By Dick Kirschten
September 1, 1999
n May, after NATO bombers struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, American Ambassador to China James Sasser was literally under siege in Beijing, trapped in his window-shattered embassy as anti-American demonstrators pelted the building with stones, eggs and tomatoes.
Less than three weeks later, a congressional investigative panel issued a blistering report accusing the Chinese of mounting a systematic espionage campaign to steal U.S. nuclear secrets. China's ambassador to Washington, Li Zhaoxing, responded vehemently to both events. He decried the Belgrade embassy bombing as a "horrifying atrocity" and labeled the allegations of Chinese spying "vicious and irresponsible."
The exchange of inflammatory charges, however, had remarkably little effect on the work of one of Washington's smallest and most remarkable agencies, the Peace Corps. While Sasser was besieged in Beijing, 42 American volunteers in China's southern Szechwan province were calmly--if somewhat tensely--going about their tasks as English instructors at a dozen Chinese teacher training campuses.
And in June, as a new class of 31 Peace Corps recruits prepared to embark from Washington for China, none other than Ambassador Li showed up to give them a warm and appreciative send-off. Indeed, the Chinese envoy seized the occasion to contrast the volunteers favorably with elected officials who, he said, "refuse to go abroad and see things for themselves."
Thirty-eight years after its idealistic inception, the Peace Corps--a boutique-size agency with a headquarters staff of just over 500--continues to defy the norms of institutional Washington and to remain largely immune to the town's political atmospherics.
In an era of widespread belittlement of public service and calls for smaller government, the Peace Corps bucks the trend. Volunteer applications are on the rise, and Congress recently approved an unprecedented four-year authorization that--appropriators willing--will increase the agency's budget by a dramatic 50 percent from 1998 to 2003.
Nor is the Peace Corps run like a typical government agency. It has a unique charter that bars careerism by forcing employee turnover and a culture that insists that the staff work for the volunteers, not the other way around. The result is a bottom-driven, staff-churning, high-growth enterprise that is enjoying broad support at a time of bitter partisan division.
It hasn't all been easy sledding, though. To win approval of its plan--first announced by President Clinton in January 1998--to increase from 6,500 volunteers abroad to 10,000 by 2003, the Peace Corps has had to tighten its belt at home. Following a 1995 budget cut, the agency reduced its recruiting offices around the country from 16 to 11 and reduced the number of regional desks within its Washington headquarters from four to three. From 1993 to 1998, U.S.-based staff positions dropped by 13 percent in order to maintain consistent levels of support in countries where volunteers serve.
Over the past decade, the Peace Corps also has had to adapt to changing times--moving quickly, for example, into former Soviet bloc countries at the end of the Cold War and shifting from a predominantly male cadre of volunteers to one that is 60 percent female. But the corps nonetheless has remained remarkably true to its founding precepts.
In creating the program by executive order in 1961, President John F. Kennedy insisted that the volunteers and their work be kept at arm's length from the contentious foreign policy arena. "Our Peace Corps is not designed as an instrument of diplomacy or propaganda or ideological conflict," he declared. "It is designed to permit our people to exercise more fully their responsibilities in the great common cause of world development."
From an administrative perspective, the agency's priorities were famously set by R. Sargent Shriver, the first Peace Corps director. When presented with a chart of the organizational hierarchy that showed his name at the top and the word "volunteers" at the bottom, Shriver dramatically turned the document upside down to indicate that the volunteers came first.
An Unexpected Champion
When Mark Gearan became the agency's 14th director in 1995, the choice was not cheered by former volunteers. He came from a purely political background, having served most recently as head of the White House communications office and deputy chief of staff to President Clinton. Worse yet, he was replacing Carol Bellamy, the only ex-volunteer ever to lead the Peace Corps.
Political appointments to high Peace Corps posts have nettled agency alumni since the Nixon administration. Clinton's selection of Bellamy in 1993 was a breakthrough, but one that was short-lived. In two years, she moved on to become director general of UNICEF. The nomination of Gearan to succeed her was opposed by the 16,000-member National Peace Corps Association.
But once in office, Gearan--who departed in July to assume the presidency of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York--managed to win over the former volunteers who keep close watch over the agency and frequently rally support for it on Capitol Hill.
By 1995, the Peace Corps was less than half the size it had reached during its mid-1960s heyday, when 15,600 volunteers were in service or training. Congress vowed in 1985 to boost the program back to 10,000, but never provided funds to support more than 7,200, a total that slipped to 6,500 during the first years of Gearan's tenure.
