Review of Michael Heyn's (Peru 1964-66) In Search of Decency: The Unexpected Power of Rich and Poor

search-decency-120In Search of Decency: The Unexpected Power of Rich and Poor
by Michael Heyn (Peru 1964-66)
Matador
$21.99 (paperback), $9.99 (Kindle)
368 pages
August 2013

Reviewed by Ken Hill (Turkey 1965-67)

Mr. Heyn’s diary shares a life lived mostly abroad, across 15 countries on four continents, with United Nations programs as well as personal ventures and occasional assignments at the UN in New York.  The saga is spiced by adventures in cultural adaptation, crisis management, intrigue and some legitimate danger!

Graced with an enviable education, the author meets and marries, serves in Peace Corps, begins a family but divorces upon discovering a soul-mate with whom he travels the globe to serve human needs. He relates examples of remarkable adaptation and innovation throughout this life story and is admirably candid about successes and failures, displaying an admirable ability to learn from his experiences.

A child of the 60’s, the author ponders questions of life and searches for solutions with universal application. Four decades later he shares his discovery of a principle to close the world’s gap between rich and poor.  “What I have learned is that what is most important in life and to our human relations is… treating each other decently.  Everything else springs from that.” Self-evident, some may say.

Mr. Heyn unfortunately fails to bridge the inevitable gap between principle and application. He leaves unanswered the question of just how the goal of universal, mutual decency is to be achieved which is understandable, perhaps, given the ambiguity of the ‘solution’.

Many would envy the life of adventure and challenge portrayed in Mr. Heyn’s self-published diary.  Myriad  experiences, however, are shared with more detailed narrative than might hold the reader’s attention.  Twelve years in the writing the book begs for editing which is unfortunate as there is much in this book of value for very patient readers.

Following his Peace Corps service, Ken Hill was Peace Corps and ACTION Agency staff in Washington through 1978.  He and his wife, Winnie (Nepal 1966-68), owned and operated a marina in Solomons, Maryland for a dozen years. Returning to Peace Corps in 1994, Ken was Country Director in Eastern Russia, Bulgaria and Macedonia. He was promoted to Chief of Operations for Europe and Asia in 1999 and appointed Peace Corps Chief of Staff in 2001 to manage the agency during the transition of administrations.  Chairman of the Board of the National Peace Corps Association for three years, Ken is a member of numerous RPCV groups. He organized national Peace Corps Staff reunions in 2002 and 2011 for the 50 anniversary of Peace Corps and was a principal in the MorePeaceCorps and Push4PeaceCorps campaigns as well as an advisor to the Obama Transition Team for Peace Corps. He currently serves on the boards of the Bulgarian-American Society and Friends of Turkey (Arkadaşlar) and is active in local civic and political affairs.

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  • Michael Heyn’s thoughtful memoir of his life and times as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-Sixties and then as a staff member of the United Nations for forty exciting years exemplifies the spirit and the substance of the people who responded to President John Kennedy’s clarion call for peace-makers.

    Heyn’s book “In Search of Decency – The Unexpected Power of Rich and Poor” covers nearly five decades of social and political action on the international stage and succinctly reveals the power of what one person can accomplish in the world-at-large.

    Heyn used his first international experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer helping impoverished Andean Indians accomplish the rather mundane task of creating a cooperative for raising chickens and built upon it a lifelong career of public service. That early cross-cultural experience ignited a fire in Heyn that drove him to devote his entire life toward improving conditions for the poor. The beauty of Heyn’s life story is that he began his international quest with no great over-arching philosophy he wanted to prove. He simply saw a need and filled it. It was, indeed, the decent thing to do.

    Heyn, a savvy development professional, deftly puts forth his well-honed views of conciliation and cooperation in easy to understand terms while he takes you on a whirlwind tour of the world and many of its hot spots, both politically and environmentally. His story, unencumbered by footnotes, is a fast read. It opens in 1990 with bullets flying overhead as he arrives in Liberia for his next UN assignment. A violent revolution to rid the country of Sgt. Samuel Doe, a vicious dictator, has just broken out. Who said peace-seeking was a peaceful enterprise?

    After getting the scoop on Liberia and before we visit 15 of his assignments around the world, Heyn lays out the necessary human behavior he has found to be the underpinnings for a world of peace and security. They are no surprise. They’re concepts all people acknowledge: open communication, humility, our commonality, equal responsibilities, and, of course, the commitment to follow through.

    Over the years Heyn has come to see there are answers to solving poverty. There are ways to eliminate the devastating costs of poverty. His experiences in solving problems of poverty at the grass roots are many: Peru, India, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Nepal, Kenya, Malawi, Thailand, Kosovo, Bangladesh, Yemen, even South Sudan. He deduces from those varied experiences an understanding that he believes bridges the chasm between rich and poor — the age-old human belief in decency. Heyn believes decency is the root of lasting peace and he provides numerous examples and various techniques used by many to achieve this symbiosis of rich and poor.

    Obviously on unchartered quests a person never knows whom they’ll run into on the road of life. According to his memoir Mike personally met General Charles de Gaulle at Stanford, Marilyn Monroe on Coronado Beach, Liberian President Ellen Johnson at work, and when Indira Gandhi & Mother Teresa huddled together for tea one afternoon, guess who was the only other person in the room. When you invest yourself in the unknown on behalf of public service you get rewards you could never have imagined. For the young adventurer who wants to make a difference, this book is one of those rewards. For old folks, hopefully, the book is a reminder that work is still yet to be done.

    I give Mike Heyn a double thumbs-up for his great effort in translating such a comprehensive and, at the same time, ecstatic experience into the simple confines binding a book.

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