By Kay Gillies Dixon
Wednesday is the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps, the day that President John F. Kennedy signed into law legislation creating the agency.
With one stroke of a pen, President Kennedy deepened our nation’s ability to live out key values – such as service, peace, sacrifice, commitment, and learning from those we hope to serve. I am proud to be one of more than 9,980 who have served in the Peace Corps from Washington state, joining more than 240,000 nationwide over these last 60 years.
I entered the Peace Corps hoping to bring my skills and commitment to communities around the world. I left enriched and grateful for what I had learned from those I had come to serve. Among the earliest volunteers, initially the Colombian people were skeptical of our presence. But the compassion we experienced in our barrio when President Kennedy was assassinated still resonates with me. The Colombian people, all too familiar with their own grief, violence and political unrest brought on by their government’s revolutions, nevertheless reached out to comfort us. We were their connection to the United States and to our deceased president. They stopped by our apartment expressing their condolences with handmade cards, mass cards and gifts of food.
In the 1990s, our daughter served in the Peace Corps in Niger. Visiting her in sub-Sahara Africa, the experience was profound. Her site was a remote village; after the bush taxi dropped us, we walked the remaining 3 kilometers to her hut. Here we learned a small loan (probably less than $40 ) had been provided to a local entrepreneur so he could purchase a cart to use with his donkey. Using the cart, now he could be a taxi to the villagers as well as haul cargo for them. Such a small dollar amount to enrich his life so significantly.
Today, the world wants and needs the Peace Corps more than ever.
“Our increasingly interconnected world demands global solidarity, not charity, to solve global problems that transcend national borders like the specters of war, terrorism, racism, climate change and pandemics like COVID-19. I sincerely believe that the Peace Corps can be a great organization dedicated to promote such global solidarity at the people-to-people level,” said Kul Chandra Gautam, former Nepalese diplomat and former deputy executive director of UNICEF (July 2020).
This anniversary, however, is unlike any other. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we will observe the 60th anniversary without Peace Corps volunteers in the field. This unprecedented moment has provided an opportunity to reflect on what the Peace Corps has accomplished and envision what should come next. During this pause, the National Peace Corps Association convened a series of nationwide conversations about the future of the Peace Corps in a changed world.
The community of returned Peace Corps volunteers envisions an agency that 1) advances global peace and understanding, 2) seeks innovative solutions to shared global problems and 3) responds to shifting expectations in the developing world. But respondents also want an agency that joins other serious institutions in addressing systemic racism, gender-based discrimination and climate change – and they want an agency that genuinely listens to global partners so that the institution can provide the best that America has to offer.
For all the positive work conducted by Peace Corps volunteers over the years, taxpayer investment over six decades has been incredibly small. While our International Affairs Budget is roughly 1% of all federal spending, Peace Corps is only 1% of the International Affairs Budget. If you add up all congressional line item appropriations over its 60-year history, that total funding for all Peace Corps comes to just under $12.8 billion. Meanwhile, the FY 2021 International Affairs Budget totals about $57.4 billion. To state it another way, 60 years of Peace Corps funding is the equivalent of three months of our current international affairs budget.
Over the past 60 years, nearly a quarter of a million Peace Corps volunteers have made a tremendous contribution to the individuals and communities in which they served, and to our planet. You can join in celebrating the Peace Corps’ 60th anniversary and ensure its resurgence by urging your member of Congress to co-sponsor the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act (HR 1456) and help deepen our nation’s commitment to service, peace, sacrifice, commitment, and, yes, humility – learning from others whom we hope to serve.
To repeat, Peace Corps service is needed now more than ever.
Kay Gillies Dixon, Peace Corps volunteer, Colombia 1962-64.