Increasing Volunteerism without Harming Development

IBM Executive Service Corps in Vietnam

Most Americans have heard of the Peace Corps. “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”? The organization has been embedded in our minds as the perfect representation of American idealism. The chance to travel abroad to promote economic and social development, all the while not paying a penny, has influenced more than 200,000 U.S. citizens to serve. It is now the 50th anniversary of the first Peace Corps mission to Ghana and the impact of the organization has been widely debated.

It’s difficult to empirically value how beneficial the Peace Corps has been because of the small-scale nature of its projects; however, it is widely agreed that it performs below its potential. U.S. leaders such as President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama have called for an increase in the number of Peace Corps volunteers in order to enhance its impact; however, based on its current structure this goal seems infeasible.

With a budget frozen at $400 million, the Peace Corps doesn’t receive the funds to sufficiently accommodate 8,000 more volunteers. The cost per volunteer would have to decrease dramatically. According to the Brookings Institution, the Peace Corps budgets an estimated $36,000 per volunteer. Raising the number of volunteers above 10,000 could negatively impact standards. This would make President Obama’s goal essentially a waste of time as unqualified volunteers are sent abroad for the sake of having more volunteers. In addition, the long-term nature of the service dissuades many professionals, with useful skills and experience, from serving.

On top of this, as a result of its strictly American composition, larger developing countries (such as Nigeria, India and Brazil) are unwilling to host Peace Corps projects. These countries are vital because they could accommodate a larger number of volunteers.

If the U.S.wants to increase the number of Americans serving abroad without having a negative impact on the quality of volunteers deployed, there are a number of other programs that can make this possible. The UN Volunteer program allows 7,500 people a year to volunteer abroad. A number of faith-based organizations, such as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, allow members to volunteer for a fundraising fee. A great source of skilled volunteers can come from the private sector.

NGOs like Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Engineers Without Borders (EWB) allow skilled workers to volunteer in developing countries. Volunteers are given experience in the field while providing humanitarian aid. MSF deploys almost three times as many volunteers as Peace Corps with a similar budget. Yet, because it receives the majority of its funding from private donors, it has more control over how it spends its funds. This, along with shorter volunteer terms of 9 to 12 months and a broader volunteer base, allows for more volunteers.

An estimated 40 percent of major corporations, such as IBM, Pfizer and Starbucks, are now deploying International Corporate Volunteers (ICVs) to developing countries in order to promote economic development. The IBM Corporate Service Corps (CSC) sends high-ranking professionals on one-month deployments to supply “consulting support to local entrepreneurs and small businesses, nonprofit organizations, education institutions and governmental agencies” in emerging markets like Brazil, India, and Nigeria. The program not only allows the corporation to develop economic ties for the future, but also promotes economic, social and environmental development in the country. These types of programs have been welcomed because they contribute to the economic growth of the country more successfully through their use of skilled workers. 85 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are recent graduates with little-to-no work experience. Some volunteers are as young as 18, fresh out of high school.

As a result of the success of IBM’s CSC, USAID has partnered with the corporation to create the Alliance for International Corporate Volunteerism program which will promote international volunteerism within corporations that do not have the capabilities to implement their own ICV program. These types of programs promote economic interconnectedness and give companies the incentive to work with different markets. Companies develop a better understanding of the emerging markets and entrepreneurial possibilities abroad, providing motivation for companies to make long-term investments with local businesses and thereby contributing to economic development.

It’s an admirable goal that the U.S. wishes to double the number of Peace Corps volunteers. However, if it is truly serious about this goal, there needs to be several reforms within the organization. The bureaucratic nature of the organization has prohibited the Peace Corps from making any sweeping changes since its inception. If the U.S.’s goal is to increase American volunteerism and promote international development on a larger scale, perhaps the government should look at private sector programs for inspiration.

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