In September of 1961, Colombia welcomed the first Peace Corps Volunteers to Latin America. Colombia I was the first Peace Corps group to enter training and the second group, after Ghana I, to actually arrive in-country. Peace Corps closed out Colombia in 1981 because of safety and security concerns; not to return for almost thirty years. Ironically, Ghana is the country with the longest continuing Peace Corps presence; and, the return of Peace Corps to Colombia bridges the longest gap between Peace Corps programs of any country.
The Office of the Peace Corps Inspector General is now charged with program evaluation. This then is their report of the Return to Colombia of the Peace Corps. The text to link to is:http://files.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/policies/PCIG_Colombia_Evaluation_Report.pdf
I especially urge Colombian RPCVS, serving Colombian Volunteers and those of you who have seen your countries close or have served in a reopened country to read this report.
Peace Corps Colombia as all Peace Corps programs can perhaps be best understood by first looking at the critical elements of the host country context. Political violence has plagued Colombia for decades. In 1948, the assassination of a popular politician resulted in ten years of civil war between Conservative and Liberal party factions. Know as La Violence, over 200,000 Colombians were killed. Finally, a compromise between the two parties was reached in 1958 when they agreed to alternate control of the government every four years. It was during this relatively peaceful interval, that Colombia welcomed the Peace Corps. The Volunteers worked with CARE, under the first Peace Corps management contract with an NGO. Colombia I worked in Community Development helping to rebuilt rural Colombia, pioneering this CD model that was to become a building block for many Peace Corps programs.
Over the next twenty years, more than 4,600 Volunteers served in programs including Urban and Rural CD; another pioneer program – Educational TV; Co-ops; Health, including Nurses; Education and Agriculture. But, the peaceful interval did not continue. In 1965, left wing guerrilla groups began fighting against the government and then right wing paramilitary groups. Colombians were caught in the crossfire. Kidnapping became institutionalized.
in 1977, Richard Starr, a Peace Corps Volunteer Botanist with a program sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, was kidnapped by a left wing group. Starr was held for three years. During that time, Peace Corps Volunteers continued at their posts; unsung heroes joining the brave Colombians in living daily with this kind of threat. In 1980, Starr was privately ransomed and Peace Corps made plans to leave, knowing that sadly such ransom could place a price on every Volunteer. Violence continued to plague Colombia as cocaine cartels added to the political violence.
Colombian RPCVs did not forget Colombia. The Friends of Colombia, the RPCV alumni group supported development activities. These RPCVs so inspired the then Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco that “she stated that she wanted to make the return of the Peace Corps to Colombia one of her goals during her tour as Ambassador.” In 2009, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe invited the Peace Corps to return, and in September of 2010, Colombia reopened with nine Peace Corps Response Volunteers. From the Executive Summary of the OIG report:
The Peace Corps carefully managed the re-opening of operations in Colombia, Former Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams sent assessment teams to Colombia to determine whether or not conditions in Colombia were suitable for Volunteers. The agency closely followed the recommendations that its assessment teams made concerning programmatic opportunities, geographic boundaries for operations, and safety and security precautions. The safety and security program is thorough, with sound oversight. Programming is anchored in the Colombian government’s initiative to make public schools bilingual, and has been well received. PCRVs and dedicated staff helped to get the program off to a good start despite a compressed reentry phase and early staffing and logistical challenges…The evaluation uncovered some areas for improvement. The most significant challenge facing the post is the concentration of Volunteers in three major urban areas along the Caribbean coast. Due to security concerns, the post has been unable to place a sufficient number of Volunteers in smaller communities outside these major urban areas. We found that the Volunteers placed in these densely populated barrios 9urban neighborhoods) had difficulty integrating, faced frequent sexual harassment, experienced high levels of stress, and were exposed to a greater risk of urban crime such as muggings and theft.
The format for program evaluation by the Office of the Inspector General lacks the colorful descriptions of personality conflicts so often seen in the fabled evaluations done by journalists for Charlie Peters’ historic Evaluation Office. but these OIG reports are no less valuable. The OIG evaluator who visited the Colombian program in the summer of 2012 is a RPCV, although I don’t think from Colombia. Strengths and weakness were analyzed and recommendations were presented to Peace Corps management. The final evaluation includes the recommendation and the follow-up actions taken to implement them. In Peters’ day, program evaluations circulated to Washington and In-Country staff’ but never to serving Volunteers or RPCS. The OIG reports encourage comments. From the report:
If you wish to comment on the quality or usefulness of this report to help us improve are product, please email Assistant Inspector General for Evaluations Jim O’Keefe at
firstname.lastname@example.org (copy and paste) or call 202.692.2904
Please Note: When the OIG report was first posted on the official Peace Corps website in April of 2013, Colombia was spelled with a “u.” However, a call to the IT office got an immediate response and the spelling was corrected within the hour. Kudos to the IT office.