The Peace Corps is an independent government agency responsible for promoting peace and friendship throughout the world by way of public service. Volunteers are trained in specific needs and sent to developing countries, in particular, to help people meet their needs for trained manpower. Born out of the idealism of the 1960s, the Peace Corps continues to serve as a rite of passage for many college graduates looking to help others overseas. The altruistic nature of the program has been in danger of being compromised by some in government who have tried to link the Peace Corps with military service commitments or intelligence-gathering operations. As it celebrated its 50th anniversary, the agency has come under fire for lax security and insensitive responses to incidents of assault and murder suffered by many of its volunteers.
The Peace Corps began as a challenge by President John F. Kennedy to students at the University of Michigan on October 14, 1960. Calling on them to serve their country, he said that giving two years of their lives to work in developing countries would contribute to the building of a free society at home and abroad.
The Peace Corps was made into an independent federal agency shortly thereafter. President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10824 created the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. Congress authorized the agency on September 22, 1961, by passing the Peace Corps Act. The law describes the agency as existing “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.” R. Sargent Shriver was appointed the agency’s first director. By the end of the year, 5,000 applicants had taken the first exams, and Peace Corps programs started up in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ghana, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, St. Lucia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Thailand.
The 1960s saw rapid growth of the Peace Corps. Programs were begun in Afghanistan, Belize, Bolivia, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Gabon, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Liberia, Malawi, Morocco, Nepal, Niger, Panama, Peru, Senegal, Somali Republic, Sri Lanka, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Uruguay, and Venezuela. In April 1964, the Peace Corps Partnership Project allowed Americans at home to support and contribute to volunteer projects overseas. By the end of the decade, more than 15,000 volunteers were serving in the field.
Budget constraints in the 1970s caused concern about the future of the Peace Corps, but by December 1974, volunteers were serving in 69 countries. Foreign nationals began to join the Peace Corps as administrators in order to meet the basic needs of their own countries, and by 1973, they comprised more than half of the Peace Corps’ international staff. During this decade, volunteers were culled from professional fields such as medicine, engineering, and horticulture, and accounted for more than 20% of all volunteers. The median age of volunteers rose as well, with the average age of a volunteer reaching 27. More than 5% of volunteers were also aged 50 or older.
In July 1971, the Nixon administration folded the Peace Corps and several other federal volunteer programs into a new federal volunteer agency called ACTION. But in 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order that granted the Peace Corps its autonomy again. By the end of the decade, more than 6,000 volunteers were in the field. Two returned volunteers were elected to the Senate: Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.
The 1980s brought new change to the Peace Corps. In 1981, Congress passed legislation that made the Peace Corps an independent federal agency. In June of that year, the Peace Corps’ 20th anniversary was celebrated in Washington D.C. In 1982, Loret Miller Ruppe, the Peace Corps’ director, launched a program called Competitive Enterprise Development to promote business-oriented programs, including the Caribbean Basin Initiative, the Initiative for Central America, and the African Food Systems Initiative. Although the number of ongoing Peace Corps volunteers fell for the first time in 1982, funding was increased by the middle of the decade.
In 1985, the first Peace Corps Fellows Program was established at Teachers College/Columbia University to recruit, prepare and place returned volunteers as teachers in New York City schools. Nineteen eighty-six saw the agency celebrating its 25th anniversary. Five thousand volunteers gathered at the Washington Mall to take part in a celebration. In 1988, 25 years after President John F. Kennedy’s death, the Kennedy Library held a special Peace Corps remembrance. In 1989, Director Paul D. Coverdell announced the establishment of World Wise Schools, a new program to help students in America’s schools correspond with volunteers serving overseas. More than 550 schools were participating in this program by the end of the decade.
The 1990s saw further changes in the Peace Corps that reflected a changing world. In 1992, the first group of volunteers traveled to the former Soviet Union to work in small business enterprise projects in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Carol Bellamy became the first returned volunteer to be confirmed by the Senate as director of the Peace Corps in 1993. Volunteers were sent to China for the first time to work as English teachers.
In 1995, Director Mark D. Gearan launched Crisis Corps, which allowed returned volunteers to provide short-term assistance during natural disasters and humanitarian crises. The Peace Corps hosted the first Conference on International Volunteerism in 1996, and in September of that year, the Loret Miller Ruppe Memorial Lecture Series was established for distinguished people to speak about issues related to the Peace Corps’ mission of international peace and public service. Volunteers left to serve in South Africa and Jordan for the first time in 1997, and Bangladesh and Mozambique in 1998.
