Peace Corps At Day One: #13 Seven Reasons For A Successful Peace Corps
What strikes anyone reading about the creating of the Peace Corps are two points: 1) how creatively it was organized; 2) how fast it was put into operation. The reason was that the ‘founding fathers’ (and they were only fathers) took chances. Wofford remarks in Of Kennedys & Kings how a management consultant said to him one evening, “You guys had a good day today. You broke fourteen laws.” Then the consultant promised to straighten out the paper work and urged then all on, saying, “Keep it up, we’re making progress.”
Wiggins in his interview with me listed 7 reasons why the Peace Corps was so successful in those early days of the Kennedy administration.
1) They kept the idea of a “Peace Corps” simple. At first, the PCVs were only to teach English. As Wiggins told me, “Our cardinal rule in crafting ‘A Towering Task’ was to make the agency simple, workable, understandable, and within the competence of young Americans.” When it got started the Peace Corps Volunteers did a lot more, but in the beginning that was an explicit, verbalized statement of what the Peace Corps would be.
2) The staff was anti-professional and anti-bureaucratic. “I don’t know from whence some of that came,” Warren recalled, “other than that I always prided myself on being a maverick, outspoken, audacious, irreverent.”
3) They were all amateurs. “We were,” said Wiggins, “a whole group of people who were amateurs in the business of being a government agency that ran volunteers.” The staff also was made up a wide assortment of people who, with a few exceptions, had no professional skills in volunteering and no international experience.
4) The Peace Corps staff paid no attention to the hierarchies of professionalism. Wiggins recalled how the staff approached the teaching of English as a second language. “We called in the national association of teaching English as a secondary language,” he said, “and asked for help in developing a training program. They were all excited by this and said we needed to train for two years. I told them we didn’t have two years. They cut the training back to 18 months and said they couldn’t be responsible unless the Volunteers had 18 months of training. So, we said four months is the max, and we’re going to teach a lot besides teaching English as a second language. They left and we never paid attention to them again.”
What the Peace Corps did was write their own books; teach their own courses. “We were ahead of the game, and we did not rely on the professionals,” Wiggins summed up. “For example, we had two former heads of the American Psychological Association heading up selection, but the selection process was anti-establishment. It didn’t run like normal selection processes.”
5) The Peace Corps from the first considered the Department of State the enemy, and plotted to see that State never got its grips on the agency. The anti-establishment staff didn’t want the Peace Corps as an establishment. “I was so proud,” Wiggins recalled, “that for a couple of years we never had policy directives. We only had interim policy directives. And that was lovely.”
6) The staff also didn’t want a personnel office in the agency and were able to get away with it for a few years. “Then we finally appointed someone,” Wiggins said, “but she had no power.”
7) The Peace Corps staff took the long-term view about their work. Warren recalls an early public service ad. It was two photos of Chimbote, Peru. In the same ad there is a photo of Chimbote before the Peace Corps, and a photo of Chimbote after the Peace Corps. Both photos are the same. “You can’t tell the difference,” Wiggins says. “What a marvelous ad!”
Looking back today, from the view point of half a century, one sees that being anti-establishment, amateurish, anti-professional was what made the Peace Corps work.
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