As the Western world reeled from coordinated suicide bombings in Brussels March 22, the director of the Peace Corps said in Atlanta that her organization is fighting extremism at its root: building hope and goodwill through culturally sensitive service.
[pullquote]“The Peace Corps is the best kind of soft power.” -U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson[/pullquote]
“The Peace Corps is the best kind of soft power,” U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson told Global Atlanta in a joint interview with director Carrie Hessler-Radelet, referring to the projection of American cultural and educational influence around the world.
They had come together at Kennesaw State University to speak about the importance of a program that sends Americans into the farthest-flung parts of the world to teach English, spur community development, enhance public health, inspire youth and more.
But a news conference originally focused on how the Peace Corps can help create globally competent Americans veered off course as reporters sought comment from Mr. Isakson on the attacks that morning.
To Ms. Hessler-Radelet and Mr. Isakson, the topics were intertwined. People turn to drastic behaviors when their opportunities are limited in the very areas of life the Peace Corps aims to address, they said.
“I believe that hopelessness and disenfranchisement leads to a level of frustration where people seek to find meaning. We all seek to find meaning, and if there’s no positive way to use your talents for good, you’re going to go with any path that gives you meaning,” Ms. Hessler-Radelet told Global Atlanta.
Mr. Isakson, backing her up, put it succinctly: “Evil thrives when hunger and ignorance prevail. The more you can educate people and the more you can feed people, the less evil has a chance to manifest itself.”
The Peace Corps, which operates in 60 countries, has become the “farm team” for American diplomats and executives, giving them a chance to learn cultures from the ground up, forging empathy by living in the same conditions as those they serve, some subsisting on as low as $100 per month.
That’s important, because understanding the world requires interaction with more than just the upper classes, Ms. Hessler-Radelet said.
“We need to have relationships not just with the elite, but with the average citizen, because I think we can see today, everything we read in the paper today, it’s about ordinary citizens who feel engaged and hopeful about the future — or completely disenfranchised,” she said.
The Peace Corps experience mints people who are “comfortable with ambiguity,” can work in multicultural teams and negotiate from a position of both strength and understanding — all essential skills in global business, said Ms. Hessler-Radelet, who herself served in Indonesia as a volunteer.
“The world turns on relationships, and you can’t really build relationship until you spend time with them. That’s why the peace corps model is so unique,” she said.
During a panel on global workforce development attended by Kennesaw State students, Ms. Hessler-Radelet relayed multiple stories about world leaders who started out as those ordinary citizens.
John Dramani Mahama, the Ghanaian president who visited KSU in 2013, is one of 12 African leaders who point to a Peace Corps volunteer for encouraging their educational endeavors. He still remembers distance from the Earth to the sun because his instructor filled up a black board with more than 90 X’s to illustrate millions of miles, Ms. Hessler-Radelet said.
Guinea’s president, Alpha Conde, told Ms. Hessler-Radelet that he rose up through the educational ranks of his country in part thanks to persistent encouragement from a Peace Corps volunteer. He said that Peace Corps volunteers can be found in the remotest parts of his country, where Chinese-built roads don’t reach and where his campaign staff didn’t even go.
Mr. Isakson said the U.S. should do all it can to enhance this type of engagement with the world, creating personal ties that lead to understanding and potential business connections down the road.
His personal story is instructive. During his senior year of high school, Mr. Isakson’s his family hosted a Muslim exchange student from Bangladesh, a country then called East Pakistan. They shared a room, and Mr. Isakson remembers watching him pray toward Mecca. He now deals tractors from American heavy-equipment giant Caterpillar Inc. in Dubai.
“I learned a lot about their culture, and I never thought I would need it again,” Mr. Isakson said. “Understanding their religion, understanding how they think makes a world of difference to the decisions that I’m making today.”
That’s why the U.S. foreign-aid budget is so important, Mr. Isakson said, noting that it makes up less than 1 percent of discretionary spending, despite popular perceptions.
“It’s an infinitesimal amount, but it buys us goodwill around the world that’s priceless,” Mr. Isakson said.
Peace Corps recipient countries are asking the U.S. to send more volunteers, but the program is limited by funding. In Indonesia, for instance, there are about 80 volunteers, but government officials are seeking 1,000, Ms. Hessler-Radelet said.
Meanwhile, a greater number of applicants is vying for existing slots, she said. About 23,000 applied for just over 4,000 positions in the last cycle.
That’s encouraging, given that the U.S. needs a “new kind of global citizen” that can challenge outdated modes of thought about international affairs, she said during a speech at KSU’s International Achievement Awards later that evening.
As an illustration, she highlighted Peace Corps health workers who created a new community-centric approach to malaria prevention that is now being rolled out around Africa. The Peace Corps, she said, is partnering with universities and companies to foster innovation at the “last mile” of the development process.
At the earlier panel, speakers agreed that imparting cross-cultural knowledge in Georgia young people is imperative as the state recruits more international companies, students and tourists, said Chris Carr, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
“We are becoming a very international state. We have been, and we are one, but we need to make sure we can continue to meet the needs of those companies,” Mr. Carr said, highlighting the influx of German and Austrian auto suppliers and pointing out that the state has investment and trade offices in 12 countries.
Dan Papp, KSU’s president, said the pressures on employees are now borderless.
“Today’s international workforce needs to be incredibly competitive because on a global scale we’re competing with not only the county, city or country next door, but we’re competing indeed with every country in the world,” he said.
Ms. Hessler-Radelet echoed that in her speech.
[pullquote]“The pace of change is exponential, and somehow we need to be able to manage all this.”[/pullquote]
“The pace of change is exponential, and somehow we need to be able to manage all this,” she said.
For its part, Kennesaw State has two programs helping Peace Corps volunteers prepare for service, then translate their skills into the business world upon their return to the U.S.
Peace Corps Prep prepares undergraduate students for service through coursework and experiences; it’s open to all majors. The Coverdell Fellows program provides a tuition waiver and stipend for returning volunteers who seek MBAs or master’s degrees in conflict management or international policy management. They work as graduate assistants for up to four semesters. More than 30 returning volunteers have gone through the program so far, and four are enrolled currently.