Danger: Transitions Revisited. Redoubled?

If there is a Republican takeover in the White House in November, the transition at Peace Corps could be even more difficult for serving Volunteers. The agency is already experiencing changes because of the early and unexpected resignation of Director Aaron Williams, (Dominion Republic 67-69) who headed Peace Corps for three years. The agency is in the capable hands of Acting Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet; but she is still only the acting Director.

In a recent evaluation, the Inspector General of the Peace Corps found that transitions caused unique problems at Peace Corps because of the so-called Five Year Rule. One problem was the lack of succession planning.  The OIG made specific recommendations to correct these problems. The then Director Williams accepted them and was to send to the OIG, in August of this year, the policy changes and perhaps even proposed legislation all designed to implement the recommendations. However, this has been delayed because of Williams’ resignation.There is certainly reason to assume that work is being done on the recommendations, but it is not clear when they will be implemented. Nor, can it be known how a new administration would respond to the recommendations.

Over thirty of the decision-making positions at Peace Corps, including the Director and Deputy Director, are political appointments.  A change from a Democratic White House to a Republican White House or vice versa, mandates these staff changes and has had program consequences in the past. Joseph  Blatchford, the first Nixon appointee to direct the Peace Corps, deemphasized programs such as Community development. Instead, he developed New Directions, a policy placing Volunteers in structured jobs.  Nixon also created  the umbrella agency, ACTION.  Peace Corps was demoted to a division within the agency, that of International Operations, and lost much of its autonomy.

Ten year later, the Democrats took over.  President Carter appointed Sam Brown as Peace Corps Director. Brown reversed Directions and mandated that programs focus on basic needs. For example, teaching English was out.  The dramatic switch from one political party to another was not to cause such major policy shifts in the future.

Still, I have argued in a previous post, Danger: Transitions Ahead, that some of the most horrific crimes against serving Volunteers occurred during such political party changes. I gave as the examples; the murder of Deborah Gardner and the failure of the Peace Corps to bring justice to her killer, fellow PCV Dennis Priven (1976-77); the kidnapping of Richard Starr by FARC (1977) and the failure of the Peace Corps to secure his release; the failure of Peace Corps to realize that Walter Poirier III was missing (2000) or subsequently to find him; and, finally, the tragic murder of Kate Puzey (2009).  The outrage over this crime led, ultimately, to the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011. Provisions in that law are designed to protect Volunteers. It is hoped that these new legal mandates will continue to provide for safety and security for Volunteers during transitions.

Prior to 1985, the political affiliation of a candidate for Country Director was a factor to be considered in the appointment.  The law was changed in 1985, but Country Directors are still appointed and serve at the discretion of the Peace Corps Director, who remains a political appointee.  This can be a complicating factor during times of transition. Look at the following example.

J. Larry Brown (no relation) was a Peace Corps Volunteer in India, 1967 -69 and then served as Assistant Director at Peace Corps in the late 70s.  He had a career as a “professor and scholar of domestic hunger and poverty, much of it at Harvard School of Public Health”. Brown was a lifelong Democrat, but he was chosen to be Country Director of Uganda in 2008 by Republican appointee and fellow RPCV from India, Ron Tschetter. As a political appointee, it was appropriate for Tschetter to resign the day that President Obama was inaugurated.  The Director who had appointed Brown was no longer in office and interim staff were in charge. It was nine months before Aaron Williams was sworn in. In his memoir, Peasants Come Last -A Memoir of the Peace Corps at Fifty, Brown describes the difficulty he had as a Country Director dealing with the Washington bureaucracy during this time of transition.

There has to be a better way to make sure that the Peace Corps personnel system supports the three goals, at all times. Suggestions?


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