Josephine Olsen Cuts & Runs — Africa Will Remember
In a Washington Post article published on May 1, 2020, award-winning journalists Edward H. Carpenter and Charli Carpenter published an article entitled, “East Africa has weathered pandemics — and has a few things to teach the U.S.”
In the article, they write how African leaders have managed the crisis much better than the U.S. They write: These factors make it all the more remarkable that emerging economies of East Africa are far better prepared for this crisis than the United States was even two weeks ago. These countries include some of the more stable African nations (Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea) and some of the most unstable (Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan). What they share is a relatively low incidence of the coronavirus and a strong, proactive and coordinated response to the crisis.
The current pandemic won’t be the last the world faces. And while it is functionally too late for the United States to do anything but fight its way through the coronavirus crisis, it can start to look for examples of better ways to deal with the next one.
Those ways can be found in East Africa.
They go onto write in their piece, ‘The East African situation has implications for the United States. First, there is a high probability that the difference between the American and Chinese approaches to helping the countries deal with the pandemic will further tilt the region toward China’s sphere of influence. This could be exacerbated if the American military and diplomatic planners choose to pull their people out, as has already happened with the Peace Corps, whose forced evacuation of all volunteers resulted in over 1,000 “ambassadors of goodwill” leaving East African countries at a time when they are needed most. Such a move, even done in the name of risk avoidance, would most likely cause irreparable reputational harm to the United States in a region that may be one of the great emerging markets.
Josephine Olsen, I’m told by Peace Corps insiders, was following the direction of her favorite president, Donald Trump, by ETing over 7,000 Volunteers worldwide. Since then, as we know, Trump has declared there is little to worry about with the virus, and ordered everyone back to work and out to play.
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A sad and sobering commentary. Where are we going, and what are we leaving behind?
It is important to remember Peace Corps is independent, but in the Executive Branch. The President had the authority to direct Olsen to evacuate all PCVs. It wasn’t Olsen’s right to refuse. She could have resigned. That might have been the better choice. But, it also might have left stranded Volunteers in the hands of people far more loyalty to the President. Who knows what the outcome might have been, then.
I hope she writes her memoirs and soon.
I believe Olsen’s move was to prevent any PCV dying of the disease for lack of any way to evacuate them after contracting the disease. In any case it was basically a prudent move to protect PCVs. And spare me the suggestion that East African lands are better prepared to prevent diseases. I lived in Eritrea then Ethiopia and know their abilities.
Well said. Safety of PCVs over speculation. Further, although PC has continued under many POTUSes, and several of whom might not have shared it’s values, it must be hard to be an American working abroad these days….Just sayin’….. (Douglas Scott Treado, RPCV, Senegal 1, 1962-’64; International Rescue Committee, 1st African refugee project, 1965-’66 – Bechuanaland Protectorate, now Botswana)…
Having enacted many emergency action plans for natural disasters during my time as admin in Vanuatu, I can safely say that PCHQ weighed all options before evacuating all PCVs. I’m sure what they considered was the risk of infection and transmission to PCVs and what would happen in rural villages if volunteers got sick and had no choice but to quarantine at home without any medical services available. What HCN (host country national) would volunteers displace in an ICU or hospital? Finally,, what kinds of pressure would parents of PCVs put on HQ or on their political representatives if their children got sick and were not receiving adequate care and could no longer be evacuated? How many lawsuits would it take before the Peace Corps was shut down permanently?
There will be plenty of time after this pandemic ends to assess whether Jody Olsen and her team made the right decision to evacuate all PCVs, but what isn’t needed right now is the politicalization of a decision that was designed to protect the PCVs in an unprecedented global crisis.
Well stated Allegra. Thank you
Indeed! This was and continues to be a life and death matter…for everyone. Glad PC/Washington was able to make this decision.
Indeed! There will always be time to return….Sorry that it rained on your parade, but I agree with the above…
Interesting article. A couple of things:
1. Very sadly, the U.S. and many other countries don’t do a great job of planning for the next crisis — pandemic, natural disaster, economic/financial crisis. We get ourselves out of a scrape and then quickly move on to the next (politically big) issue. We convene our experts to draft a lessons-learned report, and then shelve it. Obviously short-sighted. It’s the WHO’s job to deal with, track, plan for and help countries prepare for pandemics. It’s staffed by human beings and sometimes hamstrung by its very large board of directors — i.e., all member states. It won’t always get things right in the heat of an emerging health crisis, but neither will a whole bunch of countries trying to manage an international crisis on their own. Withholding funding from now is foolish and represents a poor understanding of its role and a perverse interpretation of America First.
2. I was a Peace Corps country director in Ethiopia when its PCV population doubled. I would have pulled the PCVs out of their sites, at least to the capital, with regret but a conviction that it was the right thing to do. If one of the PCVs got sick out there the risk of disaster would have been high. As it is, Peace Corps loses PCVs to malaria and other medical emergencies that local health services are woefully equipped to handle. Years ago, when I worked at the embassy in Addis when it was considering an evacuation due to a civil war and growing local unrest, my ambassador said he would rather make the tough call and have people angry with him (people didn’t want to be evacuated) than make the popular decision and have something irreversible happen.
Politics aside, a future world without the Peace Corps will be less capable and stable, and an America without the Peace Corps will be even more isolated. When things return to “normal” (whatever that may mean in the future) we should all advocate vigorously for volunteers returning to as many countries as will accept us.
Don’t worry John, the Peace Corps will be back.
The author of this article does not have a clue. Never let the facts get in the way of ignorance. PCV’s were evacuated for their safety. If PC had waited any later, air routes would have been closed and parents of 7,000 PCV’s would rightly have been upset that their loved ones were stranded.
Jody Olsen fired 7,000 PDVs for their health. OKAY, what is she doing about resettling them and all that entails?
Excellent question. Some EPCVs are able to get their medicine, and all their necessary benefits. Some are not, for various reasons. Jody Olsen is a Social Worker and in my opinion, the response of her agency has been inadequate. All the Volunteers were terminated. Theoretically, the agency has little responsibility for them. Sad.