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.
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!