Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Director of Peace Corps Visits Hopkins

Peace Corps Celebrates 50

Aaron Williams celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps with the first ever keynote address at the Bloomberg School of Public Health by the US volunteer program's top executive. Mr Williams, an Obama administration appointee, focused his speech on the founding message and vision of former President John F. Kennedy while providing countless examples of the strong partnership the institution has formed with the "citadel" of global health.

A simple word highlights the strongest motif that carried through the various speeches. Every person touched upon the importance of casting Peace Corps veterans as "Returned Peace Core Volunteers (RPCV)" rather than "Former Peace Corps Volunteers". The stress on returned over former focuses attention to the transformative and lasting experience that volunteers live out in their service and beyond. It is strategic branding of the finest order, but it was clear through the speakers that returned makes all the difference.

For my friends that are RPCV or current PCVs, I thought you'd find the question and answer session interesting. All three questions were from RPCVs, which made me think I should blog them for you. In order:

1. What has been the Peace Corps response to the recent negative Congressional testimony of returned volunteers regarding safety and support systems for victims of sexual abuse.

Williams skillfully handled the first question by focusing the attention on creating systems within Peace Corps to make it better. He emphasized that each person providing testimony stated their goal was to improve the institution and not tear it down. This was a point he argued the media neglected to reiterate. Lastly, he went through a litany of partnerships and outside "experts" who are working to create open channels and training on the issue.

It was clear Williams was very prepared for the hot-button question. His answer had a linear progression from level one framing of broader concepts to level three of details in place to address the issues, such as the creation of a "victim's advocate" within the Peace Corps hierarchy. His last step to highlight that all the plans are laid out on the Peace Corps website was a plus.

2. Given the current funding climate, what is Peace Corps future outlook?

Director Williams was straight from the hip in his assessment of Washington politics and the foreign aid budget, which he referred to as Budget Function 150. He expects Function 150, which includes USAID, PEPFAR, and Peace Corps to name a few, to be prime rib sent to the chopping block. However, his take home message was Peace Corps, unlike other entities in the Function 150, has bicameral and bipartisan support. Four elected officials (three Democrats and one Republican) are RCPVs and they meet with Director Williams every quarter to analyze and discuss continued funding support. He acknowledges impending cuts will curtail scheduled growth and require belt tightening, but does not envision a severe blow to Peace Corps.

I found this the most interesting part of the speech. I wonder what metrics or evaluations go into deciding which programs have the most impact per dollar spent within PEPFAR, USAID, and Peace Corps. It was clear that Director Williams thought PEPFAR and other International Affairs budgets will be disproportionately impacted by cuts simply based on the politics of Washington rather then effectiveness or results.

3. Peace Corps has seen an increase in trained volunteers over the last decades. Will Peace Corps shift away from being a place for graduating college seniors?

Director Williams stated 85% of Peace Corps volunteers are recent undergraduates. He acknowledged the growth of trained volunteers as part of the inclusive approach and high impact results of the program. He maintained that this balance of predominantly recent undergraduates will be held in the future. Interestingly, he noted an increase in former volunteers reapplying and he expects retired baby boomers to get back into the mix.

There you have it! I hope this brief overview of the speech is worth a read. I'd definitely be interested in what you thought of his responses.