THE FORGOTTEN FAILURES OF THE PEACE CORPS

 

I came across this article after our 50th Anniversary and saved it. With the Trump Transition Team working on a new Administration who knows what might happen to the Peace Corps, but this ‘kind of thinking’ is in the air, I’m sure, at Trump Tower.

THE FORGOTTEN FAILURES OF THE PEACE CORPS
by James Bovard
April 1, 2011

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 edition of Freedom Daily

This is the fiftieth anniversary year for the Peace Corps. Prior to the creation of AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps took the cake as the most arrogant and overrated government program in Washington. At a time when the agency is being hailed for idealism and almost saving the world, it is worthwhile to consider its early record of debacles and defaults.

A 1980s Peace Corps recruiting brochure proclaimed, “Most people talk about world problems. The Peace Corps solves them.” The Peace Corps’s world-saving pretensions were a joke on American taxpayers and Third World folks who expected real help.

From its inception, the Peace Corps represented the epitome of emotionalism in American politics. Sargent Shriver, the Corps’s first director, claimed it would “permit America to participate, personally and effectively, in this struggle for human dignity.” Jack Vaughn, Shriver’s successor, declared, “Love — that’s what the Peace Corps is all about.” But the Peace Corps has rarely gotten beyond its loudly trumpeted good intentions.

The Peace Corps’s founders deliberately emphasized amateurism in volunteers as a virtue, which turned out to be a prescription for disasters. Frustrated by the widely perceived ineffectiveness of U.S. foreign aid to developing countries, they thought that personalizing the aid would somehow make it effective.

Robert E. White, Peace Corps regional director for Latin America, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1970, “In the early days … it was like a parachute drop. A Volunteer would be told, ‘Here’s the bus that you take. Go and look around and get off where you think you can do some good.’” An official report by the government of Honduras concluded in 1968, “The Volunteer appears to be someone with nothing to do; his skills are not utilized and the community doesn’t know what he has to offer in the way of help.”

Indeed, throughout Latin America, volunteers were sometimes referred to as “vagos” — Spanish for “vagabonds.” A Brazilian development expert concluded in a Peace Corps-commissioned study in 1968, “As economic developers, Volunteers have not had any lasting impact on any community. They are more efficient spokesmen for their interests than … for the poor.” One Latin American government official complained to a Peace Corps auditor in 1968, “The Volunteers I have known recently — with one exception — are not helping us at all. They created problems for us.”

The Peace Corps sought to uplift foreign countries with “community-development programs.” “The political and social development of the country can only come through the infusion of a kind of revolutionary spirit such as the Peace Corps represents,” declared Frank Mankiewicz, Peace Corps Latin American regional director during the 1960s. But again, reality did not coincide with the flowery rhetoric. For example, a 1965 Corps report focusing on community-development programs concluded of the experience in Togo, “After four years, the Peace Corps record in Togo is one of waste, illusion, and irrelevance that far outweighs what little good may have been done.”

Competence has often been a Peace Corps stumbling block. In the Peace Corps’s first quarter-century, 21 governments kicked it out of their countries, often because volunteers had little or nothing to offer. The inability of the volunteers to speak the local language has been a perennial problem. Bonehead planning sometimes worsened the situation: in the early 1960s, up to a third of all volunteers for Ethiopia were taught the wrong local language.

Many volunteers have worked as teachers abroad, but often with little success. Two studies of volunteers’ effectiveness in Korea found that they did little or no good for their students. The Cameroon Foreign Ministry once complained that volunteers’ “work showed a complete lack of worthwhile teaching method” and suggested that they confine their efforts to physical education and sports. A young Ceylonese observed, “It was because of their complete unsuitability as teachers that these Volunteers became the laughingstock among our teachers and students.”

Working with “snake oil salesmen”

After teaching, agriculture was the Peace Corps’s most frequent focus. However, as with teaching, incompetence inhibited Peace Corps benevolence. As one Chilean agronomist complained to an evaluator in 1968, “The trouble with most of the Volunteers is that they can’t do the job. Most of them are good people, filled with good faith, and they like to live and get their hands dirty with the peasants. But they know nothing about agriculture.”

Some Peace Corps agricultural efforts directly hurt Third World poor. An internal evaluation of the program in Togo, for instance, concluded,

In some cases the Peace Corps Volunteers may actually have harmed the cause of development and taxed the patience and good will of the Togolese villagers by the lack of realism in their approach…. Most of the chicken and rabbit projects (which were built primarily because lumber and wire were available) proved disasters.

