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.1
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.