One of Donald Trump’s first acts as president was to eliminate funding for nongovernmental organizations in poor countries if they offer abortion counseling as a family planning option or if they advocate for the right to seek an abortion in their countries. The freeze applies even if the NGO uses other funds for such services. Republicans have supported this policy since the Reagan administration.
But the reality is that despite how freighted with ideology the above policy is, it’s not a one-off. The Trump administration has submitted a budget that will propose severe cuts to foreign aid programs as part of a 37 percent cut to the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development. As well, Trump has told interviewers that he does not plan on filling hundreds of currently vacant posts in State or at USAID, believing them to be redundant.
America currently gives assistance to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (there are now some 65 million worldwide), Children’s UNICEF, the World Food Program, health programs that fight malaria and HIV/AIDS, international disaster relief, peacekeeping, educational and cultural exchanges, as well as environmental/global warming programs and worldwide humanitarian aid. The 2017 aid package totals $50.1 billion. This is who we are.
The new administration’s rationale for truncating foreign aid and downsizing the State Department is to offset a $54 billion increase in military spending. Currently, the U.S. military expenditure is roughly the size of the next seven largest military budgets around the world combined. The Department of Defense’s 2016 budget was $526 billion, and yet the Trump administration insists it is in need of massive rebuilding.
Assume, then, given the above, that an agency that would clearly be most vulnerable to either significant cuts or perhaps elimination is the Peace Corps.
Find below my defense of this remarkable organization (its budget was $410 million in 2016; 220,000 volunteers have served in 140 nations since 1961).
I would argue that the Peace Corps is one of the most remarkable ideas to emerge from the 20th century, its scaffolding constructed of a tenacious hope and an abiding idealism. Think of it: Americans stepping forward, volunteering to live and work in some of the most desperate and precarious corners of the world.
Clearly, the volunteers are not simply passing through, snapping pictures, finding as quaint the barely habitable thatched huts on narrow, dusty streets, or people standing for the better part of a day at a well, waiting for potable water.
Volunteers know the bitter truth that children around the world are hungry for education. Many wait, seated on the hard-pack floors of schoolhouses, absent desks or notebooks, even pencils. Volunteers also know that malnutrition and disease haunt the lives of generations, turning their existence into a shadow of what could be possible.
Peace Corps Volunteers make explicit, with their presence, that those in the Third World are not alone. The volunteer says to those who struggle, "I know you are balanced on a precipice of poverty and daily survival and I will join you. I will live where you live, I will share your table, I will teach your children, fashion a well or plant a crop. I will work alongside you, I will speak your language, I will understand and respect your customs and stand with you shoulder to shoulder. Your days will be my days. The rhythms of your life will be mine.
"I know — I’ve come from another universe, a place apart. Unimaginable. Yet I also know that we are more alike than we are different. Our common ground is vast; this is a truth often lost in the global cacophony. From you I will learn lessons that will remain with me for the rest of my life and hopefully I will leave something behind."
To be in the Peace Corps is to view the world through a vastly different prism. Would that this agency — the Peace Corps — will always be with us, elegant in its simplicity, astonishing in its potential, asking only that Americans go forth, do what they can, embrace the experience and then return and, in returning, continue the mission.
— Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.