Dear Peace Corps,
It’s been 50 years since the idea of you was born during a speech by JFK at the University of Michigan. It’s been a wonderful life — and now is the time to see how you’re faring. Many people celebrating your birthday have focused on what you have and haven’t done. I’d like to examine why you were brought into being, and how the world has changed.
During the Cold War — when the U.S. and the Soviet Union raced to find allies — you were viewed as a way to exert soft power and build friendship with countries susceptible to communist influence. But there was more; there was a genuine interest to support communities in need around the world while engaging American youth and opening their global sensitivities.
Other notions were discussed, but never brought into being — such as the idea of bringing people from other countries to serve in the U.S. (a so-called reverse Peace Corps). At the time, this idea was dismissed as too revolutionary. Besides, many thought, what help does the U.S. need from the rest of the world?
A lot has changed in the past 50 years. Indeed, the idea of international volunteering has flourished, and you are just one of many institutions that now send volunteers around the world. As we look forward, we should be aware of this new world.
1. The concept of enlightened foreign policy has entered the global lexicon. Many of us now agree that countries must think beyond their own self-interests, and that global challenges require global solutions. It is naïve and even self-destructive to think that any one country can solve such pressing issues as global poverty, environmental degradation, and more. It’s also naïve to think that these global issues will not and cannot affect any one country, even the U.S.
2. The global interest in volunteerism has spread. Peace Corps, you have set an example for the world, and many have been inspired by you. From Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to Germany and beyond, the spirit of volunteerism is taking the world by storm.
3. There is more openness to multilateral volunteerism. We are all realizing how much we have to give each other. A farmer from Tanzania or a non-profit professional from Brazil can in fact make a difference in the U.S., while at the same time opening our eyes to another culture and way of life.
So what do these changes mean? How should we act differently because of them?
If our true intent is to improve relationships so that we can address and overcome global challenges, then we need to create one or more global Peace Corps. These organizations could be intergovernmental volunteer forces or independent non-governmental forces. When volunteers of different countries, cultures, and faiths work shoulder-to-shoulder to solve the world’s most compelling challenges, the communities in which they work change — and perhaps more importantly, the volunteers themselves change.
A multilateral Peace Corps (a global volunteer corps, if you will) does not operate from north to south; it operates in all directions. A polycentric approach, employing many organizations around the world within their circles of influence, will ensure that the maximum numbers of people are touched. As we mark International Volunteer Day on Dec. 5, millions will celebrate the spirit and worth of volunteering.
As you turn 50, Peace Corps, you can mature and go on to create the better world that was the idea of your birth. You can become a role model and a partner for other nations and non-governmental organizations.
You and your idealistic cadres of volunteers have changed the world. Now is the time for you to learn from your acquired lessons so that the world can reap the benefits — and continue the celebration for many years to come.
David Santulli is founder and executive director of United Planet, an international nonprofit based in Boston, MA. United Planet is based on the concept of Relational Diplomacy that places hundreds of people in short- and long-term volunteer projects all over the world. Dec. 5 is International Volunteer Day.