A View from the Hill
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 9, 2001
CONTACT: Michael Auerbach (617) 722-2240
HOME OR ABROAD, . . . IT'S PUBLIC SERVICE
Welcome to the 21st century! It is hard to believe that, only a few decades ago, we were wondering what the world would be like in the year 2001. When Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, was envisioning life in 2001, he foresaw great technological advancements. The only mistake he seemed to make is that Pan American Airlines does not make daily runs to the moon. Still, we have come quite a long way. Many of the things that people living in the 1930s (or even the 1960s) would have considered the stuff of science fiction the people of today take for granted, such as cellular phones, television, the Internet, microwave ovens, compact discs and nuclear energy.
Imagine yourself in a place where none of these items can be found. You have to travel for miles just to get to a phone and even farther to get to a hospital. One of the dominant industries in your town is subsistence farming. Running water is not available, and potable water is scarce. Cases of malaria, cholera, Hepatitis A and B and typhoid are not isolated, they are widespread. Finally, the language of choice is one that only a few thousand people in the world speak, and only a handful of people speak a little broken English.
The whole scenario sounds forbidding to most Americans. Then again, more than a billion people worldwide live in these conditions. They live in squalor, near polluted water sources if they are near any water at all. War and civil conflict have driven many of them far away from their homes, killed many of their family members and thrown their lives into upheaval. They do not send their children through school system; continued educational development does not even exist.
Decades ago such areas were known as "Third World" nations, implying that the United States and similar countries dwelled in the "First World." As time went on these lands became known as "developing" countries or nations. Regardless of the moniker, it is clear that the technologically, economically and politically developed country in which we live in 2001 stands in stark contrast to many other countries in the world.
Yet whether their nation is developed or developing, most people want to help others. However, simply giving money, food or other items to developing nations is not enough. A prevailing philosophy holds that we are one world, and that this world's many cultures can share information with one another. Based on such information, less developed countries might improve their own systems and partake of the fruit of success. As an old African phrase suggests, "Give a man a fish; you will have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime."
In 1961 President John F. Kennedy included this phrase's central message in his foreign policy agenda. He introduced the "Foreign Assistance Act," which separated the military aid the US was giving to its allies to defend against Communism from non-military aid. Kennedy next stressed the import of non-military aid by introducing the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This agency would work with the governments of developing nations to help build (or rebuild) social, economic and political institutions and systems.
For some countries, however, inter-governmental development programs are not always the most effective vehicles to build such systems. At times, government is part of the problem. The solution, Kennedy reasoned, is to create more local programs, wherein individuals or small teams of volunteers would work closely with community leaders to start businesses, combat disease, learn English, build aqueducts and engage in other important projects.
The Peace Corps was therefore introduced as a separate international development program. Individual volunteers would be given extensive training, not just in the craft of teaching or consultation, but in the environment in which they would live as well. They would attempt to learn the local dialect and culture as well as basic survival skills. In short, Peace Corps programs would be of the "grass roots" variety and would take government bureaucracy out of the picture.
Since its creation, more than 161,000 people have joined the Peace Corps, traveling to 134 nations. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) have helped develop health information programs designed to combat HIV and AIDS. They have taught English (one of the top three languages of international business) to millions of children and adults. They have helped thousands of communities gain access to clean, potable water sources. In short, PCVs have shared their knowledge of the modern world with willing partners, helping those partners to help themselves.
PCVs are not sent to partner countries to impose nationalistic viewpoints on these communities, however. A Peace Corps program is designed to be mutually beneficial. PCVs learn about the culture with which they interact, bringing home the knowledge they gained while in-country to share with Americans. Many PCVs become teachers when they return and utilize their experience as an educational tool. Some children and adults have never heard of the countries in which the PCV served. Others returning volunteers work with USAID or similar development organizations and apply their expertise to improve government programs.
There are hundreds of Commonwealth residents who have joined the Peace Corps, many of whom live right here in Winchester. They are all around us, even at the State House. The Peace Corps is more than just a unique travel experience. It is a public service, only on an international scale. PCVs make a commitment to help make people's lives better. They promote public health, help build important community systems and educate children. In the State House, we have recognized this international public service. The Committee on Public Service, which I chair, recently reported favorably on a bill that enables PCVs to receive credit for their service, including retirement benefits. It is important that we all show our appreciation to these important members of our community and provide incentives for others to follow.
The Peace Corps is not for everybody. Volunteers endure an amazing transition, going from one of the wealthiest and strongest nations in the world to one of the poorest and least stable. They risk severe disease and/or bodily harm. They leave their families and friends behind, entering a completely alien environment as aliens themselves. They do it nonetheless, because they hear the call for help and answer that call without hesitation. Such is the core of humanity, and such is the creed of public service, whether at home or abroad.