The Best is Yet To Come

By:Maria Luna and Jan Mazotti Issue: Collaborative Leadership Section:Goverment

Leadership at the Peace Corps

The Peace Corps is more relevant today than ever in a globalizing world. They continue to address global needs in education, health and HIV/AIDS, business development, environment, agriculture, and youth development. Peace Corps provides services to regions in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Pacific Islands, and the Caribbean. Deputy Director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, who herself was a volunteer in Western Samoa from 1981-1983, and Kelly McCormack (Guatemala, 2007-2009), public affairs specialist for Peace Corps, took time to talk to ICOSA about the collaborative leadership models at the organization.
ICOSA: Discuss some of the collaborative relationships the Peace Corps has with others globally in academics, government, nonprofits, etc. What are the benefits and what are the drawbacks?

PEACE CORPS: Peace Corps has a variety of partnerships with a range of different organizations. One of the primary organizations, with whom we’ve collaborated since the very beginning, is universities. The principal reason was for Peace Corps volunteer training. Today, training is fulfilled through Peace Corps and now our engagement with universities focuses around two separate programs, the Masters International Program (MIP) and Fellows/USA Program. The MIP is geared towards volunteers wanting to pursue graduate work and Peace Corps experience in one program, one year graduate work, one year Peace Corps experience. The Fellows/USA Program offers scholarships or reduced tuition for graduate studies, after a student serves as a volunteer. It’s a way of enticing strong candidates who are returning Peace Corps volunteers, to the university. A majority of those who have participated in the MIP or fellowship program continue with international development and/or diplomacy work in, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State Department, nonprofit organizations, or American private companies overseas. A return volunteer goal for Peace Corps is to have volunteers become part of organizations that support an international mission.

Other partnerships include the National Association of Community Health Centers, City Year, the Corps Network, America’s Service Commissions, and Teach for America. We also have partnerships with groups like the United Negro College Fund, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, American Indian High Education Consortium, the Asian and Pacific Islander Scholarship Fund, the Council of 1890 Universities, Phelps Stokes, and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. We have a lot of partnerships with government agencies such as Corporation for National Community Service, USAID, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Partnerships are important to Peace Corps. Partnerships enhance recruitment. They provide opportunities to interface with students and skilled Americans in scarce skill areas. They provide a general forum for Peace Corps—to acquaint them with our international work.

Some of the big NGO’s help us with overseas training. We have a partnership in Mali with Michigan State University. Michigan State University has a grant with USAID that provides technical support to the group in Mali. They help us provide a training package and provide additional resources to our volunteers to assist communities like providing food and security initiatives that are local and community-based.

We place volunteers in communities like Mozambique and in partnership with Columbia University to deliver antiretroviral drugs for people living with HIV. Our volunteers are outreach workers for Columbia University. They are based in the community and work closely with the health centers. They do prevention education around HIV and provide support for people living with HIV. They don’t work as employees of Columbia—they are volunteers attached to the community—but they benefit from the support that Columbia offers. The benefits that volunteers provide to Columbia are that they are the community legs on the ground to ensure the program is more sustainable and is actually implemented at the community level.

One of the most important contributions with any partnership is that Peace Corps volunteers are embedded in the community. They are members of the community—they live, work, eat, and ride public transportation. For example, the Millennium Challenge Corporation in Lesotho is building 123 health clinics. Peace Corps volunteers in the community help ensure there is a formation of a village health committee that will maintain the facility. In fact, all of the ancillary community support that is actually needed to maintain an investment of a health facility can be supported by a Peace Corps volunteer in the community. Volunteers don’t do any work on their own; they work in collaboration with community members. Partnerships take time, and there has to be something in it for both partners.

It’s just a matter of trying to identify what the benefit for each partner is and it’s an equal partnership. It works best when both partners feel they have something to offer and receive. Sometimes the process of negotiation takes a long time and there can be costs associated with partnerships, but in general, our partnerships have really enhanced both the volunteers' experience and also Peace Corps' ability to support volunteers in the field.
ICOSA: How does the Peace Corps balance the needs of developing countries, the needs of 8,566 volunteers, and the “rules” of the government, both here and abroad?

PEACE CORPS: Peace Corps only goes into countries in which it has been invited by the host government. When we receive an invitation, there is an assessment process where we discuss their development needs. Our programs are specifically designed at the request of the host country. Then, we identify whether or not it fits with the Peace Corps way of working. If we agree on the terms of our engagement, a country agreement is drawn up that specifies the rules—often diplomatic in nature. And, there are discussions as to what the host country will contribute to the Peace Corps efforts like housing, visas, and agreements of taxation of staff and volunteers. It’s a complex process. We also have a list of core expectations—10 things that we really expect of volunteers. We expect that they will learn the language, be culturally sensitive, value and respect the culture that they are entering, work hard because being a Peace Corps volunteer service is a job, and follow the law of both countries.
ICOSA: In a relatively tumultuous time politically, how does the Peace Corps work collaboratively to address the mission of promoting world peace and friendship both domestically and internationally?

