The Peace Corps: Current Issues
The Peace Corps: Current Issues
Specialist in Foreign Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
When the 111th Congress convenes in 2009, it is expected to finalize the FY2009
appropriations level and consider the FY2010 level of funding for the Peace Corps.
Congress may also address a Peace Corps re-authorization and related issues. This report
will be updated as events warrant.
Generally viewed positively by the public and widely supported in Congress, the
Peace Corps, the U.S. agency that provides volunteer skills internationally, drew
congressional attention in recent years largely due to a 2002 Presidential initiative to
double the size of the volunteer force. While this effort produced re-authorization bills
in the 108th, 109th, and 110th Congresses, some of which were approved by House orth
Senate, none made it into law. In 2009, the 111 Congress will consider the new
President’s annual funding request for the Peace Corps. In addition, a new re-
authorization effort is expected by many observers.
Founded in 1961, the Peace Corps has sought to meet its legislative mandate of
promoting world peace and friendship by sending American volunteers to serve at the
grassroots level in villages and towns in all corners of the globe. Living and working with
ordinary people, volunteers have contributed in a variety of capacities — such as teachers,
environmental specialists, health promoters, and small business advisers — to improving
the lives of those they serve and helping others understand American culture. They also
seek to share their understanding of other countries with Americans back home through
efforts like the Paul D. Coverdell World Wise School program, which links serving
volunteers with U.S. elementary school classrooms. To date, more than 187,000 Peace
Corps volunteers have served in 139 countries. About 7,876 volunteers currently serve in
In addition to its basic two-year tour of duty, the Peace Corps introduced in 1996 an
initiative called Peace Corps Response (formerly Crisis Corps), drawing on former
volunteers to provide short-term (up to six months) emergency and humanitarian
assistance at the community level with NGOs, relief, and other development
organizations. Hundreds of Peace Corps Response volunteers have served in 40
countries, including post-tsunami Thailand and Sri Lanka. In September 2005, Peace
Corps Response volunteers were deployed to assist Hurricane Katrina relief, the first time
in Peace Corps history that volunteers were used domestically.
Appropriations. On February 4, 2008, the Administration requested $343.5
million for the Peace Corps in its FY2009 budget, a $12.7 million increase and about 4%
higher than the FY2008 level. Although, on July 16, 2008, the House State/Foreign
Operations Subcommittee approved its version of the FY2009 appropriations, the bill was
never reported by the full Appropriations Committee and no Peace Corps figure was
publically released. On July 17, 2008, the Senate Appropriations Committee reported S.
3288, the FY2009 State/Foreign Operations appropriations (S.Rept. 110-425), providing
$337 million to the Peace Corps, an increase of $6.2 million from the previous year and
$6.5 million less than the Administration request.
FY2009 funding for the Peace Corps is currently provided under the terms of a
continuing resolution (H.R. 2638/P.L. 110-329) that allows foreign aid spending as
provided in the FY2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 110-161). The resolution
expires on March 6, 2009. The Peace Corps received $330.8 million in the FY2008
Consolidated Appropriations Act.
Authorization. Despite repeated efforts during the past six years, Congress has not
enacted a new Peace Corps authorization. The last Peace Corps authorization (P.L. 106-
30), approved in 1999, covered the years FY2000 to FY2003. Annual Foreign Operations
appropriations bills, however, routinely waive the requirement of authorization of foreign
aid programs, as the FY2009 continuing resolution measure did in the case of currently
unauthorized foreign aid programs, including the Peace Corps.
Comprehensive bills approved by the Senate in 2002 (both S. 2667 and S. 12) and
by the House in 2003 (H.R. 1950) would have authorized appropriations that would
double the size of the Peace Corps as well as institute a wide range of reforms and new
programs. The Peace Corps Empowerment Act, S. 732 (Dodd), introduced on March 1,
2007, and the subject of hearings held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July
25, 2007, would have authorized appropriations for the Peace Corps and make substantive
changes to the program. It contained provisions that sought to strengthen the
effectiveness of volunteers in the field, provide a larger role for volunteers in the
administration of Peace Corps, and address volunteer personnel and benefit concerns.
H.R. 5535, the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2008 (Farr), introduced in March
2008, contained two provisions — a funding authorization and an increase in the
readjustment allowance provided to Peace Corps volunteers for use on their return home
(from $125 per month of service to $225).
Because these previous legislative efforts represent concerns that are likely to
resurface in some form in the 111th Congress, many of the provisions of S. 732 are
Peace Corps Funding. Despite its apparent popularity in Congress and a 2002
expansion initiative by President Bush to double its size within five years, the Peace
Corps has seen only a 19% increase in end of fiscal year volunteer numbers since 2002.
