May 28, 2002 - PCOL Op-Ed: Why the Peace Corps needs a Fourth Goal
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May 28, 2002 - PCOL Op-Ed: Why the Peace Corps needs a Fourth Goal
Why the Peace Corps needs a Fourth Goal
Read and comment on this op-ed piece by Eritrea RPCV John Rude written exclusively for PCOL on why the Peace Corps needs a Fourth Goal and what the Fourth Goal will mean for the Peace Corps at:
WHY THE PEACE CORPS NEEDS A FOURTH GOAL*
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
WHY THE PEACE CORPS NEEDS A FOURTH GOAL
John C. Rude, Peace Corps Volunteer, Eritrea (1962-64)
When the Peace Corps was founded 41 years ago, it fell heir to Wilsonian political legacies which hung over the Kennedy administration like a musty odor. Four decades is a long time. The same number of years separate the 21st century Peace Corps from the 1960s as separated the Wilson presidency from John F. Kennedy. With so much experience under its belt, and so much global change since its founding, it is time for the Peace Corps to chart a new course for its future.
The first forty years were framed by Three Peace Corps Goals: (1) to provide technical assistance to poor people; (2) to promote better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and (3) to bring the world home to America.
These goals resonate with – and are every bit as lofty – as the rhetoric that formed the League of Nations: “Making the world safe for Democracy.” But just as the world had had to wait 25 years for an effective United Nations to be born on sounder principles than the League, the Peace Corps today waits for a declaration of purpose that reflects its true mission, and its untapped potential.
"We made a difference!"
No single Peace Corps experience can be generalized to all volunteers, countries or eras touched by the Peace Corps. Nevertheless, there are common themes that have made the Peace Corps a unique and enduring organization. One theme borne out by historical experience is that the problems addressed by volunteer efforts have been immense – in fact, far beyond their capacity to solve, in nearly every case. This discovery alone has been worth the venture.
The facile, oft-used phrase, “We made a difference!” is a frank admission that making a dent was all that volunteers had a right to expect. Hunger, poverty and disease have grown immeasurably worse over the past 40 years. Peace Corps volunteers have witnessed these tragedies, but for all their passionate caring, they have done little to avert them. Because they were sent as emissaries from the world’s wealthiest nation, a nation perceived as having the capacity (but not the will) to alleviate global suffering, Peace Corps volunteers were viewed as complicit in the very problems they tried to solve.
Volunteers found themselves in circumstances similar to the “innocent” German citizens of Dachau. At the end of the Second World War, as the people of Dachau were required to visit the death camp on the edge of town, they could no longer cry innocence to God or their neighbors. Figuratively, Peace Corps volunteers have also smelled the stench from the ovens. Figuratively, the ashes of AIDS, ignorance, oppression and starvation have been scattered all over their immaculate clothing after they returned from overseas.
The Common Humanity that volunteers discovered
A second, even more powerful discovery of Peace Corps volunteers has been the surging river of common humanity that volunteers, as Americans, could scarcely be aware existed, until they were immersed in it. American popular culture has tried to tap and exploit this yearning, but those who have lived in the so-called developing world know that Hollywood and the media are missing the story of global suffering—as well as global resilience.
What Peace Corps volunteers understand – because they have lived in the places where one third of humanity tries to survive on $2-a-day or $1-a-day – is that laughter, late-night conversations in dimly-lit courtyards, wailing chants at weddings and funerals, and tears of loss, shared with friends who happen to be from different cultures – these humble experiences define humanity for all of us. This has been a life lesson granted to few Americans, seldom even to the best-educated Americans: that what binds people together as human beings is far more important than what tears them apart. Most volunteers, even those who revert to the middle-class attractions of consumerism, understand that ultimately these attractions are illusory. Love, suffering and courage are not exclusive traits of any society or culture -- they transcend our material world, and bind together the lives of rich and poor alike.
