Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
For more than a half-century, the Peace Corps has sent young American volunteers to remote locations around the globe to promote world peace and friendship. In response to lingering questions about health care and safety for volunteers after a death from illness, a murder and sexual assaults, the agency’s new director is updating policies and addressing concerns. She joins Kojo to discuss the challenges, both practical and political, that face the Peace Corps in the twenty-first century.
- Carrie Hessler-Radelet Director, Peace Corps
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's an iconic institution that's attracted adventurous, idealistic young Americans for more than 50 years. Since its founding in 1961, generations of do-gooders have joined the Peace Corps, agreeing to go anywhere in the world, live in remote villages and help make life better for the residents there. But the world is changing and the Peace Corps is trying to adapt. The new director announced sweeping changes to the application process and new programs to address sexual assaults and even deaths of volunteers on assignment.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe's also examining the Peace Corps' mission and asking how it can be more effective for the countries that ask it to come and the volunteers who invest two years of their lives to go. Joining me to talk about the future of the Peace Corps is its new director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet. She joins us in studio. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MS. CARRIE HESSLER-RADELETThank you so much. It's a real privilege to be here.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Carrie Hessler-Radelet, call us at 800-433-8850. Were you a Peace Corps volunteer? What was your experience? What do you think should be the top priority for the Peace Corps new director? 800-433-8850. Or you can shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You come from the Peace Corps family and were a volunteer yourself. Why did you sign up for the Peace Corps in the 1980s? And what was your experience? You served with your husband on the South Pacific island of Western Samoa.
HESSLER-RADELETWell, that's right. Four generations of my family have served in the Peace Corps.
HESSLER-RADELETYeah. And actually six members of my family. So the first was my aunt, who served in Turkey in the mid-sixties.
NNAMDIWho served before your grandparents.
HESSLER-RADELETWho served before my grandparents -- before her parents. So they were so impressed when they went to visit her, that they signed up after they retired six years later. So my grandparents, Howard and Ruth Pearsall, served as professors at a university in Ipoh, Malaysia. So I have to say that when I was growing up, I only knew Peace Corps as a possibility to be honest with you. I've wanted to do it ever since I was seven years old. So when I graduated from college, I had plans to go. And my then fiancé was game to try. And so Steve and I served in Samoa as secondary school teachers, loved it, had a fabulous experience, and it really changed our lives.
NNAMDIFor some reason or the other, I was not aware of how many people volunteered after they had retired. This past spring I met two people from my own native country, Guyana, who served after they retired. And they were fortunate enough not only to be able to serve together, but to serve in the country in which they were born, Guyana. And it's my understanding that that used to be pretty unusual, to get to serve in your native country.
HESSLER-RADELETThat is right. About 10 percent of our volunteers are over the age of 40. And now, with some of the new application changes that you have referred to, people can choose where they want to serve and what they want to do. So that is a big change. And I would also say that some of our most wonderful volunteers are people who are naturalized citizens, who then, you know, really want to serve the Peace Corps. And they represent our country so well and really show the diversity of our country.
NNAMDIYou have had a long career in public health. What brought you back to the Peace Corps as deputy director in 2010?
HESSLER-RADELETWell, you know, I have to say that my public health passion was really borne as a Peace Corps volunteer. It was -- my relationship with my host mother, Losa (sp?) , that really blossomed that passion for public health. So I went on. I had a 20-year career with an organization called JSI, John Snow, did international public health and a lot of work around HIV/AIDS and maternal and child health. And then I got the call from the White House. And I just couldn't turn it down. It has been such a formative experience in my own family and for my own self, that I just thought, what a privilege that I couldn't possibly turn down.
NNAMDIThe world is much different today than it was when John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961. Talk about the model of sending a lone volunteer to a remote location for two years. Is it time to rethink that approach?
HESSLER-RADELETYou know, I think one thing that's very unique about Peace Corps is the emersion experience. The fact that our volunteers live and work as members of a community. They become completely invested in their community. They work on the priorities of their community. And that model is very solid. I think there's nothing that beats it in terms of gaining a better understanding of development, of being able to see the world through your community's eyes. So that part of the model will not change at all.
HESSLER-RADELETWe have explored, throughout the years -- and different countries do it differently. Some countries place volunteer in pairs. Sometimes volunteers are all clustered within a few miles of each other. In some countries, they are quite remote. And it really does depend on the country, the infrastructure and the assignment area. In our case, I was a teacher in a school. My husband was at the same school. And there was another volunteer about a mile down the road. So every experience is different.
NNAMDIIn case you are just joining us, our guest is Carrie Hessler-Radelet. She is director of the Peace Corps. And if you have questions or comments for her, you can call us at 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org and ask a question or make a comment there. Last year, a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer became ill and died while serving in China. His parents say the agency failed him by not responding aggressively enough to what turned out to be a serious illness. What can you tell us about that case and the medical care that volunteers receive?