In 1998, Crisis Corps volunteers were sent to serve in Guinea, Bolivia, Paraguay, Papua New Guinea, and other countries. In March of that year, six returned Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Congress, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and former Peace Corps Director Paul D. Coverell, testified before the House Committee on International Relationship in support of President Bill Clinton’s initiative to expand the Peace Corps to 10,000 volunteers by 2000.
In June 2000, Director Mark Schneider announced that all 2,400 Peace Corps volunteers serving in 25 African countries would be trained as HIV/AIDS educators, focusing on prevention and care. The year 2003 saw the agency’s new director, Gaddi H. Vasquez, send volunteers to Mexico for the first time. When President George W. Bush signed the U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act in May of 2003, the Peace Corps committed an additional 1,000 volunteers to fight HIV and AIDS.
The first decade of the new millennium also saw new recruitment campaigns targeted to community colleges and their graduates. In 2004, the Peace Corps and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations signed an agreement to improve food security and the conditions of rural people around the world. Following the Asian tsunami in December 2004, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the Crisis Corps were activated for the first time in the history of the Peace Corps. Their work aided the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bring needed supplies and services; it was the first time that Peace Corps volunteers were deployed domestically. After these disasters, Peace Corps volunteer numbers reached a 30-year high. Currently, 8,655 Americans serve in the Peace Corps.
Since passage of the Peace Corps Act in 1961, more than 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 host countries on issues ranging from environmental preservation to the establishment of information technology networks and AIDS education.
As the Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011, it has weathered scrutiny and criticism for its failure to protect and properly respond to numerous incidents of rape and murder of its overseas volunteers, more than 1,000 of whom suffered assaults in the past decade. Data collected by the agency suggests that the number of such crimes is actually double that which has been reported. In response to congressional calls for increased oversight of the agency, President Barack Obama—on November 21, 2011—signed into law the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011, which contains a variety of measures for increased protection of volunteers. They include enhanced training for staff and volunteers, better support for volunteers who are victims of crime, and new procedures to ensure improved handling of volunteers’ concerns.
The Peace Corps focuses on helping to facilitate basic needs in developing countries, such as access to food, safe drinking water and adequate shelter. Over the years, it also has focused on disaster planning, teaching English, information technology and business development, and HIV/AIDS education. The program’s three main goals are to help people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained workers; promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
The Peace Corps works in about 70 countries around the world. Peace Corps volunteers 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.
Peace Corps’ presence in six countries is currently being phased out: In FY 2012, the Peace Corps will close programs in Kazakhstan, Antigua, and St. Kitts, and in FY 2013 the agency plans to close programs in Romania, Bulgaria, and Suriname. In 2012 it will re-launch programs in Tunisia and Nepal.
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.
There are currently 8,655 volunteers in the Peace Corps. Of these, 60% are female and 40% are male; 93% are single; 19% are classified as minorities; the average age is 28 years old; and 90% have at least an undergraduate degree,
In 2012, the Peace Corps instituted the initial phase of its new electronic volunteer application system, Database of Volunteer Experience (DOVE), designed to streamline the application process. The second phase, which will integrate business processes for volunteer medical screenings, will commence in FY 2013.
National Peace Corps Association (returned Peace Corps volunteers)
From the Peace Corps Web Site
The Peace Corps spent $763,425,923 on 7,128 contractor transactions this decade. According to USASpending.gov, the Peace Corps paid for a variety of services in support of its programs, from research and development ($240,506,008 ) and “miscellaneous items” ($232,717,781 ) to personal service contracts ($52,263,812 ), management support ($41,235,190), and automated information system design ($33,591,961).
The top five contractors are as follows:
1. Miscellaneous Foreign Contractors $241,436,387
2. Unidentified Contractor $184,661,953
3. Northrop Grumman Corporation $54,684,963
4. Affiliated Computer Services Inc. $18,916,213
5. Seven Corners Inc. $18,738,931
Although normally known for its services rendered to the federal government’s aerospace, defense, and security agencies, Northrop Grumman supplied several invoices labeled “miscellaneous items” for the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps’ second largest identified contractor, Affiliated Computer Services (owned by Xerox Corporation), designs and implements business process outsourcing and information technology services.
