Robert Strauss Has A Few Words Of Explanation (And Some Corrections)

Hi John.  I would have liked to know that you planned to publish our correspondence as I might have reviewed it a bit more closely.  Anyway, no harm no foul.  I think this is your way of compelling me to write something more. Also, you called me Roger in the first paragraph, not Robert. Go ahead and put this on the record if you want:

It’s not that I’m no longer interested in the Peace Corps as you wrote.  I remain very interested in Peace Corps but unfortunately have come to the conclusion that there is no managerial will to undertake the reforms at Peace Corps that would help it fulfill its initial promise.  Peace Corps, as I have repeatedly written, is a wonderful idea that has been undermined by a terrible system that fails the agency’s larger purpose at every turn.

As regards “why didn’t he (Strauss) send them home?” – those PCVs or PCTs who weren’t performing or were in violation of various regulations – as you say was done so rigorously in the old days…

These days, even when confronted with overwhelming evidence of non-performance or non-compliance, many volunteers are unlikely to accept their own culpability and go quietly.  Electronic communication has made it very easy for a disgruntled individual to get in touch with their Congressional offices (or mom and dad) and, often before the country director even has a heads-up, a communique arrives from Washington asking why the country director is being so hard on volunteer XYZ, regardless of the circumstances.  

I’m sure every CD – whether former or current – has stories similar to the following.  You go through this once or twice and you begin to doubt that Washington really wants the rules enforced or a semblance of standards upheld.
Now several years ago my wife quite innocently stumbled across a PCV blog in which a volunteer stated that what Cameroon needed was a revolution.  She brought this to my attention which led to my discovering that the volunteer in question had blogged extensively about being away from post an inordinate amount of time, and without permission.  In the blog this same volunteer outed another volunteer who had also been away from post repeatedly and for extensive periods of time.  Additionally, that blog led to another blog in which another volunteer chronicled a lengthy, unauthorized vacation throughout the northern part of the country, adding “Don’t tell Robert.”  
Now if we had had adequate resources to visit volunteers at their posts every month instead of every six months all of this might have come out earlier, the volunteers in question could have been told to stand up straight and fly right.  But that was and is not the reality.  

When I told these individuals that they had the choice of “ETing” or facing administrative separation, a firestorm erupted as they rallied other volunteers to their defense.  Rather than accept the consequences of their own actions, they essentially dedicated themselves to making my life very uncomfortable, primarily through extensive contacts with headquarters where a “the volunteer is always right” and the “volunteer is the client” mentality pervades.  This is terribly unfortunate because the poor and underserved of the developing word ought to be the client, not the volunteer.  In the case of the “don’t tell Robert” volunteer, I was compelled, repeatedly, to justify my actions when this individual had admitted to being AWOL for several weeks on the Internet.  (He should have been sent home for not having any common sense, but that wasn’t allowed by the manual.)  

Another classic example would have been when I was traveling and spotted a volunteer without a helmet – an instant, no recourse, admin sep situation in Cameroon (and most countries I believe).  I contacted the volunteer who admitted the infraction.  We had a heart to heart and the volunteer accepted an ET in lieu of admin sep.  And so the situation was over.  Or so I thought – until I received a communication from the director’s office asking why volunteer so and so was being sent home. This volunteer even wrote Ron Tschetter to say how unfair I was, had singled her out, etc.  The irony of this was that the particular volunteer had just weeks earlier written me a note to say what a swell guy I was.

Stories such as this get around and country directors become very hesitant to send volunteers home because who wants to spend weeks and weeks justifying an action that may get no support from superiors in Washington and lead to endless inquiries from the Office of Congressional Relations and elsewhere?  This is, perhaps, symptomatic of an increasing unwillingness of Americans to accept personal responsibility, but it has made life and work for many country directors even more difficult.  Essentially, Washington creates a lot of rules that it would just as soon not see enforced in the field because they, too, don’t want the headaches.  I think this is why trainees who are clearly unsuitable for service overseas get sent overseas anyway.  That pushes the problem onto the field staff and Washington doesn’t have to deal with it – at least not on a daily basis.

