reported that all Volunteers are safe." Date May 12, 2008.
  • President Bush Hosts Peace Corps Volunteers at the White House. In his remarks, President Bush said, “Forty-seven years ago, President John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden sent the first team of Peace Corps Volunteers to Africa. And in the intervening years, more than 190,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have carried our country's great spirit of generosity and compassion throughout the world." Date April 29, 2008.
  • Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Visits Peace Corps Headquarters. "Secretary Rice’s remarks to 65 Country Directors and headquarters staff officially kicked-off the Peace Corps 2008 Worldwide Country Director Conference." Date: April 28, 2008.
  • Ukraine Peace Corps volunteer, Jeremiah S. Johnson sent home after testing positive for HIV. "They told me it was Peace Corps policy for HIV-positive people to be medically separated," Johnson said in an interview. "I was told I could not work anywhere else for the Peace Corps." Date: April 28, 2008.
  • Debate is brewing over how the agency can attract greater numbers of older, more experienced volunteers. "You can't replace that experience," said Peace Corps director Ronald Tschetter said in an interview in Addis Ababa. "The same kind of passion that these young people have, these people have … but they have 30 years of experience to bring along with it." Date: April 25, 2008.
  • Former Peace Corps Country Director for Cameroon Robert Strauss writes in Foreign Policy magazine that the Peace Corps has never lived up to its purpose or principles. "Today, the Peace Corps remains a Peter Pan organization, afraid to grow up, yet also afraid to question the thinking of its founding fathers," writes Strauss. "The rush to fulfill John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign pledge was such that the Peace Corps never learned to crawl, let alone walk, before it set off at a sprinter’s pace." April 2008.
  • Peace Corps, Fulbright Scholar Asked to 'Spy' on Cubans, Venezuelans. "In an apparent violation of U.S. policy, Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar were asked by a U.S. Embassy official in Bolivia "to basically spy" on Cubans and Venezuelans in the country, according to Peace Corps personnel and the Fulbright scholar involved." Date Feb 8, 2008.

Notable Returned Peace Corps Volunteers

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