Volunteers encouraged Togolese to raise rabbits — even though eating rabbits is taboo among many Togo tribes. Similar rabbit results occurred in Guatemala. Volunteers got grants from the Agency for International Development (AID) to set up their own rabbit-raising businesses and then encouraged local villagers to borrow money to do the same. But while the volunteers’ heavy subsidies produced the appearance of success, a Peace Corps evaluation of the project revealed that peasants who “indebted themselves for breeding stock, cages, and feed found themselves saddled with debt when the projects failed.”

Other Peace Corps evaluations tell stories of volunteers who urged farmers to use fertilizer that cost the farmers more than the value of the increased crop output. Indeed, volunteers’ lack of economic realism often bushwhacked the recipients of their benevolence. In Niger, for example, volunteers worked as extension agents for the government’s Union Nigerien de Credit et Cooperation. But as a Peace Corps audit concluded, “In its agricultural operations, UNCC looks like a bunch of snake oil salesmen…. The sad truth is that, in all likelihood, more farmers have lost than gained by buying from UNCC.”

The agricultural program in Nigeria — one of the Peace Corps’s stars — was racked with problems in the 1960s. A General Accounting Office (GAO) examination concluded that “only a limited number of these volunteers possessed the background, either by virtue of education or experience, required for the jobs to which they have been assigned; and that the technical training provided these volunteers by the Peace Corps was not adequate or appropriate for the jobs they were requested to perform.” The Peace Corps bureaucracy

The Peace Corps had become far more bureaucratic by the 1980s. In the beginning, it portrayed itself as a grass-roots organization working person-to-person with the foreign poor. During the Reagan era, the great majority of volunteers worked either for host-government bureaucracies or with AID projects. In Malawi, volunteers are used as “slot-fillers” in government bureaus. Volunteers often busy themselves trying to get government grants for local organizations. A mid-1980s Peace Corps Briefing Book for Africa bragged, “Volunteers figure predominantly in Bot swana’s civil service.” The same briefing book declared, “Since its beginning, Peace Corps/Burundi has worked closely with the Government of Burundi to establish programs responsive to the needs and priorities of the government.” In Mali and Togo, the Peace Corps worked closely with the governments to help carry out their “five-year plans.”

Moreover, throughout Africa in the 1980s, governments butchered their people, scuttled their economies, and devastated living standards. Bad government policies starved far more Africans than did bad weather.

Throughout much of Africa, governments monopolized the buying and selling of crops, and to boost revenue, most governments paid farmers far less than the market value of their harvests. As a consequence, per-capita food production fell 20 percent in Africa between 1960 and 1982.

Far from protesting those destructive policies, the Peace Corps enthusiastically poured in more volunteers to staff government agricultural bureaucracies. In some countries, Peace Corps volunteers toiled on state farms and cooperatives that have been unmitigated disasters across the continent, with production falling by 30, 40, 50 percent, or more over previous levels.

The Peace Corps often relied on a “body count” approach to prove its benevolence. From the beginning, Congress, auditors, and critics questioned the Corps’s excessive reliance on numbers as the ultimate measure of success. A 1966 evaluation of the Cameroon program, for exam ple, concluded, “The Peace Corps is hurt by its mammoth presence.” Flooding a country with volunteers discouraged the achievement of self-reliance — supposedly the Corps’s ultimate objective. “By taking over the town in force,” a report on Togo noted, “we weaken the Togolese sense of responsibility — lack of which is the chief complaint we then make against the Togolese.”

Loret Ruppe, Reagan’s Peace Corps director, declared, “The number of people whose lives have been touched by the Peace Corps was estimated at one million every month.” This is one more reflection of the “Pope’s robe” mentality — the idea that foreigners are benefited simply by seeing idealistic young Americans. The Corps’s obsession with measuring its success not by what is achieved but by what can most easily be counted often ventures into the absurd.