Yet interest in Peace Corps service never slackened. The agency each year fields up to 150,000 inquiries and 10,000
full-fledged applications, but it has fewer than 4,000 openings. "I found it frustrating and mind-boggling," Gearan says, that the agency was
turning away people who were "fit and qualified and wanted to serve in the neediest places
Gearan's political instincts, honed as a congressional staffer, as a campaign aide to 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, as manager of Al Gore's 1992 vice presidential bid and as director of the Democratic Governors Association, came in handy. He recognized that Congress would have to be convinced that the Peace Corps' expansion goals were "about more volunteers, not a bigger bureau-
cracy," he recalls.
Accordingly, he decided to squeeze his own headquarters staff and national recruiting operation and divert more of his existing budget to support an increase in volunteers overseas. Next, he drew upon his White House ties to get Clinton to call, in a January 1998 radio address, for funds to put 10,000 Peace Corps volunteers in service by the year 2000.
After more than a year of lobbying--and an agreement to stretch out by three years the time it will take to achieve the goal--Congress approved the expansion plan by lopsided margins: 326-90 in the House and a unanimous vote in the Senate. Gearan recognizes the agency still faces annual battles on the appropriations front to increase its current annual budget of $241 million to the level projected for 2003 of $360 million. But he notes that the expansion blueprint, which calls for that funding hike, has won bipartisan endorsement and the Peace Corps, for the first time, has a four-year authorization.
Gearan ran the Peace Corps for almost four years, making him the third longest-serving director in the agency's 38-year history. (Shriver served five years and the Reagan-era's Loret Ruppe served eight.) Unlike most federal agencies, where constant shuffling is confined mostly to the ranks of political appointees, such turnover is the norm throughout the Peace Corps.
The 1965 Peace Corps Act generally restricts Peace Corps employment to five years and bars former staffers from returning to the agency until the passage of a period of time equal to their prior length of service. The rationale, as stated in a Senate committee report, is to "place the Peace Corps staff in essentially the same position as that of the volunteer; serving for a limited period of time and then moving on to give the same opportunity of service to others."
According to agency spokesman Brendan Daly, the average Peace Corps employee serves 40 months. The constant churning of the staff--which has an annual turnover rate of between 20 percent and 25 percent--creates administrative problems and costs the agency lots of employees that it would prefer not to lose. But Gearan argued that the negative effects are more than offset by the "vitality, energy and new life" breathed into the agency by new employees who know they have only a limited time to make a mark.
The Peace Corps also benefits uniquely from the cadre of former volunteers who maintain a lifelong interest in the agency. Roughly half of the nearly 900 Americans currently working for the agency here and abroad are former volunteers, Daly said. About a third are so-called "retreads" who have served more than one tour as agency staffers.
More than 200 "host country nationals," who are not covered by the five-year rule, serve the Peace Corps overseas. Many of them are long-term employees who, in Gearan's words, "are the backbone" of the agency's support activities in countries where volunteers are assigned.
Despite the burdens of constant training and orientation sessions for new employees, Gearan said the agency functions well and has "more institutional memory than one would think."
A Changing Mission
When Chinese Ambassador Li spoke in June at a Georgetown University forum for trainees preparing to embark for China, El Salvador, Ghana, Niger and Romania, his double-edged remarks carried a clear reminder of the complexity of the post-Cold War world in which the Peace Corps now operates.
Although his tone was gracious and good humored, the Chinese diplomat archly drew a distinction between the people-to-people mission of the American volunteers and the prickly state of government-to-government relations between his country and the United States. He seized the opportunity to graciously roll out the welcome mat for the Peace Corps while simultaneously repudiating the recent charges of Chinese nuclear espionage.
Li commended the volunteers for their "boldness and courage" in agreeing to go to China at a time when "my country is being called every bad name . . . by some politicians [in the United States]." He urged the Americans to be open-minded and form their own judgments. "Go and have a close look at China, and I hope you also will be coming back to share your personal experiences with your folks and particularly with your politicians," he said.
China, which received its first volunteers in 1993, is one of many countries that have only recently sought the Peace Corps' presence. To respond to increasing requests from countries formerly considered ideological adversaries, the agency has shifted its geographical orientation. The Peace Corps has become more selective, Gearan said, and has begun focusing less on Western Hemisphere democracies where needs are less urgent and sending more volunteers instead to Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.
