As the Peace Corps approached its 50th anniversary last year, Director Aaron S. Williams asked the agency to take a long, hard look at itself.
The result was a 200-page comprehensive assessment that took six months to complete and included myriad suggestions to strengthen and reform the international service agency. Williams, a former Peace Corps volunteer appointed by President Obama to lead the agency in 2009, said it was odd that such a review had never been done before and the results are helping to re-energize the iconic institution.
“We looked at our policies and training and every aspect of the Peace Corps,” Williams told The Diplomat in an interview at his office in mid-town Washington. “We looked at all of the programs and all of the countries we’re in. We made a decision that we were going to try to focus on those countries that actually have the highest level of poverty.
“Because of our assessment and portfolio review, we are now very strategic about where we place volunteers and the kinds of programs we put in place in countries where volunteers can serve,” he added.
Helping countries overcome poverty has been a hallmark of the Peace Corps since its founding in the early 1960s after then-Senator John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. The future president’s challenge planted a seed that bloomed into a federal agency devoted to world peace and friendship — one that remains a magnet for Americans looking to make a difference abroad.
Since the inception of the Peace Corps, more than 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 host countries working on issues ranging from AIDS education to environmental preservation. Former volunteers have gone on to work in the top echelons of government, business and other fields. Notable vets include television host Chris Matthews, former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, President of the University of Miami Donna Shalala, and award-winning journalist Maureen Orth, wife of the late Tim Russert who is currently producing “Peace Corps Postcards,” an interactive website created for the 50th anniversary that highlights volunteers in action today and veterans for whom the Peace Corps has profoundly influenced their lives.
The popularity of the Peace Corps hasn’t waned — it regularly receives three times the number of applications than it has slots for, despite an extensive vetting process and lengthy time commitment. It’s a highly competitive selection process that attracts some of America’s brightest talent.
But that isn’t to say the process is perfect. The strategic, top-to-bottom review that Williams initiated found some things the Peace Corps is doing well and some areas for improvement.
Suggestions resulting from the study included improving the recruitment and selection of volunteers (the time to formally process an application can take up to a year or longer to complete, for example, discouraging potential volunteers who can’t wait that long for an answer); upgrading the training and medical care for Peace Corps volunteers and staff; adjusting volunteer placement to reflect U.S. international priorities; and reducing early termination rates among volunteers.
Williams is intimately familiar with these issues having served in the Peace Corps as a volunteer from 1967 to 1970, first in a training program for rural school teachers in the small town of Monte Plata in the Dominican Republic, and later as a professor of teaching methods at the Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra in Santiago. After his stint as a volunteer, Williams became the coordinator of minority recruitment and project evaluation officer for the Peace Corps in his hometown of Chicago.
Williams worked in the private sector as a vice president for international business development with RTI International. He was also a senior manager at the U.S. Agency for International Development, where he earned the rank of career minister in the U.S. Senior Foreign Service. As USAID’s mission director in South Africa, Williams led a billion-dollar foreign assistance program during President Nelson Mandela’s administration. He’s also a two-time recipient of the Presidential Award for Distinguished Service.
“I understand the challenges and opportunities and the differences that a Peace Corps volunteer can make on the ground,” Williams said. “I’ve seen it in my early career and over the course of my long career. Even though the world’s changed a lot over the last 30 to 40 years, the passion and the commitment of the Peace Corps is the same.
“That’s one of the more gratifying things about being director of the Peace Corps, getting to see that,” said Williams, who is the fourth director in the agency’s history to have served as a volunteer.
The Peace Corps is now in 75 countries, which represents a more tightly focused mission. It has a record number of volunteers, however, with more than 9,000 Americans serving overseas. Nearly 40 percent of those volunteers are in Africa, 24 percent in Latin America, and 18 percent in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, with the rest in Asia, the Caribbean, North Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands.
“We only go where we are asked to go,” Williams noted. “We actually have to get a letter of request from a government before we serve.”
Education continues to be the Peace Corps’s top priority, with 40 percent of its volunteers working in education-related jobs. The prevention of HIV/AIDS, as well as public health issues in general, also comprise a big part of the agency’s portfolio, with 23 percent of volunteers working in these roles.
“We are very much involved in the battle against HIV/AIDS,” Williams said. “Our volunteers are walking the last mile to reach remote villages to give the messages of awareness and prevention regarding HIV and AIDS.
“We’re doing something very similar in the case of malaria,” he added. “There has been a resurgence of malaria, especially in Africa. So now our volunteers are involved in helping train community organizations in the use of bed nets and the value of spraying, so that children can be protected at night from the malaria mosquito.”
In mid-March, the Peace Corps, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Health Service Corps launched an innovative public-private partnership to place nurses, physicians and other health professionals as adjunct faculty in medical or nursing schools overseas. The Global Health Service Partnership hopes these professionals will augment health programs in needy communities, including worker shortages.
The budget of the Peace Corps — about $375 million in 2011 — has for the most part remained stable, although budget cuts will prevent President Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to double the number of volunteers by 2011 from being realized. Still, the corps has emerged from the paralyzing partisan gridlock in Congress relatively unscathed.