Faced with 20 years of such grim evaluations, the Reagan administration got rid of the Inspector General. Instead of an IG that evaluated what volunteers did abroad, the Peace Corps got a new “Office of Compliance,” which mainly worried about whether the country’s programs were following regulations. Charles Peters, chief of Peace Corps evaluation in the 1960s and now editor of The Washington Monthly, observes, “That means the guy in charge doesn’t want to find out what’s wrong.” A former top Peace Corps official under Reagan confirms this charge: “You’re talking about Alice in Wonderland management. It’s not important what’s happening — it’s only important what people think is happening.” The Peace Corps under Reagan even stopped taking annual surveys of volunteers’ assessment of the Corps’s strengths and weaknesses.

As early as 1969, a Peace Corps official complained that the Peace Corps had become an organization “of the volunteers, by the volunteers, and for the volunteers.” Chilean sociologist Ricardo Zuniga, in his Harvard doctoral dissertation on the Peace Corps, observed, “There is a pervasive focusing on the giver rather than the host.” After surveying thousands of pages of Peace Corps literature, Zuniga concluded that it gives “almost no attention to ‘goal attainment’ (effectiveness).”

Most of the former Peace Corps volunteers I have met conceded that their time abroad did little good for the foreigners but was a wonderful growing experience for them personally. It’s nice to have growing experiences — but we don’t morally canonize people for going to graduate school, and we shouldn’t do it for those who join the Peace Corps.

Some Peace Corps volunteers, like some Americans who volunteer for religion missions abroad, have truly helped foreigners. But that cannot redeem either the Peace Corps or U.S. foreign policy. Insofar as the Peace Corps makes Americans believe that the U.S. government’s actions abroad are a fount of benevolence, they prevent citizens from recognizing the harm inflicted on many nations in their name.

James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of ten books, including Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty.James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of ten books, including Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty.

 

 

 

18 Comments

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  • Mr. Bovard clearly has an agenda here as he only talks about what he perceives as PC failures over the years without mentioning or giving any credit to PC successes. Subjectively speaking, I found many positive outcomes and reactions during my three years as a PCV in Ethiopia. His is a one-sided hatchet job.

  • I served in Ethiopia from 1963-1965 as a secondary school teacher of European history and world geography. Without us and Indian teachers there would not have been an effective educational system because educated Ethiopians preferred not to teach. Amharic was the official language which all school children were taught. Therefore, it was the language volunteers were exposed to. Today, volunteers in Ethiopia are exposed to a local language because the PC and the Ethiopian government recognize its effectiveness in reaching non Amharic speakers in rural areas.

  • i would endorse Andy Martin’s point, and mention the results of the first summary of PC Performance, conducted in 1967, which talked at length about volunteers’ sense of accomplishment in their assignments, AND the major difference in the “Defined Jobs” which typified all African and Asian projects, vs the “Undefined Assignments” (read “Community Development”) that typified Latin American projects. The published results I remember was, of the African volunteers the satisfaction rate was extremely high, at 95+ %, whilst for Latin American volunteers some 25% said they would not do it again, and had little sense of accomplishment.

    Being in the first PC technical project, mine was very well defined, and it was easy to add Second Goal things, meeting and working with host country individuals. I doubt I would have been good at undefined Community Development — unless by a lucky happenstance. I also learned how important the PC selection process was to subsequent volunteer performance — confirmed by later interviewing training officials.

    I had the honor to work with some wonderful, dedicated PCVs, which I believe typified the majority, in the two countries where I worked: Ghana, and then Nyasaland Protectorate (which became independent as Malawi when I was there).

    I also remember (contradicting the assertion by Mr Bovard) that early agricultural volunteers, far from encouraging farmer indebtedness and involvement with artificial fertilizers and chemicals, were just the opposite. The first drop-out I met, in 1963, quit for precisely this reason — what the larger gov’t ag project he was assigned to (this was in Mali, or Senegal, I recall), had in mind for local subsistence farmers.

    Whilst something as large and widespread as the PC is going to have it’s failures and mistakes, as Mr Bovard has amply found, I’m always proud to read statements by African leaders today, who affectionately remember their PC teachers from school days, and the difference they had made in their lives. And the ambassador from, I believe, Fiji, who stunned then Pres Reagan with an even broader “Thank you”.

    One thing which Mr Bovard seems to overlook, is that there are THREE statutory objectives of the Peace Corps, and these have been there from the beginning. Not just one. JAT

  • I’d agree with what John & Andy are saying here. The Peace Corps has come along way over the last 50 years in impacting the lives of those we seek to serve–although the need to update and improve the monitoring and evaluation process is never ending and important. I certainly made more than a few mistakes as I pointed out in my memoir “Different Latitudes” which will be out soon–but as John points out we also must look at what the volunteers learned and the impact they had after the Peace Corps which in many cases represents the best investment our government makes–the “bang for the buck” is most impressive when you look at the impact of all three of the Peace Corps’s objectives.