Meant to raise the number of volunteers from below 7,000 in 2002 to 14,000 in 2007, the
initiative would have required an appropriation of about $485 million by FY2007 — more
than $200 million greater than FY2002. In the end, however, Congress had to weigh
whether sufficient funds were available vis-a-vis other foreign aid priorities (e.g.,
HIV/AIDS, terrorism, and Afghanistan) to warrant appropriating the amounts sought by
the Administration, and annual expansion funding requests were rejected. Significant
funding increases were also proposed in both S. 732 and H.R. 5535 authorizing bills in
order to achieve a greatly expanded volunteer force. The volunteer level is currently at
Table 1. Peace Corps Budget: FY2002-FY2009
Request ($ mil)275.0317.0359.0401.0345.0 336.7 333.5343.5
Appropriation ($ mil)278.7 295.1309.3317.4319.9319.6 330.8 — a
Total Volunteers6,6367,5337,7337,8107,7498,0797,876 —
Source: Peace Corps and CRS.
Note: FY2002-FY2008 figures reflect across-the-board rescissions and transfers from other accounts. Total
volunteers are number at end of the fiscal year.
a. Under P.L. 110-329, the FY2009 Continuing Resolution, Peace Corps is funded at the FY2008 level.
The CR expires on March 6, 2009.
Recruitment, Programming, and Support. A continual concern for Congress
over the years has been how the Peace Corps addresses recruitment, programming, and
support of volunteers.
The recruitment of volunteers with appropriate skills and willingness to live in
unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable conditions is essential to the overall mission of
the Peace Corps. A substantial spike in applicants and those expressing interest in
applying since September 11, 2001, has made it easier for the Peace Corps to meet its
recruitment goals. In FY2006, 12,242 applied to be volunteers (8,897 in FY2001), 5,148
were invited to join, and 4,095 became trainees (3,191 in FY2001).
The agency, however, while adept at recruiting generalists and providing them with
sufficient training to carry out useful assignments, has not emphasized the provision of
highly skilled professionals, such as doctors, agronomists, or engineers, which, many
argue, more accurately reflects the current needs of developing countries. Weighed
against this view is the belief that the Peace Corps is an agency of public diplomacy as
much as it is a development organization, and personal interaction and demonstration of
U.S. values is as important as providing technical expertise. To accommodate more
highly skilled personnel, some say the Peace Corps might have to change many existing
practices, including methods of recruitment, training, programming, and perhaps even
terms of service. However, in its Mexico program, launched in 2004, the Peace Corps has
been able to provide more specialized technical volunteers offering skills in water and
S. 732 addressed one aspect of this issue by requiring the doubling by end of 2009
of the number of volunteers with at least five years relevant work experience. It also
would have required the creation of at least 20 sector-specific programs in at least 20
different countries for which volunteers with five years relevant work experience would
be mandatory. In response, the Peace Corps argued that relevant work experience is a
subjective term, and it would be burdensome both financially and administratively to set
up such a “demonstration” program without causing problems for the regular Peace Corps
program. Director Tschetter has made an objective of increasing the number of
volunteers aged 50 and older, which, some would argue, might lead to more relevant
work-experienced volunteers. Currently, less than 6% of volunteers are 50 or older. To
encourage applications by older people, S. 732 would have required the Peace Corps to
try to get active retiree health plans suspended while volunteers are serving.
The Peace Corps has been criticized in the past for providing inadequate
programming and support of volunteers. This view was reflected in a 1990 Government
Accountability Office (GAO) investigation (Peace Corps: Meeting the Challenges of the
1990s, May 1990, NSIAD-90-122). It noted that some volunteers had little or nothing to
do or had spent six or more months developing their own assignments, without benefit
of site visits by Peace Corps staff. The GAO attributed the programming problem to a
failure of planning, evaluation, and monitoring systems. Since then, the Peace Corps
maintains that it has addressed these weaknesses with systematic approaches to project
development, annual project reviews, and increased opportunities for site visits and
volunteer feedback. However, volunteer anecdotal accounts suggesting poor
programming and staff support still occur, although their frequency and depth are not
known. The 2006 volunteer survey found that between 16% and 28% of volunteers were
dissatisfied with regard to site selection, job assignment, and administrative support.1
One sign of volunteer dissatisfaction — the resignation rate — has improved in recent
years, however, with 8.8% resigning in FY2006 versus 9.8% in FY2001.
Small Projects Funding. Peace Corps volunteers generally are employed under
the auspices of a developing country government agency, such as the Ministry of
Education or Agriculture, or a non-governmental organization. In many cases, volunteers
initiate their own small projects to address specific concerns they have identified in their
villages or schools. Some of these projects have been supported through ad hoc efforts
of the volunteer, but over time, more formal spigots of funding have been developed.
Currently, there are two key sources of small-scale funding for Peace Corps
volunteer projects — funds raised for the Peace Corps Partnership Program by the Peace
Corps Office of Private Sector Initiatives (OPSI) and funds provided through an
agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Volunteers do
not have the authority to accept funds on behalf of the agency but can solicit funds from
family and friends accepted through OPSI. In the last seven years, Peace Corps volunteers
received, on average, 1,114 grants each year, worth a total of $2.0 million in USAID
1 Peace Corps Congressional Budget Justification FY2008, p. 218.
funds annually (roughly $1,795 per grant). In FY2006, OPSI raised $1.4 million and
supported projects that individually averaged $2,952 in value.
