On November 23, 2007 the New York Times published an article by Sarah Abruzzese about the Peace Corps' desire to recruit greater numbers of older individuals, an initiative known as "50+."
As the country director the for Peace Corps in Cameroon from 2002-2007, I had overseen volunteers ranging in age from 21 to 80, and had encouraged the Peace Corps to send more seasoned individuals to Cameroon.
However, I was taken aback when, in early 2007, the Peace Corps announced that it would pilot "50+" in Cameroon. Why? Because no one in our country office, including me, had ever been asked by Peace Corps headquarters if this was a good idea or whether we in Cameroon could place and support additional "50+" volunteers before the initiative was publicly announced.
The decision to announce an important initiative with no field consultation seemed to me representative of the long-standing absence of any coherent strategic thinking at the Peace Corps as well as its on-going failure to adequately plan for and support volunteers in the field.
My Op-Ed about the Peace Corps, initially written as a response to Ms. Abruzzese's piece, was published in the Times on January 9, 2008, and led to a series of other articles, which I wrote hoping that they might lead to long overdue reform at the Peace Corps.
So here is my Peace Corps Trilogy - In Six Parts
Too Many Innocents Abroad — the New York Times — January 9, 2008
The Peace Corps recently began a laudable initiative to increase the number of volunteers who are 50 and older. As the Peace Corps’ country director in Cameroon from 2002 until last February, I observed how many older volunteers brought something to their service that most young volunteers could not: extensive professional and life experience and the ability to mentor younger volunteers.
However, even if the Peace Corps reaches its goal of having 15 percent of its volunteers over 50, the overwhelming majority will remain recently minted college graduates. And too often these young volunteers lack the maturity and professional experience to be effective development workers in the 21st century.
This wasn’t the case in 1961 when the Peace Corps sent its first volunteers overseas. Back then, enthusiastic young Americans offered something that many newly independent nations counted in double and even single digits: college graduates. But today, those same nations have millions of well-educated citizens of their own desperately in need of work. So it’s much less clear what inexperienced Americans have to offer.
The Peace Corps has long shipped out well-meaning young people possessing little more than good intentions and a college diploma. What the agency should begin doing is recruiting only the best of recent graduates — as the top professional schools do — and only those older people whose skills and personal characteristics are a solid fit for the needs of the host country.
The Peace Corps has resisted doing this for fear that it would cause the number of volunteers to plummet. The name of the game has been getting volunteers into the field, qualified or not.
In Cameroon, we had many volunteers sent to serve in the agriculture program whose only experience was puttering around in their mom and dad’s backyard during high school. I wrote to our headquarters in Washington to ask if anyone had considered how an American farmer would feel if a fresh-out-of-college Cameroonian with a liberal arts degree who had occasionally visited Grandma’s cassava plot were sent to Iowa to consult on pig-raising techniques learned in a three-month crash course. I’m pretty sure the American farmer would see it as a publicity stunt and a bunch of hooey, but I never heard back from headquarters.
For the Peace Corps, the number of volunteers has always trumped the quality of their work, perhaps because the agency fears that an objective assessment of its impact would reveal that while volunteers generate good will for the United States, they do little or nothing to actually aid development in poor countries. The agency has no comprehensive system for self-evaluation, but rather relies heavily on personal anecdote to demonstrate its worth.
Every few years, the agency polls its volunteers, but in my experience it does not systematically ask the people it is supposedly helping what they think the volunteers have achieved. This is a clear indication of how the Peace Corps neglects its customers; as long as the volunteers are enjoying themselves, it doesn’t matter whether they improve the quality of life in the host countries. Any well-run organization must know what its customers want and then deliver the goods, but this is something the Peace Corps has never learned.
This lack of organizational introspection allows the agency to continue sending, for example, unqualified volunteers to teach English when nearly every developing country could easily find high-caliber English teachers among its own population. Even after Cameroonian teachers and education officials ranked English instruction as their lowest priority (after help with computer literacy, math and science, for example), headquarters in Washington continued to send trainees with little or no classroom experience to teach English in Cameroonian schools. One volunteer told me that the only possible reason he could think of for having been selected was that he was a native English speaker.
The Peace Corps was born during the glory days of the early Kennedy administration. Since then, its leaders and many of the more than 190,000 volunteers who have served have mythologized the agency into something that can never be questioned or improved. The result is an organization that finds itself less and less able to provide what the people of developing countries need — at a time when the United States has never had a greater need for their good will.
Think Again: The Peace Corps — Foreign Policy — April, 2008
In the eyes of Americans, no government agency better exemplifies the optimism, can-do spirit, and selfless nature of the United States than the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, it’s never lived up to its purpose or principles.
“The Peace Corps Is a Potent Diplomatic Weapon”
No. With diplomats stuck inside barricaded compounds or loath to venture from expatriate residential ghettos, a Peace Corps volunteer is likely to be the only representative of the U.S. government that poor, rural populations ever see. As the State Department cuts back on its public diplomacy and cultural exchange programs, the Peace Corps’ predominantly young volunteers wind up carrying more and more of the responsibility for demonstrating that the United States still has good intentions abroad.
That puts the Peace Corps and its volunteers in an awkward position. The Peace Corps was created as a separate, independent agency so that it would not be subject to short-term foreign-policy objectives. Volunteers aren’t trained or expected to represent the U.S. government, its positions, or its interests. When the Peace Corps is characterized as an effective diplomatic weapon, it is thanks to the goodwill that volunteers generate toward the American people, not toward official U.S. policy.
