J. Larry Brown writes: Peasants Come Last

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Bureaucracy in Peace Corps Washington is like the dark side of the moon - everybody knows it’s there but who knew there was so much of it.

Follow the links to read three excerpts from former Uganda Country Director J. Larry Brown’s book “Peasants Come Last” about Peace Corps’ bloated bureaucracy in Washington, why three Country Directors in the Africa region were fired in the final days of the Bush administration by Acting Director Jody Olsen, and Brown’s ideas on the future of the Peace Corps.


Peace Corps Washington

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“Peace Corps lore is that in any Peace Corps country, the Country Director rules the roost. He runs an outpost thousands of miles away, often two to three days flying distance, and culturally light years away. While I, as Country Director, supposedly had programmatic and financial authority at post, Washington monitored and controlled everything. Young hires in Washington would check the accuracy of our monthly cash count, verify the legitimacy of in-country travel I had authorized, and require HQ sign-off on all hiring done at post. Washington even required me, along with all my staff, to sign in and out of work each day, and then to submit weekly timesheets, practices I had never been forced to follow in forty years of previous employment. Always we were monitored, and always we had to jump and then wait. Washington’s demand late on a Friday afternoon, for example, meant working that evening or the weekend, but when we needed a decision from HQ, we often waited weeks, and sometimes forever. Our needs often were ignored. Like the volunteers who felt treated like children, those of us supposedly in charge of each country post found that we had insufficient latitude to mold and shape it as we believed it should be. Washington ultimately decided everything, a clear case of the tail wagging the dog.”

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Peasants Come Last

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“I had just completed some wonderful first months, was in love with my job, keen on the culture, and enthralled with the work of my volunteers in their villages. My volunteers had taken my challenge to “own” the post, and were now involved in all aspects of its operations. They served on all hiring committees, were members of the grants committee, oversaw the monthly newsletter, ran two of their own committees, and had accepted my challenge to plan the remodeling of their resource center and computer room. I now had the confidence of the staff as well, especially the Ugandans to whom I had given significantly greater management responsibilities. They told me of their pride in being part of Peace Corps and no longer seemed reticent to speak up both at staff meetings and in one-on-one discussions to help educate me. Everything was going swimmingly. Clearly it was time for my balloon to burst, but little did I know that it would be Peace Corps Washington that would do it. And I could never have guessed that I would watch bureaucratic indifference trample over the needs of Ugandan peasants. After all, this was Peace Corps, champion of the world’s peasants.”

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The Future of the Peace Corps

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“What of the future of the Peace Corps? As it celebrates its 50th anniversary since its creation by John F. Kennedy, it is an auspicious time to ask: What will Peace Corps be fifty years from now? Indeed, what will it be five years from now? Peace Corps today is a highly centralized, rigid program unbecoming of its history and purpose. It has become too costly, too slow and too top-down. It has lost much of its vigor, creativity and cutting-edge ideals. Once John Kennedy’s best idea, Peace Corps is now another government bureaucracy: it means well and does many good things, but its Volunteers usually manage to do them despite what the agency has become. The key signs of Peace Corps’ stodginess are its staffing and per Volunteer expenditures. My program in Uganda, the largest in Africa at the time, had 165 Volunteers. To service them, I had a total of 31 staff, or about one staff person for every five Volunteers. This is an exceptionally high staff ratio, yet I fought vigorously to add more staff. Why? Because of all the top-down bureaucratic requirements coming out of Peace Corps Washington, it simply was not possible to do all we were required to do at post with the staff we had. More than half of our time was spent servicing the demands of the Washington bureaucracy rather than facilitating Volunteers’ efforts to help Ugandan peasants achieve more productive lives.”

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Top Photo: The board room on the 8th floor of Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, DC where the Peace Corps Director presides over meetings with his senior staff making decisions that affect countries of service all over the world.  Photo by Hugh Pickens.

Second Photo:  Peace Corps Headquarters. Photo by Hugh Pickens.

Bottom Two Photos:  Peace Corps Uganda.  Courtesy of US Peace Corps.