PEACE CORPS: Our mission is to promote world peace and friendship and we have three goals that guide our work. Everything we do has to bind with these goals. First, we help the people of interested countries to meet their need for trained men and women. Secondly, we try to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of peoples served. The main way to accomplish a more positive image of Americans overseas is by being there in the community. It is about taking part and living in a community and establishing strong professional and social bonds—eating together with neighbors, having fun, playing music, dancing, talking about relationships, and just getting to know people.>

Finally, Peace Corps volunteers help promote a better understanding of other countries and peoples on the part of Americans. Through their volunteer services they write home, blog, and phone their friends, while in the process they are teaching others about the country in which they are serving. They are promoting better, more positive attitudes towards people of other countries. They bring forever with them their experiences as Peace Corps volunteers, the love they felt for their community, and the positive feeling about peoples in a very different part of the world. These three goals frame everything we do.
ICOSA: Clearly the Peace Corps has developed some very influential leaders in its history. How does the Peace Corps instill leadership with its volunteers? How has that leadership training changed and/or stayed the same over the years?

PEACE CORPS: We describe Peace Corps as a life-defining leadership opportunity. We provide leadership as a component of our training. Through the Peace Corps experience, volunteers have the opportunity to grow and develop both professionally and personally.

Our training has three components. The first is a language component. We teach 250 different languages in Peace Corps. The second is a cross-cultural component which is unique to a particular country or ethnic group. In any given country, there may be dozens of different languages, so the cross-cultural training teaches volunteers what they need to know about the places they will be serving. The third is technical training, and that focuses on skills that will be required in order to provide assistance to the communities that are served. Leadership is part of all of those areas. Having the cross-cultural and the language training enables volunteers to develop leadership skills within their own community. When they become more familiar with language and culture, they are able to establish friendships in their communities and exert leadership more and more. One thing that is unique about Peace Corps is that in many cases, volunteers are the only Americans that community members ever know.

My situation was no different. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer I was 24 and I taught at a girl’s secondary school. I had no previous teaching experience, but I got excellent training from Peace Corps. Then I became a teacher for two years. That experience has benefitted me throughout my career. It has helped me learn how to work effectively with youth, feel comfortable with public speaking, and develop organizational skills. As a volunteer, my secondary project was to develop a national public awareness campaign, something I had never done before. Oftentimes Peace Corps volunteers find they step into roles that they have never played before, that are professional or personal stretch goals.
ICOSA: How has the downturn in the economy, domestically and internationally, impacted Peace Corps operations here and abroad?

PEACE CORPS: One would think it would increase applications, but it has not been long enough for us to monitor. We face constraints in our budgets like every other federal agency does. The biggest impact we have felt is some uncertainty about what the budget is going to bring. Peace Corps has bipartisan support and we have a lot of support on the Hill, from the White House, Democrats, and Republicans. Even in a time of economic crisis, Peace Corps has continued to have a budget growth every year.
ICOSA: How do you balance the needs and expectations of all of the various stakeholder groups within the organization?

PEACE CORPS: We are an independent U.S. government agency within the Executive Branch. Last year our budget was $400 million, and is determined annually by the Congressional Budget and Appropriations process. Our budget is usually one percent of the foreign operations budget. We have been around since 1961 when President Kennedy signed an executive order to establish the Peace Corps. Next March is our 50th anniversary and we have events going on throughout the country. Just this last October 14th was the anniversary of a speech President Kennedy gave while campaigning where he basically outlined what would become the Peace Corps. At the celebrations, we will be teaching the American public about what Peace Corps is and how we have been important over the past 50 years. Our notable volunteers always mention that they were Peace Corps volunteers. They include CEO and founder of Netflix, Reed Hastings; Samuel Gillespie, senior vice president of Exxon Mobil; Dan Carney, reporter for Business Week; Chris Mathews, host of NBC’s Hardball; and Christopher Dodd, former U.S. Senator from Connecticut.
ICOSA: What are the most critical/compelling leadership issues you have at the Peace Corps? How are you addressing them?

PEACE CORPS: Peace Corps last year conducted an agency-wide assessment to help us do a better job of managing and supporting our volunteers in the field. Based on that, we have developed a new strategic plan to help us move forward. We are going to be improving training to volunteers, using our resources more effectively, and emphasizing some of the work around our third goal—educating Americans about the rest of the world. We have very solid plans for the future with some wonderful opportunities that we are just starting to roll out. It was approved by Congress in June. There are so many benefits to Peace Corps service. It impacts volunteers, their families and host communities for the rest of their lives. It’s a life-defining leadership experience. The benefits—you just really cannot list them all—include language, cultural, and personal awareness of volunteers and Americans; it’s really wonderful. One of the most exciting things right now is our 50th anniversary. We have a new blueprint for the future. Our new strategy is very exciting. I fully expect that the Peace Corps’ best years are still to come.