It was 2:00 a.m. on October 14, 1960. Ten thousand students were waiting in front of the student union building at the University of Michigan. As the weary candidate climbed the steps, the audience began chanting his name.Senator John F. Kennedy had just flown in from New York, straight from a television debate with Vice President Richard Nixon. He spoke to the students off the cuff, delivering a speech that in just a few sentences would launch the Peace Corps. “How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”
Nobody knows why Kennedy picked that moment, in the middle of the night on a college campus in the Midwest, to float the idea of the Peace Corps. But the effect was electric. The vision was that by learning to serve, a new generation would learn to lead. They would return from the field as stronger people, better not just from learning how to apply their talents, but from having learned much more about themselves and their place in the world. “There is not enough money in all America to relieve the misery of the underdeveloped world in a giant and endless soup kitchen,” Kennedy later declared. “But there is enough know-how and knowledgeable people to help those nations help themselves.”
In August of 1961, the first Peace Corps volunteers stepped onto the tarmac in Accra, Ghana. By the end of 1963, 7,300 volunteers were working in more than 40 countries; by 1966, the ranks had swelled to more than 15,000 in about 60 countries. And that, alas, was the peak. Under the pall of the war in Vietnam, the movement shrank.
The good news is that President Clinton “expanded” the Peace Corps-to 10,000. The bad news is that pitifully few Peace Corps workers have the kind of training that enables them to transfer the best ideas from Western labs into developing countries. Most volunteers have backgrounds in business, education, health care or ecology. A thin slice of the pie, about four percent, falls into the category of “other.” And in that sliver you find technologists. It’s a hugely disappointing minority.
Why so few computer scientists and engineers join the Peace Corps is unclear. Perhaps it’s because most technologists are trained in environments that require a lot of infrastructure and support in order to push through to the next discovery. It’s hard to break new technological ground in a subsistence village. Another factor could be that there’s a very well oiled path from the university into the high-tech job sector. Most people who start down that path stay on it.
There are, however, rays of hope. One fledgling approach that directly addresses the “four percent problem” is Geekcorps (www.geekcorps.org). Launched by Ethan Zuckerman, who cofounded the successful Web service company Tripod, Geekcorps sends SWAT teams of technologists into the field to give the world’s poorest people access to the Internet. The Geekcorps folk work with local communities to build the infrastructure needed to bootstrap local businesses. In an interesting echo of the Peace Corps, this outfit too began in Ghana. In fact, that’s where the idea first came to Zuckerman: he went there on a Fulbright scholarship in 1993.