Unfortunately, of the tens of millions of people with whom Peace Corps volunteers have interacted during the last 47 years, many have no idea what the Peace Corps is. Few have any idea that the Peace Corps is a U.S. government agency funded 100 percent by American taxpayers. On the plus side, over my five years as a country director in Cameroon, hundreds of villagers and officials told me how happy they were simply to have volunteers in their communities. Less encouraging is that just as often, I was told how fondly they remembered the Peace Corps volunteer from Rome, Paris, or Tokyo. It’s tough to be an effective diplomatic weapon and build goodwill among nations if people don’t understand what nation you came from in the first place.
“The Peace Corps Recruits Only the Best and the Brightest”
False. The Peace Corps learned how to recruit by emulating traditional fishermen in developing countries — toss a large net and hope for the best. For decades, this system has been notoriously ineffective, sending Spanish speakers to Arabic-speaking North Africa and offering the rare, farm-raised, French-speaking applicant a job teaching English in Mongolia.
The Peace Corps claims that about 1 in 3 applicants eventually becomes a volunteer, implying that the agency is about as selective as many “elite” schools in the United States. Not long ago, the figure commonly cited was 1 in 7. Either way, the truth is that so long as applicants meet the minimum standards and are healthy and persistent, the Peace Corps rarely rejects them outright. Each group sent overseas includes a few highly motivated and capable individuals — and then there are the vast majority who before joining the Peace Corps weren’t sure what to do with their lives, were fresh out of school and seeking a government-subsidized travel experience or something to bolster their résumé, or for whom the Peace Corps represented a chance to escape a humdrum life or recent divorce.
Once overseas, the chances of being kicked out are slim. I queried my fellow country directors in Africa to find out how many trainees they had sent packing due to unacceptable performance. The figure was less than 2 percent a year, meaning that once accepted, an individual — qualified or not, motivated or not — is pretty much assured of sticking around.
Unfortunately, the Peace Corps’ failure to recruit the best isn’t limited to volunteers. Few agencies rival the Peace Corps for the percentage of political appointees filling mission-critical positions. Hardly the sexiest of sinecures, the Peace Corps’ 29 political appointments tend to be lower-level politicians, third-tier party loyalists, the relatives of elected officials, or minor political underlings who get “parked” at the Peace Corps.
“The Peace Corps Sends Volunteers Where They Are Needed Most”
Rarely. Like many bureaucracies, the Peace Corps operates predominantly on inertia. The agency sends most volunteers to the same places where volunteers have been sent before, often to do the same thing volunteers were doing 20 and 30 years ago — regardless of whether their mission still makes sense.
Reviewing the most recent U.N. Human Development Report shows that the Peace Corps is active in 10 countries with “high human development,” 49 with “medium human development,” and 11 with “low human development.” With so few resources to achieve its goals, one wonders why the Peace Corps hasn’t concentrated what little it has on the world’s poorest countries, where the need is likely greatest. Granted, half a dozen of those places are either so unstable or dangerous that there’s little hope of achieving much. But even if the Peace Corps didn’t concentrate only on the poorest of the poor, one has to question what it is still doing in Romania and Bulgaria, two countries that have already become members of the European Union.
One might also ask why there is approximately one volunteer sent to Tonga for every 3,800 Tongans but only one sent to Tanzania for every 245,000 Tanzanians. Or what the logic is of having one volunteer for every 2.5 million Mexicans when tens of thousands of Americans live in Mexico, millions of Mexicans live in the United States, and the two countries are among each others’ largest trading partners. The reason, in many cases, is that someone simply decided on a number and no one asked if it made much sense. Of course, closing a program in one country and transferring its resources to another requires explanation and large expenses, and is often resisted by the State Department and by zealous, vocal former volunteers who hate to see programs in their countries shut down.
Some will argue that wherever there are poor people the Peace Corps has a role. But with the Peace Corps’ 8,000 volunteers spread out across more than 70 countries, giving each one such a small presence guarantees that no one can say with any authority if the agency is making a difference or not.
“The Peace Corps Is a Development Organization”
Says who? Since its founding in 1961, the Peace Corps has probably sent more development workers overseas, now upward of 190,000, than any other organization. But if the Peace Corps is a development organization, then it’s a bit like the late, bug-eyed comedian Rodney Dangerfield who, no matter what happened, claimed, “I don’t get no respect.”
Indeed, if the Peace Corps were as successful at development as its literature and many volunteers and staff members attest, one would expect other organizations and scholars to cite it as a model. Yet pick up any of the recently popular books on development by Paul Collier, William Easterly, or Jeffrey Sachs, and you won’t find a single reference to the Peace Corps. Tony Blair’s 464-page Commission for Africa report? Not a word. Beyond Assistance, the 215-page report of the HELP Commission on foreign-assistance reform? Just three passing mentions.
The reason the Peace Corps is overlooked as a development organization has a lot to do with the youth and inexperience of the majority of its volunteers. Equally important is its unwillingness to decide if it is a development organization or an organization with a mission “to promote world peace and friendship,” as stipulated by Congress in the Peace Corps Act. It would like to be both, but finds itself falling short on both objectives because it cannot decide which is the more important.
