More, Bold, Better, Bright, or Bust Peace Corps

Trying to keep the changing slogans of the Peace Corps campaign straight–as well as all those  Peace Corps numbers–is a job, so I decided to do a quick ‘cheat sheet’ of numbers and facts and timing so, at least, I would know what is going on and who is doing what to whom!

First off, President Barack Obama’s 2010 budget backs off of his promise to double the Peace Corps to 16,000 volunteers by 2011. His budget today calls for 9,000 Americans enrolled in the Peace Corps by the end of FY 2012, and 11,000 by the end of FY 2016.

At that pace, Obama is out of office, his two girls are off to college, and a Republican is back in the White House, before the size of the Peace Corps is doubled. Also, let us not forget, his White House budget documents flatly contradicts his promise of 16,000 volunteers by 2010. (For the record the highest number of PCV overseas was in 1966, with 15,000 people.)

As of today: 1) Obama’s budget calls for $376 million in fiscal year 2010. 2) Legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives just increased that to $450 million when it survived an appropriations subcommittee markup on June 17, 2009. 3) It still needs to be passed out of the House and then approved by the Senate before it would land on Obama’s desk. 4) Obama could, of course, veto it!

To double the size of the Peace Corps (another ambition of the MorePeaceCorps campaign folks) Obama would have to commit (in today’s dollars) approximately $750 million. That ain’t going to happen, folks.

If you noticed the MorePeaceCorps Campaign is now the Bold Peace Corps Campaign. This was an editing job done by RPCV writer Larry Leamer (Nepal 1965-67). As a slogan and rallying point, it works better. Also, it suggests the strength of the Peace Corps rather than just numbers. You know, like Army Strong!

There are several other problems in increasing the number of PCVs overseas.

  • It costs more money to maintain a PCV in the field today because of the shrinking dollar;
  • Security is ‘up’ overseas. Why, they have CD living on the embassy compound in some countries;
  • The costs for recruitment is up; the Peace Corps has had to close regional recruitment offices;
  • Salaries of staff are up; etc.
  • PCVs are receiving larger allowances and the Readjustment Amount has increased.

There are a couple other unnoticed reasons. One, is that if you are a CD overseas and you have 40 PCVs and you are at a Schedule Two GSA salary level and making a six figure salary, have a nice house and a couple servants, a bunch of nice PCVs, why would you ask for more PCVs? That would just means more work for you. Also Peace Corps/Washington  just cut your staff!  You write D.C. and tell them your country can’t take more PCVs.

In Shriver’s day you got ahead in the agency– and noticed by Shriver– by having a bigger, bolder and dynamitic program. Those days are gone forever. Today, we have a Peace Corps that is small and cozy.

The second hidden issue is health of RPCVs, especially mental health. If you can show you weren’t crazy when you went overseas, but because of your service you are crazy (and I am using that term loosely) you can get your shrink bills paid for by the government. That’s why it is such a bitch to get into the Peace Corps today. The Medical Office keeps raising all those Red Flags. They don’t want anyone who has signs of depression while in college. The costs of treating RPCVs after the Peace Corps service, for one reason or another, keeps going up and eating up the Peace Corps budget.

In passing Congresswoman Nita Lowey mentioned on Hardball the other evening the new GSA report on the Peace Corps. That is a ticking time bomb. I can guarantee you that this report will be negative to the agency. The report (and I haven’t seen it) will say that PCVs are out of touch and not doing a good job, that they lacks skills and equipment, and can be replaced by computers, FaceBook and Twitter. I see the GSA report calling for new approaches on where to assign PCVs, and demanding  Volunteers with better skills. Goodbye, B.A. Generalist.

The White House Peace Corps Transition Report that we published a month ago is a hint at what is to come, but it is a timid document. More needs to be said and done by the next administration for the Peace Corps. The new Peace Corps Director is key. She or He must be someone who has 1) close connections to the White House; 2) A former Peace Corps Volunteer who understands the role of a PCV; 3) someone with strong management experience; 4) extensive overseas experience.

One last story. The next Director needs to be like Sarge. Here’s a true story. When Warren Wiggins did a flow chart in the first days of the agency (because no one knew who to report to!) he showed it to Shriver who said, “There’s only one thing wrong with this organization chart. The Volunteer is at the bottom of it.”

Shriver turned the chart upside down and put the Peace Corps Volunteers at the top. The Volunteer overseas is the most important part of the Peace Corps. When we get back to those days, we’ll really going to have a Peace Corps again.