These discoveries–that they were witnesses, more than saviors, and that they shared their humanity with their hosts–is what gave legitimacy to the word “Peace” in the title of the Peace Corps. Who can deny that the agonies of Israel and Palestine, or of India and Pakistan, are based on arbitrary and artificial enmities? Over and over, Americans (watching on TV) hear the pleas of ordinary people whose societies are shattered by war and terrorism. “We just want to live in peace!” they say. And how, exactly, is peace to be defined? As Peace Corps volunteers have lived it, in their daily struggles among people who, with all their differences, are amazingly like themselves.
The Peace Corps Experience of four decades
With 160,000 volunteers who have completed Peace Corps service and nearly 7,000 volunteers in the field, now is the time the Peace Corps to crystallize the experience of four decades, and re-define its mission. The Peace Corps’ first director, R. Sargent Shriver, recently proposed adding a Fourth Goal to the agency’s legislative charter: “ To join with people of all societies in common cause to assure peace and survival for all.” Mr. Shriver insisted in a speech at Yale University that the spirit of the Fourth Goal is more important than the exact words.
Alternative language for the Fourth Goal has been proposed in a bill authored by Congressman Sam Farr (D-California), in a comprehensive revision of the Peace Corps’ authorizing legislation. This bill, S. ___, proposes the addition of the following goal to the original three goals (which are also slightly revised) : “To help promote global acceptance of the principles of international peace and non-violent coexistence among peoples of diverse cultures and systems of government.'' There may be nuances of wording to explore as the bill is debated – but again, the spirit matters far more than the words.
What the Fourth Goal will mean
In either version, the Fourth Goal may appear on the surface to be more idealistic than the original three. But consider the ways in which the Fourth Goal resonates with the actual experience of Peace Corps volunteers:
(1) The Fourth Goal recognizes that no one, whether a citizen of a rich or a poor nation, can escape responsibility. Our humanity draws us into the common struggle for progress and justice. The Peace Corps will remain on the scene as an effective instrument, but it is only one small part of a larger struggle.
(2) The Fourth Goal views the mission of peace and survival as achievable and worthy aims. It does not succumb to the cynicism of real-politik. It cannot, because the stakes are higher than they have ever been in human history. (For this reason, I prefer Shriver’s emphasis: “To…assure peace and survival…)
(3) The Fourth Goal states explicitly that peace is part of the agency’s mission. Whatever else is “real” about global politics, we must address the fact that our capacity for killing is vastly greater than our capacity for healing. The Peace Corps’ pragmatic reason for existence is solely to make healing possible, thereby make killing seem unreasonable.
(4) The Fourth Goal recognizes that the Peace Corps is not merely an agency of government or an instrument of American foreign policy. It symbolizes a cause, passionately shared by nations and individuals in every culture, in every corner of the globe. Overcoming both internal and external threats, the Peace Corps has become virtually the only U.S. program that has managed to transcend parochial politics and be universally accepted.
(5) As such, Peace Corps volunteers are part of a tapestry of courageous actions, undertaken by charities, churches, host governments and multi-lateral agencies to attack poverty, ignorance and disease. By enthusiastically joining this river of humanity, rather than standing aloof, the Peace Corps and organizations like it have vast untapped potential to make both America and the world more secure.
New Fruitful Avenues
Legislative enactment of the Fourth Goal would help to align the Peace Corps mission with the reality of volunteer experience — past, present and future. It would convey to host nations and multi-lateral agencies the willingness of the U.S. government and people to join in their efforts to alleviate global suffering. It could accelerate the ethic of service that has inspired Peace Corps clones throughout the world. Finally, the Fourth Goal would speak to the hearts of America’s restless and cynical youth, convincing many that the Peace Corps is more than a tough job or patriotic duty – it is the best and quickest way to empower people to take control of their own lives, thereby making the world a safer place.
“To join with people of all societies in common cause to assure peace and survival for all.” Adding this Fourth Goal to the Peace Corps legislation would not end the debate over the agency’s mission, but it would lead it down fruitful new avenues. As John F. Kennedy might state it, after seeing his brightest dream become a musty relic of times past: “Let us begin—again….”
“Let us begin—again….
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So Kennedy founded the Peace Corps?