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The need for people-centered international engagement: Peace Corps in the post-Trump era

Here are three arguments for why a Biden-Harris administration should prioritize this federal agency — and key steps to get there.

Americans suffer from a tendency to look inward, an affliction exacerbated by isolationist political winds as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, the United States needs the Peace Corps, brainchild of the late Minnesota Sen. and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, to help our citizens engage with the rest of the world; cultivate future foreign service leaders; and foster a more climate friendly international development approach. Here are three arguments for why a Biden-Harris administration should prioritize this federal agency — and key steps to get there.

William G. Moseley
William G. Moseley
First, the Peace Corps could help the U.S. emerge from four years of isolationism by rebuilding person-to-person bridges between Americans and other peoples. Since its creation during the Kennedy administration in 1961, more than 240,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers in 142 countries. While the Peace Corps is commonly thought of as a grass-roots development organization that places Americans for two years of service in communities in the Global South, it also serves as a vital conduit for cross-cultural exchange. Most former Peace Corps volunteers, including myself, will tell you that they learned far more from the people they served than those communities learned from them. Many volunteers leave their service more grounded, empathetic and willing to serve their communities back home. We need to more greatly acknowledge and value this cross-cultural exchange aspect of the Peace Corps.

Second, the Peace Corps could help train young Americans and develop vital human capital at home. As a college professor, I can tell you that young people are hurting. Recent graduates are stymied by a lack of employment opportunities, and those with international interests face even worse prospects. America’s young people need hope and a more robust Peace Corps would not only offer people jobs, but a chance to better understand the world and prepare for a career in government service, teaching or health care. Young people voted for the Biden-Harris ticket in overwhelming margins and making them a priority in government programs is an investment in the future.

U.S. needs talented young civil servants

Furthermore, the federal government needs talented, young civil servants. We are in the midst of a massive renewal of the civil service as the baby boom generation retires, a trend that has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. State Department has been especially hard hit, facing the one-two punch of a previous administration that was hostile to diplomacy and a disease that disproportionately threatens older employees in the workplace. For years the Peace Corps has served as a pipeline of new employees into the federal government, and especially into the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. These agencies are well served by employees who, because of Peace Corps service, are grounded in the realities of the Global South and understand the day-to-day existence of working-class people in other countries.

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Third, conventional development approaches that emphasize big infrastructure investments and the use of exogenous technology are not only expensive, but often detrimental to the environment and food security. While the Peace Corps sends volunteers around the world to engage in many forms of work, they have long had personnel working in a variety of climate-related fields, including sustainable agriculture, urban gardening, nutrition, environmental education, conservation, forestry and water resources management. In most cases, the Peace Corps emphasizes low-tech approaches that are accessible to the poorest of the poor and help build a more resilient natural resource base. The Peace Corps should be at the center of American efforts to address climate change and global hunger.

A Biden-Harris administration can do a few things in its first 100 days in office to make the Peace Corps more central to its efforts to re-emerge from global isolation, engage and employ young people, and fight climate change.

Funding level should be raised

First, all volunteers were pulled back from service during COVID-19 and it will be a huge lift to reactivate the agency. This will take money. The Trump administration had asked for $396.2 million in its latest annual budget request, down from the current level of funding of $410 million. This is a ridiculously low amount given the much-needed Peace Corps reopening and the fact that many more people apply to the Peace Corps than there are positions available. A more reasonable amount would be $550 million, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the $636 billion budgeted for defense in 2021.

Second, appoint an articulate and visionary Peace Corps director to reimagine the role of agency and connect with U.S. publics, members of Congress and foreign leaders. While a former volunteer has only led the agency a few times, ex-volunteers with extensive international experience have often made the best directors.

With the possible exception of JFK, the Peace Corps has been a peripheral agency for American presidents. As we emerge from isolationism, youth unemployment, a devastated foreign service, and climate-change denialism, the Biden-Harris Administration must recognize and elevate the import of this little agency in moving its plans forward.

William G. Moseley is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Geography, and Director of the Program for Food, Agriculture & Society, at Macalester College in St. Paul. He served in the Peace Corps in Mali from 1987-89 and currently sits on a scientific advisory body to the U.N. Committee on World Food Security.

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