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.