We recently hosted a visit from identical twin sisters who came to San Francisco to celebrate the 50th reunion of fellow Peace Corps volunteers who had worked in Africa in the early days of this legendary organization. While volunteers total 6,800, the Peace Corp has almost 17,000 applicants for roughly 3,500 annual openings for two-year stints overseas. Why not take them all and spread that much more good will around the world? Budget restraints. The Peace Corps is allocated just $380 million which works out to about $50,000 per volunteer. Volunteers themselves are paid a fraction of that --- enough to live sustainably in the countries where they are deployed --- which in some countries is next to nothing. Most is spent on administrative support, recruiting, air fares, health benefits, etc.
Not all volunteers are young recent graduates. Some retirees can be pressed into service to offer consulting services based on their years of experience. This practice goes way back. In 1964, my college roommate’s father was a retired Sears Roebuck senior executive and Harvard Business School graduate who lived in Peru for two years helping to develop Peru’s marketing of skilled craftsmanship products. Any retiree feeling stuck in a rut might inquire about similar business development programs. Been there done that with Rome and Paris? See the so-called emerging markets first-hand!
Meanwhile, if it takes an average of about nine military personnel to support one soldier on the battlefield, imagine how expensive it is to support just one of what we term our “boots on the ground.” The answer to that question is roughly ten times the cost of a single Peace Corps volunteer. Anyone could argue that flooding a country with American volunteers to educate, offer medical aid and build infrastructure projects may forestall, or avoid completely, the need to send in troops to any number of today’s unstable countries.
As for where the money could come from to double or triple the Peace Corps budget, we could start with the new F-35 fighter planes which cost $188 million each. We signed a contract back in 2001 to buy 2,500 of them. Cancelling just two of these planes would free enough tax dollars to double the Peace Corps budget and bring the number of volunteers to about 14,000. In fact, why not spend $5 billion and send almost 100,000 volunteers around the world. That’s just the equivalent of about 25 F-35’s --- about 1 percent of what we’ve ordered.
But it won’t happen. As I asked one of our newly-elected U.S. Representatives how he liked his new job, he confided, “I’ve never worked so hard accomplishing so little.” Even with cutbacks, military spending continues to run amuck, and none of the presidential candidates seem to be addressing that obvious condition. There are planes and warships being built that even the navy and air force don’t want, but the military industrial complex sources their component parts in over 150 congressional districts. Congressional leaders just can’t say “No.”
So, a deserving organization like the Peace Corps goes begging because its immediate beneficiaries are just foreigners in under-developed countries. The ultimate beneficiaries, however, are U.S. taxpayers in whose behalf the Peace Corps has fostered good will in foreign countries. Fifty 50 percent of what is spent on advertizing is said to go to waste --- but we never know which fifty percent. In the same vein, we’ll never know for sure what Peace Corps contributions may have turned the tide in our favor enough to avert the kind of expensive disasters with which we’re faced in many parts of the world today.