Accion Comunal: PCVs in Community Development

As Gerald T. Rice points out in his comprehensive study of the origins of the agency, The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps, published in 1985 by Notre Dame Press. (This was Rice’s doctoral dissertation as the University of Glasgow) “While Shriver actively encouraged Peace Corps teachers to go beyond their classroom duties and mix with their host societies in many different ways, the philosophy of “participation” found its fullest expression in the other major activity of the Peace Corps: Community Development.”

Key to the development of “Peace Corps Community Development” at the agency, especially and nearly exclusively, in Latin America was the first Peace Corps Country Director in Peru and later regional head for all Latin American programs, one of the original Mad Men of the agency, Frank Mankiewicz.

I have written elsewhere on this blog about Mankiewicz who would later go onto work as Robert Kennedy’s press aide, and had the grim task of announcing to the world on a dark night in Los Angeles the death of Kennedy.

Mankiewicz saw Community Development (acción communal) much more than the limited imparting of basic information on hygiene and nutrition. To him, it was a revolutionary force: “the ultimate aim of community development is nothing less than complete charge, reversal-or a revolution if you wish-in the social and economic patterns of the countries to which we are accredited.”

To “achieve this” Shriver and Mankiewicz were ready to throw into the barrios Peace Corps Volunteers.

In my opinion, in the Peace Corps, in my opinion, no corps of Volunteers anywhere in the world–before or since–had tougher assignments than Community Development PCVs to Latin America. 

PCV Bill Coyle in Colombia 1967

PCV Bill Coyle in Colombia 1967

In June of 1962 there were PCVs in 9 Latin American counties with Colombia, Chile and St. Lucia having the first Volunteers. (Colombia I could also claim to have the ‘first’ cross-cultural marriage when Mathew DeForest married Ana Elvia Flores Castellanos in Bogota on February 8, 1962.)

By June 30, 1963 there were 1,493 PCVs in 16 countries, and another 701 in Training. St. Lucia had 14 PCVs while Colombia had 238 (with 175 in Training). Mankiewicz had 285 on site in Peru and another 142 in Training. Uruguay would get it first PCVs (21) in the fall of 1963.

Official “Peace Corps Language” was calling this a “quiet revolution” in language used in the Second Annual Peace Corps Report to Congress. That document read with political correctness:  “Peace Corps Volunteers in Community Development Programs are encouraging villagers and slum dwellers to organize themselves and their resources for their own betterment. With guidance and encouragement, communities shave thrown off their sense of helplessness and begun building the schools, roads and health centers they despaired of ever enjoying.”

Frank Mankiewicz had much more in mind. In an article “The Peace Corps: A Revolutionary Force,” published by the Peace Corps, Frank wrote: “If the aims of Community Development, as the Peace Corps sees it in Latin America, can be summed up in one sentence, it is that success is in sight not when the economic statistics have reached a certain level, not when a certain number of miles of roads or cinderblock houses have been built, but when the forgotten and ignored have been invited to join in society.”

Lots of luck, Frank!

By 1963, there were nearly three thousand PCVs in the urban barrios and remote campos of nineteen Latin American countries. They were told to spend their first few months getting to know the people, identifying potential junta leaders and discovering the community’s ‘felt needs.’

Neil Boyer (Ethiopia 1962-64) would write “Volunteers in the Field: Great Expectations,” in Annals, May 1966.

          The community developer comes into town and take up
          residence with a local family. For weeks he seemingly
          does nothing. He plays with the children, talks with the
          shopkeepers, drinks in bars. His Spanish or his Quechua
          is a little halting and quaint. It takes quite a while before
          the people see that he sincerely wants to help them
          tackle a few problems. In any event, the Volunteers is
          faced with the task of making himself acceptable and he
          remains guilty (or at least suspect) of all types of
          contrived motives until he proves himself innocent.

The Host Country was disappointed. One campesino wrote: “We were told that Volunteers would be trained and fully capable of helping farmers with their crops. We received nothing of the kind. They are nice young men and women, but they know nothing about agriculture.”

An evaluation written in 1963 by Thorburn Rein for Charlie Peters’ famous Evaluation Division said of the early PCVs in Panama: “The project’s aims were not clearly understood in either Panama or Washington because the Panamanian Health Service does not seem to have a clear conception of Community Development.”

Other Peace Corps evaluations would rank other PCVs projects with “many of AID’s smaller fiascos…everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong.”

For example, in El Salvador by September 1963, only ten Volunteers (out of twenty-three) remained in a Community Development program which Evaluators Kevin Delany, Dee Jacobs and Thorburn Reid described as a “swamp of imprecision and generalities.”

Charlie Peters, head of the Division, claimed that “imprecision characterized the programming for most Community Development projects in Latin America.” Frank Mankiewicz in an interview with Gerard Rice on December 19 and 20, 1978 admitted that Community Development’s major flaw was that it had been applied too quickly in too many countries. He felt the Peace Corps had been a little over-optimistic in its belief that nearly every “red-blooded young American” could make some sort of material contribution to the developing countries without a basic skill and a definite job.”

Other Peace Corps staffers were waiting in. C. Payne Lucas (CD/in Niger and PC/W 1962-67) and Kevin Lowther (PCV Sierre Leone 1963-65; PC/W 1963-67) in their book Keeping Kennedy’s Promise said that most programming for Community Development was ‘pure fantasy’ and that only one Volunteer in twenty was effective.