HESSLER-RADELETYou know, I -- I first want to say that our entire Peace Corps family grieves the loss of Nick Castle. Nick was an amazing volunteer, incredibly devoted to his community. And I actually had the opportunity to meet him before he left for Peace Corps service. So I personally grieve and the entire Peace Corps family grieves. His case was a very unusual case. His illness progressed at a very rapid rate. And it is a tragedy of, you know, untold proportions. You know, it's the phone call that no parent ever wants to hear. But I also want to say that we have volunteers who serve all over the world.
HESSLER-RADELETThey're serving safely and productively. We learn everything we can from every adverse event -- a death or even anytime someone is seriously ill. We do an intensive process of introspection to see what we can learn from that process and improve our systems and our practices so that nobody else has to experience the same thing. We have incredibly dedicated doctors and nurses in every country where we serve. We have a medical professional on the ground whose only job in life is to take care of our volunteers. And I'm very proud of them and the care that they deliver.
HESSLER-RADELETThey are supported in our headquarters with a team of highly-competent specialists who provide support to the field offices. And when volunteers become ill and cannot be treated in-country, we medevac them to either another country in the region or back to the United States. We have a very robust medical-care program. We've had -- almost a quarter of a million Americans have served overseas. And it's been a life-changing experience for them.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here's Natalie in Washington D.C. Natalie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NATALIEHi. I had a question. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal and we were very fortunate to have a director that, you know, let us move around the country with a good amount of independence and, you know, get a lot done on our own. But talking to friends who were also volunteers in different countries, it seems like there are different standards for kind of the rules that govern your life as a volunteer. And I was wondering if there's any plans to maybe standardize that or look at, you know, the policy across the board.
HESSLER-RADELETWe are actually, thank you Natalie. First of all, I want to say thank you, not only for calling in but also for your Peace Corps experience in Senegal. We are in the middle of the most extensive reform effort our agency has ever undertaken in our history. And as part of that, we're looking at what is most successful, both in terms of the kinds of work that volunteers do, the project areas that they complete with their communities, to make sure that we're giving volunteers the tools and resources that they need to be effective. As you know, each country is very different.
HESSLER-RADELETAnd we need to give our country teams some ability to make decisions on their own. A cookie-cutter approach would not work in the Peace Corps world. In Senegal right now we're doing some really innovative work with clustering volunteers around that are different -- working in different sectors -- so an education volunteer working with an agriculture volunteer working with a health volunteer -- so that they can cross-fertilize their work and increase the productivity that any one of them would bring to the job with, you know, ideas and expertise that the other brings.
HESSLER-RADELETWe are constantly innovating and learning. And then that informs better processes. And one of those is site development. We're really trying to create some standards for site development, where everyone has really solid jobs and a solid coworker and the tools and training that they need to be successful.
NNAMDINatalie, thank you very much for your call. A number of women have been sexually assaulted while serving as volunteers in recent years and have complained about how the Peace Corps treated them -- both in terms of security before the assaults and the agency's response afterward. What are you doing to address volunteer safety?
HESSLER-RADELETThanks for that question, Kojo. As a mother, as a return Peace Corps volunteer, as a public health professional, and frankly as a sexual-assault survivor myself, there is no issue frankly that is more important to me now than this question -- the health and safety of our volunteers. As you know, some volunteers came forward a few years ago. They shared their story. Their stories were real. And we took them very seriously. We took a very solid look at our program. And with the help of many others -- experts in the field of sexual assault -- have built a program that is so substantially better than what we had before.
HESSLER-RADELETRight now, at our headquarters today, we are having a meeting of our Sexual Assault Advisory Council, which is a group of 12 internationally-recognized experts from our country, that are looking over every aspect of our program and giving us recommendations for improvement. We have created over 30 new policies to support better response and support for volunteers. We have a brand new training program for volunteers and staff to ensure that we are able to give the volunteers the tools and the skills they need to reduce their own risks.
HESSLER-RADELETAnd then we're training every member of our staff, especially those who are first responders, to make sure that they are responding effectively and with compassion. We've created a new office of victim advocacy, which supports volunteers when bad things happen. And we just have a very different approach than we did before. It's really led to culture change within Peace Corps, where we put volunteers absolutely in the center of every single thing we do. So I'm very proud of the progress we've made.
HESSLER-RADELETWe want to make sure that every person who experiences a negative event -- be it an illness, an assault, any kind of crime -- that they are treated with respect, with dignity, with effective care and just a net of support that enables them to get back on their feet, to heal and then return to their job as a Peace Corps volunteer. That's the goal.