According to the Peace Corps FY 2013 Congressional Budget Justification, the agency’s proposed appropriated funding will be distributed in two areas: Direct Volunteer Operations ($327,300,000) and Volunteer Operations Support Services ($70,800,000). (For a budget breakdown of funds distribution to Peace Corps operations classified by global region and country, refer to the Program Operations section of the agency’s budget report.)
Peace Corps Workers Withdrawn for Safety Reasons
Within a span of two months, the Peace Corps shut down its operations in two countries due to safety concerns.
In November 2011, Peace Corps officials pulled out all volunteers from Kazakhstan. According to a volunteer who had served in the country, terrorism and sexual assaults were the main reasons for the decision. Kazakhstan had become one of the most dangerous places for female Peace Corps members, with five rapes taking place that year.
In January 2012, the agency withdrew all 158 of its volunteers in Honduras, where the Peace Corps had operated since 1963. No specific reason was given. The Associated Press cited gang violence and Honduras’ murder rate (the highest in the world) as possible explanations.
Peace Corps Kazakhstan is Closing (The Adventures of Hotard)
158 Peace Corps Volunteers Leave Honduras (Associated Press)
Rapes, Murders Haunt Peace Corps
The Peace Corps has been under fire for two years for doing little to stop the raping and murdering of its volunteers.
In June 2010, a report from the Peace Corps’ inspector general showed more than 30 volunteers were sexually assaulted during the previous year. The report also said hundreds of others were attacked, robbed, burglarized or threatened. The IG concluded the Peace Corps had failed to provide “a consistent and complete safety and security program.”
The news was even worse in 2011, the year of the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary. Early that year, ABC News aired a special report on the Peace Corps, claiming more than 1,000 female volunteers were raped or assaulted over the past decade. Some of the victims accused the Peace Corps of trying to cover up the incidents and treating the victims insensitively. In some cases, women were reportedly gang raped and threatened with murder by assailants.
A few months later, three Peace Corps volunteers testified before Congress. They told lawmakers about being raped while serving overseas. Another witness, the mother of a fourth volunteer, talked about the murder of her daughter in Benin.
Stories of rape continued into 2012, when a U.S. Navy officer was accused of sexually assaulting a volunteer in Uganda. A military jury decided not to convict the accused based on the evidence presented.
Sailor Acquitted of Raping Peace Corps Volunteer (by Brock Vergakis, Associated Press)
Peace Corps Volunteers React to ABC News Report On Murder and Rape (by Mark Schone and Anna Schecter, ABC News)
Peace Corps Regrets Response To Rapes, Deaths (by Joshua Norman, World Watch)
Peace Corps Volunteers Speak Out Against "Gross Mismanagement Of Sexual Assault Complaints" (by Xeni Jardin, Boing Boing)
Peace Corps Turns 50 Amid Charges of Rape, Murder and Cover-Up (by Dona Trussell, Politics Daily)
Safety At Risk For Peace Corps Volunteers (by Jeffrey Anderson, Washington Times)
American Volunteer in Nigeria Raises Controversy with Local Students
Shortly after the Peace Corps was established, a postcard written by a volunteer in Nigeria brought the agency its first taste of controversy. On October 13, 1961, Margery Jane Michelmore described her situation in Nigeria as “squalor and [of] absolutely primitive living conditions.” Her postcard never made it out of the country, and instead local Ibadan University College students demanded the deportation of Michelmore and other volunteers as “international spies.” Several U.S. leaders questioned the new program, and local students protested. Michelmore offered to resign and left the country while the other American volunteers began a hunger strike. After several days, the two sides opened an ongoing dialogue and made peace.
She Had No Idea (Time)
Bolivian Spy Controversy
In February 2008, the Peace Corps Polyglot reported that Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar were asked by a U.S. Embassy official in Bolivia to spy on Cubans and Venezuelans. The National Peace Corps Association complained that issues of intelligence gathering needed to be kept separate from the public service goals of the Peace Corps, and suggested that doing otherwise would jeopardize volunteers’ safety.