End of Part Four; Next, Where Peace Corps Community Development Worked!

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  • CARE pioneered the concept of community development. The agency worked in both Iran and Colombia. CARE had partnered with the Colombian government to create a government department of Accion Comunal. It was a working agency in Colombia by 1961. Peace Corps signed a contract with CARE to manage Peace Corps Volunteers in Colombia in April or May of 1961who were to be assigned with the Accion Comunal agents. I believe it may have been the first program contract that Peace Corps signed.

    Richard Poston of Souther Illinois University was the godfather of Community Development. He trained Colombia I at Rutgers and was also on the staff of the University of New Mexico Peace Corps Training Center.

  • Gerald Rice’s book on the Peace Corps sounds like a good read. Along with Stan Meisler’s book on the Peace Corps’ first 50 years, that came out earlier this year — “When the World Calls”, Rice seems to capture the on-going debate about the efficacy of putting young volunteers into the community development jobs in Latin America. However, Mankiewicz passed the buck by claiming that the “Peace Corps” was overly optimistic in sending so many volunteers into urban CD assignments. It was Mankiewicz himself who was expansionist and excelled at the numbers game. He used his revolutionary rhetoric to pressure the agency into pouring often ill-equipped volunteers into those unstructured and non-existent assignments.

    The only other correction I have is to point out is that C. Payne Lucas was the County Director in Niger, not Nigeria. David

  • Though assigned to Chiclayo, Peru as a PCV while Frank Mankiewicz was still Country Director, I count myself fortunate that my small PCV group had been assigned to teach in universities. (Many of us had already earned graduate degrees in various disciplines.)

    The university I was to teach in was only a year old when I arrived, but had already been politicized in such a way as to virtually bar “gringos” from teaching in the main faculty. (For me, a Filipino-American, it seemed darkly ironic to be considered a “gringo.”) I had to start in a brand new nursing school that was accepting its first women students who, of course, were not politicized at all. So at least I had a job.

    But so many other PCVs in Peru at that time seemed to be expected to develop communities, even though they were fresh off of a college campus and had no actual work experience related to their stated Peace Corps mission. I met a few who really struggled and heard colorful stories of others who had finally thrown in the towel. Before I left for home in 1965, I did know a couple of PCVs who seemed to be making some headway.

    But the one PCV who clearly completed a successful project (not related to university teaching) was a mid-career professional who came with experience in banking and accounting. He arrived in Chiclayo, recruited a few Peruvians, and set up a savings-and-loan bank intended to serve folks who couldn’t get credit or banking services elsewhere. By the time he left for the U.S., the S&L was up and running, staffed by locals this PCV had recruited and trained. He had truly created a much-needed community institution.

    I’m not sure that this mid-career PCV engaged in the kind of community development that PC/Washington had in mind in the mid-’60s. But he sure contributed to the kind of community folks whom I believe we were generally intended to serve. His first name was Tony (with an Italian surname), and I believe he was from Queens, NY. Does anyone know anything about this PCV hero? Is he still around, and can I reach him?

  • Joey, you are correct, CARE/Peace Corps put the spirit into Acción Comunal in Colombia. I was assigned to the mountains of Sevilla, Valle in 1964 where our Counterparts were members of the National Police… Acción Comunal was basic Community Development. The Volunteer’s role was to find the felt needs of the community and help them be the solution to their own problems…we built schools, roads, health centers, gardens, and literacy programs…we were the Community! All of this would not have been possible without the support of the National Police. Like Joey mentioned, we listened and developed ties with the community. But what was key to our effort were the many secondary projects that were developed…I had many! Colombians made this effort possible and never gave up on us or themselves.
    Almost 50 year’s later, I am back in Colombia as a Response Volunteer assigned to a Community Development effort in northern Colombia….Campo de la Cruz, Atlantico. I am working with the community to rebuild what the recent floods destroyed. And I am now a member of the Acción Comunal committee for my barrio…like an old pair of shoes, this feels comfortable, great! I have no complaints…Acción Comunal all the way!
    Bob

  • Tino,

    Are you familiar with Dr. Robert B. Textor’s “Cultural Frontiers of the Peace Corps” published in 1966? There is a case study by RPCV David Scott Palmer about PCVs assigned to the University of Huanamga in Ayacucho, Peru, in 1963. The case study described the political situation and the difficulty the PCVs had.

    The book is available in PDF form, without cost, from Dr. Textor’s website. I have a link to it on my blog: Peace Corps:Public Records under the category “References.”

    It would be interesting to learn of your opinion of the case study.

  • I read Coyne’s babbles and he told us all about Dr. Textor a few hundred posts ago! Dr. Textor is also the author of the original
    “In,Up and Out” memo in which he argued that tenure at Peace Corps should be about eight years in order to make room for RPCVs coming in from the field. He envisioned a Peace Corps agency totally run, top to bottom, by RPCVs.

    He is a great man, I think. Right now, he is just recovered from Open Heart surgery, but he keeps his eye on Peace Corps and the RPCV community in Portland Oregon.

    If you have any trouble downloading the book from my webpage, just google “Robert B. Textor” and go to his website and then click on
    “publications”

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