It was well past midnight in the fall of 1960 when the campaign-logged junior senator from Massachusetts came to the microphone.
The hour was late, the Ann Arbor air crisp; yet the man on the steps seemed remarkably energized, focused, even playful.
After flattering the crowd of mostly university students with a tongue-in-cheek reference to his alma mater (Harvard) as the “Michigan of the East”, he issued in almost passing form the challenge to give over part of their young lives as ambassador-servants.
The speaker was Jack Kennedy. And the ubiquitous call to service turned out to be the seminal moment in the creation of one of the most effective global humanitarian efforts the country has amassed to date: Peace Corps.
Officially signed into being on March 1, 1961, by the newly elected president (and based in large part on Presbyterian minister James Robinson’s Operation Crossroads Africa), the Peace Corps (PC) has since placed over 210,000 trainers and trainees in 139 countries.
Along the way it has proven its mettle, surviving organizational reshuffling, chronic underfunding, repeated attempts at politicization and incidents of brutal in-country violence inflicted upon PC staff.
But as Peace Corps Week 2013 rolls around (Feb. 24-March 2) its detractors (including some high-office elected officials) continue to call for near-complete philosophical and organizational overhaul of the way it does business.
The more data-based reformers cite mission drift and progressively poorer outcomes as evidence for their pillory of the status quo; but perhaps the most damning case for change is being made by the PC workers who vote with their feet: more than one-third leave the program before their tour is up and a 2008 survey of direct-service participants indicated strong and growing interest in rethinking why and how the Corps does what it does.
At the heart of the matter is whether Peace Corps should remain rooted in its identity as a “soft power” (ideals- and host-country driven efforts) agency or morph into a more “hard power” (developing and measuring its own programs) entity.
In a May 15, 2000, article that appeared at Boston.com, former PC volunteer and columnist Gal Beckerman sums up the pro-hard power position: “What they fear … is that [Peace Corps] will increasingly slide toward being a corps of idealistic, well-intentioned young people sent to distant nations simply to socialize with other Americans like them.”
Even detractors with less sharp axes point to the need for centralized operations in order to better eliminate shaky programs and shore up those that have staying power – a concept that by itself would rock the PC governance structure.
To this end, there is a contingent within this contingent calling for collaboration with similar, leaner non-governmental organizations that focus on development rather than relationship building and cultural exchange. The time has come, they say, for PC to go along in order to get along.
But getting along comes at too great a cost for those who are convinced the Corps ain’t broke and doesn’t need fixing.
From PC leadership to past and current participants there is broad, unwavering conviction that PC’s original vision of hands-on service and cultural cross-pollination is as applicable to this century as the one before. And maybe more.
Defenders of this traditional reading of purpose hold that the anecdotal and human get short shrift in an era of what’s observable and measurable; subjecting a unique and still relevant organization to corporate-style indicators for determining success.
Emotions within the ranks understandably run high as Peace Corps Week once again brings focus to these tensions. But just as with other government-funded enterprises in these austere budget times, money, not philosophy of ultimate purpose may end up determining what if any changes are headed the Corps’ way.
Meanwhile as the external and internal forces at play have it out, Peace Corps is still about the frontline ambassador-servants who do what must done no matter the uncertainty back home.
Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Eugene, Ore. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2013
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