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The Role of the Peace Corps in the Global Community: A Speech by Gaddi Vasquez before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council
The Role of the Peace Corps in the Global Community: A Speech by Gaddi Vasquez before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council
Thank you, Mary [Morris]. It's a great privilege to be here this evening and I want to thank you for that kind and generous introduction and I want to also thank the many friends and former colleagues who are here this evening for coming out to this event. It’s a real privilege to be back in Southern California because this is a permanent home for me. Given the very cold winter that we have had to endure in Washington these last few months it's very nice to be close to the ocean again – the Pacific Ocean, that is.
I am honored to be able to address the Los Angeles World Affairs Council this evening. As Director of the Peace Corps I have the privilege of representing, I believe, one of the finest organizations in the world. In the past forty-eight hours I've had the privilege of visiting with past and future Peace Corps volunteers at the Loyola Marymount University campus, the University of Southern California, and Pomona College. For those Bruins in the audience, I'm told that UCLA is scheduled for the next trip out to California. But we spent the evening last night at USC speaking to faculty members who have served in the Peace Corps and six or seven candidates who are going to go into the Peace Corps as soon as next week.
A number of the students at those campuses, as I mentioned, are just days away from leaving the United States to begin their service overseas. The Los Angeles and Orange County areas have been very high producers of volunteers for many years and if anyone here this evening has served in the Peace Corps or is a Peace Corps volunteer would you please stand? (applause). Thank you for your service. Thank you for staying involved, because it is my strong view that return Peace Corps volunteers are the best recruiters that we have in the United States of America and so I thank you for your continued involvement.
In July 2001, President George W. Bush announced his intention to nominate me as the new Director of the Peace Corps. During the initial announcement people said to me in Washington, “You are going to have the best job in Washington, D.C.” Well, in Washington, D.C., people say a lot of things, so you just sort of hear it, listen, take it in and then you move on. But 13 months into this job I can tell you that I do believe I have the best job in Washington, D.C., because over the past 13 months I have met some courageous American volunteers who are doing some amazing grass-roots work at the people-to-people level. They are young, middle aged and older Americans and couples. Some have physical disabilities that require special effort on their part, but they are not deterred from advancing the work of the Peace Corps in their host countries.
To find and examine the beginning and the genesis of the Peace Corps you have to turn the clock back to 1961, for it was in 1960 and 1961 that President Kennedy called for the establishment of the Peace Corps and defined its principal mission as one to promote world peace and friendship. That mission remains intact today, and is perhaps more important today than at any other time in its 42-year history. In 1961, he said and I quote, “The initial reactions to the Peace Corps proposal are convincing proof that we have in this country an immense reservoir of such men and women anxious to sacrifice their energies and time and toil for the cause of world peace and human progress.” He went on to say, “We will only send abroad Americans who are wanted by the host country, who have a real job to do and are qualified to do that job. Programs will be developed with care and after full negotiation in order to make sure that the Peace Corps is wanted and will contribute to the welfare of the people. Our Peace Corps is not designed as an instrument of diplomacy or propaganda or ideological conflict. It is designed to permit our people to exercise more fully their responsibilities in the common cause of world development.”
At the time of this proposal many opined on op-ed and editorial pages, that this whole concept would not work — that the whole idea would come to a quick end. But they were wrong, and we are all fortunate that they were wrong, because 42 years later, nearly 170,000 Americans have served in 135 countries. Millions of people around the world have been touched by the skills, the talents and the passion of American men and women, Americans who have brought hope and opportunity to those who live in despair, poverty and sickness and through wars and conflicts. For over 42 years the volunteers have continued to train men and women who have sustained the goals of the Peace Corps.
Volunteers are training men and women in some of the most difficult places on earth, or as one leader in a country said to me, “What we really like about the Peace Corps is that the Peace Corps goes where nobody else wants to go.” That's what courage is all about. Most of our volunteers are young, but I can guarantee you that they are passion-driven people who are determined to make a difference — volunteers serve from the dense jungles of Latin America to the sand dunes of Mauritius, to the remoteness of Mongolia. Americans like you and me, yes, like you and me, who are dedicating two years of their lives, giving up the great creature comforts of America to go overseas, are making the world a better place and fulfilling one of the most important goals of the Peace Corps, which is to put a face on America.
