Relevance of US Peace Corps in the post-COVID World

I want to thank the National Peace Corps
Association for this opportunity to share my views on the future of the Peace
Corps from the perspective of a host country, in my
case, Nepal.

I have had 5-decade long and happy
association with the Peace Corps since I was a 7th grade student in
the hills of Nepal. My wonderful Peace Corps teachers were instrumental in
helping transform my life. And the 4000+ Peace Corps Volunteers who have served
in Nepal have contributed immensely to my country’s development.

I feel sad that because of the COVID Pandemic
the Peace Corps had to temporarily withdraw its Volunteers from all countries,
including Nepal.

Today I join my fellow panelists from
Guatemala and Kenya to address some weighty questions about the future of the
Peace Corps from our perspective as global citizens, and that of our home

I deeply appreciate the soul-searching
motivation for our reflection at this time of historic convulsion in the US
triggered by not only the COVID crisis but also the Black Lives Matter
movement, and other crises facing America and the world.

Recent events have made all of us introspect
deeply about combatting systemic racism, and more broadly, promoting social
justice, and ending the long legacy of racial, ethnic, religious and
gender-based disparities.

We find these phenomena not just in America,
but in all countries where the Peace Corps serve.

Let me try to address these issues in a
historic and holistic perspective.

During the past century, the
United States has been the world’s greatest super-power. There have been 3
major sources of America’s super power status in the world – its economic prosperity,
its military strength and its cultural vibrancy.

America has been the richest
country in the world for nearly 2 centuries. The US has only 4% of the world’s
population, but 15% of the world’s GDP, and 30% of the world’s billionaires.

But we also find in America
grotesque inequality, and great poverty in the midst of plenty.

It is the only rich country in
the world without universal health coverage. In terms of people’s health &
well-being, the US is no longer a world leader.

The fact that the US has more cases & deaths from
COVID-19 than any other country in the world, is a telling example of how America’s vast wealth fails to
protect its people’s health.

America’s military strength has
also been unparalleled in recent history.

Currently, the US spends more
than $700 billion annually on defense. That is close to 40% of the word’s
military spending.

But this is increasingly
becoming a burden without proportionate benefits for America. The trillions of
dollars America spends on its military is increasingly becoming
counter-productive. Instead of winning friends, America’s military might is
turning people into enemies and even terrorists.

Look at what the trillions in
military spending have produced in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Arab world, and
even in Latin America – a wave of anti-Americanism.

I believe it is time now to
reorient the American economy, drastically reduce military spending, and
redirect it to end poverty, to reduce inequality, to provide health care and
quality education for all, and to protect the earth from the climate crisis.

This is where America’s third
strength comes into play.

America’s educational,
scientific and cultural vibrancy have earned the US tremendous soft power
in the world.

40 % of the world’s Nobel Prize
winners have been Americans. More than 50% of the world’s Nobel laureates were
trained in America. And 60 of the world’s 100 best universities are in America.
The American scientific, technological and cultural innovations have enveloped
the whole world.

That is what gives America a
positive soft power for the goodof the world.

I consider the Peace Corps as
one element of that benevolent American soft power.

I dare say that the less than
half a billion dollars that America spends annually on the Peace Corps touches
more ordinary people’s hearts, and helps nurture peace and friendship in the
world than the many billions the US spends on military aid to developing

I recall that was precisely the
vision of President John F Kennedy when he established the Peace Corps. 

Kennedy envisioned the Peace
Corps – as an opportunity for young Americans to better understand the
challenges of living in a developing country, to impart their knowledge and
skills, and to help overcome poverty and underdevelopment.

Those are precisely the
building blocks for peace and prosperity. 

It is that spirit of solidarity
and empathy that makes America, or Nepal or any other country truly Great.

To paraphrase the late Senator
Teddy Kennedy, to make America Great Again:

“It is better to send in the
Peace Corps than the Marine Corps”.

I so wish that President Trump
had been a Peace Corps volunteer. If he had the Peace Corps experience, he
would have tried to make “America Great Again” by responding to the greatest
challenges of our times – the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, global
poverty, and the climate crisis – in a completely different manner.

Let me now reflect on two questions that the NPCA
asked us:

  • “How can the Peace Corps be a true partner with host countries in the new post-COVID world?
  • And
    how must the Peace Corps change to be relevant for the 21st century”

Well, even before COVID-19
invaded and destabilized the world, we already had a universally agreed global
agenda called the Sustainable Development Goals. Those goals, with dozens of
specific and time-bound targets to be achieved by 2030, include ending extreme
poverty, promoting prosperity with equity, protecting the environment
and safeguarding people’s human rights.

They were endorsed by all
countries of the world, including the United States, at the United Nations in
2015. The SDGs comprise a non-partisan agenda, so all of us can support them
whether you are a Republican or Democrat or neither.

The Peace Corps Volunteers
already promote these goals in their work as teachers, health promoters,
agriculture extension workers, and a variety of other vocations.

What is needed now is to refine
the skills of the Peace Corps Volunteers to ensure that their services are
provided to truly empower local people and communities.

Like all other institutions
are doing at this time, the Peace Corps too would benefit from an organizational
soul searching to root out any trace of racism, gender discrimination or a
colonial mentality that may occasionally andinadvertently influence its
work and mission.  

I honestly believe that the
Peace Corps can help transform the multiple crises facing the US and the world
into opportunity for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. 

I know from my own personal
experience and observation that Peace Corps Volunteers can make a
transformational impact on the lives of many ordinary people, and future
leaders of host countries.

Our increasingly
inter-connected world demands global solidarity, not charity, to solve global
problems that transcend national borders like the specter 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.

Let us remember that solidarity,
unlike charity, is a two-way street. The Peace Corps experience is just as
important for the education and enlightenment of the Peace Corps Volunteers as
it is for them to help their host communities.

More than any other group of
Americans, I believe that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers can instill a sense
of a more enlightened America as part of, not
apart from,
a more just, peaceful and prosperous world.

So, I hope and count on the
Peace Corps to survive and thrive, and help build an enlightened post-COVID
America and the world.

Thank you.  

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