NNAMDII knew from our research that you are a sexual-assault survivor yourself, during your time serving in Western Samoa. And I frankly did not intend to ask you about that experience. What interests me more is you're saying that that however did not define your Peace Corps experience. Can you explain?
HESSLER-RADELETSure. You know, the times have changed a great deal related to sexual assault. When I was a volunteer in the early eighties, when these things happened -- and they happened just as frequently, probably more frequently than they do now -- women just kept quiet about it. We, you know, it was a shameful thing. It was not something that you talked about. And there was absolutely no support for it in universities, in the community or in Peace Corps, to be honest with you. And so I kept it a secret.
HESSLER-RADELETAnd it wasn't until I came to Peace Corps and had to confront this issue, really within two weeks of arriving at Peace Corps, this was brought to my attention. And I had to -- I had to really process my own experience, go through it again, myself, and be able to, you know, work through my own feelings and what I would have wanted.
HESSLER-RADELETAnd to be able to even confront what I thought about Peace Corps and my aggressor in terms of how I felt about Samoa and my Peace Corps experience. it did not defy my experience. When I think about my Peace Corps experience I think about the wonderful girls that I taught at Pope Paul VI College. I think of my incredible host family Losa and Viani (sp?) and their eight children. I think of my wonderful village of (word?) . I think of the other volunteers who I served with who are still to this day my very best friends. So it does not, in any way, define my experience.
HESSLER-RADELETAnd actually I have to say, I would never wish a sexual assault on anyone but the fact that I am a survivor myself gives me so much more insight into what that means to be, you know, assaulted. And so it helps me, I think, in my role as leader of this agency.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Carrie Hessler-Radelet. She is director of the Peace Corps. But you can still call at 800-433-8850. What changes would you like to see in the Peace Corps application and selection process, 800-433-8850. Or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Carrie Hessler-Radelet who is director of the Peace Corps who just asked me if I -- when I was living in Guyana met anyone from the Peace Corps. I told her the first American friends that I had were Peace Corps volunteers in Guyana because they were approximately the same age that I was a couple of years after high school. And so when they weren't hard at work we tended to socialize in the same circles and participated in the Little Theater together. And these are people I visited with after I came here. So yes, that was my kind of Peace Corps experience.
NNAMDIBut it was, in a way, a different time. Last week the Peace Corps pulled 50 volunteers out of Kenya because of security concerns. Those are things we did not have to worry about back in Guyana 40 some years ago. But how and why did you make that decision to pull the volunteers out of Kenya?
HESSLER-RADELETYou know, the safety and security of our volunteers is our number one priority. And we work very closely with the embassy and with our host governments and other NGO partners to monitor safety and security and health to be sure that we can keep our volunteers as safe as possible. And so in working with others we determined that it just -- the level of violence that was happening in Kenya was just getting to a point where it was not worth it, that the risk was too great and it was just time to remove our volunteers from the country. It's just becoming increasingly volatile.
HESSLER-RADELETIt's a hard decision because our volunteers and our staff are very, very committed to Kenya and its development. And we very much hope to return, but it needs -- the safety of our volunteers is absolutely our number one priority.
NNAMDIIt's a very difficult area of the world to be in right next to Somalia which has essentially little or no government. How do longstanding political ties between the U.S. and a host country like Kenya influence your decision about whether to remove volunteers and how to explain that move?
HESSLER-RADELETYeah, we are an independent agency and so we make our own decisions. But we never do so without strong consultation with both the host government and the State Department. But they all recognize that it would be a very bad thing for anything -- for everyone concerned if something happened to a Peace Corps volunteer. And they share the value of keeping our volunteers safe.
HESSLER-RADELETSo it was a tough conversation but they understood it. And that happens on a regular basis. Sometimes we have to move volunteers within countries to areas that have less crime or where there is better medical infrastructure or what have you. We move volunteers, I wouldn't say regularly but we monitor it extremely closely in consultation with the host government. And we always have a strong relationship so they understand why we do things.
NNAMDIHere's Lily in Washington, D.C. Lily (sic) , you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEELYIt's Leely (sp?) I think that's who you're talking about, yeah. I am calling because I just wanted to say I served in Chile in the mid 1990s. And while I was there -- you were talking about medical issues -- I received a -- it turned out that I had a benign brain tumor. And I will tell you that I was amazed by the level of care that Peace Corps gave me from the start to the end. In fact, I was the one who downplayed it quite a bit in the beginning. I didn't want to go to Santiago to have an appointment with a doctor because I thought it was an inner ear infection. And that was 20 hours away by bus.
LEELYSo I was the one who downplayed it. When we got there they sent me to the top clinic. It was top professional people. They diagnosed it. They -- and Peace Corps took care of me, got me back to D.C. I had surgery with top surgeons, top hospitals, just excellent care all the way through. And I tell people now who might have kids who are interested in Peace Corps that that's something that they should feel confident in. I think that everything that she's been saying about the way Peace Corps treats the safety and the health of their volunteers is really exceptional. And I have -- it was a great experience for me and I would recommend it to anyone.
