I won’t get sent home because of the shutdown. Right this minute, anyways. The looming shutdown is not a long-term projection, according to our Acting Director, and it would cost roughly $3,500 to temporarily suspend overseas service for every volunteer. That’s $29 million over the 15-30 days our organization would need to evacuate all volunteers on a short-term basis. Operations costs pale in comparison to the amount of money that it would take to temporarily close, particularly if the shutdown only lasts as long as it would take to evacuate volunteers. (The 1995-1996 shutdown, the longest of any US Government shutdown, lasted only 21 days.) If the shutdown lasts longer than that, however, there is always the possibility my service will be interrupted.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I contribute to an estimated labor cost of $15 million every month*. According to Peace Corps’ Fast Facts, I am one of 8,073 currently serving Volunteers and Trainees. That means I am contributing around $1,858 of “volunteer services” every month. Over my 27 months of service, that means my work in Kyrgyzstan adds up to roughly $50,167 of labor time.
After a lot of conversations over the frustrations many of my fellow volunteers have (and have been hitting me hard over the past week) – often uncreatively called the “six-month slump” – it is strange to look at the way my organization financially describes the value of my work. This financial assessment, however, can’t even begin to describe the lost investment in language training, community integration, or the price of lost trust if volunteers are removed from their communities. When people ask me what is going on, what I am doing, its that. It’s investing in my ability to live and work here, building trust with my counterpart and organization and community, and figuring out how to make my service create a legacy of positive impact (and learn how to say all of that in Russian). So much of Peace Corps work is about building relationships, and that is not something you can put a dollar sign on.
“It’s not just present federal work that’s affected by the shutdown, it’s future work, too; and… shutting down the federal government is terribly wasteful and expensive because of the re-start costs involved,” says Andrew Cohen and several experts on the Antideficiency Act, the legal framework for requiring shutdowns when Congress fails to agree on budgetary measures for federal work. (Also learned: who Benjamin Civiletti was, that the Act came out of limiting executive power after its abuses during the Civil War, and the weirdest use of the term “saucy boy” ever.) This does not include the lost costs in federal revenue from things like national parks, processing of visas and passport applications, tourism, and penalties on federal contracts. Investment futures on halted research at the National Institute of Health and the CDC will also take a hit in the government shutdown.
For the Peace Corps, that means hundreds of potential recruits who will have to wait longer for their process to continue, contributing to a higher drop-out rate of potential volunteers. New trainees will have to wait longer to begin their service. It means suspending new training for volunteers and staff that will make programs more effective or transitioning to evaluations-based development interventions. It means trying to explain over a chai break at my office why one of the most influential governments in the world can’t even keep its doors open.
There is a serious disconnect between what I am working for as a Volunteer and what people are fighting about in Congress. I am a Health Volunteer, and a significant part of my work is increasing public access to healthcare. Kyrgyzstan is a single-payer, universal healthcare system that invests heavily in patient care and health promotion. Obviously not without its own set of problems, this system guarantees health care for every citizen. Parts of Congress are calling for the delay of moving closer to that guarantee of healthcare under the Affordable Care Act to American citizens.
We talk all the time about community and public health, access to healthcare and information, and women’s control over their reproductive health as a precursor for economic development, a country’s ability to invest in higher education, and greater civic and political participation. Investments in healthcare and education are directly proportional to a country’s economic future, and a big part of the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan addresses that. If the Government is investing in mitigating these barriers in a country like Kyrgyzstan, why would they not do the same for the United States?