12 Comments

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  • Gee, John, I thought I was the only one banging on the Peace Corp,’s bloated bureaucracy. Take the proposed budget, $450 million divide it by say 8000 volunteers and you see it costs $56,000 per volunteer in the field. And that is the product, the volunteer in the field.

    Now a generous allowance would be $300 a month which means $3600 a year. Transport to and from post another $2000 or $1000 per year. Housing, which is supposed to come from host countries, say $300 a month (we’re not talking SoHo New York) means $3600 a year. Readjustment bonus, I haven’t a clue but let’s say $10,000. Health insurance about $100 a month (yes, it is cheaper outside the USA) or $1200 a year. So the actual cost of putting a volunteer in the field is around $15,000 a year. What happens to the other $41,000? Could it be a bloated bureaucracy in DC? You think?

  • John, I’m currently a Peace Corps volunteer and was interested to see this article about the potential future of Peace Corps. I was wondering if you have any specific information (or could guide me in that direction) regarding the current condition of Peace Corps programs? Primarily, I’m trying to compare my country’s volunteer-to-staff ratio to that of other countries to argue that our level of staffing is not adequate. Could use any advice you might have!

  • Andrea–what you might do it write the desk officer for your country; he or she is in D.C. You might talk to your staff in-country; they would have some knowledge of staffing in other countries, as well as, their own staffing changes. Where are you, anyway?

    You might also email the Office of Communications in Peace Corps Washington and see if they can give you numbers, which, of course, change daily.

    If you really want to get results, write your local congressman or congresswoman and they will, in turn, get the information from the Peace Corps. You’ll get an answer from them.

    When I was an APCD in Ethiopia in the mid-sixties we had 450 or so PCVs in country and a staff of 4 for a period of six, seven months.
    As you know, you work for the host country and your immediate boss is your headmaster at your school, or supervisor at the ministry you have been assigned to; it is not directly the Peace Corps staff in country. They are basically (or should be) a back up to the HCN you work for as a PCV.

    It is been my experience that most successful PCVs are those that operate on their own, do the job, and have little to do with Peace Corps Staff.

  • I am very concerned about the current state of the PC. I’m not sure if it is country specific or not but I can tell you that the lack of professional support provided to the PCV’s is very poor. In a country where woman (PCV’s)are less than dogs and hit or physically abused daily the PC tells them to suck it up. Confidentality within the medical coummunity is non-existant. There is a horrible lack of help when a PCV is placed in a dangerous and life threatening housing situation. Even when the PCV does all the leg work to locate better facilities, the PC refuses to fund or assist the move. This is a volunteer job where an American chooses to give 2 years of thier life to helping make the world a better place. How can they be treated so poorly??? It seens that if you have a bad CD, the stuff rolls downhill from there. The CD sits in thier cushy facilites sheltered from the reality of what the PCV’s are going through. Maybe the CD had a great experience when they were a PCV and thinks nothing about the country specific conditions for thier PCV’s. There is a horrible missing link in the PCV program, many PCV’s feel unsupported and left out to fend for themselves.

  • The problem you talk about is not new. There has always been the odd country staff that thinks Peace Corps service should be run along the ‘tough it out’ lines. And, I’m sorry to say previous Peace Corps service by the staff doesn’t always lead to a better situation. I fear that it is a matter of maturity and compassion for others that makes or breaks a staff. Sometimes incountry volunteers can come together to put pressure on the staff and I encourage you and the others to consider doing so. A letter, or a threatened letter, to PC/W sometimes does wonders. Don’t let a lousy staff ruin a great opportunity for service and personal growth.

  • This kind of situation is another reason why Volunteer service should be contracted service. In another words, Volunteers should have a contract which spells out rights and responsibilities, due process protection and avenue of appeal. The situation which “concerned” describes is exactly the position which most poor, powerless people in the world are in: Little or no rights defined, and no way to enforce any which might exist on paper.

    The remedies which Dave suggests, so sincerely, are exactly the options available to peons in the classic patron-peon relationship. The peon may beg, ie. write a letter, and the patron have the absolute right to grant the request or refuse it. Of, the peons may organize (see: Community Development). But, this latter option is potentially very dangerous because it can subject the group or individual members to retaliation. (See: Marnie Muellers “Green Fires”).

    During the sixties, male Volunteers had draft deferements. Peace Corps had the right to terminate any Volunteer at any time. Draft Boards were routinely notified within 24 hours of such termination and men could find themselves with a draft notice, (which more than likely would send them to Vietnam )before they even got home. The threat of termination was used effectively, in my experience, to stuffle any opposition among male Volunteers.