NNAMDICarrie Hessler-Radelet, care to comment?
HESSLER-RADELETYeah, Lily (sic), thanks, first of all, for your call and second of all for your...
HESSLER-RADELET...Leely, yes -- in Chile. Thank you so much for your service in Chile. And, you know, I think it's true. I mean, Peace Corps volunteers receive very personalized care. They have a physician or a nurse at the phone call -- it is only a phone call away. I mean, frankly I've been battling the medical bureaucracies here in Washington, D.C. and I can tell you, it's much harder to find a provider here than it is in the Peace Corps. I'm glad there was such a good outcome.
NNAMDILeely, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Tracy in Washington, D.C. Tracy, you're on the air. What's your story?
TRACYHi. Thank you so much for taking my call. I was in Mali in 2011 and actually medically separated pretty early on in my service and...
NNAMDIWhat does that mean?
TRACYIt's kind of like honorable discharge so I was sick and it was a decision between the Peace Corps and me to end my service early without any negative consequences of any sort. But the issue was, as soon as I landed in Mali until the day I left, I was having very bad nightmares that caused a lot of stress and anxiety during the day. And, you know, I went to Peace Corps and asked for some support. And they gave me a call with a counselor over the phone once and, you know, thought that that would be enough. And when I asked for more support and to talk to a psychiatrist they -- the next day they decided to medically evacuate me to Washington, D.C.
TRACYAnd so as really a mental health issue, I think wasn't handled well by the Peace Corps. They decided to medically separate me. And there was so much shame around it because I wasn't sure what was wrong. I just wanted to speak with somebody who might know about the stress and anxiety and about the nightmares. And, you know, they thought...
NNAMDISo you're saying that you were prepared to continue your service?
TRACYYeah, I was hoping that, you know, when I went back, I saw a counselor in Washington, D.C. and could go back after 45 days if I was -- if they saw that I was fit enough to go back. And, you know, I asked for continued support. So I was hoping when I went back to Mali if once a month I could bike into town and just have a short phone call with a counselor just to check in about the anxiety over the two years that was coming up from these nightmares. I wasn't sure where they were coming from. And they said, no, that they couldn't accommodate that, that it would require -- that I should be in a better state. I wasn't really sure what they meant.
TRACYAnd I wasn't able to go back and I was so ashamed about it for so long because it wasn't a physical illness that a lot of people have. It was a mental health issue. And for a long time I told a lot of people I was physically ill and that's why I was medically separated. So I'm hoping -- I'm wondering if there are going to be better mental health support for volunteers in the future.
NNAMDICarrie Hessler-Radelet, your health care professionals, do mental health issues present a particular challenge for Peace Corps medical care?
HESSLER-RADELETYeah, I think they do. And Tracy, I just want to, first of all, thank you for your service. And no matter how long you served, you served your country well and you served the people of Mali. And I'm sorry that it ended up the way it did. I really am so very sorry.
HESSLER-RADELETMental health is a huge concern for us. We are actually in the middle, again, as part of our reform effort at revamping the way we do mental health. We have trained a lot -- several -- I mean, seven, I think we have, counselors now in Washington. And we are just establishing a regional mental health program so that we'll actually have people on the continent who could provide care closer to our countries and in the same time zone and people who understand the context of the work right there.
HESSLER-RADELETOur counselors are very well trained. They're trained in the most modern techniques in trauma informed care, for example, especially as an important new innovation in the field of mental health that we are employing in the support of volunteers. But mental health is a big priority for us and we are continuing our efforts to support our volunteers in the best possible way. Next week I'm actually going to Europe for an annual continuing medical education conference, which we do once a year with all of our providers. And mental health is a big topic at that conference.
NNAMDITracy, thank you very much for your call. The Peace Corps stated mission is to promote world peace and friendship, a slogan that sounds right at home in the 1960s. But what does it mean today? How do you see the mission of the agency today?
HESSLER-RADELETYou know, I -- the mission has not changed. I mean, I think I would add to it that we're -- our mission is world peace and friendship through community-based development and citizen diplomacy. So the way we do that is by helping our countries achieve their own development goals at the last mile.
HESSLER-RADELETAnd I would say the world has changed enormously in the past 53 years. We live in the period of greatest development progress ever witnessed in human history. The past 20 years have been a time of enormous progress in most of our countries around the world. And yet billions of people still live in poverty and hardship. And, you know, hundreds of thousands, millions of young people no longer have jobs. So I believe the mission of Peace Corps is still very important, very relevant, and especially in this interconnected world.
