RPCV Writer at the Washington Monthly Takes on the Peace Corps

[It is truly ironic that the Washington Monthly has let an intern stick a bloody knife into the heart and soul of the Peace Corps. The Washington Monthly (and perhaps young Ryan Cooper doesn’t know this) was founded by Charlie Peters, the first evaluator of the agency, and who many considered the conscience of the Peace Corps in its early days.  What has happened to the Peace Corps? Where have all our saints gone… are they out sinning with all the other development folks?

Frankly, I think that Aaron Williams and Peace Corps Washington is working to fix the agency after the years of shameful Republican control, when the Peace Corps was run by a former cops and  yes-women like RPCV Jodi Olson.

That said, there is a lot of truth in what Ryan Cooper has to say about his tour in South Africa. My guess is that if the agency hadn’t come down with their big feet on the boy Cooper he would have been a great trainer for the new PCVs, and PC/HQ might have learned something new. Let’s hope they are listening to PCVs and RPCVs now.]

March/ April 2012 Good News First, Bad News Never

How the Peace Corps believes its own PR, looks past its mistakes, and shafts volunteers in the process.

By Ryan Cooper, an intern at the Washington Monthly.


In training, I picked up on a theme that would mark much of my service: it wasn’t that the Peace Corps itself did not have high standards; it was that the people directly responsible for setting me on my feet had learned to skate by under the agency’s radar-or there was little evidence of a radar at all. For example, at the end of our language training, a mandatory audio recording was made of our final verbal language test, presumably for review in the D.C. headquarters. Our examiners cheated by showing us the questions written out in English on the sly while they spoke them in Setswana. It’s not hard to see why they did so; if they had not, I estimate that three-quarters of my group would have failed-which would have brought undesired attention from headquarters.

Of course, there were good moments. During training, I stayed with a poor family consisting of a grandmother, her son, and her two grandchildren, a boy and a girl. During my first couple of days at their house, the grandmother was away at a funeral and the kids were in Pretoria with their mother. I spent the time reading and awkwardly hanging out with the children’s emaciated and AIDS-stricken uncle, who spent most of the time sleeping. I felt lonely and ill at ease, but when the rest of the family returned to meet me for the first time, that changed instantly. The kids were literally jumping with excitement to have me as a guest. That night they put on an old tape of gospel music and the four of us danced in the living room, the little girl riding on my shoulders.

But even fostering such moments of happy cultural exchange requires some vigilance on the part of the Peace Corps, I would soon learn. After training, I moved to my permanent site, a tiny village in the Northern Cape Province, about 370 miles west of Pretoria, hopeful things would take a turn for the better. They didn’t. Peace Corps officials had placed me in what I think I can call, with little fear of exaggeration, a stupendously inappropriate home. The patriarch of the family had hanged himself in the family shop in 1979 after he beat his wife so badly he thought he had killed her, and the remaining members still seemed scarred. They had turned their home into a tavern, which was alternately empty or full of reeling drunks begging for money. Worse, the local government disbursed the government pension from their house, meaning that once a month a truck full of cash and men packing automatic weapons would spend a couple of hours in my front yard. Needless to say, this violated basic Peace Corps safety guidelines.

The local school where I was assigned to work was no less fraught with problems. The school principal-the man who had filled out the paperwork for me to live in his village for two years-was supposed to teach math, science, and English in grades seven to nine. He did not step into the classroom to teach once in an entire quarter. It didn’t matter much, though, because he retired three months after I arrived, at the end of 2009.

Most of the ninth-grade students could not get through a simple English conversation, or figure out, say, six times four without a calculator. The teacher for the second and third grades refused to teach any English, flouting a mandate in South African law. Though corporal punishment is illegal in South Africa, the teachers regularly beat their students. When the kids learned that I would not do the same, they quickly stopped listening to me. It made classroom management a nightmare.

I grimly hung on to my job through 2010, slowly losing my morale and sense of commitment. After the school’s education department promoted one of the teachers to the job of acting principal, she tried to institute some reforms. This ignited a spate of bitter, resentful political wrangling as the teachers fought hammer and tong to avoid accountability. I began to spend more and more time away from my village and the classroom. I spent hundreds of hours wandering the bush, going through audiobooks by the terabyte. I helped other volunteers with their projects; I remain particularly proud of helping a friend refurbish a computer lab in a neighboring village from scratch, then fixing the server by myself after it broke down.

