I am compelled by John Coyne’s piece on the Peace Corps in which he cites my comments on the state of the Peace Corps today to explain some of my comments. First of all, I would remind John that after saying the three goals of the Peace Corps were still goals not yet attained,I said that the Peace Corps had succeeded “brilliantly” in creating an image, an icon if you will, of America at its best. I urged, and still urge, the Peace Corps to focus on, nay dedicate itself to, preserving that image.
I would add to creating an image of America at its best, the Corps also responded to John Kennedy’s hope that Peace Corps service would encourage a lifetime of service, specifically naming the Foreign Service. I along with many other RPCVs did go into the Foreign Service, and while I entered the State Department, most of us worked in the US Agency for International Development (USAID). And in contrast to John’s juxtaposition of “pin stripe pants” and “Floral dresses” to the down to earth Peace Corps approach, we carried our Peace Corps experience and attitudes with us into the Foreign Service. If you do not believe me just ask any Foreign Service Officer who did not serve in the Peace Corp.
As for my comment about the Peace Corps and the first goal, to assist less fortunate peoples of the world, I speak of 7000 Peace Corps Volunteers in a world where half its population of 7 billion live in poverty . I know we are good but the reality is that we are just a drop in the bucket.
That being said I do not deny the amazing contributions made by each and every Volunteer. I had my own accomplishments that I came to realize when I met the Eritrean Ambassador to the United Nations some 30 years after leaving my Peace Corps service in Asmara, now the capital of Eritrea. He stopped my introduction by saying, “Leo Cecchini needs no introduction to the Eritrean Liberation Army.” He went on to say that as a student at the middle school next door to the high school where I coached the school’s soccer team that it was his, and all his classmates, dream to play soccer under me on one of my “championship” teams. He implied that it was the dream of every young boy in a city of over 200,000 people. It took me awhile to absorb the import of his comments, I had literally affected the lives of hundreds if not thousands of young men in that city.
Of course the youngsters with whom I shared a real bond were the ones who did play for me and who tried to play on my teams. I literally became a second father and friend to dozens of young men through the sport. And my players came from all walks of life, from the sons of the richest men in the town, largely military officers and government officials, to boys whose first pair of shoes they ever wore were the soccer shoes I bought for the team from my meagre Peace Corps stipend. I treated them all equally and to play they had to follow the rules.
I also had my problem players who, while athletically talented, struggled in the classroom. I was their tutor as well and had frequent discussions with my Peace Corps colleagues to give them the benefit of the doubt in order to be eligible to play. One of them, Dessalyn, was a constant cause for concern. I met him ten years after leaving Asmara when on a visit to Ethiopia found him to be the manager of the hotel I stayed at in the port city of Missawa. So my struggle to keep him elgible paid off in his graduating and becoming a properous and productive member of the community.
In contrast, my star player, Ogbaselassie, was also a stellar student who I was taken to call the “Jack Armstrong” of Ethiopia. He went on to play soccer in college, get a medical degree and become Ethiopia’s first home grown gynecologist. Unfortunately he became close to the military dictatorship that ran the country from 1974 to 1991 and had to join the top leaders of that regime in exile in Zimbabwe.
Now one could say that inspiring young men to do their best by playing on a soccer team had little to do with improving the lives of Ethiopians. However, that inspiration did stimulate these young men to do their best and work hard to achieve their goals. And they turned this hard work and desire to a whole range of life works that benefited the country.
No, we all had our personal success stories but these did not overcome the reality that the small number of Peace Corps Volunteers, 220,000 over the span of 50 years, did not make a major change in the plight of the world’s poor. As a symbol, yes, but as an actor, no.
Far more important to overcoming the world’s poverty was my work as a diplomat and private businessman in creating, shaping and implementing the global economy that has been the path to prosperity for many countries including such prominent examples as Korea, Turkey, Brazil, India and, of course the big banana, China.