I recently wrote Robert Strauss (Liberia 1978-80) in the hope of getting him to blog about the Peace Corps and development on our site. Robert, in case you haven’t read him, is an RPCV and former Peace Corps Country Director who does development work in Africa. He is currently living in Antananarivo, Madagascar where he is a writer and consultant and lives with, as he writes, “my wife and daughter in a small house surrounded by a large garden.” Robert is also a serious critic of the Peace Corps and what the agency is doing around the world. He has written articles and Op-eds (one famous one in the NYTIMES) and most recently another article about the Peace Corps in The American Interest Magazine.”
The American Interest Magazine piece is entitled, “Grow Up: How to Fix the Peace Corps. (The American Interest, by the way, is a bimonthly magazine focusing primarily on foreign policy, international affairs, global economics, and matters related to the military.)
Robert wrote a while back an Op-Ed in the New York Times about how the Peace Corps was in a sad state of affairs which attracted a lot of attention, at least from RPCVs. I was hoping after I read his new piece in The American Interest to coax Robert into writing on our website about the decline and failure of the Peace Corps. Robert was nice enough to reply from Antananarivo and politely decline my offer. He gave me his reasons why.
He is no longer interested in the Peace Corps, he e-mailed me, (though he has just published another article about what was wrong with the agency.) Robert wrote, “I was a CD and I pushed hard from the inside for reform and got nothing from it except gray hair, excruciating heartburn and the enmity of HQ and those Volunteers who came to continue their days in the dorm and not do any work. I’ve since written four reasonably significant articles regarding Peace Corps reform and nothing has happened. My interest in seeing Peace Corps be all that it could be – to use an inappropriate quotation – has had zero impact (except my heartburn and continuing frustration) and so I’m tossing in the towel. The bureaucracy has a momentum of its own.
“…I am afraid some of the folks who think they are defending Peace Corps by fondly remembering their service wind up doing the agency a terrible disservice. In a way, it’s a shame because I have had hundreds and hundreds of emails from current and former Volunteers thanking me for writing what I did–and often letting me know that things were worse than even I imagined. They all wrote with hope that PC would change. I have no hope of seeing that happen. My writing anything more about development and Peace Corps would just bring back the heartburn and frustration of seeing such a good idea being implemented so ineffectively.”
Robert and I exchanged a few more emails over the weekend and Robert added some more comments. He took a swipe at me (and rightly so) for a blog I had published about his NYTIMES Op-ed, and told me some great stories about people he knew in the agency who had ‘done him wrong.’
He also told me a nice story about how he first got enamored in the Peace Corps. It happened this way. “In the spring of 1975 Harris Wofford (then president of Bryn College) brought Sargent Shriver to the Erdmann dormitory at Bryn Mawr College (where I was then living as a Haverford College freshman) to speak about the Peace Corps. Their enthusiasm magnified the interest I had long had in the Peace Corps due to my having spent three consecutive summers in the early 1970s in the company of someone who had been in PC/Peru in the early days and was an enthusiast. Unfortunately, the excitement created by Shriver and Wofford had no relationship to what I found in Liberia when I arrived as a Trainee.”
The great things about PCVs (in my opinion) is the love/hate relationship we all have with the agency. I think you couldn’t be a good Volunteer if you weren’t pissed off at the Peace Corps for one reason or another. That has been the way most of us have been since day one. Robert Strauss is more than pissed off, and he has a lot of good things to say about improving the Peace Corps. Here is a link to some of his articles about development and the Peace Corps.
But I have final thought based on being a PCV and an APCD. Robert writes of his disenchantment with the Peace Corps, saying to me, “”I was a CD and I pushed hard from the inside for reform and got nothing from it except gray hair, excruciating heartburn and the enmity of HQ and those Volunteers who came to continue their days in the dorm and not do any work.”
Why didn’t you send those PCVs in the dorm home? That would have been a wake up lesson to the other PCVs. That’s what Harris Wofford, my CD in Ethiopia, would have done back in 1962-64. If you weren’t doing your job, you were history. Just a thought.
Meanwhile, here is a link to a piece about Robert Strauss and development in Africa.