Many Peace Corps staff and volunteers see development work as a burdensome obligation undertaken only to legitimize the cultural exchange aspects of the agency. But without a focus on economic development and an improvement in standards of living, the Peace Corps is really little more than an extended, government-sponsored semester-abroad program. For applicants, the Peace Corps emphasizes the personal experience, not the volunteer’s development impact. That, of course, is not how the Peace Corps pitches itself to foreign governments, to whom it promises significant technical development assistance — only to provide predominantly recent college graduates who may or may not have any useful skills to offer.
The real problem is that the Peace Corps has never done a serious job of evaluating its impact. If it is a world peace and friendship organization designed to “help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served,” then, as a start, it ought to ask the peoples served if they even know which country Peace Corps volunteers come from. If it’s a development agency, then it needs to undertake rigorous measures to assess its impact. Currently, it does neither but rather relies on biannual surveys in which volunteers comment on whether they think they are making a difference. It’s a bit like asking a bunch of doctors how they think they are doing without ever talking to the patients — or even checking to see if they are still alive.
“Locals Love Peace Corps Volunteers”
Not always. People everywhere almost always get a kick out of hearing a foreigner speaking — or trying to speak — their language. In small villages around the world, a foreigner who can use local parables correctly or dance the sacred traditional dance, or who appears content to sit around the village circle for hours on end, is a curiosity, an amusement. Lifelong attachments can and do grow. In Cameroon, dozens, if not hundreds of times, I was asked what had become of so and so, a volunteer who had served 30 or even 40 years earlier. I loved that many people had such fond memories of volunteers. For better or worse, people often loved “their” volunteers as much for the volunteer’s willingness to buy rounds of drinks as for any concrete thing he or she might have achieved.
But just as often, people were disturbed by volunteers who had set terrible examples by abusing drugs or alcohol or violating cultural sensitivities and professional norms. The Peace Corps strives to represent the diversity of the American population, but in casting its net wide, it scoops up many who represent less than the best American traditions of dedication, persistence, creativity, optimism, and honesty. Like any large organization, the Peace Corps has its share of deadbeats, philanderers, parasites, gamblers, and alcoholics. The problem is that the agency sends these people tens of thousands of miles from home and expects them to work responsibly with minimal supervision. Disasters logically result.
The Peace Corps is remarkably effective at cleaning up the messes those volunteers make and getting them back to the United States before local authorities step in. What’s less clear is the Peace Corps’ overall impact on people’s impressions and understandings of the United States. Does the goodwill generated by the small minority of great volunteers outweigh the indifference or outright hostility caused by the mediocre or truly sinister ones? The agency doesn’t know, because it doesn’t ask.
“The Peace Corps Has a Strategy”
Nope. The Peace Corps has plans, not a strategy. A strategy implies a conclusion, a final goal. The Peace Corps has none. In Washington, plans are already underway to celebrate the agency’s 50th anniversary in 2011. Celebrating half a century of existence ought to be a dubious benchmark for any development organization, particularly one that actively encourages its volunteers to “work themselves out of a job,” yet has no plans for doing so itself in any of the more than 70 countries where it is currently active.
The Peace Corps is unable to do this because it never has had any benchmarks to signal when the mission has been accomplished. In Cameroon, volunteers are still teaching math and science, the job they originally came to do in 1962. This was a situation I tried but failed to change because the placing of volunteers in the field was more important to the Peace Corps than questioning whether the Cameroonian government had failed to do its job by not training and hiring adequate numbers of local teachers over a period of more than four decades. In any case, doing the same thing for 46 years ought to indicate that something is broken, something the Peace Corps is unlikely to fix. A serious development organization would either not allow such a situation to persist or would refuse to abet it.
“The Peace Corps Is One of the Greatest Things America Has Ever Done”
Dream on. Today, the Peace Corps remains a Peter Pan organization, afraid to grow up, yet also afraid to question the thinking of its founding fathers. The rush to fulfill John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign pledge was such that the Peace Corps never learned to crawl, let alone walk, before it set off at a sprinter’s pace. The result is a schizophrenic entity, unsure if it is a development organization, a cheerleader for international goodwill, or a government-sponsored cross-cultural exchange program. In any case, the Peace Corps tries to do too many things in too many places with too few people to really get much of anything done at all.
Despite these inherent faults, the Peace Corps is probably one of the least-expensive development agencies ever created. Supporting a volunteer in the field costs just $41,000 a year, including overhead. That’s about $12,000 less than a year’s worth of tuition, room, and board at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a small fraction of the cost of supporting a single American diplomat or USAID worker in a developing country. The agency has long prided itself on doing more with a dollar than most other development outfits. Peace Corps Press Director Amanda Beck estimates that the agency’s direct expenditures per volunteer are actually only $3,000 a year. But if that is the case, one then has to wonder what the Peace Corps is doing with the other $38,000 it spends per year for each volunteer. However you count it, the agency’s relative leanness says more about the lack of significant results in the development business than it does about the Peace Corps’ cost effectiveness.
Based predominantly on the life-changing experiences volunteers had while serving, the Peace Corps continues to generate strong support from the American people. But for the agency to approach its potential, deep, substantive changes must be made.
Sargent Shriver, the agency’s first director, recognized that a “Peace Corps, small and symbolic, might be good public relations, but a Peace Corps that was large and had a major impact on problems in other countries could transform the economic development of the world,” according to former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford. Because the Peace Corps has tried to be all things to all comers, that grand vision has never been realized or even approached. To become effective and relevant, the Peace Corps must now give up on the myth that its creation was the result of an immaculate conception that can never be questioned or altered. It must go out and recruit the best of the best. It must avoid goodwill-generating window dressing and concentrate its resources in a limited number of countries that are truly interested in the development of their people. And it must give up on the risible excuse that in the absence of quantifiable results, good intentions are enough. Only then will it be able to achieve its original objective of significantly altering the lives of millions for the better.
