At a time when the Obama administration is seeking to repair the image of the United States around the world, an estimated 20 nations are ready to accept Peace Corps workers. But the agency can't afford to start new programs in all of them. And despite the Peace Corps' still potent image as a symbol of American idealism, reformers say the organization must make fundamental changes to meet modern diplomatic and technological needs. There is also, they say, a reluctance to consider broader foreign policy goals when deciding where to send volunteers. It is a stance that many say undermines the Corps' mission: An organization dedicated to demonstrating America's commitment to understanding other cultures operates in only two Arab countries, Jordan and Morocco. On a strategic level, reformers say, the Peace Corps needs to rethink where it sends volunteers. The organization is adamantly apolitical, and volunteers do not want to be used for short-term foreign policy objectives. But many officials said the Peace Corps is missing an opportunity to improve relations in critical regions, while keeping volunteers in areas where such people-to-people diplomacy is no longer needed.
Byron Battle, the country director in Mexico and former director in Mali, wishes the Peace Corps would expand to India, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Indonesia and - when it's deemed safe - to Pakistan. Other officials would add Vietnam and Brazil to the list. Mark Schneider, who directed the Peace Corps during the last two years of the Clinton administration, hopes volunteers will be sent back to Haiti, where security worries forced the suspension of the Peace Corps there in 2005. "You've got to make sure that the places they're living and working make sense," Schneider said. Meanwhile, others wonder why the Peace Corps is still in Caribbean vacation spots, or in Romania and Bulgaria - both of which are now in the European Union, and could look closer to home for developmental help. The Peace Corps sends English teachers to China, but Strauss believes that China - which owns a great deal of US debt - should be able to pay for the teachers, many of whom work at universities. "I am a firm believer in Peace Corps, but I am not a firm believer that Peace Corps needs to be in every one of the places it is, or that it's an effective use of this very limited amount of money," Strauss said in an interview from Madagascar, where he now is a business consultant. Read more.