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'Reverse Peace Corps' Proposed to Benefit U.S. : Third World Volunteers Would Teach Languages, Aid Development Projects

December 27, 1986|PAUL HOUSTON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Peace Corps, which over the last quarter century has sent 120,000 volunteers to work in 93 underdeveloped countries, now is proposing a new twist--a "reverse Peace Corps" of Third World volunteers who would come to the United States to do good.

Visiting volunteers would teach their native languages and work in various development projects under a program envisioned by Peace Corps Director Loret Miller Ruppe.

"The greatest thing we could have is this reverse Peace Corps . . . building these bonds, these partnerships for peace," Ruppe said in an interview.

The proposal would also blunt the notion that "the Third World has much to take from America but has nothing to give in return," Peace Corps planner Lewis Greenstein said.

Several New Directions

The exchange program is one of several new directions being explored by the Peace Corps in its 25th anniversary year.

Mindful of the U.S. farm crisis, the corps is running television ads to recruit struggling farmers for overseas service, and it is continuing to enlist more pragmatic, older adults with business and technical experience, in contrast to the idealistic young college students who once dominated its ranks.

Peace Corps leaders say their efforts correspond with a goal of gradually building up the agency's programs and manpower, and, should Congress provide funding, taking on more challenges around the world.

Ruppe said the agency plans to seek legislation authorizing a reverse Peace Corps if, as expected, other countries show an interest in it. Ruppe indicated that feelers would be put out to governments in India, Brazil, Nigeria, the Philippines and China, among others.

'How About China?'

"Look at India," Ruppe said. "Is there any way we could challenge the Indians and say, 'Why don't we send you business people with management skills . . . and you'd send us teachers?'

"Or, how about China? They want English teachers and some business skills." Maybe the Peace Corps could supply those, she said, in exchange for China's sending teachers of Chinese to American universities.

Greenstein said the agency briefly tried a similar program in the early 1970s, involving volunteers from Nigeria, Jamaica and other countries who worked on American Indian reservations and in mental hospitals.

"But it was quashed after one year, I am told, largely because of implications it seemed to carry about American culture," Greenstein said. "We didn't want to say we could benefit from Nigerian volunteers."

Educating Americans

According to Greenstein, the reverse Peace Corps idea sprang from a concern that the agency needed to do more about meeting one of its goals--educating Americans about other countries, especially those in the lesser-developed Third World.

Traditionally, that mission has been the responsibility of Peace Corps volunteers returning from tours abroad. However, Greenstein said, some officials now believe that teaching Americans about the Third World "probably can be done by individuals from those countries even more than by returned Peace Corps volunteers."

Moreover, he said, "This is truly an interdependent world, and the United States really has a lot to gain from partnerships rather than simply donations. Plus, there are volunteer operations here that need more volunteers."

What fate the reverse Peace Corps proposal would meet in Congress is uncertain. An aide to the House Foreign Affairs Committee said the idea "probably would be greeted pretty skeptically here, even by Peace Corps supporters, who are interested in using limited funds to increase the number of volunteers sent abroad."

U.S. Funds Required

Because underdeveloped countries would be involved, some U.S. funds would be required for the program, but no cost estimates have been made.

However, said the aide, who requested anonymity, "If anybody could sell that idea, it would probably be Loret Ruppe. She has incredible rapport with members of both parties."

Ruppe, the wife of former Rep. Philip E. Ruppe (R-Mich.) and an heiress to the Miller Brewing fortune, said publicity about the Peace Corps' 25th anniversary had prompted a huge upsurge of inquiries from prospective volunteers.

More than 200,000 people sought information this year, a 20% increase over 1985. However, because of tighter screening measures, only 13,000 actually filled out applications, a slight decrease.

Gramm-Rudman Cuts

But, even if more had applied for service, many would have been disappointed. Gramm-Rudman budget cuts in fiscal 1986 left the agency unable to send almost 3,000 qualified candidates into the field. Overall, 800 fewer new volunteers were sent out than the year before.

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