Peace Corps Blues — NPR Weekend Edition Saturday — May 17, 2008
At college commencement time, some graduates explore Peace Corps opportunities. For nearly 50 years, the agency has been sending Americans all over the world. Scott Simon talks with Robert Strauss, former country director of the Peace Corps in Cameroon. Strauss says that the Peace Corps has lost its edge for assisting developing countries and the U.S.
What the Peace Corps Could Do — WorldView (National Peace Corps Association quarterly magazine) — Fall 2008
As a former volunteer, recruiter, consultant and country director, I am a firm believer that Peace Corps could be one of our country’s greatest initiatives. Unfortunately, and to the detriment of volunteers, staff and host countries, the agency’s organizational culture and administrative policies have prevented it from ever approaching that potential. I believe the following steps would reinvigorate the agency and solve many long-standing problems.
Table Any Discussion of Growth for Five Years
Calculated in real dollars, support for volunteers has been dropping for years. Expanding the number of volunteers without a major budget increase is irresponsible and a formula for ineffectiveness and dissatisfaction. Peace Corps is not the only virtuous organization strapped for funds. In today’s environment of enormous federal deficits, pleading and hand wringing will not to cause manna to fall. What Peace Corps needs to do is use its current budget more effectively. The first step would be to work only in countries that are stable, needy and serious about improving their citizens’ quality of life. This will require a system to select high potential partners. Operating in 50 or fewer such nations would free up millions of dollars, which would allow Peace Corps to…
Fix the Basics
Peace Corps started off sprinting in 1961 and has never caught its breath. Astonishingly, 47 years later, some things as basic as standard forms and consistent policies don’t exist. Peace Corps must get out of its perpetual crisis management mode and focus on developing systems designed to achieve meaningful results in the field. That done, Peace Corps will be able to ask Congress for increased funding because it will be able to show that it is using public money responsibly. This will require…
Getting Serious About Impact
Whether one believes that Peace Corps is first and foremost a goodwill and cross-cultural exchange organization or first and foremost a development agency, it’s more than time for it to be measuring impact. Without credible evidence of real results, Peace Corps will remain on life support, getting nowhere near enough to make big, lasting differences in the lives of millions. This will require implementing…
A Much Higher Standard of Volunteer Performance
Too many Volunteers do not take their roles seriously, and use their unpaid status as an excuse for being AWOL or not doing their work in a professional manner. To make its expectations clear, Peace Corps must set much higher recruitment standards and then make sure candidates, both staff and volunteers, are sent to countries where their experience can be put to work effectively. This will require that Peace Corps…
Focus on a Limited Number of Technical Fields
Currently Peace Corps often offers watered-down debutantism in lieu of the expertise that developing countries want. Concentrating on a limited number of technical fields would allow the agency to improve its training and its ability to give people information they can use. Computer literacy, NGO management, assistance with applied research projects, management of water resources and improvement of agricultural productivity are among the areas in which volunteers could provide expertise that other countries may lack. Whether it does this or not, Peace Corps must…
Exponentially Increase Support to Volunteers
Regular, disciplined supervision is part of any well-run organization. With most volunteers working in unfamiliar circumstances, Peace Corps should provide much greater supervision than “normal” organizations. Yet it provides far less. Every volunteer should be visited by a Peace Corps supervisor at least every six weeks. These visits need to offer in-depth technical information, administrative assistance, and psychological support when needed. The result will be greater effectiveness and a dramatic reduction in avoidable dramas and disasters. Performance is important across the board and that is why…
The Number of Political Appointees Must Be Cut 90%
The Government Accountability Office has 3,300 employees. It has two political appointees. Peace Corps has a slightly higher number of employees and around 30 political appointees. Most political appointees get their get their jobs because they are “owed” one and not because of their expertise or passion. At Peace Corps the finish line is much further away than the next cycle of congressional or presidential elections. There simply is no role for extensive staffing by unqualified political appointees. Dramatically reducing the number of appointees won’t mean much unless…
The Five-Year Rule is Eliminated
According to the 2001 Workforce Analysis, staff tenure at Peace Corps averages 18 months. Having a constantly churning staff overseen by a constantly churning cadre of political appointees is why Peace Corps has reinvented the wheel more times than Fred Flintstone. In the 1960s it was a nice idea to think that forcing people out would result in a creative, dynamic organization. The result has been exactly the opposite; an inefficient, stagnant organization with no institutional memory. Peace Corps ought to be the world's most effective development organization. The churn caused by the five-year rule works directly against that objective. No one is around long enough to master how things work or to see substantive changes through to completion. By causing it to throw out the dead wood AND the good wood, Peace Corps has enshrined a rule that is much worse than no rule at all.
Getting Peace Corps on the right track after so many years of squandering its potential will not be easy. Many other issues need to be addressed. These include reducing the economic barriers that prevent many from ever considering Peace Corps, implementing creative solutions to the obstacles of a uniform length of service, creating a GI-type bill for RPCVs, establishing a truly independent Inspector General's office focused on malfeasance while creating a truly empowered, credible and competent evaluation division to assess impact objectively.
