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The Case for a National Service Peace Corps

By Robert Wood

At present, the Australian Defence Force has 58,000 personnel. Presently, the Defence Force budget is projected to spend $32bn in 2016/17.

By comparison, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has an operating budget of $1.6bn and there are approximately one million Australians who no longer call Australia home.

When taken together, we have a significant number of resources at our disposal to employ for the greater good. How we use them, will determine what impact we make on the world.

In the eyes of the international, diplomatic community, which leans overwhelmingly transatlantic, Africa is the problem continent. There is an industry that regards Africa as something to be saved, fixed or sorted out. There is, of course, an inviting parallel that has been made between it and Aboriginal communities in Australia.

Although this could be important in terms of the natural resources versus living standards paradox, it fails to apprehend the historical specificity of each and as such does a disservice to what is possible in both places. Africa is complex, diverse and rich, just like Aboriginal Australia.

We must, of course, recognise the endogenous forms of economic activity and the styles of life that exist in ‘slums’ or ‘the developing world’. One might wave a flag of cultural relativism as some sort of excuse not to intervene, but we can also see that everyone wants a basic level of decency and often some type of improvement.

In philosopher Raymond Geuss’ terms of reference, they want their needs met. Needs are above and beyond simple rights. They are the most basic fundamentals.

In a globalised world, first wave social movements to protect people’s needs, labour movements to safeguard workers’ pay and schemes promoting fair livelihoods, need to be front and centre.

To understand and improve the lives of the two billion who live on less than $2 per day, means leveraging the state to become an active participant in rules and regulations that counteract exploitation as well as encouraging programs that directly improve livelihoods.

How we change the specific situations of the most vulnerable depends on where we put ourselves. But central to this must be, addressing how women, young girls and those who don’t identify in a gender binary way, are treated. This includes thinking about maternal health, infanticide, work opportunities, wage equality and social expectations.

The burden still falls heavily on the shoulders of the poor and women in particular. To attend to these problems we must ask: what has worked in the past? What will work tomorrow? The answer to that will depend on one’s source base and the lens of interpretation.

In a very basic sense though, what makes our world safer and better to live in, is the combined efforts of people around the world to provide certainty, lawfulness and opportunity.

That is the role of the government.

In this regard, it is a great advantage to acknowledge that Australia is a middling power with people who have come from all over the world. We would do well to remember that. We would do well to be true to ourselves when we look at our nation from outside of it.

We can choose to be caught in the middle, betwixt and between; or, we can choose to become a respected broker and find a new path through the centre. We can choose to invite people to our common ground to discuss ideas, policy and plans for working together; or, we can choose to remain isolated and hawkish.

To be a world leader, we must jettison once and for all our image as the poor white man of Asia. We must not tolerate the racism that continues to define us. We must continue to make ours a rainbow nation that leads in health, education, the environment, equity, defence, foreign affairs, trade, lifestyle and happiness.

And we need to be active. We need to intervene in the best possible way in the affairs of the world. That means re-defining our defence force, our diplomatic corps and getting our diaspora working together.

Our Armed Services need to be redefined and redeployed as a force for community development in a way that is essentially pacifist. Although I do not favour the complete elimination of armed services, I do think we need to ensure our military is active in building infrastructure and human capital rather than simply fighting other nations. There is a civilian, unarmed, non-combatant service in Austria, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Mexico.

The national service I favour, is a one year stint that has three months of basic military training and a nine-month posting in places that need support and development. This is similar to the Peace Corps program that the United States government runs, and could be read as an expansion of AusAid’s Youth Ambassadors for Development Program (AYAD).

The United States Peace Corps is one of their gifts to the world. Established in 1961 by John F Kennedy, the aim of the Peace Corps is:

“To promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.”

To be certain, one could read it as being a soft power play during the midst of the Cold War and to deny that would be naïve. However, that does not stop it from doing absolutely necessary and vital work while also being a great character building exercise for its volunteers.