Peace Corps’ Connection with Military Breeds Controversy
In May 2005, the Peace Corps reported that it was expanding a pilot recruiting program that linked Peace Corps service to fulfilling an eight-year military obligation. The original program had been launched in 2003 and had grown out of the Call to Service Act of 2001, which provided enlistment incentives to military recruits for participation in service programs like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. However, Peace Corps leaders admitted they had not been consulted, and several returned volunteers, among others, became concerned that combining the Peace Corps with the military in this way could introduce dangers to the lives of current volunteers, when suspicions of spying were raised. In response to growing opposition from Peace Corps volunteers, Congress canceled the program before it ever went into effect. A bipartisan bill ordering its elimination was included in the 2006 Defense Authorization Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in January 2006.
Peace Corps Option for Military Recruits Sparks Concerns (by Alan Cooperman, Washington Post)
Congress calls off program to link military service, Peace Corps (by Alan Cooperman, Washington Post)
Increased Oversight Needed
In the wake of numerous accounts of female volunteers being raped, the Peace Corps faced the prospect of stronger oversight from Congress.
In May 2011, legislation was introduced in both the House and Senate that would improve whistleblower protection of volunteers who report crimes and care for volunteers who are sexually assaulted.
The Senate bill was inspired by the story of Kate Puzey, a volunteer sent to Benin who was murdered after telling Peace Corps leaders about a Beninese man she suspected was molesting young girls. Puzey later was killed by the man who found out about the woman’s whistleblowing after an email she wrote to the Peace Corps was leaked.
During a congressional hearing on Peace Corps mistakes, witnesses said the agency suffered from a “blame the victim” culture that had persisted for decades.
The House bill would require the corps to hire regional victims’ advocates and implement other steps to reduce the risk of sexual violence and improve care of victims.
Congress Urged to Increase Oversight of Peace Corps (by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times)
New Bill Would Improve Peace Corps Volunteer Safety (by Caitlin Fairchild, Government Executive)
Reconsidering the Peace Corps (by Lex Rieffel, Brookings Institution) (pdf)
Recommendations for Action and Focus
With the election Barack Obama, many in Washington expected the Peace Corps to receive a significant boost in funding, given how the Democratic president had lauded the importance of public service. He also pledged to double the number of volunteers by 2011. But in his first budget request, Obama only planned a 10% increase in Peace Corps funding, which fell short of what advocates said was needed to bolster the agency.
By the following year, the Peace Corps still had not expanded its volunteer base. The National Peace Corps Association noted the agency had about half the number of volunteers it enjoyed in the 1960s.
To help enlarge its numbers, the Peace Corps offered up a series of recommendations in 2010. These included: improving recruitment and selection of volunteers in order to attract a greater range of workers; changing volunteer placement to reflect priority United States interests, country needs and commitment to shared goals; and lowering early termination rates.
A Better, Bolder Peace Corps (National Peace Corps Association)
Funding Fight Sparks Debate On Peace Corps' Future (by David Gauvey Herbert, National Journal)
Ronald A. Tschetter (September 26, 2006-January 16, 2009)
Gaddi H. Vasquez (January 23, 2002- September 7, 2006)
Mark L. Schneider (December 23, 1999-January 20, 2001)
Mark D. Gearan (August 11, 1995-August 11, 1999)
Carol Bellamy (October 7, 1993-May 1, 1995)
Elaine Chao (October 8, 1991-November 13, 1992)
Paul D. Coverdell (April 20, 1989-October 1, 1991)
Loret Miller Ruppe (May 6, 1981-April 20, 1989)
Richard F. Celeste (April 27, 1979-January 20, 1981)
Carolyn R. Payton (October 11, 1977-December 18, 1978)
John Dellenback (April 28, 1975-May 13,1977)
Nick Craw (October 1, 1973-September 1, 1974)
Donald Hess (August 11, 1972-September 30, 1973)
Kevin O'Donnell (July 1, 1971-September 30, 1972)
Joseph Blatchford (May 1, 1969-July 1, 1971)
Jack Vaughn (March 1, 1966-April 30, 1969)
R. Sargent Shriver (March 22, 1961-February 28, 1966)
Aaron S. Williams, the eighteenth Director of the Peace Corps and only the fourth to have served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, was sworn in on August 25, 2009, and served until he announced his resignation on August 21, 2012. Williams took over an agency in considerable flux. On the one hand, Williams’ predecessor, Ron Tschetter, was criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for politicizing the Corps. On the other hand, during the first half of fiscal year 2009 young Americans, perhaps responding to President Obama’s call for service, applied for Peace Corps service at a 12 percent greater rate over the same period last year. At present, there 7,500 Peace Corps volunteers and more than 200,000 returned volunteers.