Some of these actions might take years to implement. The ones detailed in this article could be put in place quickly and to great impact. All that’s needed now is the managerial will to leave the past behind and guide Peace Corps to a future that will shine as brightly as its initial promise.
Grow Up - How to Fix the Peace Corps — The American Interest — Jan/Feb 2010
Ever since I first joined the Peace Corps in 1978 as a health-education volunteer assigned to a rudimentary clinic in rural Liberia, the only job I ever really wanted was to be a Peace Corps country director. So I suppose it's a bit odd that when I finally interviewed for that position, I was dressed only in my underwear. I got the job anyway, but the experience forced me to see, once again, that my situation symbolized something that's been true about the Peace Corps since its very beginning: that it has been consistently, awkwardly under-prepared to achieve its objectives.
Perhaps this was inevitable given the Peace Corps's lofty, idealist origins. In October 1960, in the final weeks of a dead-heat campaign with Richard Nixon for the presidency, Senator John F. Kennedy made the following remarks at two o'clock in the morning while speaking to students in Ann Arbor, Michigan:
"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? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past."
Kennedy's words captured the public's imagination, igniting a spark that the "ask not" passage of his Inaugural fanned into full flame on January 21, 1961. For thousands of young people weaned on the existential wanderlust epitomized by Jack Kerouac's recently published On the Road, Kennedy's suggestion that the youth of America could get up, go somewhere, and do something that might actually make a difference seemed the perfect antidote to the ennui and complacency of 1950s America. The President's charisma and youthful energy only magnified that appeal. Even before it had a name, a "peace corps" was an unstoppable idea whose time had come.
Getting the program off the ground became one of the Kennedy Administration's first initiatives. Naming Sargent Shriver, the President's charismatic and photogenic brother-in-law, as the nascent agency's first director guaranteed the Peace Corps an indelible presence at Camelot's round table. Yet despite Shriver's relentless efforts to get the fledgling to fly (an effort in which he was assisted by a brain trust that included Bill Moyers and Harris Wofford, among other luminaries), the Peace Corps never realized the dream that it had so effectively implanted in the public's imagination: that a volunteer army of young people could redress the legacy of colonialism while bringing the world's newly independent nations into the fold of the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Half a century later, it all sounds wildly naive and excessively optimistic, almost like an adolescent's fantasy. The Peace Corps has never approached the scope its founders envisioned: 100,000 volunteers to be sent overseas every year. Forty-eight years later, the U.S. government has not yet managed to send 200,000 overseas. Total. No Administration has ever come close to funding the original ambition. The Peace Corps, which has worked in 139 countries and is today operational in more than seventy, gets by on a measly $375 million or so a year, the rough equivalent of what the U.S. government still spends every 28 hours in Iraq, and less than what our government is said to provide for military marching bands. But it's not just the money that hasn't been there; the whole organization has failed to mature. It's caught in a kind of Groundhog Day time warp that has it reliving the same hopes and the same failures over and over again.
The Peace Corps can still be an effective organization. It can make itself worthy of much larger budgets, but to see how, we first have to look below the Peace Corps's carefully polished public image and into the substance of its earthly condition. I have seen it from many angles, and it's not a pretty sight.
In the two decades that elapsed between my time as a volunteer and my rejoining the agency in 2002 as country director for Cameroon, I acquired an MBA and MA from Stanford and worked as a management consultant for organizations around the globe, including projects for the Peace Corps in Fiji, Nepal and Belize. During many of my overseas assignments, I had the chance to observe Peace Corps volunteers in the field as an outsider. As had been the case during my 27 months in Liberia, what confronted me in each encounter was the huge disparity between the Peace Corps's public reputation and the reality in the field. Each observation reconfirmed for me what a fellow volunteer had said many years ago — that "Peace Corps is the worst-run example of good intentions I've ever seen."
As a veteran of what an advertising campaign called "the toughest job you'll ever love," I have a bipolar relationship with the agency. I have always loved the idea of the Peace Corps, but have been embarrassed and sometimes even ashamed by the reality of it. So many well-intentioned people have gone overseas, dreamily transported by the lofty rhetoric of the early Kennedy days, only to find that in their country of assignment the Peace Corps hardly knew what it was doing, and was coasting along on little more than good intentions and reputation. As tens of thousands of volunteers have said, those who succeeded in their jobs typically did so in spite of the Peace Corps, not because of it. Decades later, it's hard to say that the Peace Corps has done a good job of achieving any of its three original goals: helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for skilled men and women; promoting a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and promoting a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. The Peace Corps has always simply assumed that its good intentions justified its existence, whether the results have been good, bad, negligible or non-existent.
I first got a taste of Peace Corps's substitution of wishful thinking for professionalism when I applied to be a volunteer in 1978. As a Russian and economics major, I had no business volunteering to be a health educator. But my recruiter had suggested that a few weekends of volunteering at an emergency room would probably bolster my application sufficiently for me to make the cut. And so it did. Five months later, I was a Peace Corps trainee in Bendu, a small village on the shores of Lake Piso near the Liberian border with Sierra Leone.
