By Christopher Hedrick*
A half century after its founding, the Peace Corps is building upon a new generation’s passion and technological know-how to make a difference in the everyday lives of people in developing countries across the globe. The agency is undergoing a profound transformation, and volunteers’ service no longer resembles the traditional notion of the Peace Corps experience.
Despite its tight budget and rapidly churning workforce, the Peace Corps has endured for fifty-one years largely because of the simplicity and beauty of its mission: to help those in need across the globe and to enhance international understanding. The Peace Corps also holds a special place in the American collective consciousness, with more than 210,000 Americans having served as volunteers.
The Peace Corps is playing a more important role than ever in meeting global development challenges by embracing the characteristics of its most successful volunteers: flexibility and nimbleness in the face of changing conditions.
The image of the solitary Peace Corps volunteer is an icon of “Peace Corps Classic,” as Sargent Shriver, the agency’s first director, constructed it in the 1960s. While the Peace Corps evolved over the decades, much remained unchanged. Volunteers served in relative isolation, with few opportunities for outside communication and collaboration. They integrated into their host communities with deep linguistic and cultural understanding. Their development impact was largely evaluated anecdotally.
Some initiatives, such as the effort to eradicate Guinea worm and, more recently, to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, have joined volunteers with the international community to address key development issues. But, by and large, the reality of the Peace Corps continued to be one of volunteers serving on their own, mostly disconnected from the world, working at the local level with ambiguous results.
In the time since the Peace Corps’ founding, the U.S. Congress has increased its over- sight of foreign affairs agencies, requiring clearer strategic planning and metrics-based program evaluation to justify budget increases. In addition, the latest generation of development workers bring with them new expectations of how they want to live and work, knowledge of technology, and desire for innovation. The developing world has also, to varying degrees, advanced economically, requiring a reevaluation of the ways U.S. international development efforts can best contribute.
To thrive in this environment, the Peace Corps is beginning to transform itself. At Congress’s request, in 2010 the Peace Corps published a Comprehensive Agency Assessment describing reforms toward focus, efficiency, and effectiveness.
This new approach redefines the Peace Corps development niche, taking advantage of the new generation of volunteers and of technology. Millennials are tech savvy and want frequent communication and feedback. They have grown up working in teams. They’re goal-oriented and seek a sense of accomplishment and recognition. This new generation of volunteers is entering service as access to technology is dramatically expanding in the developing world. Cell phone penetration in some countries in Africa now surpasses the United States, and Internet access is growing exponentially around the world.
In the New Peace Corps, mobile devices are used to access free, universally accessible technology platforms, including:
- Google’s open-source office tools and cloud storage, for document sharing and communication;
- Facebook, for sharing experiences and fostering teams;
- Skype, for enabling no-cost, long-distance interaction and learning platforms;
- YouTube and iTunes, for instructional videos to provide timely performance support.
Teamwork is replacing the iconic notion of the lone volunteer. Increasingly, volunteers are collaborating to pursue bold goals and teaming up with partners, such as international NGOs and USAID, to work for important change.
The Peace Corps’ Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative, launched in 2011, can serve as a model for this fresh, “New Peace Corps” approach. The program uses Skype to bring in world experts for intensive training seminars, Google Drive’s cloud storage for knowledge collaboration, and Facebook groups to build communities of learning and expertise across twenty-four countries in sub-Saharan Africa in order to fight malaria, which kills hundreds of thousands of children every year.
The Peace Corps is now an integral part of the international team battling malaria. More than 3,000 Peace Corps volunteers across sub-Saharan Africa are engaged in this campaign at little incremental cost to the U.S. government. And they aren’t working alone: they work in partnership with USAID, the Centers for Disease Control, and others. This collaboration adds value to the global fight in a way that only the Peace Corps can: through community engagement and education at the grassroots level.
*Christopher Hedrick coordinates special initiatives for the Peace Corps Africa region and from 2007– 2012 was the Country Director for Peace Corps Senegal. Previously, he was CEO of Intrepid Learning, a Seattle-based corporate learning services firm, served as a science and technology advisor to the Governor of Washington state, and worked for the Gates Foundation and Microsoft. Hedrick was a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal from 1988 to 1990.
– Jake Nelson served as Lead Editor for this op-ed.