Two weeks ago I joined thousands of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in Washington, D.C., to mark the Peace Corps' 50th anniversary.

These RPCVs not only celebrated but advocated for the Peace Corps with their congressional representatives, participated in community service, reunited with old friends and reaffirmed their commitment to John Kennedy's vision when he started "a peace corps of talented men and women" in 1961.

Some maintain that the Peace Corps is a waste of taxpayer money (Richard Nixon once referred to the Peace Corps experience as a "junket."). In fact, its annual budget of $400 million is, as I heard Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams point out, the equivalent of "five hours of one day in Iraq." Otherwise put, the Peace Corps can send 13 volunteers to serve their country for the price of supporting one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan.

The Peace Corps has recently come under justified criticism for another important issue. A group of former PCVs made public that they had been sexually assaulted while serving in the Peace Corps in various countries. In May they testified before Congress that the subsequent treatment they received from the Peace Corps administration was inconsistent and unsympathetic.

The agency has since formally pledged reform in that area. The Peace Corps has always had three goals: provide technical assistance to developing countries; help promote a better understanding of Americans by the people being served; and help Americans better understand non-American people and cultures.

The first goal - providing trained workers - is perhaps the weakest link of the three. I, for example, was a still-wet-behind-the-ears, recent college graduate when I was sent to Ivory Coast in 1973 as a PCV. However, after three intense months of in-country training and a few months of experience in the field, I was able to competently fill the role - promoting gardening and nutrition - that I had been sent for.

The two other goals, related to cross-cultural understanding, have been indisputably fulfilled by most of the 200,000 PCVs who have served in 139 countries.

According to a new report released by the National Peace Corps Association and Civic Enterprises that surveyed 11,000 RPCVs, 93 percent of them believe that the Peace Corps has improved the perceptions of the United States globally. (Although only 59 percent said their service "was effective in helping other countries meet their need for trained workers.")

RPCVs invariably say that they got more out of the experience than they gave. As a result, many of them maintain a lifelong dedication to public service and the promotion of world peace and friendship.

In Southern Arizona, the Peace Corps is well-represented. The University of Arizona is the 12th- ranked university for Peace Corps recruiting. The local RPCV group, the Desert Doves, has over 75 members. In the Peace Corps spirit, they engage in community service activities and provide financial support to Peace Corps partnership projects abroad.

After 50 years, the Peace Corps, though not beyond reasonable criticism, remains a wonderful opportunity for Americans of all ages to learn first-hand about other cultures, to let host country nationals work shoulder-to-shoulder with a real American and to provide needed technical assistance to improve the lot of the world's less-advantaged people.

It is a program that, even in these lean times, deserves taxpayer support.


Peter Bourque has lived in Tucson for 33 years and is the author of "Tarnished Ivory: Reflections on Peace Corps and Beyond."