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2000 Could Be New Frontier for a Newly Expanded Peace Corps

Clinton wants volunteer force to grow by more than half. The plan has strong base of support in Congress, and service has room to roam in a post-Cold War world.

January 08, 1998|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Peace Corps is so identified as a creature of the John F. Kennedy administration that some Americans are unaware it still exists. Such ignorance is bound to dissipate with President Clinton's decision to expand the Peace Corps by more than half by 2000, the largest boost in volunteers since the 1960s.

In fact, the Peace Corps has been expanding its territory of service--if not the number of its volunteers--for years. Volunteers now work in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and in many of the nations, including Russia, that once made up the Soviet Union.

South Africa, the newest country on the Peace Corps' agenda, is preparing to receive its first group of 70 volunteers next week. They will include former President Carter's grandson, Jason.

Still, Peace Corps Director Mark D. Gearan describes Clinton's push as "an historic moment," and it is clear that he and his aides hope to recover some of the magic of the agency's early days. Back then, the idea of young Americans fanning out across the globe to help the poor made even those Americans still at home feel good about themselves.

The proposal to expand the Peace Corps from 6,610 to 10,000 volunteers over the next two years would require Congress to increase the Peace Corps budget by 21%, to $270 million. Since the president first proposed the expansion in his weekly radio broadcast Saturday, it has provoked no major outcries from Capitol Hill.

It doesn't hurt that Congress has an in-house Peace Corps lobby: a Democratic senator, three Republican representatives and two Democratic representatives were Peace Corps volunteers, and all six have announced their support of the expansion.

So has Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), who headed the Peace Corps during the George Bush administration. Coverdell now is a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the conservative who usually looks askance at what he regards as pet liberal projects.

Helms is not, however, considered an enemy of the Peace Corps.

"He is very close to Coverdell, and usually follows his lead on Peace Corps issues," a Helms aide said.

Said one Peace Corps official of the Helms-Coverdell axis: "We used to criticize Coverdell when he was director for spending all that time in Georgia looking for votes. Now we're glad he was elected."

But the Clinton proposal has raised some eyebrows--primarily among old Peace Corps hands, both volunteers and officials. They remember that some of the agency's thorniest problems were created by a penchant for thrusting lots of volunteers at undeveloped countries.

One former volunteer called a radio talk show Wednesday to complain to Gearan that her most fearful problem in the Peace Corps was the lack of support from the staff.

The 41-year-old Gearan, who took over the Peace Corps in 1995 after serving as White House communications director, replied that he understood. "The expansion only makes sense if we have the resources attached to it in the budget."

Charles Peters, editor-in-chief of Washington Monthly, developed a reputation as an anti-expansionist when he headed the Peace Corps' evaluation office in the 1960s. But he supports the new proposal.

"The thrust to increase it is right," he said in an interview. "Maybe it will get people thinking about what the point of the Peace Corps should be, and that's to the good."

The Peace Corps' mission, according to the legislation that authorized the agency in 1961, is to help poorer countries meet their need for trained personnel, help people in other countries understand Americans better and foster greater American understanding of foreign cultures.

Peters also believes that volunteers--while working as teachers, health assistants, small-business advisors, agricultural specialists or other development aides--can influence people to try to overcome "the terrible problem of religious and ethnic conflicts in the world."

Maureen J. Carroll, a volunteer in the Philippines and an evaluation staff member in the 1960s who then returned to the field as the Botswana director in 1991, now directs the Peace Corps' Africa region. She too supports the new expansion plan.

"After more than 30 years, we do one thing very well," she said. "We know how to take people, primarily in their 20s without much work experience, train them, get them jobs, put them overseas and bring them back. I don't think we are going to have many mistakes."

During the Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations, Peace Corps directors Sargent Shriver and Jack Vaughn were in an expansive mood. Some Peace Corps officials talked unrealistically of the Peace Corps as a "towering task" that would have to be undertaken by 30,000, 50,000, even 100,000 volunteers.

These were wild dreams. The Peace Corps reached a high mark of 15,560 volunteers in 1966, and had difficulty finding suitable work for all of them.

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