On his transition website, President-elect Obama has outlined his agenda for service and defense.  These plans include initiatives to expand domestic community service opportunities as well as civilian-military cooperation (details below the fold).  These plans are a step in the right direction, but I believe we should go even further to provide civilians and especially youth opportunities for foreign service (in addition to domestic service).

I envision a Humanitarian Corps, analogous to the military, but equipped to pursue humanitarian and peace building missions.  While the Peace Corps is a valuable institution that should be expanded and supported, as Obama plans to do, we need a civilian agency that can take on large scale projects and crises as well.  The Peace Corps places individuals or small groups in communities where they are needed.  What we need in addition is an agency that can place large units of people trained in development, reconstruction, and emergency response in areas recovering from conflict, natural disaster, and/or humanitarian crisis.  This humanitarian corps would also assist with general development projects like the Peace Corps does, but on a larger scale.  Corps members would receive training on the local area (culture, language, history) so they could best meet the needs of the communities they serve.  Lastly, this group would be able to coordinate their efforts with the military, USAID, NGOs, the UN, and other agencies, and fill the capacity gaps within our development, foreign aid, and military missions.

A humanitarian corps would serve several purposes.  First, it would bolster U.S. relations and global security with a long-term “hearts and minds” approach.  Second, it would alleviate strains on our troops by allowing them to focus on military concerns.   Third, and most importantly, it would provide an invaluable opportunity for youth to engage in public diplomacy and become more informed and involved in the world around them.

There are thousands of college graduates each year searching for opportunities to travel, learn, and explore before settling into a career or grad school.  More and more of them are pursuing careers in the non-profit sector and they need real international expertise and on-the-ground experience.  Furthermore, student activists around the country are clamoring for opportunities to take direct action on issues they are passionate about  – genocide, HIV/AIDS, climate change, Millennium Development Goals – I believe that given the opportunity, these young people would embrace a civilian humanitarian corps, I know I would.

Excerpts from the Obama-Biden Plan – Service, Defense Agendas

Domestic Service:

  • Expand Corporation for National and Community Service (Americorps) to 250,000 slots
  • Expand Service-Learning: Set a goal that all middle and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year.
  • Require 100 Hours of Service in College: provide Tax Credit worth $4,000 a year in exchange for 100 hours of public service a year.
  • Promote College Serve-Study: Ensure that at least 25 percent of College Work-Study funds are used to support public service opportunities

International Service

  • Engage Retiring Americans in Domestic and Overseas Service on a Large Scale
  • Double the Peace Corps to 16,000 by 2011
  • Set up an America’s Voice Initiative to deploy Americans who are fluent speakers of local languages for public diplomacy.

Foreign Policy and Defense

  • Expand humanitarian activities that build friendships and attract allies at the regional and local level (such as during the response to the tsunami in South and Southeast Asia), and win hearts and minds in the process.
  • Integrate Military and Civilian Efforts: build up the capacity of each non-Pentagon agency to deploy personnel and area experts where they are needed, to help move soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines out of civilian roles.
  • Create a Civilian Assistance Corps (CAC): Obama and Biden will create a national CAC of 25,000 personnel. This corps of civilian volunteers with special skill sets (doctors, lawyers, engineers, city planners, agriculture specialists, police, etc.) would be organized to provide each federal agency with a pool of volunteer experts willing to deploy in times of need at home and abroad.
  • Expand our Diplomatic Presence: open consulates in difficult corners of the world — particularly in Africa – and expand our foreign service, and develop our civilian capacity to work alongside the military.

President-elect Obama recognizes the need to “move soldiers, sailers, airmen, and Marines out of civilian roles” (www.change.gov > Defense) and outlines several ways in which he will “integrate military and civilian efforts”.  He plans to expand the Peace Corps and the foreign service and to establish new public diplomacy programs.  The American’s Voice Initiative and the Civilian Assistance Corps (CAC) are two such programs.  While the CAC comes closer to a humanitarian corps model, it is described as an on-call pool of expert volunteers (similar to FEMA).  This would seem to exclude most youth and have a more limited emergency-response role.

Modern warfare demands a smarter approach that addresses the roots of conflict.  The military is by nature a reactive institution, focused on short term security crises with an eye toward medium and long term threats.  I believe that if the U.S. is to pursue sustainable peace, we should invest as much in projects that take a long-term, preventative view of security as we do in the military.  By investing in people and sustainable systems of development, we help prevent the desperate conditions that lead to conflict and give individuals access to resources (education, healthcare, food ,water) so they have a reason to choose peace over terror.