Projects take a variety of forms. According to the Peace Corps, a $619 grant for a
village fish farm in Bolivia funded construction of a chain link fence, the cleaning of
excessive algae from the pool, and introduction of 250 fish. A $4,241 grant at a Thailand
health clinic provided a ground-floor addition to ease access for senior citizens and the
S. 732 sought to enhance volunteer effectiveness in the field by providing volunteers
with increased access to funding for these project activities. It would have authorized 1%
of the agency’s own appropriations in each fiscal year to be allocated for such purposes.
Each award of seed funds would be limited to $1,000. In opposition, the Peace Corps
argued that its introduction as a source of project income would possibly change the local
perception of the volunteer as someone working with the community to learn how to
obtain its own funding sources to one that sees the volunteer as a source of cash.2
Volunteer Administration. In another effort to improve the quality of the Peace
Corps program, S. 732 would have enhanced the role volunteers play in program design
and implementation, including site selection, training curriculum, and hiring of senior
Peace Corps country personnel. To achieve this, it would establish a mechanism at the
country level for soliciting the views of volunteers on these issues. Further, a Volunteer
Advisory Committee would be established in each country to make recommendations to
Currently, according to the Peace Corps, volunteers play a role in site selection by
providing feedback on site safety, project success, and counterpart effectiveness.
Volunteers are encouraged through interaction with senior staff to share their views. In
addition, all posts have a Volunteer Advisory Committee. The Peace Corps argues that
to legislatively require such committees would trigger the Federal Advisory Committee
Act (FACA) and associated burdensome administrative requirements.
Third Goal. S. 732 also would have provided support to returned volunteer efforts
to meet the so-called “Third Goal” of the Peace Corps Act — promoting understanding
of other peoples on the part of the American people — by authorizing the Peace Corps to
award grants to returned volunteers for educational and other programs meeting that goal.
The bill would have authorized $10 million each year for this purpose.
Currently, Peace Corps sponsors several Third Goal activities, funded in total at
about $1.8 million in FY2008. These include the Coverdell World Wide Schools
Program noted above; the Peace Corps Fellows Program, through which more than 4,000
returned volunteers have served as interns in high-need urban or rural U.S. communities;
and the annual Peace Corps Week, in which thousands of returned volunteers visit schools
and libraries around the country to present their Peace Corps experience.
2 Testimony of Ronald Tschetter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on
Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Narcotics Affairs, July 25, 2007.
Security Issues. Because they live and work at the grassroots level in developing
countries, Peace Corps volunteers appear to many Americans to be especially vulnerable
to crime. Even before September 11, 2001, their safety and security had been a prime
concern of the Peace Corps. The threat of anti-American terrorism has increased those
These fears were further raised in 2003 when the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News ran a
series of reports highlighting — many former volunteers say exaggerating — the dangers
potentially faced by volunteers, and suggested that the agency was failing in its obligation
to provide adequate security. As a result, congressional hearings were held and legislation
was approved by the House (H.R. 4060, June 2004) that sought to address some security
Safety statistics kept by the Peace Corps, both in absolute terms and when viewed
in the context of incidents per 1,000 volunteer years to account for the rise in number of
volunteers in this period, vary from year to year. Aggravated assaults went from 57 in
1993 (9 per 1,000 volunteer years) to 102 in 1999 (16 per 1,000 volunteer years) and then
leveled-off to 87 cases (14 per 1,000 volunteer years) in 2002. There were 87 events in
2005 (12 per 1,000). Reports of rape rose from 10 incidents in 1993 (3.1 per 1,000
female volunteer years) to a peak of 20 (5.3 per 1,000 female volunteer years) in 1997,
and decreased to 12 in 2002 (3.2 per 1,000 female volunteer years). There were 16
reported rapes in 2005 (3.9 per 1,000). However the numbers are viewed, since the
number of events is small, there may be some question as to whether apparent trends are
significant. These statistics also reflect volunteer reporting rates, which likely produce
undercounting, and they do not demonstrate whether volunteers are any more or less
susceptible to assault than Americans living in New York or Des Moines. When surveyed3
in 2006, 88% of volunteers reported that they felt usually or very safe where they lived.
In general, the Peace Corps says that it gives the safety and security of its volunteers
the highest priority. It has been particularly concerned in recent years with threats of
terrorism, crime, and civil strife, and has responded by upgrading communications, testing
emergency action plans, and other security measures. Evacuations and closure of
missions to insure the well-being of volunteers in cases of political instability and civil
unrest have constrained the growth of the Peace Corps. In the past ten years, volunteers
have been evacuated from at least 27 countries for these reasons, including three
attributed to the events of September 11 — Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and the Kyrgyz
Republic (they have since returned to the latter two countries). Despite the appeal of
using Peace Corps volunteers to convey U.S. culture and values directly to the grassroots
of Islamic countries, many of these countries of U.S. foreign policy interest might be
considered unsafe for Americans over the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, it should be
noted that about 20% of all volunteers, at this time, are serving in 15 countries with
Muslim populations of over 40%. In general, the Peace Corps has argued that the close
interpersonal relationship between volunteers and members of their host country
community helps to make them safe.
3 Peace Corps, The Safety of the Volunteer 2005; and Peace Corps FY2008 Congressional Budget
Justification, p. 214.