Two years ago, the naysayers predicted it was bad news for the Peace Corps when Clinton appointed his friend and communications director, Mark Gearan, 41, to head the agency. At the time, it seemed like just another political payoff for a F.O.B.—“Friend of Bill.” The baby-faced Gearan had no special preference for the agency and no experience as a humanitarian. But now it seems to have paid off.
President Bill Clinton announced earlier this month that he will ask Congress to add $48 million to their budget—the biggest increase in the agency's funding in more than three decades. It will boost their $222 million budget by more than 21%. But, before the agency spends more of America's pocket money, it's time to point out there is room for improvement.
The program is the brainchild of John F. Kennedy, who first mentioned the idea in a 1960 presidential campaign speech. He challenged Americans to give two years of their lives to help people in developing countries.
One of Kennedy's first acts as president was to appoint his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, to study the feasibility of such an agency. In August of 1961, the president hosted a send-off in the Rose Garden for the first group of Peace Corps volunteers, departing for service in Ghana.
In the years since, Peace Corps workers have risen to high posts. The mission of the Peace Corps, according to the 1961 Congressional legislation that authorized the agency, is to “promote world peace and friendship” by providing skilled American workers to underdeveloped countries.
President Kennedy stated in his inaugural address: “To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves.”
But how is that goal best served? Until now, the Peace Corps has recruited heavily at American universities. For example, Harvard University has been the fourth-largest provider of volunteers, sending 1,996 alumni.
The minimum age requirement for applicants is 18. There is no maximum age, and, in fact, some volunteers have been well into their 80s when they joined.
In recent years, the number of retired volunteers has increased—their participation has raised the average volunteer age to almost 30—but the ranks of the corps continue to be dominated by young people with no “real world” work experience.
And, the Peace Corps continues to focus much of its recruitment efforts on students. In the last three years, the agency has been working to increase participation in its Master's International Program, helping graduate students to earn credit for overseas service.
When I was 23, way back in 1982, I volunteered with a private organization, working on a project to develop a newspaper in Liberia, West Africa. While I was there, I spent much of my free time with Peace Corps members, all fresh out of college.
I've seen the corps at work, and I have this to report—most of the volunteers had the best of intentions. They wanted to improve the lives of the poor, and were willing to sacrifice their own comfort to do it. In addition to being good-will ambassadors for the United States, they were good friends to me.
But, through the years, I've come to believe that the taxpayers of America would be better served by raising the minimum age requirement for Peace Corps service and giving the much-sought-after positions to people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. They would have a greater level of work experience to share, bring a higher level of maturity to the job, and increase the effectiveness of the Corps.
Finding mid-career volunteers would require winning support from America's Fortune 500 companies, who might be persuaded to make a pledge to re-hire volunteers when they return from their two-year stint and give other corporate benefits.
After all, this is the age when every company, from Bill Blass to Revlon, wants to look like a do-gooder.
The United Nations has a volunteer program similar to the Peace Corps, but they require applicants to have several years of work experience, and a minimum age of 25.
It might be time for the Peace Corps follow suit. It might be time for America's most-beloved government agency to grow up.
Kathleen Howley is a Boston-based journalist.