There's an interagency or nongovernmental fix for our broken Peace Corps

Ask the next person you see what they know about the Peace Corps. Odds are the answer will be “never heard of it.” 

The Peace Corps is past middle age and losing its vigor. Its service model has hardly changed in a world vastly different from the 1960s Cold War era. In 1966, more than 15,000 volunteers served in more than 40 countries. By 2020, when volunteers were brought home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were barely 7,000. The number today is fewer than 3,000. 

We see three ways to make the Peace Corps more relevant: merge it into AmeriCorps, move it into the State Department, or transform it from a federal agency to a nongovernmental organization.  

Launched by President Kennedy in 1961, the Peace Corps is one of the boldest, most innovative foreign policy initiatives of the post-World War II period. Countries emerging from colonial rule in the Global South lacked the infrastructure of industrial countries. Their populations were overwhelmingly rural. The Peace Corps was a welcome form of aid, without the strings associated with agencies like the World Bank and USAID.  

Today, even the poorest countries in the world are led by graduates from top universities in high-income countries. They all have mobile phone networks and internet access. Furthermore, global challenges like climate change, which were low-priority concerns in the 1960s, exist today. Technology is erasing borders while nationalist sentiment is building walls between nations. Conflict seems to be growing on every continent, producing waves of migrants in a world with increasingly fewer welcoming shores. 

In the dark and stormy world our children are growing up in, how can we connect Americans to people in other countries to build a more peaceful and sustainable world?  The best form of glue is a program that brings American women and men out of their comfort zones, helps them become more civic-minded and gets them to interact 24/7 with others across the globe, a program like the Peace Corps, but bigger and better. 

Inspired by the report of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service established by the U.S. Congress in 2017, we began by looking at the possibility of merging the Peace Corps into AmeriCorps. We found more benefits than we expected. 

AmeriCorps was launched in 1993 and operates in close partnership with state and local governments. The number of volunteers funded directly and indirectly has grown steadily to more than 200,000 in 2022. 

Merging the Peace Corps into AmeriCorps should make it possible to support more than 15,000 Americans serving overseas. The menu of service options could be expanded through partnerships with universities and NGOs like Habitat for Humanity. The structure of AmeriCorps is better suited to managing an international volunteer program because it is governed by a nonpartisan board of directors, making it less vulnerable to the whims of Congress.  

The most radical benefit of moving the Peace Corps into AmeriCorps would be the chance to make it a two-way program by bringing foreign volunteers to the USA. Imagine the possibility of having one foreign volunteer teacher in every high school in the United States. Two-way volunteer service has the potential to be a big and inexpensive win for American communities and U.S. foreign policy.  

Alternatively, moving the Peace Corps into the State Department could be more politically feasible. Here it would be easier to make the Peace Corps a two-way program because the inflow of foreign volunteers would be lost in the much larger inflow through the State Department’s distinct exchange programs that bring foreigners to the U.S. for education, training, speaking and performing.

An even better alternative would be transforming the Peace Corps into an NGO, giving it maximum operational flexibility. As the U.S. government does for the Asia Foundation, the federal budget could include core funding for a Peace Corps in the private sector. Most importantly, it would be free to obtain funding from leading philanthropists, charitable organizations and corporations.  

One special advantage of being an NGO is having a board of directors composed of influential leaders able to hire an entrepreneurial and visionary CEO. Furthermore, in a world increasingly skeptical about the foreign policies of successive U.S. Republican and Democratic administrations, the Peace Corps as an NGO would gain the kind of credibility possessed by globally admired organizations like Doctors Without Borders.  

Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of former Secretary of State John Kerry, famously said in 2004 that “one of the best faces America has ever projected is the face of a Peace Corps volunteer.” Relations with the rest of the world should be a top issue in this year’s presidential election campaign. Our national security in the decades to come will be at risk if we cannot maintain strong connections at the grassroots, people-to-people level around the world. 

Some 21st century version of the Peace Corps is probably the best way to build these connections. Voters should ask candidates in our November election how they plan to measurably improve relations between America and the rest of the world. 

A revitalized Peace Corps is the glue that America — and the world — needs to meet the challenges ahead.  

Kevin Quigley was the president of the National Peace Corps Association from 2003 to 2012 and a former Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. Lex Rieffel is a former Peace Corps volunteer in India who has written extensively about Peace Corps and international volunteer service. 

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