Peter Loan retired this month after 17 years with the agency over a 38 year span.  In those years, he spent 9 with the Africa Region, including 3 years in Zaire (DRC), and work in the Office of Program and Budget, International Operations, the Office of the Director, (Policy, Planning and Analysis) the Office of Training and Program Support, and Management. His most recent job was managing the Office of Overseas Staff Recruitment and Selection.

1-peace-corps-office1When he wasn’t working for the agency, he was Director of International Grant Programs for Sister Cities International, taught international students at National Louis University, College of Management, and he was on the faculty of the Graduate School, USDA, where he led the International Development Seminar and also taught Swahili.

With his wife, Ceola, he co-founded Brown and Loan Associates, a management and cross-cultural training firm.

He has also published several books human development,  as well as written widely on the subject. All of this started in the ’60s when, as a Maryknoll priest, he taught agricultural and leadership in rural Tanzania.

In “saying goodbye”  to the Peace Corps he penned a reflective piece about his experiences with the agency, and his hope for the future of the Peace Corps. I think we will all benefit, and learn, from his “Reflections” as we say goodbye to Peter and wish him well. He will be missed.

Reflections

My 17 years with Peace Corps have taken place over a span of 38 years, from 1976 to 2014.  I have worked with Peace Corps in five of its six decades, and have served under nine Peace Corps directors, including 4 of the five female directors, and in six different presidential administrations.  My Peace Corps service has taken me to 17 countries in three regions, and has included working in five different organizational units and seven different offices.

I have seen a lot.

I have worked with Peace Corps in field situations where there was no possibility of real time contact with headquarters; and I have worked with Peace Corps in situations where headquarters learned about an incident at post before the country director did.

I have worked with Peace Corps when it had nearly 400 US direct hire staff (USDH) in the field, and when it had less than 200 USDH in the field.

I have worked with the Peace Corps when the majority of volunteers were men, and when the majority were women.

I have seen a lot.

I have worked with Peace Corps when present in 97 countries, and when present in 65 countries.

I have worked with Peace Corps when the United States had many friends around the world, when it had not so many and when it struggled to keep the friends it had.

I have worked with the Peace Corps when we might not hear from a volunteer for a year, and have been with the Peace Corps when we expect to hear from every Volunteer at least weekly, if not more frequently.

I have been with the Peace Corps when headquarters staff were fiercely protective, even combative regarding Peace Corps’ separation from State Department.  And I have been at Peace Corps when State department has directly funded overseas programs.

I have seen Peace Corps develop stunning materials about volunteers as development agents, as change agents; and I have seen Peace Corps directors deny that Peace Corps is a development agency.

I have seen a lot.

I have seen a Peace Corps that provided marvelous opportunities for staff advancement, with the use of middle management stepping stones; and I have seen a Peace Corps where advancement was difficult because the gaps were too wide.

I have been with Peace Corps when staff at all levels became involved in creative problem solving; and I have been with Peace Corps when the five year rule seemed to some the cause of many of the agency’s problems.

I have worked in Peace Corps offices where staff were eager and excited to get to work in the morning; and I have worked in offices where staff counted the minutes till they could leave.

I have seen a lot.

I have been describing, of course, evidence of Peace Corps in different geo-political environments, different organizational cultural environments, different global communications environments.  I hope we are comfortable with the notion that Peace Corps changes as the world around it changes.  And the world around it is changing rapidly.

When I returned to Peace Corps in 2011 I heard that there was a group of theologians on staff.  I was puzzled and somewhat pleased, and being a theologian by training, I wondered whether I could become one of them.  It saddened me to learn that they were all guys, because one of the most exciting developments in the field of theology over the past 25 years has been the appearance of influential women theologians who have revitalized a body of thinkers that was becoming much too inbred.  Nevertheless, I still wanted to be a part of them, and even renamed them; they were Maimonides, Kierkegaard and Newman.

You can imagine my distress when I learned that the term theologian at the Peace Corps was not meant as one of affirmation, but one of denigration.  These theologians were not in good graces at the Peace Corps; they were thorns, tolerated, to be sure, but with resignation and annoyance, as with ants at a picnic.

When theology is at its best and most valuable, it begins not with dogmatic statements, but with questions, great questions that spur deep thinking and creativity.  These questions open minds and move people to imagine a better condition, a better way of living, a world that affirms and does not denigrate.

As I reflect on my years with the Peace Corps over these many decades, I note that within the organization, when questions have come before statements, when communication structures have been broadly horizontal, when leadership and authority have not been so closely aligned, and when decision making has not been so very centralized, then the agency most nearly has resembled a learning organization, more often has crafted creative solutions to its challenges and usually has gotten the most out of its talented and passionate staff.   One the other hand, when communication structures have been more nearly vertical, when leadership and authority have been closely aligned, when decisions have been made by a few and issued as statements, the agency has more often floundered in its task of supporting its volunteers.  It has then been less creative in crafting solutions to pressing issues, less empowering of its staff, less able to respond to its ever changing global environment.

When not with Peace Corps I have not followed the internal goings-on of the agency.  I continue to think of it however, especially trying to imagine what these changing environments may require of it.  On the other hand, when I have been with Peace Corps I have been one of its biggest critics.  And usually the critique has to do with how it can do a better job of managing, surviving really, in these continually changing environments.  So when I worry about how we can be better I worry about things like:

    • The world is urbanizing very rapidly. Peace Corps still tends to like rural placements. How will it prepare itself for a world of thirty years from now?
    • Peace Corps has had a preference for the poorest of the poor, restated in the 70s in terms of basic human needs, and in the 90s as directing resources towards those least able to meet their development needs. But only 29% of Peace Corps programs today are in low development countries - with the majority in mid and high development countries. How can Peace Corps be more creative and effective in imagining how to stretch its hands to more of the world’s poor?
    • Peace Corps Volunteers make friends for America - they are America’s best ambassadors. But they can’t continue to make friends for America in countries that aren’t already officially friends to the United States, and the United States has been losing friends steadily since the end of the Cold War. How can State Department and Peace Corps jointly craft a new type of Peace Corps presence - one that will permit volunteers safely to form friendships in countries that have lost faith with the United States, one that will not require the huge organizational presence that typifies Peace Corps overseas posts?
    • There are cracks in the US higher education infrastructure. Young people can learn as much out of college as they can within. And corporations are better at training for jobs than are universities. Where will Peace Corps get its Volunteers 30 years from now?

These are but few examples of open ended questions that can spur the agency to be more creative, more self-energizing and more comfortable with uncertainty, which has become the hallmark of the present age.  There are many other questions that we could craft that would help push the agency towards the future and protect it from the folly of driving while looking backwards.  That the agency had the vision and the boldness to ask a great question in 2010 is a sign of encouragement.  That question was, “If the Peace Corps were created today, what should it look like?”

The fact that the agency answered a completely different question upon which it built a multitude of improvements does not diminish the greatness of that question.  Nor has it gone away.  It remains to be addressed.  Addressing this question will virtually assure that the Peace Corps move confidently into a world more rapidly changing, more chaotic and more uncertain than the world in which John Kennedy lived and dreamed big.

My wish for all of us is that we dream big, share our dreams broadly and act collaboratively to make them come true.

Peter Loan

January, 2014