Country directors are truly between a rock and a hard place when it comes to enforcing standards.  Many simply choose to look the other way.  I have had CDs tell me that if a PCV was in the country (and not in jail), s/he didn’t care what they were doing or where they were.  I found this hard to believe, but nevertheless it was true.  Just as PCVs frequently advise each other to have as little to do with the country office as possible, so do CDs tell one another to avoid communication with Washington as much as possible – because additional problems and not solutions will be the likely response.

Because so country directors can count on so little help from Washington, they often rely on each other.  As we were trying to increase standards for PST in Cameroon, I got in touch with all the CDs in the Africa Region to ask how many trainees they mustered out for poor performance.  The answers ranged between zero and 2%.  Unless we believe that recruitment is really doing a fabulous job of selecting people for overseas service, it’s hard to believe that 98-100% of all trainees deserve to become volunteers.  But that is what happens because very few people want to go through the bureaucratic agony of sending someone home.  Like many things in Peace Corps, this does a disservice to all those who take their service seriously because it dumbs down the organization to a low common denominator while undermining its standing in the eyes of host country nationals who are often baffled at the way Peace Corps apparently condones unprofessional performance and behavior.

A question many volunteers pose is how is it that underperforming overseas staff never seem to get sent home, or fired.  The answer, I think, is similar in that overseas staff are subject to and protected by a multitude of varying and conflicting labor law and personnel policies which can make letting an under-performer go an arduous process in which the country director will get no support from Washington and may be actively resisted by other staff members whose loyalties may be more to their co-worker than to any academic notion of professional performance.  On several occasions I was required by Washington to justify letting go staff members even though I had cleared the action with Washington before ever taking it.  You get into that type of Kafkaesque situation a few times and you start to think, well, I’d don’t need another headache, I’ll leave it for the next CD to handle.  Then that CD arrives, doesn’t figure out the situation until halfway through his/her tour by which time he’s decided he doesn’t need another headache and the underperforming staff member stays on for 20 years.

It’s another example of a system failure that diverts resources and time and does nothing to advance Peace Corps’ larger goals.

Robert Strauss
Antananarivo, Madagascar
Mobile: +261-32-45-911-95 (GMT +3)


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  • You are obviously a rotten manager, based on your own evidence. But you are also a classic consultant, blaming everyone around you for what goes wrong. Then you leave.

    You would have been better off not responding to the posting of your whiny complaint. If you paid me to advise you on what to do next, I would remind you that when you are in a hole, first stop digging. It’s so elementary that I won’t send you a bill.

    Edith B.

  • In most armies someone AWOL is shot or spends a long time in jail. One can argue about whether someone is doing a “good” job. But clearly not even showing up for roll call is a terminator.

  • I repeat, Strauss must have served in the Peace Corps in a parallel universe. Mine was nothing like his, thankfully.

  • Leo
    I think you are confusing AWOL with desertion. At worst AWOL would get you what we used to call “six,six, and a kick.” Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, and the importance of the fellow involved, punishment could be mild as being confined to quarters for a few weekends.

  • Thanks for the clarification. But not showing up for work for a long time is certainly grounds for severance.

  • “many volunteers are unlikely to accept their own culpability and go quietly” — ok, I can’t go on. Show me that many volunteers were presented with such “overwhelming evidence” and then we can count how many went disgruntled to their parents or others. How absurd. I didn’t work as hard as i should have, call me out, then, now, or ever. what was “non-performance” exactly, maybe that’s the real question? when you are creating your own job description, the CD is a douche, no one appreciates your efforts locally, and you are 24 and homesick, well, you do the math. Does that mean we offered nothing? Does that mean we learned nothing? Does that mean you are soooo much better than us?

  • Leo makes a good point about persons seperated from service when they do not perform as expected, including being AWOL. As a former Federal labor union president, the greatest challange that any supervisor/director faces is documenting what exactly has happened to lead to a disciplinary action. Admittedly, this has often only surfaced during a grievance procedure when the Union challanged a supervisor for haven taken inappropriate action, by disciplining someone.

    Discipline has to be progressive, with increasing penalties prior to suspension, the ultimate action to get rid of a poorly performing employee/PCV, commencing with an oral warning, followed by a written warning and ending with seperation.