As present The US Peace Corps has programs that include malaria prevention, environmental engagement and crisis response. Their environmental engagement includes protected area management, education and awareness, and forestry programs, all of which aim at cultivating a more sustainable use of natural resources.

National service in Australia would enable the creation of citizens who care about the problems of the world, and solving them in a collaborative, active and meaningful way.

It would give exposure to life styles that are unlike those of the suburbs; it would connect with people of different cultures and experiences.

It would provide direction to young people and create a cohesive national identity through good work.

Surely that is something we can all get behind.

Robert Wood’s writing has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. He has interned for Overland, edited for Peril and Cordite, been a columnist for Cultural Weekly. At present he works for The Centre for Stories.


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  1. Jaquix

    What a good idea, and notice it was a Democrat, John F Kennedy, who introduced it. You can bet your bottom dollar a Liberal or Republican government would never have done so. A great opportunity for young people to have a constructive “gap year” before they settle down to choosing careers. The Labor Party would do well to consider a policy introducing this as an option for young Australians. Plus it would improve our reputation overseas, and particularly our near neighbours.

  2. Michael

    And what better way to learn how, none other than from Cuba ….

    Australia sent/is sending X doctors to Timor-Leste and Cuba sent/is sending ? doctors?

  3. Andrew Chambers

    The idea of Military training is a good one. Growing up I had all sorts of romantic fantasies fuelled by illustrated books and movies about WW2, we played soldiers, conducted campaigns with every weapon imaginable and generally wrought carnage.
    Sometime later I had the sense to spend a year or two in the Reserves. There I learnt just how dangerous and horrific war really can be and that if it came to an all out fire fight with someone threatening your world, it’d be more than helpful to know how to defend that life.
    Today’s youth are steeped in a military culture, virtual reality has been the greatest boon to the international arms trade in the history of marketing weapons of mass destruction.
    Just about every adolescent who has access to a computer and the net has been exposed to or involved in campaign games, first person shooters, slashers, spell casting, super powered fantasy worlds. It’s not surprising that when some of these kids meet automatic weapons in the real world, they tend to be better than average shots, but why wouldn’t they be?
    Send them bush to hunt for feral animals, great survival and marksmanship training, useful expense of a bullet and a bonus for environments that could do with a reduction in stressors.
    Only thing missing from this equation is having the country you’d be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for. This Australian Government?
    We can do better, my ancestors died and fought because they believed in a very simple premise, democracy, the right of a nation to determine its destiny. We can ask for that right to be returned. One Issue, One vote, One Decision from whoever can be bothered.

  4. slowly they get it.

    is this national service you propose compulsory? If the answer is yes, you can take this idea and put it somewhere really unpleasant.

    I am an ADF child, both parents in the RAAF and i grew up on or around air force bases.

    This seems like an attempt to romantisize the military by people who have no idea.

  5. lawrencesroberts

    Paid Community Work for the young unemployed would be no bad thing, no compulsion about it. Land Care and the Rural Fire Service as beneficiaries as well as a peace organization and community service.

  6. Steve Laing -

    Isn’t this what the “Green Army” was supposed to be? Except that was really just a brain fart to make it look like something was happening, when it was probably just a cheap labor scheme to keep youngsters off the unemployment register.

    Personally though, I think its a great idea – a chance for youngsters to get away from home and grow up. Back in the UK we did this at Uni, because we certainly didn’t have to (nor want to) stay at home, but that isn’t the norm here (largely for financial/logistical reasons). My 18 year old daughter is currently spending 6 months volunteering (at the expense of pretty much all the savings she has accrued) at a small school in a small village in Fiji before she comes back home to start Uni, and I wholly expect the experience will be a vital one in terms of her own personal “development”.

    So an Aussie Peace Corps could be a great concept, as long as its not politicised – and that would be the hard part in the current environment.

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