Some of my fellow trainees' résumés were even slighter than mine. There was the fellow who showed up to orientation in Philadelphia with a dime glued to the middle of his forehead. (He said it was in case he needed to phone home.) There was another fellow, this one flown to orientation from his home in Alaska, who was taken aback when the Liberian Deputy Minister of Health, a UCLA graduate, said he didn't want to see any more "mocha-colored Peace Corps babies" left behind in his country. A few of us guys took offense at the suggestion that we were joining the Peace Corps for the potential action rather than because we wanted to make a difference. But the fellow from Alaska apparently saw it differently. He raised his hand and asked what the problem was; "If you knock somebody up, doesn't Peace Corps just fly you home?" Presumably, these two, who thankfully never made it onto the plane, had gotten as far as Philadelphia after a series of background checks, interviews and some thoughtful reflection.
But perhaps I'm presuming too much, which brings me back to interviewing for the Peace Corps country director position in my underwear. I first applied for a country director slot nearly twenty years ago, when the position was still a low-level, not-ready-for-prime-time political appointment reserved for those who hadn't contributed enough to become backwater Ambassadors or USAID country directors. I hadn't contributed a dime to any political campaign but figured I had the necessary requirements; I had a fancy MBA and a couple years of globe-trotting work experience.
Compared to what I had seen, that looked like more than enough. Once, while on a consulting assignment in Southern Africa, I ran into another former volunteer from Liberia, and we decided to go out clubbing. There weren't a lot of choices, so we landed in a dump on the outskirts of town that was clad in corrugated roofing. Inside, there was a floorshow the likes of which I hope never to see again. A heavyset woman was dancing slowly in the middle of the floor as four or five young, lithe men writhed against her from all sides. It was like a slow-motion disco version of a queen bee being smeared with royal jelly. It was such a distasteful scene that I found myself recounting it the next day to someone from the U.S. Embassy. "Oh", the young FSO said. "So you've seen our Peace Corps director."
If anything, this episode increased my interest in becoming a country director, or "CD." I wanted to be proud of the organization I consider one of my alma maters. Another inspiration was a recollection from my time in Liberia. There, my own country director had failed to show up for the dedication of a school I had helped complete — this despite the presence of the Liberian President and the American Ambassador, whose every movement was reported 24/7 on national radio and television. What the country director had done was go to a village with the same name as the one to which I was assigned, but in an entirely different part of Liberia. If this guy, a White House Fellow, had made the cut, I figured I could, too. I, at least, knew how to read a map and that it would be bad form for a Peace Corps country director to be associated with the lyrics of Love for Sale. But it was not to be with that application; I never got past the "thank you for your interest" stage.
The next time I applied was shortly after 9/11. I had received an email advising me that the Peace Corps was looking for country director candidates. Even though two decades of off-again, on-again experience told me the Peace Corps would never change, patriotism got the better of me, and I applied. There would be a one-on-one interview over the phone and, if that went well, a four-on-one panel interview. I passed round one and was invited to Washington for the panel interview — at my own expense.
Being a Peace Corps country director is a bit like being a lieutenant colonel in the military; you may be far from the general command, but you're still responsible for everything that goes on at the front. It's hard to imagine the Army asking a potential field commander to pay his or her own way to a job interview, but that's the way it was with the Peace Corps.
It was a penny-wise, pound-foolish policy that captures a lot of what is wrong with the agency and an organizational culture that glorifies youthful energy over thoughtful focus, or wishful thinking over considered strategies and quantifiable metrics. The Peace Corps has always justified its frugality by insisting that every dollar go toward putting as many volunteers in the field as possible. Never mind that this meant forgoing expenditures that other organizations, and even other government agencies, consider mandatory: adequate staff to supervise hundreds of young people, many of whom have never been overseas before; foreign cost-of-living adjustments for overseas staff; intensive, regular strategic planning at the global and country levels; or even a line item for office furniture.
As regards the panel interview, in my case, I had an immovable scheduling conflict. "Couldn't the interview be done over the phone?" I asked. They balked at first, but then agreed. And so at the appointed time, I did the interview over the phone, while sitting in my home office in my underwear. When I showed up at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington a few weeks later for 22 days of staff training, no one had ever seen me in person. Fewer than a dozen people had spoken to me about the job. It seemed a very odd way to bring an essential field manager on board, but it was standard operating procedure for the Peace Corps.
I should have known what I was getting into. I knew that, while many current and former volunteers are rightly proud of what they did, or tried to do, very few would argue that the Peace Corps had made good use of their time, was a well-run organization, was rigorous about the countries in which it operated or the projects it undertook, or that the people it sent overseas, as a whole, possessed what was needed to make a substantive difference in the lives of millions. As the Peace Corps nears its fiftieth anniversary in 2011, one wonders how, given that volunteers still spend a great part of their spare time complaining about what a mess the agency is, it has escaped close scrutiny and resisted substantive change for so long.
As a former volunteer, I wanted to be a country director because I wanted to help make the agency better, make it into something worthy of the ablest of the people who volunteer, as well as of the generous and forgiving folks overseas who have been housing, working and interacting with Peace Corps volunteers all these years. During my time as a CD, I sent so much commentary back to headquarters (constructive criticism, to my way of thinking) that one of the agency's top staffers said I must have worn the letters off my computer keyboard. Yet the agency, which has promoted itself as a vehicle for change overseas, remains remarkably resistant to change within.