  • Although a technical volunteer, easy to measure success, and very proud of what I accomplished, I have to add that amongst early Ghanaian PCVs there was wide agreement that the hypothetical “Most popular person in ALL of Ghana”, would be a PCV with a Polaroid Land Camera (what existed then, printing out pictures on the spot) doing nothing but riding around on passenger lorries, and snapping pictures of individual Ghanaians, who boarded the lorry. Dapper young people. Market Mammies off to market, Moms with new babies, gentleman elders on their way to important meetings.

    And I wouldn’t trade anything for the memories of Friday nights at the local bar, after my crew had gotten their pay packets, and were celebrating. Members of the crew, who couldn’t afford it, insisting on buying ME a Star Beer. It was a “Man’s World”, and I was a central part of it, always buying the first round — incl other villagers who happened, fortuitously, to be there at the moment. The “rules:” always changed after 5 PM on Payday. I was no longer the Boss, but simply a guest VIP. Rollicking debates over local politics and other goings on which got louder with more beer. And my lectures about how to get to a woman’s heart. They thought I was crazy, but listened nonetheless, since I was an important person. I don’t know how many times I heard “But Meestah Turnbull, you don’t understand these Africa girls !” Thank God the PC never knew what really was going on ! I wonder where something like these moments would fit in Mr Bovard’s criteria for “success”. JAT

  • John, who in the world is James Bovard, he is either someone that was deselected in Training, or a USAID plant. He is way off base…needs to do his homework, and he writes for a living? I was told by Daniel Ortega the Marxist President of Nicaragua that the Peace Corps is the best of the US, he is a strong believer in the Volunteers. He even argued with Fidel about Peace Corps Volunteers, Fidel said they were all CIA agents. Ortega was joined by Venezuela President Chavez, who told Fidel that Peace Corps was very important during his youth. Chavez even invited Crisis Corps to help in a disaster relief project in Venezuela. And former Presiden of Peru, Alejandro Toledo credits Peace Corps Volunteers for his achievements.

    Bovard will more than likely be ready to help USAID take over…And, look what Peace Corps has done for us…where would we be, had there never been a Peace Corps?

    The impact that Host Country Nationals have had on us, and our Host Country Families…stay tuned!

    Bob Arias
    RPCV Colombia 64/66
    Response Volunteer, Panama, Paraguay, Colombia, Panama

  • A totally fatuous report devoid of any import. And this guy is a successful writer? He does make one important point, the Peace Corps is not a junior development agency and will never, because of its small size and limited budget, be a major assist to helping the poor of the world. However, it is an immensely successful public relations program and does represent to the world America at its best.

  • Bovard certainly cherry picked negative comments and took them out of context. Most of the comments are from Peace Corps’s own records and come from the famous evaluation reports done by Charlie Peter’s Evaluation Unit from 1962 to 1969. Bovard neglects to mention that the purpose of the internal evaluation reports was to identify problems for the purposes of correcting them. One of the “gaps” in Peace Corps history is that it is very hard to determine how those evaluation reports impacted programs and made them more successful.

    The Inspector General is once again doing evaluation reports of Peace Corps operations.

    So much of Peace Corps history is contained in the history of the six of you who commented. I hope you are all writing memoirs!

    • Ms. Roll – I did my research at Peace Corps hdq in 1985 & 1986. The management did everything they could to stymie my investigation. I sought copies of those early evaluation reports; I was told that I would have to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Then the management complained it would be too burdensome to produce the full reports – they asked if I could compromise and simply ask for the summaries of the reports. OK, so I filed a FOIA for the summaries. I returned a few weeks later – after the statutory limit had expired for the agency to respond to my request – and was informed that I would have to start the process all over again. Why? Because the reports had “abstracts,” not “summaries.” There were other evasions of simple requests. The management sensed that my article would not be a puff piece so perhaps they presumed they were entitled to obstruct it.

      I will be writing shortly about more recent Peace Corps developments. I have seen excellent comments from RPCVs on the long-term coverup of the rape scandal and how it placed legions of female volunteers at grave (sometimes fatal) risk. Is that something that the folks at the PeaceCorpsWorldWide site have paid attention to?