That neighboring village, only three miles away, provided ample evidence that the Peace Corps was capable of selecting and establishing far better volunteer sites than mine. The primary school in this neighboring village was excellent; it employed one of the best teachers of small children I have ever seen. By sixth grade, that school’s students could speak better English than many of the teachers at mine. It was much easier to find meaningful work in such an environment. And perhaps even more importantly, the village’s Peace Corps host family comprised some of the kindest, most generous people I met in South Africa; I was probably closer to them than to my own hosts. But this only goes to show, again, that even the “cultural exchange” component of Peace Corps service requires good choices from the agency.

At the start of 2011, well into my second year, the education department hired a new, permanent principal-a big improvement on the first one, though he could hardly have been worse-but by then I was so disillusioned and disgusted with teaching that I decided to concentrate on something, anything, else. (Even today, the thought of classroom teaching arouses a feeling in me of powerful revulsion.) I decided to revise and typeset the Peace Corps grammar manual for Setswana, and to make one last big effort to give something back to the agency: I signed up to help with the training of the new group of volunteers arriving in early 2011.

If I was so dissatisfied with my own training, I thought, I should at least do something to try to improve things. I participated in a weeklong “training of trainers” beforehand, and helped lead a week’s worth of sessions for the new volunteers. While not a disaster, it still did not go as well as I had hoped. Frustrated, I wrote a post on my personal blog that laid out what I thought was wrong with the process. I didn’t mince words. When Peace Corps officials at the South Africa post got wind of the post, they kicked me out of training.

And so, a few months later, I finished my service and came home

How might my experience have been avoided or improved? For one, I could have switched sites. In the first few months, my supervisor asked if I wanted to move, but I declined. It was a vexing decision. To change my site-though it probably would have been wise-would have been a sharp insult to my host family that I wasn’t willing to deliver. It is easy, given the deprivations that volunteers are expected to endure, to develop a macho, “I can take it” attitude, and slog on in hopeless situations. I could have been more honest with myself. But a good supervisor probably would have recognized that continuing to work in such a situation would ultimately crush my morale-as indeed it did-and would have encouraged me to relocate.

As it was, however, my supervisor mostly ignored me. I was promised a visit from an official “within the first 4 to 8 months of service and between 14 and 18 months of service.” Instead I was visited once in twenty-three months, and I was almost never called. Budget cuts may have had something to do with this-the Peace Corps was enduring a withering round of them at the time-and again, I could have been more proactive about communicating. But the fact of the agency’s neglect stands. Whatever the reason for it, this sense that I had been forgotten only exacerbated my growing cynicism and apathy.

Most fundamentally, if the Peace Corps had followed its own stated rules, I would not have been placed at my site in the first place. My supervisor can’t have done much research on it before I arrived; even thirty minutes of investigation would have shown how dysfunctional the school was and how many rules my host family was breaking. The family-God bless them-would have cheerfully explained all the details of my housing situation if asked; as far I can tell, they had no idea there were any rules to break. And though I admit it might have been unprofessional to publish my criticisms of training online, the reaction I got is telling: I was dismissed, and my criticisms were largely ignored.

But as noted above, blunt criticism and oversight was critical for the Peace Corps’s early development. In Stanley Meisler’s excellent history of the Peace Corps, When the World Calls, he tells how Peters, as evaluation chief, discovered that many of the first groups of volunteers didn’t have meaningful work at their Peace Corps sites. “It was painful to see the idealism of the Volunteers squandered as they sat there with nothing to do,” Peters wrote in an evaluation. Meisler details how idealists at the D.C. headquarters fought with Peters over the “numbers game”: the idealists pushed for the maximum number of volunteers, while Peters pushed back, as the Peace Corps often had not laid the logistical groundwork to ensure that the volunteers had good sites and meaningful work.

Current top agency administrators would no doubt protest that they have vigorous, extensive, in-house oversight. But they do not. It is true that there is still a division labeled “Evaluation,” but it is only a shadow of its former self, having come under the knife during the Nixon administration after Peters left the agency in 1968. In June 2010, the agency produced for the first time an overall report on the Peace Corps, written by this evaluation division. Though it contains many reasonable recommendations, it is basically a public relations document, slickly produced and written like a corporate press release: “The Peace Corps at fifty is ready for a strong new beginning- rooted in the vibrant past of those early years, yet ready to harness twenty-first century American intellectual power, innovation and commitment to results.”

