Doubling The Peace Corps, Not!

Robert Textor organizes the “Thirsters” out in Portland, Oregon. I’m on his mailing list. The “Thirsters” reply from all over the world with comments, essays and ideas. As Robert writes, “of the 550 or so Thirsters Worldwide, some 40 are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.  The RPCVs are, in my view, a very special group of people.  Some of them are now in the seventies, others still in their twenties.  Typically, though, they regard their Peace Corps service as the most influential experience of their entire lives.

During the recent campaign, Barack promised to double the number of Peace Corps Volunteers.  Many RPCVs and others were thrilled to hear this, if only because it betokened strong support on his part.  Recent budget proposals, though, suggest that he has changed his mind – no doubt due to the current recession.”

This is a very smart essay that Textor has sent around that you should read. It is from Lusaka, Zambia and written by Andy Szatkowski,   engineer, Africanist, developmentist, political activist, and RPCV from Mauritania, Lesotho and Namibia.  


[Here’s my two bits on the Peace Corps Crisis.  Maybe it’s more than two bits.  I think you know that Nancy and I moved to Lusaka, Zambia last June, where she works for the Peace Corps.] 

To those who believe that Peace Corps can be doubled by 2011, I feel compelled to ask one question: have they looked at a calendar lately?

I am skeptical that any organization can be doubled in just two years while maintaining any semblance of quality.  I suppose it might be possible for an organization with a completely top-down command and control structure.  A military for example.  Just dole out big enlistment bonuses to new recruits, “stop-loss” anybody who is about to complete service and give a fat construction contract to Halliburton to quickly build overpriced bases and barracks to train and house the new recruits.  But even then, I suspect that a military that attempting such a rapid increased in size would suffer a serious decline in quality.

And Peace Corps is not an organization that functions properly when operated in accordance with top-down command and control structures.  In fact, for Peace Corps to achieve its three goals, the process of increasing capacity requires a huge amount of work at the grass roots.  Peace Corps volunteers are not simply parachuted into sites with the instruction to go forth and do good.  At least that’s not how it’s done these days, and certainly not if you want to have any success. 

 Ok, full disclosure first.  I do not work for Peace Corps.  I have never been a Peace Corps staffer but I was a volunteer for three years and I had a one-year contract managing a joint USAID-Peace Corps emergency drought relief project after my volunteer service.  My wife is currently a field staffer for Peace Corps and she was also a field staffer back in the 1990’s for three years after serving two years as a volunteer.     

 So maybe I have been infected by the “broken bureaucracy” that has “lost its way” and in the process become “a shell of what it once was.”  Or maybe I just have a different vision of what Peace Corps is about than those who think it can be doubled in two short years.  You decide.

 There are two ways to grow Peace Corps: an increase in existing country programs and addition of new country programs.  Both will be needed to double the size of Peace Corps, but neither approach – either alone or in combination with the other – can achieve such rapid growth. 

 To grow existing country programs, you need to increase your staff – not just the volunteers – because the volunteers are supported by the professional staff.  Growing the staff is not as simple as hiring a bunch of Americans and paying them whatever it takes to get them to accept the jobs.  The Peace Corps model aims to have the majority of Peace Corps field staff be nationals of the host country. 

 I’m not just talking about drivers and lower-level office support staff.  Even at the level of Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD), the goal is to staff the majority of positions with host country nationals.  The APCD’s are responsible for overseeing the creation and operation of the programs in which volunteers are placed, the development of individual volunteer sites and providing support to the volunteers. 

There are many skilled professionals in the nations of the Global South where Peace Corps works.  But not many of those professionals have the unique skill set needed to simultaneously create and foster grass-roots development programs while also providing support to scores of mostly young, highly demanding Americans.  This is partly because the grass-roots development ethos and mindset are not as widespread as they ought to be.  Due to decades of bad development practices originating in the wealthy nations, even professionals in the Global South with experience in development projects may not have a firm grounding in grass-roots development.  And it’s partly because of the unique challenges of managing newly-minted American college graduates.  Even for a middle-aged American professional, generational differences can pose challenges when managing recent American college graduates.  When you add cross-cultural differences and the fact that the Millennium Generation in America is very different from their age cohort in the Global South, it’s not surprising that host country national staff benefit from training to properly manage volunteers.