HESSLER-RADELETOur country needs to have strong relationships of trust with people of other countries, and not just the leaders, the elite, the well-educated. But with the citizens of those nations, people whose vibes play out on a daily basis that are tough. And people who could become either agents of change in their communities or could be those who turn, you know, to less than favorable ways of acting out their frustrations. So we really want to make sure that we're able to support other countries in their quests for development so that they can become good global partners and support world peace.
NNAMDIEarly in our conversation you talked about what defined your Peace Corps experience and the effect it had on your choice of a career in health care. I think Tony in Reston, Va. wants to share the effect it had on his life. Tony, your turn.
TONYHey, Kojo, first let me say hello. You may not remember. I'm a recently retired anthropologist professor at the University of Maryland. And we worked on Fortune's Bones project together a couple years ago.
NNAMDIOf course I remember you, Tony, yes.
TONYAnd I'm going to talk fast because being an old Peace Corps, or a return Peace Corps volunteer I could take over the whole show with a lot of the issues that you all have been discussing. But first of all I would like to say, I served in the Peace Corps in 1966, '67 in Turkey. And my son served in Burkina Faso in 2003 to '05. So we are a Peace Corps family.
TONYRecently during the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, people in my Turkey group published online a group of essays on how the Peace Corps transformed our lives. I wrote my little essay on Peace Corp is the gateway to the good life. And the good life in the transformation for me was being African American growing up in rural poverty as a sharecropper in the South. Before Peace Corps and going to Turkey I had never traveled more than four hours from my home to my college.
TONYIn Turkey I really began to -- my world broadened first working in a TB clinic to the extent that when I came back home I went to get a master's in public health. Working in the TB clinic in Istanbul in a gypsy community I became interested in not only global health but stratification and health. So I wanted to go further. Now in the meantime, because being a minority...
NNAMDIYou were right when you said you could take up the whole hour, didn't you, Tony.
NNAMDIYou meant it.
TONYSo anyway, I'm going to try to cut back -- cut it off now because of the fact that all of those paths in my life are now traced back to the Peace Corps experience. And so people from my group now, we have rediscovered each other and we try to get together. And they all have these commitments to global health, international relations development and all these other issues.
NNAMDITony, you might as well mention your last name and what you do.
TONYMy name is Tony Whitehead. I was -- I am now professor emeritus of anthropology from the University of Maryland as well as a retired adjunct professor in the School of Public Health at Maryland. My work is more applied in terms of application of anthropological methods and theory to those types of applied programs. So even though I'm retired, I still do these things, but based on my own time, without responsibilities of bureaucracy and the rest of it.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Tony. Care to comment on that? He and I worked together at the Clarice Smith Center on a program involving Fortune's Bones, the bones of a slave that had been reconstructed in Connecticut. And that's why he's such a good anthropologist.
HESSLER-RADELETWell, Tony, first of all, let me thank you for your Peace Corps service in Turkey. My aunt was a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkey just a few years before you. So thank you for that. And then your son in Burkina Faso. A whole family affair.
NNAMDIAnd the effect it had on his life.
HESSLER-RADELETAbsolutely. Can I say one thing, though, about this?
HESSLER-RADELETI really appreciate the fact that you mentioned how it launches a global career. And it does for many people. And in today's interconnected world global economy, we really need people, we need Americans who can speak other languages, who can understand other cultures, who can appreciate other people's perspectives and find commonality with our own. I think that's key to our national security and economic development and maintaining our position in the world today.
HESSLER-RADELETSo Peace Corps not only helps individuals to launch careers in development and foreign affairs and what have you, but it also I think really help sour country to be better positioned for the future in this global economy.
NNAMDIOnce again, Tony, thank you very much for your call. Earlier this month you announced a major change in what would, for me, have been the major obstacle in getting into the Peace Corps, the application process. You're getting rid of the 60-page form that took eight hours to complete and replacing it was an online form that takes an hour to finish. This may sound like a foolish question, but what prompted that change?
HESSLER-RADELETWell, you know, today's world people don't want to spend eight hours on a single 60-page application. I mean, we have the tools and technologies now to be able to match people in ways that we never could before. We have, you know, digital technology that can transport people into our Peace Corps world. On our website you can literally shop the Peace Corps world by visiting our country websites and learning all about them. And then that enables you to express a preference or a choice for where you want to apply.
HESSLER-RADELETNot only that, we have the technology to tell you if you apply by this date you will know by this date and you will go by this date. So it enables you to really plan your life around your Peace Corps application and service. So, you know, it was the right thing to do. We finally had the technology to do it and the response has been terrific. We've had just a lot of enthusiasm about our new changes.
NNAMDIBecause applications to the Peace Corps have dropped by 30 percent during the course of the past five years, what do you think explains that decline?
