TOPICS : No bailout for ailing Peace Corps

As the US government continues its planning for a 700-billion-dollar bailout of the financial sector, the Peace Corps — one of the United States’ most successful foreign policy programmes — is being cut back due to a budget shortfall of $18 million. In 2001, President George W. Bush announced he would double the size of the Peace Corps by fiscal 2007, to 14,000 volunteers. But the programme is currently some 6,000 volunteers short of that goal.

The Corps is also seeking to cut costs by consolidating some of its recruiting offices in the US and deferring the hiring of new personnel. It has asked its managers in Washington and its 11 regional offices to reduce their budgets by 15.5%. Many of the Corps’ foreign posts are reducing spending by consolidating two or more employee positions into one and reducing time devoted to volunteer training. Foreign policy experts have expressed dismay at the programme’s current dilemma. Among them is Patricia Kushlis, a retired veteran of more than 20 years with the US Foreign Service. She says, “I think the budget shortfall is ridiculous particularly compared to the amount the military has for recruiting. It’s an underreported story because the Peace Corps appears to be intentionally keeping it quiet. It’s not an administration priority and besides it makes the administration look bad.”

The Peace Corps was started by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, and has been one of the most successful foreign affairs programmes in recent US history. Since its inception, some 190,000 volunteers have served in 139 less-developed countries. These volunteers carry out a vast array of person-to-person tasks ranging from building wells and irrigation systems, to teaching school children, providing advice to subsistence farmers on increasing crop yields, counseling expectant mothers on pre- and post-natal child care, and assisting would-be micro-entrepreneurs. The Corps currently has 8,079 volunteers working in 74 less-developed countries. Recruiting reached a peak of 15,000 in 1966.

The Peace Corps budget shortfall has been caused primarily by the declining value of the dollar and the consequent increases in the cost of overseas leases, living costs for volunteers, energy outlays, and foreign staff salaries. The agency, which has a budget of $330.8 million, estimates its foreign currency losses from 2008 alone to be $9.2 million.

The Corps’ dilemma has been compounded by the failure of Congress to approve its 2009 budget. The House of Representatives subcommittee with jurisdiction over Peace Corps funding has accepted the Bush administration’s request for $343.5 million, and its counterpart in the Senate has approved $337 million. But Congress may not pass that budget until after the presidential inauguration in January.

In a letter to Rep. Betty McCollum, a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees Peace Corps funding, Corps Director Ronald A. Tschetter wrote, “Tough budgetary decisions must be made now in order to ensure a financially healthy agency next fiscal year.” — IPS