To grow existing country programs, you may also need to increase the number of program areas within existing country programs.  For example, a country in which Peace Corps has programs in education and health may need to add agriculture, business development or natural resource protection.  But that can’t be decided in Washington.  Developing new programs must happen in each host country and it can only happen if there is a willing and active partner, such as a Ministry or Department, that sees a benefit to having volunteers, has some sort of program that the volunteers will be associated with and is willing to provide some level of support to them.  Then you need to find communities that are willing to host each volunteer.  And those communities must show some level of commitment by providing (at a minimum) housing that meets certain minimum standards.  A roof that doesn’t leak too badly and a latrine may sound pretty minimal, but for some communities it can take some time before they can arrange these basic necessities for a volunteer.  

So you can’t just double the size of existing programs in two years.

So how about setting up new country programs?  Good idea.  But if the government of Indonesia signed a country agreement with Peace Corps today, there would not be hundreds of volunteers in country by 2011.  All the same problems noted above that slow down the creation of new programs in existing Peace Corps countries would be encountered.  And I agree that is would be better if more than two Arab countries had volunteers.  But there must be a country agreement for a program, which implies that the host country agrees to have the volunteers.  You can’t simply invade an unwilling country with Peace Corps volunteers.  The government and the communities have to want them there. 

I appreciate the comment that the Peace Corps “is concerned more with the security of volunteers than their service.”  But a little perspective is required.  This is not a problem of Peace Corps only, but of the entire US Government and a certain percentage of the American population.  A security pathology has infected the US since 9-11.  In Lusaka, where I live, I can’t enter the US embassy on a scooter without having a mirror run underneath the scooter to see if a bomb has been planted on it.  A scooter.  So while the focus on security of volunteers is now greater than anything experienced by any of us who served in the past, in the context of 2009, it’s hardly at the level of obsessive paranoia demonstrated by other agencies in the government.  Remember that the US military’s main objective in Iraq is Force Protection.   Translation: the US sent over a hundred thousand armed men and women, trained to kill, into a hostile environment, and told them that their main objective is to not get hurt.  So it’s not surprising that the Peace Corps also doesn’t want its volunteers to get hurt either. 

Fundamentally, there is a logical flaw in the notion that an organization that attempts to do sustainable grass-roots development can be doubled in size by the stroke of one man’s pen.  There is also a logical flaw in the notion that an organization that attempts to foster cross-cultural understanding can be doubled in size by forcing more nations to accept Peace Corps volunteers.  It’s typically “the other Corps” that forces its way in against the will of the government and the communities.


Leave a comment
  • Thank you for sharing this thoughtfuol essay. I respectfully disagree with the opinion that the Peace Corps staff and volunteers could not have been doubled in number over a three year period (2008 to 2010). It can and should. The opinions in this article smell a lot like bureaucratic naysayers at the weekly staff meeting, donut crumbs falling on the cleared conference table table as they disparage every idea that implies work. Phooey! Roll up your damn sleeves and get to work or get the hell out of Dodge! That what I tell them.

  • If we want to maintain the QUALITY of the Peace Corps experience/contribution, then we should look at steady growth of 20% per year max. When an organization expands rapidly, quality in middle management usually suffers. Without good program directors to find good work sites and provide support, both the PCVs and the host country are less likely to have a quality experience.

  • I am sure there were many “Andy Szatokowskis” around when the Peace Corps was originally invented. Fortunately they were not in charge since the Corps was able to grow from zero to 10,000 in two years.

  • Anytime someone bandies about the word “quality,” I grab for my six shooter. Ain’t got the time of day for snobs. This is America, land of the common man and woman.

  • Obama is no longer advocating doubling because he did his research. The budget does and the PCs don’t. This is how PC staff gets a raise and hires more. Safety and Security was the last big budget and staff increase.

    The staff increases aren’t needed and, in fact, we need to cut that down by at least one third. We need to put training at US universities and then place the PCs to existing or new NGOs. The in country training is a nice thing to have, but not needed and most countries force the PC to live with a family anyway. The staff, offices, etc. aren’t needed either. If we need meetings they can be done at NGOs or the embassy or consulate. The PC hiring in country has become more of a problem than an asset with problems like in country intelligence, an excuse for PC being in country(paying local people and keeping PC there to pay those, like Fiji) and costing.

    Staff decreases can be argued for DC also in medical. Most of this work can be done by a family doctor performing tests that are published by PC like the army and not on a strange and unfair ‘case by case’ basis.

    The host countries should also pay a percentage of the program. Half is fair.

    The security issue is already a problem. PC is in countries that have coups and military leaders and the government that signed the agreement no longer exists, including courts. It’s unfair to ask a federal employee to put themselves in this type of danger for poverty pay. If you want to serve, you serve where they send you and for poverty wages. This should remind people of the military in WW1.

    The number of PCs can be doubled in a year and the number of staff cut by a third in a day. We can also bring more PC back to America as it was originally.

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