My internal communiqués led to few substantive changes at the Peace Corps. They did lead to my being recalled to Washington, where I was warned that my job would be on the line if I didn't shut up about my many concerns: the lack of budget and staff to get the job done, the youth and inexperience of most individuals being sent overseas, the Peace Corps's image in the United States taking precedence over its impact overseas, the appointment of politicians with little or no relevant experience to key senior positions at headquarters, and the vulnerability of the agency's overseas offices to terrorist attack. As it happened, I left the agency in 2007, having made very little progress at nudging the agency out of its lethargy. I continued tilting at the Peace Corps windmill, however, as in a January 2008 New York Times op-ed in which I urged the agency to focus on recruiting mature, professional individuals - something I thought harmless enough and not terribly radical for an organization whose first goal is to provide countries with technical expertise. The official response from then-Peace Corps director Ronald A. Tschetter was that nothing was wrong with the Peace Corps. He further encouraged "Americans of all ages and backgrounds to consider serving." The sentiment was parroted by Senator Chris Dodd, himself a former volunteer of the era when service in the Peace Corps provided an automatic exemption from the draft (and Vietnam), who called for the Peace Corps to double its size.
In subsequent essays I pressed the issue, suggesting several concrete steps, none of them earth-shattering, that the Peace Corps could take to improve its operations, including:
Tabling any discussion of enlarging the Peace Corps until it fixes the basics regarding administration, recruiting, country selection and volunteer placement;
Reducing the number of political appointees from around thirty to two or three;
Getting rid of the Peace Corps's unique-in-government rule, which forces 85 percent of all American staff members out of the agency, along with whatever expertise they have gained, after a maximum of five years of employment;
Exponentially increasing support to volunteers so that they are visited and supervised directly every six weeks rather than every six months, as is currently the norm under the best of conditions;
Getting serious about doing meaningful, quantifiable work that makes a difference in standards of living overseas;
Demanding a much higher standard of volunteer performance (and a much lower AWOL rate);
Providing post-service benefits, comparable to the GI bill, so that more Americans would serve in the Peace Corps in the first place;
Focusing on a limited number of technical fields that would give volunteers true expertise to offer; and
Allowing terms of service shorter than the standard 24 months so that, again, more people could consider serving.
Despite these suggestions and an ambitious effort led by a husband and wife team of former volunteers, Chuck Ludlum and Paula Hirshoff, that has produced hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of testimony about the Peace Corps's many failings, the official response from Washington has been simply to assert again and again that everything is swell.
Why does the Peace Corps continue to stonewall the kind of change so many of its alumni would like to see? The answer is, I suspect, like the proverbial dog who pleasures himself - simply because it can. The Peace Corps has no significant constituency to which it must respond. Pesky volunteers (or staff members) move on after a couple of years. (According to a 2001 study, average American staff tenure at the Peace Corps was just 18 months.) Of the agency's 200,000 alumni, fewer than 5 percent, an anemic number by any standard, belong to the National Peace Corps Association. The agency's budget is the equivalent of dryer lint at the bottom of the Federal budgetary pocket. And aside from the embattled Senator Dodd, the agency, as an independent organization, has no powerful friends in Congress.
Because almost no one cares about the Peace Corps one way or the other, the agency could, if it wanted, try something more radical than sending recent college grads to teach HIV/AIDS awareness to indifferent villagers or English to unmotivated students who spy few job prospects on their horizons even if they speak English. But doing so would require admitting that the world is not the same in 2010 as it was in 1961, and that maybe the Kennedy brain trust didn't get it quite right back then, when people knew even less about development than they do now (hard as that may be to imagine).
Change in any organization takes dedicated leadership, determination and a pay-off worth the cost of all the hassle. With the typical Peace Corps director sticking around for just a couple of years, who would want to take the heat from those who would rather not question the status quo — particularly about a program that, for a small number of aging zealots, still gives off Camelot's only vestigial glow? So rather than being a dynamic, experimental, cutting-edge organization, the Peace Corps, like most bureaucracies, rarely learns from its mistakes. Indeed, it rarely admits it makes any mistakes. For example, shouldn't someone from the Peace Corps staff have figured out, after nearly fifty years of experience, that the trainee they sent us in Cameroon who packed all her belongings in transparent plastic garbage bags might not be the ideal person to help others with their needs? Or that the trainee who had never lived outside her parents' house might have some adjustment problems? Or that even operating in a country like Cameroon, which regularly appears near the top of Transparency International's corruption index, might not be fertile ground for getting much done?
One of the reasons the Peace Corps ignores such matters concerns what some have called the agency's unwritten "fourth goal" — that the Peace Corps exists to help young Americans without much direction or focused ambition to grow up. The thinking is that maybe life overseas will stimulate personal growth and, ultimately, maturity. But life overseas in loosely structured, poorly supervised situations is, with few exceptions, a formula for boredom, depression, desertion and generally getting into trouble. As a country director, I would have kicked myself (as a volunteer) out of the Peace Corps. While still a trainee, I had already gotten high, left the country and been in a motorcycle accident — all grounds for expulsion. And that was just in one day. Things haven't gotten any better with Generation Y or the Millennials.
One cannot fault the Peace Corps for any lack of idealism, or naivety. Years after its founding, it continues to send under-qualified people to work — without adequate support or supervision — for cynical, corrupt, self-serving regimes while still believing that this is all for the greater good. This organizational delusion is a shame because the Peace Corps could actually be a model for doing good overseas. It just needs to drop the idea that its good intentions excuse ineffectiveness and put a dozen or two sensible policies into force. In addition to what I have already mentioned, the following eight fixes would go a long way to resuscitating the original Peace Corps mission.
