National Service, Part 3: Austria, Rwanda, and the American Potential

Part 3: National Service – American Potential

If you read Part 1  and Part 2 of my series on national service, you know I believe it can heal the open wounds of divisiveness that are tearing our country apart. Just as military service is a great equalizer, bringing together individuals from disparate backgrounds on a common mission, so too is civilian service. The idea of expanding it has gained support from both democrats and republicans at a time when political conflict is toxic and explosive, which in itself demonstrates what a tremendous unifying force national service can be. 

Back in 2015, a poll conducted across battleground states in the 2016 election showed that an overwhelming number of voters felt national service programs could address critical challenges we face as a nation. 83% of Americans—democrats, republicans and independents alike—declared themselves in favor of increasing federal investment in national service. Wow! Is there any other issue around which we are so united? Though of course there are skeptics, cynics, and arguments against national service (especially when it’s proposed as mandatory) the idea hasn’t gone away—in fact, it’s gained strength. Service is one of the core values that Americans hold dear, and I would like to see this sentiment harnessed toward the greater good in a more effective way. 

What we found:

At KDAlive we’ve done some research around national service programs across the globe, and there were two countries that stood out: Austria and Rwanda. In this post we’ll take a look at what they’re doing, then wrap up with some suggestions for how America could adopt or adapt various strategies we’ve seen over the course of this series. 


Military service of 6-9 months is mandatory for Austrian males aged 18-50, but conscientious objectors can opt into Zivildienst, a German word that means “civilian service.” Participants, commonly called Zivis, have come to represent nearly half of all Austrian conscripts! Wow, that’s a lot of pacifists. 

The program was created under pressure from anti-war groups, but embraced by the military because it helped solve the problem of pacifist conscripts refusing to handle weapons. Instead, Zivis are put to work in disaster relief, various social services, and occasionally in agriculture. Many serve with the Austrian Red Cross, while others help care for children, the elderly, disabled people, refugees and drug addicts. Still others fight fires or even act as crossing guards. 

A highly coveted substitute to regular Zivildienst is Austrian Service Abroad, a government funded non-profit that sends a select few conscripts to international locations to complete their term of service. With a motto of “Memoria, Misericordia, Pax” (Remembrance, Mercy, Peace), the program was founded to acknowledge and redress the crimes against humanity committed in the name of Nazism. Participants are sent to countries all over the world to visit Holocaust education centers and Jewish community organizations, or to work with partnering groups in missions that further non-violent conflict resolution, anti-racism, minority and women’s rights, genocide memorial, and care for Holocaust victims. What fascinates me most about this admirable program is that it was the brainchild of one man who felt ashamed at the atrocities committed by the Nazis, but chose to turn that into something positive by founding a nonprofit that went on to partner with the government. It shows the power of a single visionary to affect an entire nation!

In a similar vein, Austria’s Voluntary Environmental Protection Year is a state-paid opportunity for young people to gain experience in fields like conservation, sustainability, and environmental protection. I consider this to be very relevant in light of climate change! Much like the American Peace Corps, the program helps young people engage with the world while pursuing personal development. Volunteerism in general is highly valued in Austrian society—according to the federal ministry, 3.5 million people engage in voluntary activities, which is 46 percent of the population! Imagine if service happened on a similar scale here in America. 


Outstanding amongst all the countries we’ve looked at—and perhaps even the world—is this tiny East African nation. Known ignominiously to outsiders as the scene of a horrific genocide, when 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days, Rwanda has since made a spectacular comeback. Less than two decades later, the economy is growing and streets that were once littered with corpses are now famed for cleanliness, thanks in part to Umuganda

Translated as ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome,’ Umuganda is a morning of mandatory community service for all able-bodied citizens aged 18-65, which takes place every last Saturday of the month. Shops close down, traffic is banned, and police patrol the streets ensuring no one stands idle as Rwandans pick up trash, maintain roads, build homes for neighbors, and trim back brush harboring malaria-infested mosquitoes. Projects are organized at the community level, with group leaders spearheading the efforts of neighboring households, and Rwandans seem to enjoy it

Sounds great, right? But the program has a dark history. It was implemented during colonialism as a form of forced labor. It was later twisted during the genocide as a mandate to perform ethnic cleansing. Ordinary people were induced to pick up machetes and slaughter their neighbors as a form of service. Thankfully, the true spirit of Umuganda has since been reclaimed. Although there are still critics, most agree that Umuganda has been a tremendously positive force in rebuilding their nation. In my opinion, Umuganda is exemplary and something we here in America would do well to imitate!

Here are a few more suggestions inspired by my research: 
  • Use the Selective Service System to draft able-bodied young people as first responders in crises.
  • Expand existing civilian service options like Americorps and Peace Corps. Promote them extensively in schools, and build out links between these programs and various industries. This will allow service terms to become springboards to careers.
  • Partner non-profits with the federal government. It will create more programs that have a strongly altruistic mission while simultaneously providing participants with valuable skills and experiences. Recruit people of all ages to join by offering tax incentives and other perks. 
  • Implement a program like China’s Junxun, in which all high schoolers are put through several weeks of basic training to improve their fitness, discipline and respect. (But leave out the toxic propaganda.) 
  • Include non-military alternatives for any such program. Offering conscientious objectors the chance to train in disciplines like first-aid, disaster relief and non-violent conflict resolution. 
  • Make a year of service standard for university graduates. It will increase their proficiency in skills pertaining to their chosen career before actually entering the workforce. 
  • Develop our own American Umuganda, a mandatory, regularly occurring service day. Meaning, all able-bodied people must pitch in for several hours to complete projects benefiting their local communities. 
  • Launch aggressive ad campaigns to glorify and popularize the ideal of serving others at the community, national and global levels. Make it cool to care!
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