      • Following up on my previous comment – Joanne Roll emailed me about the stalwart role this group played in the passage of the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection
        Act of 2011. That law was a long overdue reform and it was good that the RPCVs in this group and elsewhere raised hell for this cause.

    • One of the strengths of the Peace Corps experience is that the PC often allows the individual volunteer to proceed within the framework provided by his/her training and the job description provided by the host country, but independently within the community. It is true that when our group entered Nepal in 1963, we were adrift without firm job descriptions, which was an early PC weakness. Our language training had been developed on a daily basis by the wonderful linguist and the Nepali teachers assigned to our program. Our Outward Bound training was experimental and perhaps not often included in a training program since, but it helped immensely to conquer the daunting physical challenge of walking many, many miles in difficult terrain to our remote villages, and on our job there. The modern PC has gone to school on fifty years of experience, and provides technical, language, and cultural training which far surpasses anything provided to USAID technicians, and which is undoubtedly the equal of anything provided to the intelligence community. Even so, I left Nepal FSR-4 in Nepali, and speak it to this day.

      For more than fifty years we have been discussing among ourselves whether we had an impact. The experience propelled most of us into careers of foreign and domestic community service, and an enduring connection with Nepal. The people we met there often became life-long friends. I know of education, school building, scholarship, and entrepreneurial programs established by volunteers in their host villages which endure to this day.

      I am quite sure that the volunteer experience is unique to that person, and that country. Show me a comparable group of thousands of people who have not had both successes and failures. To examine the one, without the other is a disservice.

      I worked for USAID/Nepal for 30 months after my PC service. I can say that the volunteers uniformly spoke and understood the language and culture better than all but a very few of the USAID technicians who were plucked from their US niche without any preparation, and expected to perform in a totally new country. Very few could adapt successfully, despite their good intentions. I suspect that very few terrorists have been created by the Peace Corp[s experience. Would that we could say the same for our military and counter-intelligence adventures.

      Nicholas M. Ecker-Racz Nepal II (1963-65)

    • I have some questions about your research, Mr. Bovard. First a correction, your statement “Faced with 20 years of such grim evaluations, the Reagan administration got rid of the Inspector General…..” All of the 20 years of evaluation did not come from the Office of the Inspector General. You quote from many reports done by the Peace Corps internal evaluation unit created by Charlie Peters, operative from 1962 to 1969, especially designed to alert Peace Corps top management to problems.

      You don’t give a formal citation for many of your quotes about Peace Corps records. My first question is: Did you do original research out at National Archives II in College Park, MD, by researching all the evaluation reports done by Peter’s evaluation unit or were the quoted taken from articles that did cite the evaluations? If the latter, could you identify those essays/articles/research pieces? I am attempting to gather as much information about Peace Corps records and ask the question for that reason.

      My second question is: Your article does not continue beyond the Reagan administration, although Peace Corps had for 23 years by the time you wrote. What was the reason for stopping your review in 1988?

      Thank you very much.

  • For us it is good that failures be noted and represented in judgements of Peace Corps’ ideas and practices.
    Speculations proffered like onions and stinky armpits, belittling good intentions, blown into the wind, are petty.

    • Mischances shape apprenticeships.
      Young, you don’t know what’s coming.
      Welcome far shores before you reach them.

      • Howard Zinn who died in recent years said “…human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice,courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. San Francisco poet/ philosopher/ teacher Lawrence Fixel who died several years ago might well have added: “But we know that already.”

  • As a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon from 1988-1990, I can state with utter confidence that this writer has his head up his ass. Yes, there are sometimes incompetent or ineffectual volunteers, but they are the exception, not the rule. Of the nearly 60 volunteers that I served with during that time the vast majority were dedicated, well trained in their field, and accomplished their goals. It was my great privilege to serve with all of them. Several were invited by the host country to stay for an additional year and one was invited for 3 additional one-year tours. The writer clearly has an agenda, but I can’t imagine what his goal is. The simple fact is that the Peace Corps has a long history of success — not failure. I taught auto mechanics there for two years and when I left, every single one of my students had a job — in a country with a staggeringly high unemployment rate. That’s 22 people started successfully on their career path with skills and well paying jobs which would not have happened without the peace corps. Argue with that. I dare you.

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