This month a great American institution — the Peace Corps — celebrates its golden anniversary. For me and more than 200,000 other Americans who have served since 1961, the Peace Corps was a life-changing experience and true to its promise as the toughest job we ever loved.
This great experiment of President John F. Kennedy and Sargent Shriver’s has put forth the finest ambassadors America has to offer for more than 50 years. Rather than seeing our country through the eyes of those who wish to do us harm, communities in 139 countries around the world have come to know the United States by an American coming to live and work with them, and to help improve their lives through technical assistance programs in education, youth and community development, health, business and information communications technology, agriculture and the environment.
My Peace Corps journey was to South Korea in 1967, where I worked in public health in a remote village in the southwest part of the country. Most folks here are a little surprised when I tell them I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Korea. Today, South Korea is one of our largest trading partners and a powerhouse in the global economy. This was not the case just 40 years ago, and if you have ever wondered about the difference our foreign assistance dollars can make, look no further than South Korea.
I have returned three times to South Korea to the first village in which I served. I still have lifelong friends there. Forty years later it’s a thriving rural community. The elders there now were quite young when they knew me. They all grew up in straw-roof huts. Now their homes, and their lives, are all improved.
South Korea was devastated by years of war and strife, but through the Koreans’ efforts and the development investments of the U.S. government in programs like the Peace Corps or the U.S. Agency for International Development, it now actually provides significant aid to its neighbors throughout the world. In fact, in 1995 South Korea graduated from the World Bank lending list as a recipient country, and today it has the 13th largest GDP in the world.
Most remarkably, South Korea now has its own version of the Peace Corps, and they currently have 5,000 young Koreans serving overseas as volunteers, nearly as many as the 8,000 U. S. Peace Corps volunteers now posted around the world. Meanwhile, our own U. S. ambassador to South Korea, Kathleen Stephens, is a former Peace Corps volunteer there like myself.
Successful development projects and broad economic growth have helped many countries transition from assistance recipient to assistance donor. When the U.S. is actively engaged in the development of other countries, we create new trading partners and new markets for our goods and services. To do this, however, we need to have a strong and effective international affairs budget.
I understand the tight budget constraints we are under right now as a nation, but investing in other countries through our international affairs programs is a wise use of our taxpayer dollars from both a national security and economic perspective. Defense Secretary Robert Gates highlighted the importance of our diplomacy and development operations when he said, “Without development, we will not be successful in either Iraq or Afghanistan.”
On the economic side here at home in Maine, nearly one out of five jobs is tied to international trade, and we export more than $3 billion in products each year. Today, roughly half of total U.S. exports go to the developing world, and each dollar the U.S. government spends to promote exports brings $40 back into our economy. That’s a good deal — and all of this comes from our international affairs budget.
One of the great myths of today is that a sizeable chunk of the U.S. taxpayer dollar goes to foreign assistance programs. But the reality for many years has been that just over 1 percent of federal spending goes to fund programs like the Peace Corps, our diplomats, security and development assistance to our allies, trade and emergency relief programs like those following the earthquake in Haiti last year or most recently Japan.
The success of South Korea comes in part from the investments our country made there through the international affairs budget. We have the opportunity today to bring stability to countries and create new markets for our products, both of which are good for us here at home. Rather than pull back from the world during tough economic times, we must stay actively engaged, and we must ensure the U.S. has a strong and effective international affairs budget.
Richard MacIntyre lives in Swanville and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Korea from 1967 to 1969. He is a member of the Maine Advisory Committee of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.