Corps exists, but uses government employees for now
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to establish a Civilian Assistance Corps that would "provide each federal agency a pool of volunteer experts willing to deploy in crises.” The program would include "a ready reserve corps of private civilians that can participate in post-conflict, humanitarian and stabilization efforts around the globe.”
The State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations includes the Civilian Response Corps -- a group of civilian federal employees from nine departments "who are specially trained and equipped to deploy rapidly to provide conflict prevention and stabilization assistance to countries in crisis or emerging from conflict.” Participants have backgrounds in public health, law enforcement, engineering, economics and law.
The effort actually had its origins in the administration of President George W. Bush, but the funding for it came through in mid-2008, so much of the work to get it up and running has fallen to the Obama administration.
In 2010, the program had 264 permanent specialists and a standby force of 1,000 from eight agencies and departments, the Christian Science Monitor reported. The goal is to eventually have 4,250 civilians, including a "reserve" corps akin to the military reserves.
"The Civilian Response Corps is about conflict prevention, so that problems in some of these failed and failing states do not become major crises," John Herbst, the State Department's coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization, told the Monitor in 2010. "That really is smart power."
In an address to the Alliance for Peacebuilding's annual conference on May 11, 2012, Rick Barton, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of Conflict Stabilization Operations, gave an example of what the corps has been doing.
"We recently got a call from the U.S. Ambassador in Liberia seeking our help,” Barton said, "The day before the presidential runoff in November, a demonstration turned violent and one person was killed and eight were injured by gunfire. Some felt the police were implicated. The Liberian commission set up to investigate the incident didn't have the capacity to conduct an inquiry which in turn put the credibility and the goodwill of the government at risk.”
So the Civilian Response Corps sent an expert from the Justice Department to help carry out an investigation, he said. "Liberian investigators interviewed 70 or 80 people and found a 15-second slice of video of the demonstration that showed specific police firing on the crowd,” Barton said. "It turned out that it was a high ranking member of the presidential guard. … That became the critical evidence that has led to police suspensions, further investigation, and the president of the country taking responsibility. It's a great case for the rule of law and for the strengthening of the political process.”
When evaluating the promise, however, it's worth noting that the promise refers to a corps of "private civilians,” which we read to mean private-sector individuals. The Civilian Response Corps is made up of government employees, and while the department says it is working on expanding the effort to include non-government employees, that is still a work in progress. For this reason, we rate this a Compromise.
State Department, Civilian Response Corps (home page), accessed Nov. 7, 2012
State Department,fact sheetfor the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, accessed Nov. 7. 2012
State Department, "U.S. Department of State Launches Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations" (news release), Nov. 22, 2011
Stimson Center, "Preparing for Diplomacy in the 21st Century," Feb. 17, 2011
Rick Barton (assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of Conflict Stabilization Operations), remarks at the 2012 Alliance for Peacebuilding Annual Conference, May 11, 2012
NPR, "U.S. Civilians Recruited To Help Troubled Nations," July 31, 2008
Christian Science Monitor, "New State Department team to the rescue in disaster areas, war zones," April 15, 2010
Creation of civilian corps awaits two reviews
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to create a 25,000-strong Civilian Assistance Corps to organize "civilians with special skill-sets (be they doctors, lawyers, engineers, city planners, agriculture specialists, police, etc.) and a sense of service, to be trained and organized to help their nation when it needs them."
The idea is modeled after existing groups in Virginia and California and would "provide each federal agency a pool of volunteer experts willing to deploy in crises. They would be pretrained and screened for deployment to supplement departments' expeditionary teams." The civilians might carry out any number of tasks, from restoring electricity to creating banking systems, freeing up military personnel to undertake other duties.
The White House says that efforts to create the corps are under way, but tangible progress must await the completion of two major policy reviews. One is a presidential study directive on global development policy led by national security adviser Jim Jones and National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers. The other is a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review -- a blueprint for U.S. diplomatic and development efforts -- being conducted by the State Department.
The corps could still be years away, but the work being done under these two policy reviews earns this promise a rating of In the Works.
Foreign Policy blog "The Cable," "
In new directive, Obama signs off on development review
," Aug. 31, 2009
Modernizing Foreign Assistance, "MFAN: New Presidential Study Directive an Unprecedented Step Forward on Development" ( news release ), Aug. 31, 2009
State Department, "The Department of State's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review" ( news release ), July 10, 2009