The Peace Corps’s Office of the Inspector General provides the closest thing the agency has to meaningful oversight. Its reports and congressional testimony, which are posted online, are far more incisive and clear-sighted than the aforementioned report. Unlike the usual IG model, which only investigates problems after they occur, they proactively evaluate a few posts a year. But this is still a far cry from the Peters days. He had his team evaluate every post once a year, and the reports often ran over a hundred pages. Expanding the OIG to the old standard and independence would require a bit of extra money, but the amounts involved are a rounding error in the federal budget-for the 2012 fiscal year, the office requested $5.3 million. To give some perspective, the entire Peace Corps budget is around $375 million (and historically much less), which is only a little more than what the U.S. spent in Iraq every day for the past eight and a half years.

Nevertheless, wringing more funds out of Congress does not seem to be an option at this point. Republicans have been cynically using the budget deficit to slash programs they don’t like; they cut $25 million from the Peace Corps allocation in the last quarter of the 2011 fiscal year, after most of the year’s money had been spent. I can personally testify that this caused all manner of chaos as posts scrambled to pinch pennies.

Even if the Peace Corps must accept some funding cuts, however, keeping the quality of sites as high as possible should be a top priority for the agency-even if that means fewer volunteers and more evaluators. As Peters insisted in his fights over the “numbers game,” bad sites are bad both for the volunteer and for the agency as a whole. My site was shuttered after I left, and though I can’t be sure if it was due to budget cuts or to the bold, all-caps, underlined, twenty- four-point-font complaint I filed before I left, I am confident that the South Africa post as a whole is better for it.

The Peace Corps is well worth improving. It still represents the best of America, plays a crucial but underappreciated role in our efforts at public diplomacy, and provides us with a critical dose of international awareness in a global age. And the problem is not that the agency is incapable of competent management; it’s that the management is uneven. At the beginning of every volunteer’s service, he or she must complete a community survey-a look at the resources and needs of the volunteer’s permanent site. In South Africa, the community survey consisted of a large batch of paperwork, and my supervisor said not one word about it after I turned mine in. Some of my peers never even filled one out. In Nicaragua, however, the community survey takes the form of an extensive presentation that volunteers must deliver in front of their entire village and a Peace Corps representative, in Spanish, and if it is not accepted the volunteer is sent home. In South Africa there was no penalty for failure even on our rigged language exams, while in Nicaragua failure means dismissal, which results in nearly everyone studying hard and passing. Where I had only a single visit from a supervisor in two years, in Nicaragua volunteers are visited frequently and closely monitored.

The tools and techniques required to make a great post are already known. What the agency sorely lacks is someone- or, better yet, a small office of someones-whose job is to find out whether every post is using these tools and techniques, and who will complain bluntly, in public if necessary, if one isn’t. The Peace Corps administration will likely fight like mad to prevent it, but the restoration of aggressive and regular oversight to all parts of the agency is the only thing that will bring the Corps up to a high standard-and help it earn back the stellar reputation it now stands at risk of losing.


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  • I’m nearly 40 years out of touch but I’m going to suggest that the need demonstrated by this report is not a large PC/W based evaluation team but a better staffed (in quality and/or quantity) headquarters in South Africa. The site problems at the heart of this problem are clearly the responsibility of the staff. The lack of frequent and meaningful contact between PCVs and staff (and they are not ‘supervisors’) is woefully apparent. Let’s send some of the huge PC/W staff out into the field where maybe they can do some good.

  • Can’t tell if Ryan Cooper’s story is a somewhat objective description of his experience, or heavily biased. Does he describe a typical experience for his group, or a minority view? And let it be said that he is not the first Volunteer to feel let down by the PC.

    We are all imperfect, and heaven knows there has never been a country group without problems of one kind or another–notwithstanding the quality of staff.
    He might have saved himself by taking the offered transfer. (Not wanting to hurt the feelings of his host family is a weak excuse for staying.)

    Perhaps the article will enable him to vent some anger and, with hope, move on.

  • I was disappointed in the second half of the article. I think that every RPCV is entitled to write about his experience and have his history accepted without question, because each experience is unique. But Cooper goes on to critique the whole agency. He does what I think we all do and that is to extrapolate from our own experience and project it on to the whole Peace Corps – agency, RPCV community and PCV contingents.