First, get over thinking that the Peace Corps will ever have an effective worldwide presence, either as a development or a cultural-exchange organization. And forget about hare-brained initiatives such as the current attempt to increase the Peace Corps's presence in majority-Muslim countries. One hundred or one thousand volunteers, no matter how helpful, friendly, courteous, kind or optimistic, are never going to make a significant impact on how the Muslim world views the United States. The Peace Corps needs to steal a page from the Millennium Challenge Corporation playbook and get serious about working with serious partners on behalf of well-defined and reasonable goals. Set some criteria for what a country needs to have happening on the ground before it is deemed eligible for a Peace Corps program — simple things like minimal respect for the rule of law, press freedom and a real commitment to economic development. Revisit this list every five years, with a clear possibility of the Peace Corps directing its limited budget elsewhere if the country isn't serious. We need to stop wasting money racing in and out of countries like Haiti and Chad, places that have never been stable enough to take development seriously and are unlikely to do so any time soon.
Second, assign more volunteers to outstanding people-to-people organizations and fewer to government agencies that, even in the best of circumstances, rarely work better than the post office (on a good day). In other words, place volunteers with organizations in countries disposed to success rather than solo in places likely to guarantee 24 months of head-banging frustration.
Third, stop moaning about how much money everybody else gets (like those military bands), and start doing something substantive with what the Peace Corps does get. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all pledged more support for the Peace Corps, and it never happened. Given current economic constraints, this is unlikely to change (despite an impressive recent grassroots campaign launched by the National Peace Corps Association). Accept the fact that presidential candidates (and Presidents, too) pull the Peace Corps off the shelf when they need a little feel-good publicity or an applause line, and then promptly shelve it for another four years.
Fourth, set some objective criteria for what it takes to get into the Peace Corps as a volunteer. For younger people without a track record, how about a demonstrated commitment to volunteerism, such as one or two years in AmeriCorps or CityYear? And forget the unwritten fourth goal of the Peace Corps being a place for young Americans to "expand their horizons." Host countries aren't interested in Americans who are searching for life's meaning; they're looking for people who can get stuff done. Americans who are lost, whether young or old, don't often "find themselves" in developing countries. More typically, they find that they really like flush toilets and being able to keep up with who's doing what to whom on the latest episode of Lost.
Fifth, make development the priority. If the Peace Corps really started helping people to improve their standards of living, mutual understanding and goodwill among humankind and nations would follow. Right now, believe it or not, the Peace Corps says its number one priority is the safety and security of volunteers. Of course, this is a concern for every organization, but that doesn't mean it should be a strategic goal. How did this happen? Several years ago, a volunteer in Latin America, someone who was probably under-supervised in the first place, went missing and has never been found. At about the same time, President Bush appointed a former police officer as Peace Corps director. Subsequently the agency concentrated a huge amount of time and money on developing a safety and security group that has had no demonstrable effect on making volunteers safer or more secure. Why? Because the Peace Corps continues to send the wrong people to the wrong countries to do jobs that are ill-defined and under-supported.
Sixth, put enough staff in the field to supervise and support volunteers. At the Peace Corps, for every ten volunteers out on the front lines there is maybe one person backing them up in the rear. In the military, the ratio is reversed. The Peace Corps's formula is beyond penny-wise, pound-foolish. Volunteers can be AWOL for weeks and no one in the office knows about it. Cell phones and emails only abet the absentee volunteer, because they can be anywhere and pretend to be at work. Nothing can replace face-to-face contact when it comes to supervision.
Seventh, accept that the world has been going urban for centuries and that more and more of the world's needy are living in urban squats, not in straw and mud shacks out in the bush. When, for safety and security reasons, the Peace Corps doesn't send volunteers into urban environments, it is neglecting a huge portion of its target population, rendering it more irrelevant in the fight against poverty and deprivation than it already is.
Finally, start matching applicants to specific jobs. The Peace Corps says that this is too difficult, so it continues to match applicants and jobs only in a general kind of way, like telling people they are under consideration for an "environmental education program in French-speaking Africa." Few trainees are told where they will be assigned until many weeks after their arrival overseas. No wonder so many volunteers wind up ill-suited for the jobs they are given, and that so many give up in frustration and leave their assignments early.
At the Peace Corps headquarters at the corner of 20th and L Streets in downtown Washington, DC, plans are already well underway to celebrate the agency's fiftieth anniversary in March 2011. At that time, we can expect to hear all kinds of anecdotal testimony about how the Peace Corps transformed lives that were otherwise headed down the road to nowhere in neglected and forlorn locations around the world. These stories will be moving and heartfelt. We can even expect to hear several current and former heads of state testify that, without the early intervention in their lives of an energetic Peace Corps volunteer, their professional trajectory might have taken a very different path.
Unfortunately, the sentimental, "we are the world" ethos likely to prevail at these events will testify to the exceptions rather than to the rule of the Peace Corps's effectiveness. The Peace Corps has lasted as long as it has because it is based on hope and faith — hope that someday, somehow, the policies, tactics and strategies that have failed it for so long will start working. I suppose this makes the Peace Corps one of the original faith-based organizations.
What the Peace Corps needs to do now is accept that its first five decades were a noble but largely failed experiment in good intentions. It needs to imagine what a "peace corps" being created for the first time today would look like, and re-invent itself in that image. The Peace Corps should never give up on hope. But it does need to learn to distinguish hope and dreams from facts and results, and it needs above all to turn the power of hope on itself.
The Peace Corps at Fifty — KQED Forum — February 25, 2011