But one of the best kept secrets about the Peace Corps is that it has also produced some of America's finest leaders. For many, service in the Peace Corps is the beginning of a lifetime of service to others. The list of Peace Corps notables reads like a Who's Who in
America. Returned Peace Corps volunteers include corporate, business, academic and community leaders who continue to make meaningful contributions on a local, regional and national level. Returned Peace Corps volunteers today include two sitting governors, the governor of Iowa and the governor of Ohio; six members of Congress, a great number of United States ambassadors, past and present, who are serving overseas in various missions; leaders at the Environmental Protection Agency, State Department and United States Agency for International Development where I'm told that about a quarter are returned Peace Corps volunteers; Homeland Security, business leaders like Bob Haus, Chairman of Levi Strauss, and Chris Matthews of MSNBC, who served as a volunteer in Swaziland, Maureen Orth of Vanity Fair Magazine, and President Bruce McPherson of Michigan State University.
Today the Peace Corps volunteer averages 28 years of age. Our oldest volunteers are 84 years old, yes indeed, there is no age limit to service in the Peace Corps. Approximately 15 percent are ethnic minorities, and I'm delighted to say that 60 percent of all the volunteers in the Peace Corps are women. Volunteers serve in some of the toughest countries on earth. Volunteers like Helen Raffle of New York, a 74-year old woman who is on her third tour in the Peace Corps, which means she's in her sixth year. I remember the first time I met Helen, one of the most energetic 74-year olds that I've ever met in my entire life. I met her in China as she was in the second year of her tour, after having served in Africa, and she said to me, “Mr. Director, I'm really excited because I just got approved for my third tour and I'm going to Morocco,” which is where Helen is serving today as a Peace Corps volunteer. There's a couple that retired and decided that they still wanted to give something back and they decided the Peace Corps was the was to do it, and today they are in the midst of their fifth tour in the Peace Corps. Ladies and gentlemen, that's equal to ten years. We affectionately refer to this couple as a couple that has made the Peace Corps their RV and they are traveling around the world.
Great American volunteers are providing training, and support and education and health, agriculture, HIV Aids, environment, ego tourism, community development, sanitation, and water programs. Two of our fastest growing programs are information and communication technology, and small enterprise development.
Indeed, the Peace Corps has evolved from President Kennedy's initiative to President Bush's proposal to double the size of the Peace Corps over the next five years from 70,000 to 114,000 volunteers. In his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, President Bush said and I quote, “After America was attacked it was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves. We were reminded that we are citizens with obligations to each other, to our country and to history. We began to think less of the goods we can accumulate and more about the good we can do.”
Some have asked, “Can the Peace Corps flourish against the backdrop of war and terrorism in some parts of the world?” Well, Americans are saying “yes.” Americans like Sam and Noella Blanc of New Orleans, a former member of the State legislature, a community leader who had had a very successful law career, a senior partner who one day decided it was time to give something back and do something special. He and his wife decided the Peace Corps was the way to do that. He went into his law firm and advised his partners he was going to be leaving. They were surprised to hear it was to go into the Peace Corps, but today they are serving as a couple in Romania — Americans are willing to say “yes” to service.
The Peace Corps has evolved into the 21st century with a new determination and a reinvigoration. Since the President's State of the Union Address, applications to the Peace Corps have increased by 17 percent and requests for applications have increased by 30 percent. Now, those of you who have been in the Peace Corps know that it takes a little while to fill out the applications, but I'm pleased to report that, thanks to technology, you can now apply online. Lately 60 percent of all applicants are doing so online. So we look forward to years of success and expansion in that area as well. Congress recently approved the largest appropriation in Peace Corps history and over the past two years has increased our budget at a time when many other agencies have been enduring cutbacks and reductions in funding.
Over twenty countries have pending requests for new Peace Corps programs where programs do not exist today. It is clear that Americans are willing to serve. In the last two months 800 Americans have gone overseas to commence their service as Peace Corps volunteers. Those twenty countries are anxious to have Peace Corps volunteers. In 2002 we returned to Botswana and Swaziland and Peru, where we had not been for 27 years, but did so at the invitation of the newly elected president of Peru. In 2003 we will be entering Azerbaijan, Albania, Chad and Fiji.
So then, why is the Peace Corps mission of promoting peace and friendship relevant in the 21st century? Ladies and gentlemen, I'll share a little bit about my perspective. I believe that America and all of us must do a better job of defining ourselves to the world. Let me share a personal experience. On a visit to Morocco, I was approached on the streets of Casablanca by a young man who asked, “Where are you from?” “I'm from the United States. I'm an American,” I responded. He proceeded to ask me questions about what life was like in America – our housing, our transportation, our life style. By mid-conversation he stopped and he looked right at me and he said, “You don't look like an American.” I said, “What do you mean?” He pointed to my hand and he said, “The color of your skin. You don't look like an American.” Well, for me that underscored the need that we have to extend and expand the work of the Peace Corps. Men and women who are the face of America. Men and women who can go overseas and represent the diversity of America, to show people around the world that we are of all colors, of all faiths, of all backgrounds, of all persuasions and that some of us who are descendents of grandparents who come from somewhere else make up America today.