HESSLER-RADELETYou know, there are a number of factors that are associated with that decline in numbers. First of all, is the number of volunteers we can actually support. In 2010 we had the highest number of volunteers we've ever had, the highest budget we've ever had. And we had about 9,000 volunteers serving at that time. Then came, you know, recession, sequester. Our budget dropped by $50 million. And we were not able to support as many volunteers. We have a lot of people in the pipeline.
HESSLER-RADELETIn addition at the same time we had a planned strategic process where we really focused on strengthening our core operations, some of the quality improvements that we talked about earlier, improving the quality of our technical training for volunteers including improving our medical programs and safety and security. So we wanted to ensure that we could really support our volunteers well at the community level before we started ramping up the numbers.
HESSLER-RADELETSo to some extent we really took our recruitment efforts down because we had a lot of people already in the pipeline. And second of all, we wanted to make sure that we had a good strong foundation before we started ramping the numbers up. In addition, we just recognized that our process was cumbersome and didn't make sense in today's world. And so all those together really led to our decisions to change our process.
NNAMDIOn to Beth, in Falls Church, Va. Beth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BETHHi. Excuse me. Hi, thanks for taking my call. I was wondering with the volunteers, my understanding is back in the day there was no choice of a country that you got to pick to go to and now that the volunteers can pick the country they go to. Does that make it, you know, gives like other countries that need more help, maybe less desirable countries, that people are choosing and then are those countries not getting the help they need?
NNAMDIWell, it's my understanding that you now allow people to request where they'd like to go and why type of work they'd like to do. Does that necessarily mean they can pick their countries? Can you explain…
HESSLER-RADELETSure, the difference.
NNAMDI…exactly what the change is and the difference is.
HESSLER-RADELETNow you can choose the country that you want to apply for. The country and the program. You -- when you go on to our website and you apply, you get three choices. You can say I want to be an education volunteer in China as my first choice. I can -- I want to be a health worker in Fiji as my second choice. And then you also have the option to say I'll go wherever I'm needed. And you can make that a choice as well.
HESSLER-RADELETSo you have a -- you have the choice to apply for a program. It is a competitive process. So if it's a highly desirable country it's going to be more competitive. You should think of it sort of like applying to college. Not everyone's going to get into Harvard. So you want -- may want to have a safety country behind you, in terms of the choice. But the other thing that we're finding, just in the last couple weeks when we have had this option available, is that many, many people are still applying -- are still choosing send me where I'm needed.
HESSLER-RADELETAnd that is really a wonderful thing. We were pretty confident that that would happen because our volunteers and our applicants are really driven by the desire to serve. And so we are confident that we will be able to fill all of our requirements. I also just a report on the analytics yesterday. And they told me that every single country had received -- had been chosen as part of this process. So we actually aren't worried about that.
NNAMDIBeth, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take another short break. If you have called, hang onto the line. We'll get back to you. If you'd like to call, the number's 800-433-8850. Is the model of sending lone volunteers to remote locations around the world still effective in the 21st century do you think? Or what do you think? 800-433-8850. Or send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with the director of the Peace Corps, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, and inviting your calls, at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We got an email from John, in Silver Spring, Md., who said, "Is there any possibility that Peace Corps might someday return to countries such as India or Brazil? While these nations are highly developed, it seems there are still opportunities for U.S. citizens to help address needs in impoverished areas of those nations.
NNAMDI"Also, is there any thought of a reverse Peace Corps program, in which volunteers from other nations might serve in our nation?" And I might as well add an email we got from Roger. "After many years the Peace Corps stopped the program in Honduras, due partly to security concerns and political unrest. Is there any chance the Peace Corps will return to Honduras?" So we've got India, we've got Brazil, we've got Honduras. Carrie Hessler-Radelet?
HESSLER-RADELETThank you so much for those questions. We had fabulous programs in both India and Brazil. At one time we had nearly 1,000 people in India. You know, the decision to enter Peace Corps really is at the request of the host government. So we won't be entering India, Brazil until they ask us to return. And I can't really comment on whether or not that will happen.
HESSLER-RADELETOne thing we have thought about is just sort of imagining that perhaps we could consider a possibility of, you know, going into a particular state if a state wanted us. But, you know, India, in particular, but also Brazil, they're very fiercely independent and I'm not certain they would ask the Peace Corps. If they did ask for us, we would certainly consider it. They're both important countries with some needs that we think we probably could meet at the community level.
HESSLER-RADELETThe reverse Peace Corps question is an excellent question. There are other -- lots of programs that bring people of other countries to the United States, some of which are sponsored by our own government. And we certainly work closely with them. Right now, in Washington, D.C. we have the Young Africans Leadership Initiative, which has brought about -- hundreds of African young leaders to this country where they're going to be working and interning here.