“We enjoy strong bipartisan support from the U.S. Congress and it is really gratifying,” Williams said, noting proudly that four current members of Congress, including three Democrats and one Republican, are former Peace Corps volunteers.
“They are strong supporters but we also have great relationships with the key committee chairmen in both houses who support the Peace Corps,” he said. “I do believe we’re getting the level of resources we need to carry out our job. We’re pretty unique.”
For example, Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has long advocated for expanding the corps.
“It’s a game changer,” Farr said last year at a dinner honoring “50 Years of Peace Corps and the Power of Partnerships,” hosted by the nonprofit International Relief & Development (IRD). “Right now, it is 10 times cheaper than sending a soldier overseas, four times cheaper than sending a State Department official overseas, three times cheaper than sending an [agricultural] commissioner. It is the best bang for the buck America can have,” Farr said, adding that “in this time of cut, squeeze and trim, this is the last one we ought to cut, squeeze and trim.”
Williams is grateful for that kind of enthusiastic support. “When we talk to members of Congress about the Peace Corps, they recognize that we need to be engaged globally,” he said. “This is an outstanding way to allow Americans, and primarily young Americans, to actually become global citizens, learn about a different culture, speak a foreign language and develop leadership skills.
“I think every member of Congress recognizes that the U.S., as a sole world power, needs to have its citizens engaged externally and the Peace Corps is a perfect vehicle for that.”
The Peace Corps is, indeed, widely viewed as a good place for young people to become citizens of the world. But increasingly, older Americans are joining the volunteer ranks. Many of these older volunteers served years earlier and are opting to return after they retire from other careers.
“About 7 percent of our volunteers are over the age of 50 now,” Williams said. “I suspect with the retirement of the baby boomers, people are going to be looking for an opportunity to serve a second time or a first time. I think we’ll see more volunteers who are 50-plus.”
Recruiting older volunteers is part of a strategy to infuse the agency with more experience. In fact, one of the most consistent knocks on Peace Corps programs is that they are filled with idealist and intelligent — but inexperienced — volunteers.
“I talk to younger volunteers all the time and they find the older volunteers provide experience, stability and a different perspective that younger volunteers find, I think, to be great assistance to them,” Williams said.
That’s not to discount younger volunteers’ contributions, he added.
“What are young Americans good at?” Williams asked. “The ones who are passionate about public service, they’re good at organizing things. Organizational capacity is very important in the globalized world and we’re very good at providing that.”
A Peace Corps assignment shouldn’t be taken lightly. It requires three months of intensive training and two full years of service in locales that are often rudimentary and even dangerous. On that note, the agency has taken heat in recent years for not doing enough to ensure the safety of its volunteers.
Rape is a particularly pernicious risk. According to a 2011 story in the New York Times, from 2000 to 2009, on average, 22 Peace Corps women each year reported being the victims of rape or attempted rape. At the same time, more than 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers reported sexual assaults, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes.
“The Peace Corps has made great efforts to reduce the risk of sexual violence against volunteers,” the organization’s website says, noting that staff and volunteers participate in regular safety and security training, which is modified based on data from a worldwide reporting system that tracks incidents.
The agency also has a Sexual Assault Working Group that works with staff to analyze agency protocols and recommend strategies to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and rape, and to strengthen support for victims.
“The Peace Corps’ efforts have resulted in a significant decline in the incidence of rape and major sexual assault among volunteers over the past 14 years,” the agency states. “The Peace Corps will never be able to eliminate crimes committed against volunteers overseas, but employs extensive measures to train volunteers in the skills they can use to reduce the likelihood of becoming victims of crime.”
Williams told The Diplomat that volunteer safety is his top priority as director (the Peace Corps recently pulled more than 150 volunteers from Honduras, for example, because of the country’s soaring homicide rate).
“There is nothing more important to me than the health, safety and security of our volunteers, and it’s something that we monitor every day,” he said. “We’ve put in place a series of reforms and policies and practices to make sure our volunteers are safe.
“The Peace Corps has recently hired a victims advocate who provides support for any volunteer for who becomes a victim of a crime, no matter what kind of crime it might be,” he noted.
“We also have medical personnel and 24-7 care,” he added. “We understand the nature of the situation for volunteers in terms of their security. We work closely with the U.S. embassy community and the regional security offices at each of our embassies, and we’re also in touch with the international donor and NGO communities. We monitor it very closely.”
Williams said Peace Corps volunteers are trained to be aware of their surroundings, as well as the culture in which they are working. That kind of awareness is good for diplomacy, as well, with volunteers well positioned for future careers in diplomacy.
“This is a perfect launching pad,” Williams said. “There are a high percentage of foreign service officers who are return Peace Corps volunteers — a high percentage of officers in USAID.”
He added: “As I travel the world and talk to the leading NGOs, they all have large cadres of returning Peace Corps volunteers in senior positions in those organizations. It’s quite remarkable what has occurred in 50 years in the field of international affairs.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.