    I support making successful Peace Corps service a prerequesite for any job within Peace Corps. However, I can appreciate that veteran RPCVs in administrative positions may be indifferent to the difficulties which serving Volunteers may be facing. Certainly, David, you remember boot camp from your Marine Days and how one had to “earn” the right to be a Marine. I think the same kind of attitude may be opperating here. All the more reason to formalize the relationship
    between support staff and serving Volunteer.

    I think the appropriate place for RPCVs to be “tought” with potential Volunteers is during the training period. I know that you cut the training period and swore Volunteers soon after they arrived in the Phillippines. I support that, but at the same time, I believe that there is a role for RPCVs to play in determining who will “carry on the Peace Corps tradition.”

    My final training phase was conducted by the returning member of Colombia I. They were tough with us. They also had veto power on
    selection boards. All of us, who hated the scrunity of the psychological survillance during training, did accept the right of the RPCVS make final decisions.

    I trained potential Volunteers during the Junior Year College Program.
    These men spent the summer between their junior and senior year in Peace Corps training. I did have veto over who went and who did not.
    My group only had six or seven college students, but I could not in conscience recommend any of them for the Peace Corps. It was during the Vietnam war and they all acted as if they were entitled to the Peace Corps draft deferment. They were also “eltiist” and felt that they were morally superior to the young kids whom they were supposed to partner with.

    All of these trainees had to seek other alternatives to military service. Some were successful as COs and others went the grad school route. One did enter the service, but never had combat duty. As a woman, I realize how incredibly fortunate I was not to have to make decisions about military service.

  • Joey

    I think you under estimate the power ‘organized volunteers’ can have. During my time as Deputy Director I had to respond to volunteer concerns expressed directlty to PC/W (and to American ambassadors) about their incountry situations. In two cases after an extended visit the CD was recalled ( a nice word for ‘fired’) and in other cases changes were negotiated on the spot. If the history of the 60s and 70s tells us anything it is that groups of the ‘dispossessed’ acting in concert can move mountains.

    The ‘tough’ approach is right for the Marines. After all they are being trained to kill people, an activity most of us don’t come to naturally. I think a more humane approach is better for most educational endeavors.

  • Remember, Dave, that the draft was effectively over by the time you were Deputy Director in the Phillippines.

    ……”that groups of the ‘dispossessed’ acting in concert can move mountains.” That is a wild statement which is not true in all situations.
    What happens to “dissents” varies tremendously, depending on the political situation. “Concerned” describes a current situation where that is not true. I would hope that “concerned” could safely write to her Congressional Representation, without fear of retaliation. Tell me, have you read Marnie Mueller’s “Green Fires?” If not, you should, before the pollyanna comment.

    Dissent groups also can routinely find themselves jailed; terminated or killed. We called the attitude you describes as “then we all went to the seashore.” ya, it was black humor.

    Thank you for reminding us that the first goal of training anyone in the military is to condition them to kill on command. That means that the “enemy” has to be dehumanized. In the Peace Corps, training is designed to do exactly the opposite and that is to train Volunteers to see the “other” as like themselves, and to pierce the cultural filters. I believe the very best ones to do that are the RPCVs. But, then you knew my opinion!

  • Joey

    Two comments of a factual nature. I was refering to my time as Deputy Director of the Peace Corps not of PC/P And, my first assignment as Deputy Director of PC/P in August 1971 was to be the ‘draft aviodance’ counselor for male PCVs. Not exactly a welcome task for a former marine.

  • Dave, I reread “concerned”‘s comments. I realize that we have been using her to piggyback on our favorite topics. I need to apologze for that. I presume that “concerned” is female. No woman should be placed in a situation which she feels endangered specifically because of her gender. I would urge “concerned” to contact her Congressional Representative and Senator immediately.

    I do not believe that any Volunteer should be maintained in a dangerous situation; but women has special vulnerabilities. Back in 2002, a Cleveland Newspaper did a series of articles exposing the dangers facing Volunteers. Peace Corps was mandated to correct the situation. Indeed, Gaddi Vasquez’s qualifications as a former police officer were seen as a benefit in instituting Safety and Security measures. So, to “concerned”, I take what you say very seriously. Please document your efforts to get support and contact your Congress people ASAP.

    Now, Dave, thank you for the clarifications. But didn’t you say in your book that the position of “draft counselor” was phased out pretty quickly after your arrival incountry?

    It did not register with me that you were speaking of your time in PC/W and not the Phillippines. It would be very interesting to see if Volunteers who were older, professional, placed in mid-level positions and/or had their families with them, were treated with more respect than the “BA generalists” of the sixties. Again, since most records have been destroyed, it would be very hard to make an objective assessment.

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