HESSLER-RADELETIn fact, we have several interns in Peace Corps. And so we participate very actively with that program. In fact, Peace Corps volunteers have identified two-thirds of the applicants to YALI. So we're in a very strong position because we're in rural communities, to be able to identify and help support the application of young African leaders who would maybe not otherwise have the wherewithal to even apply to such a program. So we do partner very closely with the State Department in some of their programs to bring young people to this country.
HESSLER-RADELETIn terms of Honduras, we pulled out of Honduras a couple of years ago. It was because of the security situation. Frankly, in the intervening years the security situation has only gotten worse. And we would not be able to return to Honduras until we are confident that the situation on the ground would be something that would support a Peace Corps program.
NNAMDIOn to Sateevy, in Falls Church, Va. Sateevy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SATEEVY(speaks foreign language).
HESSLER-RADELET(speaks foreign language).
SATEEVYSateevy, yes. From Samoa Group 4, '69 through '71.
HESSLER-RADELET(speaks foreign language).
SATEEVYYeah, I jokingly tell people I'm one of the most successful volunteers in history because my counterpart has been Prime Minister there for the last 30 years or so. But I then…
HESSLER-RADELETYou've had an impact, I'm sure.
SATEEVYNo. I then admit that I learned more from him than he did from me, but my question is about Peace Corps staff. I believe you're a political appointee and all the Peace Corps directors and virtuously all the other staff are political, which can be very good, and by experience I can tell you, can also be very bad. What's happening in the way of quality control to make sure that you get a good staff? Because I'm sure you've experienced the fact that often the volunteer knows more about the country than the Peace Corps director does.
HESSLER-RADELETSateevy (speaks foreign language). Thank you very much for your question. I want to say that, in your day, and also in my day also, Peace Corps directors in country were political appointees. But that is no longer the case. There are dramatically fewer political appointees at Peace Corps then there have been, you know, before 1990. So -- and the political appointees are limited to the Washington, D.C. office.
HESSLER-RADELETAnd we work very, very closely with the White House to make sure that we get people who share our mission and have real skills that can contribute to helping us achieve our goals. And we have really phenomenal staff people, both career and political appointees alike. I'm so proud of our staff. The largest category of staff, actually, are host-country national staff.
HESSLER-RADELETAnd, again, we have tremendous staff who have devoted -- many of them -- their entire career to supporting Peace Corps on the ground. And as part of our reform effort, we're really looking at how we can better support their professional development and training so that they are able to carry out many of the reforms that we're designing.
NNAMDIYou're also trying to boost the diversity of Peace Corps volunteers. What's the racial makeup of the volunteer force now, and what are you doing to attract more minority applicants?
HESSLER-RADELETYou know, this is a question that's very dear to my heart. We really want a volunteer force that reflects the rich diversity of our country. And so we -- as part of our reform effort, and especially as part of our new recruitment and application changes, we're reaching out to underserved communities, communities that we have not reached out to before, to try to build a volunteer force that reflects, you know, our -- the beautiful multicultural nation that we are. And right now we have about 24 percent of our volunteers who self-report as minorities.
HESSLER-RADELETWe'd like to see it higher. We'd like it, actually, to be representative of the population. But we are building partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, with Hispanic Survey Institutions, with Tribal Colleges and Universities, with sororities and fraternities and other professional clubs that cater to different, diverse groups of people.
HESSLER-RADELETWe're really reaching out, even through the faith-based communities to tell people about Peace Corps, to tell people about the benefits of service, to show how it can help launch a career, and to bring the message to the world that we are a very diverse country our self.
NNAMDIHank, in Herndon, Va., does that answer your question?
HANKKojo, thank you. I was just sitting here saying, "Well, look at that. Kojo just asked my question." Hi, Carrie.
HANKKojo, I'm Hank Ambrose. I'm a returning Peace Corps volunteer from Kenya. Herman DeBose, who is also a colleague, a returning Peace Corps volunteer from Kenya, we recently hosted a panel, Minorities in the Peace Corps, during the Peace Corps Connect in Nashville just recently. So I know that Carrie is looking at this. And I guess she also answered by question. I wanted to give her an opportunity to answer that. And, Kojo, part of what prompted this is that I'm an old volunteer.
HANKI served in the '70s. And I originally trained for a program going to Latin American, where there was only African American and that was me. I got an opportunity to then to go Africa. And, of course, I said to myself, there must be some other volunteers who are going to be there who are African American.
HANKAnd, of course, Kojo, in that program, there was also only one. That was me. Certainly though, I met several volunteers once I got to the country. So the Peace Corps has come a long way from what I saw back in the early '70s. And I want to thank Carrie for her efforts in that direction.
HESSLER-RADELETYou know, Herman is a friend. And we're so grateful to you and for what you did at the Nashville conference, and for all your efforts to help us build a volunteer force that is more reflective of our country. You know, it's not only the fact that we want to have a volunteer force that is diverse, we also recognize that we're stronger for that. And let me just give you one quick example of the volunteer named Dwayne Matthews. He went to school here at Howard.