    But we are not all interns at Washington Monthly. The magazine has high standards for investigative journalism. I don’t think Cooper did his homework. I think he got a pass precisely because he is a RPCV and he advocates for an evaluation department, like Charlie Peters had back in the 60s. Cooper is well aware that Peters founded the magazine. I think that was the whole point of the article.

    One example of poor research is the fact of sexual assault experienced by PCV and the controversy surrounding the 20/20 media expose. He cites the story but he ignores the follow-up in which Director Williams supported the legislation that ultimately put into law important policies to protect serving Volunteers.

    Cooper also does not adequately describe how Peace Corps top level staff is a function of what political party is in power. He just lumps “Peace Corps administration” into one monolithic structure through time and space and then assigns motives to them.

    His assertion here is an example:
    “The Peace Corps administration will likely fight like mad to prevent it, but the restoration of aggressive and regular oversight to all parts of the agency is the only thing that will bring the Corps up to a high standard-and help it earn back the stellar reputation it now stands at risk of losing.”

    Williams is in the process of making needed reforms. The Kate Puzey legislation gives expanded powers to the IG to provide oversight. If Cooper had done the necessary background work, he would have known that. He also would have known that he should have called the IG about the language test cheating he observes.

    These kind of omissions, in my opinion, weaken his other arguments and make it hard to evaluate his legitimate concerns.

  • It’s also hard for me to tell if Ryan Cooper is talking about systemic problems at the Peace Corps . . . or just the fact that he got a bad assignment. But I do think he is right about the numbers game — at least during the early years when I was at PC/W. Oftentimes, success was equated with numbers, and there was competition between the regions to increase their share of the limited pool of applicants. Some regional directors sought fame and Shriver’s attention by pushing for far more volunteers than there were solid assignments and jobs to fill. I don’t know if I would call them the “idealists” or not, maybe flamboyant is a better description, but the reality could mean that a lot of PCVs were sent to non-existent assignments and had miserable experiences. It was the job of the out-of-favor, green-eye-shade-type of managers like John Alexander in PDO/C to try to figure out which programs were solid and which were not, and to allocate scarce volunteers to those with real and realistic assignments. Charlie Peters’ evaluations were very helpful in identifying unproductive and wasteful programs, which may be why he took a lot of heat from the so-called idealists. We in PDO/C were not always successful in protecting volunteers from weak assignments, but that was our goal in partnership with the folks in Evaluation.

  • This article refers to what I consider to be the basic problem of the Peace Corps. The author laments the lack of a meaningful experience or useful task in his assignment. He refers to the “numbers” group whose main objective was to build large numbers of Peace Corps Volunteers in the field. On the other side of this equation are those who want to insure that the PCV’s assignment is “meaningful” and in the process have created a small development program that places maybe 8000 workers in the field each year.

    I belong to the “numbers” crowd. I don’t see how the Peace Corps can be a major force in our relations with other countries or educating Americans about the world around us until it reaches Kennedy’s goal of 100,000 out there all the time, not in 25 years. As it now stands the Peace Corps is at best an icon of the best face America can present to others. It is a symbol of what we can be. And as such it has some influence. But the fact remains that very few people in other lands actually have contact with PCVs and, as for most Americans, they are surprised to know that the Peace Corps is still in business.

  • Hello Mr. Coyne,

    Thanks for the link! I do think you’ve somewhat mischaracterized my article. In fact, if you read the whole thing (http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/march_april_2012/features/good_news_first_bad_news_never035758.php?page=all) you’d see that I mention Charlie Peters quite prominently in several spots, and that my main suggestion for how to fix the Peace Corps is to bring back his style of aggressive oversight. In fact, I talked to him personally about the article a couple times and he gave me good suggestions as to how to make it better.

    Also, I make it quite clear that I don’t think experiences like mine are the norm. I still think that most people who do the Peace Corps have a good experience. It’s just that they could be doing a lot more to prevent bad experiences like mine.

  • Thank you for the article and your explanation. Very few non-fiction books in print describe bad experiences which makes me wonder if maybe RPCVs self-censor.

  • @Ryan Cooper.
    Thank you for commenting here. I have a question: You cited the 20/20 report, but you never went on to cite the “Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011.” Why not?

    Also, I think that Charlie Peters ought to write his own articles.

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