The Peace Corp is going to the aid of glasnost and perestroika. President Bush has proposed the sending of the Peace Corps to Hungary and Poland, and Peace Corps director Paul Coverdell and staff are busy making the necessary arrangements. Peace Corps press officer Jim Flanigan says this marks “no great departure” from the Peace Corps’ original intent. The Peace Corps will remain a “people-to-people” organization that will assist “any nation that requests assistance.” Even the sending of the Peace Corps to the Soviet Union wouldn’t mark any radical break with tradition, he says, because “the Peace Corps doesn’t see any ideological bounds to the pursuit of peace.”
This is nonsense. The Peace Corps has never been sent to the Soviet-bloc nations of Eastern Europe, and this alone is enough to mark a radical break with the past. Moreover, one of the Peace Corps’ original functions was to counter the Soviets’ influence in the Third World—or, as the Peace Corps’ first director, Sargent Shriver, put it in 1961, “Either we do the jobs [in the Third World], or the Communists will.” Peace Corps Volunteers in Eastern Europe, therefore, could only mean that either the Cold War is over (in which case, do we still need the Corps?), or that the Peace Corps will not only dig the ditches that the Communists would have dug abroad, it will now also dig the ditches that the Communists would have dug at home.
This globalization of the Peace Corps’ activities runs counter to the goals the organization has pursued for thirty years. President Kennedy sought the creation of an agency that would deal specifically with the problems of the impoverished Third World, and it is a gross insult to lump Poland and Hungary in with what President Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, and Hubert Humphrey called the “critical nations” of the “underdeveloped world” which needed liberating from “poverty, disease, hunger, and illiteracy.”
Poland is one of the most heavily industrialized countries in all of Europe, and Hungary has experienced great industrial development since decentralization of its economy began some twenty years ago. Life expectancy in Poland and Hungary is approximately 66 years for men and 74 years for women, while life expectancy in Pakistan and Niger—the type of Third World countries in which the Peace Corps has traditionally worked—is 52 and 44 years, respectively. The infant mortality rate in Poland and Hungary is approximately 19 per 1,000 live births; in Pakistan it is 125, in Niger 145. Literacy in Poland and Hungary is 98 percent; in Pakistan it is 26 percent, in Niger 13. Approximately 89 percent of Polish households have a piped water supply; only 15 percent in Pakistan and 12 percent in Niger enjoy such a luxury. The Economist ranks Hungary 7th in world health (defined as people per physician and per hospital bed) and Poland 28th. Pakistan is 132nd, Niger 194th.
Whatever the problems plaguing the countries of Eastern Europe—hard currency debt and low productivity, a suppression of free speech and mobility—poverty, hunger, disease, and illiteracy are certainly not among them. When in 1961 the Division of Program Development and Coordination divided the Peace Corps’ focus into four geographical areas—Latin America, Africa, the Far East, and North Africa/Near East/Asia and Pacific—it did not set aside a special division to deal with the political problems of Paris, Rome, Budapest, and Warsaw.
If the Peace Corps can now be sent in at the mere request from a nation—any nation—for assistance with a problem—any problem—then the staggering social problems now paralyzing America ought to take precedent. How can we justify the allocation of our money, skills, and manpower for the teaching of English in a foreign country with a 98 percent literacy rate, while East St. Louis and the neighborhoods of Washington, DC, wallow waist-deep in crime, drugs, poverty, and disease? Indeed, the rate of disease and illiteracy in America’s inner cities is higher than that in Poland and the new Hungarian Republic combined.
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s call for the formation of the Peace Corps, and next year will mark the organization’s third decade of service. If the Peace Corps Volunteers are to be no more than Boy Scouts for democracy, then let’s put them where they can do the most good—in the Third World neighborhoods of Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, DC. (TP)