HESSLER-RADELETAnd he is a health volunteer in Malawi. He is bringing hip hop, graffiti art and fabulous slam poetry, rap, all of that to his work as a health worker. And he is able to reach young men in his community in a way that nobody has been able to before. So he's using his own culture to motivate people to seek healthy behaviors and to practice healthy behaviors, but he's also teaching Malawi about the United States and our own culture here. And he is a fabulous volunteer. And I'm so grateful to him.
NNAMDIThank you so much for your call. Today, half of all Peace Corps volunteers, nearly 46 percent go to Africa. Latin America takes 20 percent, but the Philippines has had more Peace Corps volunteers in total than any other country. How have the locations and the types of countries requesting volunteers changed over the years?
HESSLER-RADELETYou know -- great question. We're trying to be much more strategic about how we target our resources and place our volunteers, so that we can achieve our three goals. Can I tell our three goals? I don't think we've done that.
NNAMDILet me see, should I allow her to tell -- yes, of course, you can tell the three goals.
HESSLER-RADELETOkay. Our first goal is to help our -- the people of interested countries to meet their needs for trained men and women. So it's a development goal where we really focus on building the capacities of our host countries at the community level. Our second goal is to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of people served. And our third goal is to promote a better understanding of other countries on the parts of Americans. So those three goals guide every single thing we do.
HESSLER-RADELETSo we now have a very strategic process called the Country Portfolio Review Process, where we look at every single country, we have a whole bunch of different indicators that show us need, we look at safety and security, medical care, even perceptions towards Americans, and even Americans' perceptions towards that country. We're trying to target those places where we can have greatest impact towards all three of our goals.
HESSLER-RADELETSo a development impact, a place where maybe we have poor, you know, relationships or poor perceptions, and where they maybe have a poor perception of the United States. We're really trying to build strong, working relationships between our country and the world. And we're trying to help our partner nations achieve their development goals. And so those guide our decisions. Those three goals guide our decisions.
HESSLER-RADELETSo the Philippines is strong and is an important country program, can absorb a lot of volunteers. It's risen higher in the human development index. There's not quite so much need as there was in early years. Now, we have 46 percent of our volunteers in Africa because that's the continent with greatest need.
NNAMDITo what extent is the Peace Corps a farm team system for the State Department or USAID? Returning volunteers or do returning volunteers get any special consideration for those jobs or tend to gravitate to government positions after they return from their service?
HESSLER-RADELETYou know, one of the great benefits of Peace Corps is non-competitive eligibility for one year, which basically is a preference in hiring. And so return volunteers can get -- go -- sort of go to the top of the queue when hiring at USAID and the State Department, as well as other federal agencies. They tend to gravitate towards the Foreign Service and USAID because they are inherently interested, I think, in other countries and have some expertise to apply to those organizations.
HESSLER-RADELETAnd I think people often surprise themselves, thinking that, you know, I'll do Peace Corps, and then I'll come back and go back to my town in Kansas. But they find that they're sort of bitten by the international bug. And they want to devote their life to international development. That happens more than we can count. So…
NNAMDIWe've only got about a minute left, but you've just finished a new five-year strategic plan. Where is the Peace Corps heading?
HESSLER-RADELETYou know, we are heading firmly into the future using all of today's tools and technologies to make sure that we have the greatest impact possible, Working closely with our host country partners. You know, we didn't talk at all about innovation and technology, but our…
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, that was one of our callers' questions. "What do Peace Corps volunteers do with technology and development? How are they using it?" You now, officially, have about a minute.
HESSLER-RADELETYes. Well, we're using technology in the same way that your previous guest talked about. Our volunteers are very savvy with how to use cell phones. And so just really quickly, one example from Nicaragua, ChatSalud, we had two volunteers, Mishant (sp?) and Lauren, who noticed a need that young people in their community had nowhere to turn for questions about reproductive health and sexuality and what have you.
HESSLER-RADELETSo they cut a deal with the local cell phone provider that provided free text time. And they trained up some youth-friendly reproductive health experts who answered young peoples' questions. And now that program has expanded, has become a nationally organized program, funded by the ministry of health.
NNAMDIYou got it in in the appropriate time. We're not out of time. Carrie Hessler-Radelet is director of the Peace Corps. Thank you so much for joining us.
HESSLER-RADELETThank you. It's been a privilege.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo and guests explore what you can learn about D.C. by riding its bus system.
T.C. Boyle's latest novel explores the darker side of the American ideal of freedom, from a woman who follows the extreme libertarian "sovereign citizen" movement to a disturbed young man who models himself on the pioneer John Colter.
It's your turn to discuss these topics or whatever is on your mind.