Many of the Peace Corps' new locales, however, have proved dangerous because of destabilizing civil wars and general breakdowns in law and order. During his tenure, "safety and security issues became paramount," notes Gearan, who in just the last two years pulled volunteers out of nine countries, most recently Macedonia and Uganda, because of fears for their safety. Greater numbers of female volunteers also have meant a larger number of sexual assaults. Agency records indicate an average of slightly more than one such attack each year per 100 women on overseas assignments.
The Peace Corps makes no bones about the difficulties that volunteers are likely to encounter, frequently advertising its program as "the toughest job you'll ever love." When assaults or other adverse incidents occur, other volunteers in the country are fully informed and often are offered the option to seek service elsewhere. Gearan's conservative approach in removing Peace Corps personnel from situations he deemed hazardous sometimes ran counter to the desires of U.S. diplomats, who felt the withdrawals would offend host country governments.
Establishing and maintaining formal ties with host governments is not always easy. American Peace Corps volunteers, for example, had been in China for five years before an official agreement between the two nations was signed during Clinton's June 1998 state visit to China. The pact acknowledges the presence of "U.S.-China Friendship Volunteers," a term chosen because of Chinese sensitivities to the military connotation of the term "corps," explained Gearan, who helped negotiate the agreement and was present in Beijing for its signing.
The Volunteer Spirit
Rose J. Forney is no stranger to the concept of voluntary service. In 1944, just after graduating from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, she enlisted in the Women's Army Corps. Now, at the age of 79, the retired speech and hearing therapist is an enthusiastic member of the latest group of Peace Corps volunteers to be sent to China.
It's Forney's second stint in the country. In 1986, under the auspices of the United Board for Christian Education, she taught college students in Nanjing. Looking forward to celebrating both her 80th birthday and the new millennium in China, she says she finds the prospect of her new assignment "thrilling."
While Forney is hardly typical, she does exemplify the Peace Corps' changing profile. The average age of volunteers is now 29, a significant increase since the program's inception. Seven percent of participants are over the age of 50, as opposed to just 1 percent to 2 percent in the 1960s. The level of educational attainment and professional experience also has risen, enabling the program to deliver more and better technical assistance.
As more women have entered the work force and more international development projects have focused on the roles of Third World women, the demand for female Peace Corps volunteers has accelerated. As a result, three-fifths of current program participants are now women.
Surveys show that upon completion of Peace Corps service, a majority of volunteers pursue careers in the public and nonprofit sectors. More than a fourth become teachers, 15 percent hold government posts and 13 percent work for charitable service agencies.
Conversely, the Peace Corps attracts recruits from the public service arena. Deborah Edwards, for example, is a 44-year-old volunteer in Guatemala who has taken a leave of absence from the Environmental Protection Agency, where she was deputy director of the health effects division of the agency's pesticide program. In the rural Guatemalan highlands, she works closely with large growers and subsistence farmers, teaching them how to use toxic agents properly.
The ability of the Peace Corps to employ Edwards' special knowledge of pesticides is indicative of how the agency has diversified the deployment of its volunteers. Early volunteers worked mostly as teachers or assisted with agricultural, sanitation and rural electrification projects. Today, the Peace Corps portfolio has been expanded to include environmental protection, business development and health care--including HIV/AIDS prevention. Fewer than 40 percent of current volunteers serve as teachers.
One thing that has not changed is the Peace Corps' compensation policy. The agency still adheres to President Kennedy's admonition in 1961 that "there will be no salary, and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to meet basic needs." The idea is to ensure that volunteers basically share the lifestyles of the people with whom they work.
Subsistence pay varies from site to site but averages about $250 a month. Upon completion of a Peace Corps tour--which normally spans 27 months, three of which are spent in training--volunteers receive a lump-sum separation payment of $6,075, $225 for each month of service.
The larger payoff comes from helping to accomplish the Peace Corps' twofold mission of promoting a better understanding of America and strengthening America's understanding of the world.
Pete Hessler, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, described it well in an article penned while serving as a teacher in China, where he became enamored of a Chinese expression: "We must seek common ground while reserving differences." Hessler wrote: "I don't know exactly which differences we must resolve. I only believe it is something that must be done. And every day I see my students working to bring that common ground closer, in a small way."
Dick Kirschten is a contributing editor for National Journal.
By Dick Kirschten
September 1, 1999