    Sadly, discipline from supervisor to supervisor varies greatly and can be based on little more than personal dislike for an employee. It strikes me that given the PC’s loss of a sense of its own history by the five-year rule, a system to deal with poorly performing PCTs and PCVs is long overdue. In the same way that the Union would not protect poorly performing employees, poorly performing PCTs and PCVs should be let go, or put on notice that future infractions will lead to seperation. And, no one need tfear political pressure in discharging a PCT/PCV for poor performance. They just need to thoroughly examine the situation, write it up and send it off to anyone who objects, whether a PC desk officer, congressional office or parent, and the PCVs themselves.

    In the case of PCTs, AmeriCorps*VISTA offers an excellent example; during the three days of training, staff and trainers, who are experienced, are able to spot potentially poor performing VISTAs enabling them to not be sworn in.

  • I certainly disagree with the emphasis you guys put on deselection. The much more important training and support task is to ensure that every one who ends up in country for training and service becomes a successful volunteer. The emphasis should be on making everyone successful, not weeding out those for whom one ‘expert’ or another deems to be unworthy of ‘saving.’ I thought the whole idea of ‘theory ‘X’ management had died with the 1970s. Apparently not. Too bad.

  • Robert, I appreciate your honesty about your frustration. Two quick observations:: The first is that the status of Volunteer is ill defined, legally.
    There is no model for a federal agency where the mission work is done by non-employees, and only the management functions are done by employees. The relationship between the employee and Volunteer doesn’t work because it doesn’t make sense in our culture. I believe it is at the core of Peace Corps problems .

    Secondly, PC/W is mono-culture. Volunteers are by definition in a cross-cultural or multi-cultural environment. PC/W filters, of necessity, all feedback from the field through cultural filters. Anything which does not reinforce existing cultural beliefs gets tossed. PC/W is the sound of one hand clapping.

  • Robert, you assume that we were all terrible volunteers, with intentions of getting drunk, clando-ing about and maliciously terrorizing you on our blogs from the get go. It’s simply not true. Most of us had real intentions of hard work, but even the best of us felt jaded in the wake of your disrespect.

    Peace Corps seemed to me a work-in-progress at all times, APCD’s leaving (or dying), CDs changing out, a couple of new directors, new posts, training sites, languages, people and always, always, always new volunteers landing in Yaounde… perhaps all we needed was leadership, whether we graduated from Stanford or not.

    I never understood why you seemed so angry…. none of the Cameroonians I worked with seemed angry with me. Ever.

  • This comment is directed to Dave Gurr. The comparison between employees working under a union contract and peace corps volunteers is bizarre. I presume you do know that volunteers are NOT employees, do not have a union, and do not even have a detailed job description, let alone personal services contracts. I don’t find your discussion germane.

    This comment is directed to rose: First of all, thank you so much for your replies. It would be great if Robert Strauss would reply. A public dialogue between a RPCV and her former CD could be the beginning of real change.

    General comment: I don’t understand Robert’s emphasis on th need of the CD to “supervise” Volunteers. However, this does echo David Searles statement that the main job of the CD was to “manage” and “direct” the work of Volunteers. I thought that Volunteers were assigned to incountry institutions and that those institutions provided direction to Volunteers.

    I use the term “institutions” in a sociological sense. For example, a Volunteer assigned to a rural site to do community development would not necessarily have an governmental intrastructure within the site, but the assignment would be known to the host country government at some level. The Volunteer would not be working independently. In the Phillippines, David reported that Volunteers were assigned to specific jobs within specific agencies to do “institution building.” A CD trying to supervise that work would just complicate relationships, it would seem to me.

    In the early sixties, in Colombia, Volunteers were assigned to Public Health, if they were doing health education. There was a governmental agency designed to do community development. Volunteers working with that agency had a Colombia counterpart. CARE had the contract to provide support and direction to those Volunteers. Peace Corps staff was not providing day to day or even month to month supervison. I don’t know how they could have. So, if either Robert or David S. could provide some more information about how they saw CDs supervising Volunteers and coordinating that with host country agencies, it would be helpful.

  • I would add that I still hear people talk about Peace Corps with the mistaken impression that Volunteers are deployed overseas in units, like the military, and work as a team on projects.

