Robert Strauss (Liberia 1978-80) Rides Again

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.

http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2000/mayjun/articles/strauss.html

[If you would like to read The American Interest article, check out their site, or email me and I’ll send you the pdf of the article.]

14 Comments

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  • We early ’60’s volunteers are occasionaly guilty of selective misperception – we tend to romanticize when, if we dig down deep enough, we should fremember both the bad and the good. of those early days.
    We feared then thatt the Peace Corps would become another ho-hum bureaucracy.
    It did.
    Reason?
    The abandonment of the “five-year flush” mostly by former Peace Corps volunteers who became staff and burrowed-in to tenured positions. Thus, the calcification of leadership at the top.

    Dick Irish [RPCV Philippines ’62-64, staff ’62 – 64].

  • Having long raised similar issues, to little avail, I sympathize with Bob Strauss. We had our day. If a Peace Corps makes sense for this very different world, a fresh generation will have to make that determination. And then make it happen.

  • As a former APCD/acting CD (Kyrgyzstan, 1995-97), trainer (C. and E. Europe, ’91-’93), and Desk Officer (’93-’95), I sympathize with Robert Strauss and… I don’t. I guess it’s a matter of expectations.

    My reaction is similar to how I feel when people point to all the ways in which the UN has failed (Full disclosure– my dad was a career UN diplomat primarily with UNESCO), which is:

    It is amazing to me that Peace Corps is as successful as it is given its ambitious, multi-pronged goals, endless layers of bureaucratic and organizational protocols across the continents, vast mix of staff scattered across the globe representing countless cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and, last but not least, those zillions of host country counterparts and mostly young and green volunteers who give themselves over to life-changing experiences!

  • Strauss was my CD in Cameroon. I’ve never experienced a boss with more disdain for my generation. It was apparent in every way, from our very first intro to Cameroon speech (which pressed us to return home), to every discussion I ever had with him personally (where he mostly scrolled through his blackberry screen), to seeing him riding about with family and friends in my province in a PC land cruiser, not doing any apparent work.

    It’s not easy to be in the Peace Corps, but its a heck of a lot easier when you have a CD that supports you in any way (which is what was experienced later under CD James Ham). There were stories of him locking his Cameroonian staff in a conference room before he left, ranting about how unprofessional they were. He was arrogant and he created a great deal of animosity among volunteers under him, making it very, very difficult to trust PC admin.

    PC has a great deal of shortcomings, but my god, salvage what you can! Have an ounce of faith in people that are coming to work under you! I didn’t require much, but could have thrived in-country with a little bit of direction from my Country DIRECTOR.

    Boo Robert Strauss.

  • John

    I read the article in The American Interest.

    Talk about a guy whose glass is always half empty!

    His ending conclusion “What the Peace Corps needs to do now is accept that its first five decades were a noble but largely failed experiment in good intentions” suggests that his Peace Corps was in a parallel universe to the one I spent time in. In his universe it seems that the exceptions in mine were the majority in his (unqualified and immature volunteers, non-existent jobs, boorish behavior, an uncaring headquarters staff, corrupt and selfish host country officials, etc.). He must have hated to go to work each day!

    I guess that there are some people whose world view precludes their seeing anything good anywhere. He seems to be one of them.

    Hidden away in that diatribe he does indentify some real problems many people before him have also seen and tried to correct. One example would be the importance of good job site development before a volunteer arrives – something we all can agree on – yet given the nature of the countries in which the Peace Corps operates, it will always be problematic. The same is true for developing only programs that are worthwhile. The problem is one often is unable to tell which is which until they are well underway. He also totally devalues the ‘people’ component of the three goals.

    He presents some real issues, although he is not the first to do so, but the manner in which he does so is guaranteed to annoy seriously whoever reads them. By the way, his solutions are right up there with other ‘pie-in-the-sky’ offerings from other well-meaning but somewhat deluded critics.

    Anyway, I hope his heartburn continues!

    PS: Someplace I have heard the same story about the over-weight CD dancing in the club. Maybe I’ve read some of his stuff before.

  • John, I would appreciate a pdf of the Strauss article. I did check out the American Interest site, but I am not a member. Evidently, the article is available only to subscribers. Thank you.

    I think that the comments here illustrate one important fact. There is no one “Peace Corps.” The agency changes with the political administration in office. There is no historical framework available on which to hang commentary, because records are not kept..

    For example, Dick Irish’s perspective is that RPCVs came back, stacked the agency and found ways to stay beyond the “five-year limit.” But Irish is talking about the 60s. One of the first things Blanchard. the Nixon appointee as Director, did was to fire everyone who had been in the agency for five years or more. How many RPCVS have been employed at Peace Corps during each political administration? I don’t think that historical data is available.

    As for Strauss, he was a Volunteer during the time that Sam Brown was running ACTION and Peace Corps was known as the “Overseas Operation of ACTION.” Brown tossed out the Nixon’s idea of placing
    Volunteers in specific jobs in mid-management. (Dave, I know you can explain this much better.) instead, Brown was adamant that Volunteers be involved in providing basic services. Then, Strauss served as CD during the Bush administration’s Gaddi Valdez, emphasis on safety and security. I have no idea how these different situations may have impacted Strauss’s experiences. But, I think his commentary must be placed in that kind of historical context.

    I do have one question: What does the reference to Volunteers “staying in dorms ” mean?

  • Kevin, Thank you for your book, “Keeping Kennedy’s Promise.” It was a great book. I am so appreciative of everyone who has documented their experiences and their recommendations. It constiutes the an incredibly valuable record.

  • John, I’m glad you followed up with Robert. I emailed him back in May 2008 when he came out with those articles. He responded to my message and we wrote, among other things, about having an online dialogue about these issue. I was preparing to return from Ukraine at the time and never followed up.

    I know that there has been a lot of discussion (on and off line) and a lot of recommendations and suggestions for improving the Peace Corps (from within and from the outside) and I have a lot of confidence in Aaron Williams, his decisions, and his ability to move the Peace Corps forward. I worked with Aaron and I have seen first hand how much of an impact he had on RTI. Peace Corps is, however, a government agency and a large bureaucracy, and so change doesn’t come easily.

    I would not be surprised if some of the changes that Strauss suggested were actually happening or if progress has been made, but it may not necessarily be apparent to him, you or I. I also think that many questions Strauss’ motives and whether he’s telling the whole story.

    This is what it comes down to me. If you are committed to an organization/institution and your sincerely want to see it change and improve, then you work on it from the inside. You have to be constructive and have you to realize that making blanket statements like writing that the Peace Corps was a noble failure in good intentions is setting a tone that prohibits constructive dialogue. It also denigrates and minimizes the impact that the Peace Corps has (clearly) had and the impact that all those volunteers have independently had.

    You, for example, have proven your commitment and support to the Peace Corps over the years. You have remained involved and while you have surely criticized Peace Corps at times, you remain constructively involved and I don’t think anyone would question your motives or commitment to seeing Peace Corps continue to grow and succeed. And, because of your work and commitment, you continue to be part of the conversation and your recommendations are heard at the highest levels.

    Babble on, John.

    Best, Eric

  • Strauss was a bitter, constantly angry man, and according to the Inspector General report, not the best manager or leader. One training group of agros had a 100% early termination rate. The short-lived computer science program also had an ET rate aproaching that number, partly because the were posted to towns without computers.

    Link to Inspector General’s report: http://www.peacecorpswiki.org/FOIAdocs/CameroonOIGOct06.pdf

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