The Peace Corps is the only federal agency that exists to promote understanding and to bridge the gaps that exist between our nation and the peoples of the world. The Peace Corps volunteer brings hope to people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to improve their economic and social standing in the world let alone their country.
Recently, while in Armenia, I was doing an interview on a radio and television station, and the owner of the station asked me to stay for a moment. He said to me, “When I get enough money I want to erect a bust in front of my building, a bust in honor of Eric Pacific,” to which I asked, “Who's Eric Pacific?” He said, “Eric Pacific was a Peace Corps volunteer who was here four years ago and helped me start this radio and television station.” Today that station provides informational and educational broadcasting for the people of that community. A country that has endured earthquakes where thousands of lives have been lost and communities have been devastated, a radio signal can be priceless in the midst of chaos and catastrophe. That young volunteer was the man who helped establish that radio and television station, changing the course and the level of public awareness for that community perhaps forever, it was one young American who decided to go overseas and be a Peace Corps volunteer.
Volunteers have helped artisans and small businessmen and women design websites to sell their products where they have not been able to sell in the past; developed sanitation facilities that are helping eradicate the diseases that afflict children in so many of these countries and sometimes result in their deaths. Peace Corps volunteers are working to advance education and the prevention of HIV-AIDS. Today over 2,000 volunteers include HIV education and prevention as part of their portfolio.
In other countries, information and communication technology is providing an opportunity for people to market their products and merchandise for the first time. They are able to do what they were not able to do just a short year ago. Like women on an island off the coast of Senegal, where a 64-year old volunteer from New York has helped the women design a website so that they can advertise their products and sell them beyond the boundaries of their island.
But, ladies and gentlemen, I would submit that America must do more to advance peace and understanding and share that which we have been blessed to receive as a nation. Experts predict that in the next half century the world's population will grow by 3 billion. It is estimated that 95 percent of them will be born in developing countries. They will be hungry, they will be sick, they will be illiterate, and, in many cases, face the prospects of a short life span on this earth. I believe that we can either choose to reach out and help these men, women and children achieve some hope and opportunity or we can ignore it and ignore them and fan the flames of ignorance that translate into hatred and hostility. This is the time to start in a new direction. Let us also realize that our prospects as a nation are very bright. The world is not so bright. The world faces many difficult prospects and a difficult future.
It has been said that to whom much is given much is required. We've been blessed. As a recent story in Newsweek pointed out, the U.S. economy is as large as the economies of Japan, Germany and Britain put together. With 5 percent of the world's population we account for 43 percent of the world's economic production. The U.S. accounts for 40 percent of the world's high technology production and 50 percent of its research and development. We are more dynamic economically, more youthful demographically, and more flexible culturally than any other part of the world. It is because we are a strong and blessed nation that I believe it is incumbent on us, and I believe that at least 169,000 volunteers agree with me, that we need to be able and should give back to our communities here at home and communities abroad.
Perhaps if the Peace Corps is not your calling maybe some local community service might be. President Kennedy said again in 1961, and I quote, “Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals in the country in which they are stationed, doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language, but if the life will not be easy it will be rich, and satisfying for every young American who participates in the Peace Corps, who works in a foreign land will know that he or she is sharing the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and condition of peace.” President Kennedy had it right in 1961 and his words ring louder than ever today.
The Peace Corps has been called the toughest job you'll ever love but it is one of the greatest ways to give something back. As Americans, we can no longer afford to just be spectators. We must be participants in helping shape a new world. In the 21st century, as I think Americans are suggesting, as Congress has suggested through its appropriations, and President Bush has suggested through the initiative to double the size of the Peace Corps in the next five years, I believe the Peace Corps is well positioned and poised to build on the accomplishments of the past 42 years which some of you who have served in the Peace Corps have helped build, I salute you for that.
But Peace Corps volunteers have never been known to rest on their laurels. They are the finest that America has to offer and they are making a difference. At the Peace Corps it has been said that a pessimist sees the glass half empty; the optimist see the glass half full; the Peace Corps volunteer says “Oh boy, today I get to take a shower.”
Thank you very much.