  • Robert L. Strauss’s commentaries on Peace Corps are provocative, but increasingly angry. This is a response to “Grow Up-How to Fix the Peace Corps” in the Winter (January/February 2010) issue of The American Interest. His charges need to be addressed. His article can be read online, but there is no way to post a response unless one pays for a subscription. So, I hope so much that Strauss will return to this blog and participate in what could be a very valuable discussion with his peers.

    Strauss, like so many RPCVs, myself included, makes the mistake of referring to the Peace Corps administration in Washington as if it were basically the same bureaucracy through the years. Yet, we know it is not. Congress in establishing the agency outsourced the management function of Peace Corps to whatever political party is in power; the thirty or so critical political appointments are rewards for political victory. Peace Corps is, in Spanish slang, “qualquieras,” or “anybody’s.” When the new Ship of State sails in, Peace Corps is waiting at the dock. The impact of the number of political appointees and the five -year rule means that there is no one Peace Corps.

    Strauss does acknowledge the churn created by these facts, but then continues to refer to Peace Corps as if it were the same institution through the years. I will identify the administration in power when making any reference to the Peace Corps. This is important because too often the call to change/improve Peace Corps is directed to the agency instead of Congress and the White House , which is where the real authority is.

    Strauss argues that, in 1978, he “had no business volunteering to be a health educator”….Peace Corps should “start matching applicants to specific jobs.’ Straus served in Peace Corps/Carter. Sam Brown, an anti-war activist was the political appointee to head ACTION, of which Peace Corps was the “Division of Overseas Operation.” Brown reversed the “New Directions” policy of Peace Corps/Nixon Ford. “New Directions” did match applicants to specific jobs, recruited older Volunteers, and allowed heads of families to be Volunteers, making provisions for those families to accompany the Volunteer. How successful was “New Directions?” No one knows. Brown made the change in policy based on his own values, not on any field evaluations.

    Strauss ignores this program of PC/Nixon Ford. What Strauss should have known and what is too often ignored is the role of Peace Corps nurses. Since its inception, nurses have been a constant component of the Volunteer force. They absolutely fulfill the requirement of being “trained”

    Of real concern is Strauss’s dismissal of the “Safety and Security” focus during Peace Corps/Bush at the direction of Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez. As a CD, Strauss was responsible for implementing that policy. If he did not agree with the policy, he should have resigned. If he failed to follow the policy, he should have been fired. He attributes this focus to “a volunteer in Latin American, someone who was probably under-supervised in the first place, went missing and has never been found.” Not exactly, Strauss.

    Walter Poirier II failed to return to his site from Christmas vacation in 2000. Peace Corps/Carter-Bush transition delayed responding to his parents’ concern. By the time, there was an adequate response; the “trail” had grown too cold. He is still missing. In 2003, the Dayton Daily News published a series of articles. Mei-Ling Hopgood as reported on Peace Corps Online ( wrote that The Dayton Daily News series on the Peace Corps “reported that the number of reported assault incidents from 1991-2002 had more than doubled, yet the agency continued to put many volunteers in danger by sending them to live alone in risky areas without adequate housing, supervision or a job that kept them busy. The series also found that the agency omitted many crime victims from its published statistics and ignored or downplayed some volunteers’ concerns.” This time period would have included Peace Corps/Bush I;
    Peace Corps/Clinton and Peace Corps/Bush II.

    Both the Senate and the House held hearings on this issue. Advocates had wanted the positions of Ombudsman and a more independent Inspector General to be created.
    Director Vasquez argued against those remedies, but said that he would make Safety and Security the focus of his administration. Strauss’s hostility towards Volunteers and PeaceCorps/Bush may be symptomatic of the crazy way Congress set up Peace Corps.
    But, no one with that contempt for serving Volunteers should have remained in a position that required him to support and protect them.

    There is much to support in the variety of recommendations Strauss makes. But his antagonism is a red flag. Ironically, for me, I remember the same antagonism that many of us faced in Colombia in the early sixties. I had thought that if successful service as a Volunteer were a prerequisite for employment with the Peace Corps, the problem would be solved. Live and learn.

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