World to Peace Corps: Skilled volunteers needed
Debate is brewing over how the agency can attract greater numbers of older, more experienced volunteers. One key target group: retiring baby boomers.
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"By integrating, we can put them into a better program," says Sadako Ogata, who heads Japan's overseas development agency. "It's not just volunteerism, as such, but volunteerism which can have more effect under different schemes."Skip to next paragraph
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Britain's Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) now accepts volunteers of any nationality, and carefully vets applicants based on their experience and professional credentials. The average age of the VSO volunteer is 41, compared with 26 for the Peace Corps. VSO can be more selective in part because they send fewer volunteers abroad (they currently have about 1,500 volunteers) and because they allow placements as short as a few weeks.
"There's a big difference between the two organizations," says Patricia Sellick, VSO's country director for Ethiopia. "VSO is an organization that combats global poverty through volunteerism; it is not a cultural exchange program."
The difference is increasingly narrow in places like Ethiopia, where the Peace Corps is operating with funding from the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), President Bush's flagship program to fight HIV/AIDS. In total, the Peace Corps has received more than $50 million from the fund over five years, making work on HIV/AIDS an increasingly prominent part of its portfolio and leaving an indelible mark on the Peace Corps experience.
In Ethiopia, volunteers like David and Marcy Aldacushion, both skilled IT professionals, are not being posted to a thatched hut in a placid village as they expected, but to a modern apartment in a lively city. To fight HIV/AIDS, their skills are desperately needed in urban areas, where the pandemic is most acute and medical services need technical support.
"The world has progressed," said Mr. Aldacushion said after spending a recent morning trying to build a computer-network firewall for an HIV/AIDS clinic. "We have to help them with what they need now."
The debate over the Peace Corps's future, however, may focus as much on its political role as its technical one.
According to David Caprara of the Washington-based Brookings Institution, the Peace Corps could play a key role in combating anti-Americanism. He is calling for a massive increase of US volunteers overseas, pointing to a poll by Terror Free Tomorrow that found that 60 percent of Indonesians and 75 percent of Pakistanis held an improved view of the US following humanitarian assistance in those countries, which included volunteering.
Former Peace Corps director Carol Bellamy, however, points out that the organization is one of the last few agencies in Washington that has not been politicized, and warns that retooling the agency as an instrument for US popularity could end its political innocence.
"[The Peace Corps] hasn't been put through a sausage machine," Ms. Bellamy says. "The minute that all of a sudden the Peace Corps becomes some kind of public relations effort from some kind of beltway strategy would be unfortunate."