David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker emailed this morning, December 20,2015, about The Business of Giving and remarks in his Introduction to a series of articles on ‘giving’ about Peter Hessler’s article on the Peace Corps, writing, “a volunteer in an eastern part of Nepal later becomes an expert fund-raiser for the organization, and within ten minutes at a dinner on Long Island raises eighteen thousand dollars.” That ‘volunteer’ was Rajeen Goyal (Nepal 2001-03).
He then publishes (again) “Village Voice” an article written by Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) about Rajeen that appeared in the December 20, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
Here it is again, if you missed it the first time the piece was published.
The Peace Corps’s brightest hope.
Jay-Z loves the Peace Corps. He’s never said so publicly, and there’s no reference to volunteerism in any of his two hundred and twenty-four songs. But Rajeev Goyal believes that he knows the rapper’s true heart. “Jay-Z and Beyoncé are both very interested in helping the Peace Corps,” Rajeev told me once. He said that last year he was on the phone with somebody who claimed he could arrange for Jay-Z and Beyoncé to speak at a Peace Corps rally that Rajeev was organizing in Washington, D.C. But their appearance fell through, which sometimes happens to Rajeev’s most ambitious plans. He was unable to get an audience with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala to request a letter from His Holiness asking Congress to give more money to the Peace Corps. Once, he asked Maureen Orth, a writer for Vanity Fair and Tim Russert’s widow, to contact Senator Barbara Mikulski, of Maryland, in a manner so roundabout that it was like driving from D.C. to Baltimore via the Deep South. “He asked me to ask James Carville to ask Bill Clinton to call Senator Mikulski,” Orth told me. “And that’s just one of four e-mails that I got from him in a day!” Orth didn’t telephone Carville, but on another occasion she called a senator on his cell phone in the middle of a meeting. “It was outrageous, but I did it for Rajeev,” she said-like everybody, she used his first name when talking about him. Orth admired Rajeev’s willingness to try anything, especially since he had appeared in Washington as if “he was dropped in there from a cloud.” She said, “Who else would fly on miles all the way to Hawaii to try to see Obama’s sister? And get it done! I wish he had been a reality series.”
Rajeev Goyal is thirty-one years old, but he could pass for a college student. He stands only five and a half feet tall, with dark skin and long-lashed eyes. He has the portable confidence of the second-generation immigrant-no matter where he goes, he knows there are benefits to being an outsider. In the part of eastern Nepal where Rajeev served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2001 to 2003, people sometimes weep when his name is mentioned. Locals refer to him as Shiva, the god who is also the source of the Ganges River. Old folks turn on a tap and say, “This is what he gave us.” In the halls of Congress, most people have no idea what to make of him. For the past two years, he has approached the place as if it were just another Nepali settlement with a caste system to untangle. He figured out the Washington equivalent of village-well routes-hallways, hearing rooms, and coffee shops where anybody can hang around and meet a member of Congress. “He just picked off Democrats and Republicans one by one,” Sam Farr, a Democratic congressman from California, told me. “I don’t know lobbyists who are that persistent.” Others complained that his unorthodox approach was too personal, but even critics acknowledged the results. During the past two years, funding for the Peace Corps has increased by record amounts, despite partisanship in Congress and a brutal economic climate. “I’ve been in the Congress for seventeen years, and always lobbying for the Peace Corps, but I’ve never been as effective as I have in the last two sessions,” Farr said. “And I would attribute that to Rajeev.”
In March, the Peace Corps will turn fifty years old. The anniversary is bittersweet: despite the new funding, which has allowed for a significant increase in volunteers, the agency sends fewer than sixty per cent as many people abroad today as it did in 1966. Many Americans aren’t aware that the Peace Corps still exists. Its impact on foreign policy seems minimal, especially in light of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rajeev told me that the agency might have a higher profile if former volunteers applied lessons from the developing world to U.S. politics, which is the opposite of how most people think of the Peace Corps. Instead of introducing American values to some benighted country, Rajeev wants to move in the other direction. “The way we organized this campaign was asking who was in the Peace Corps, and who cares about it. That’s your blood link; that’s your caste. You define your tribe.” He said, “Washington is a village. Decisions in Congress, some of the biggest decisions, are based on a personal act.”
Rajeev Goyal didn’t know his own caste until he joined the Peace Corps. He grew up in Manhasset Hills, Long Island, where his parents, Ravindra and Damyanti Goyal, had settled after immigrating from Rajasthan, India, in the early nineteen-seventies. They raised their three sons to speak Hindi, but they never told them that they were Vaishya, a caste known for its success in business. “To us, everybody is equal,” Ravindra Goyal, who is a pulmonologist, told me, explaining that he didn’t like the caste system. But after the Peace Corps sent Rajeev to Nepal, which has a system similar to India’s, he telephoned his mother. “He asked me, ‘Are we Brahmin, or Vaishya, or Kshatriya, or what?’ ” Damyanti told me. “He said, ‘People want to know what I am.’ So I told him.”
The Goyals had initially opposed their son’s decision to go abroad. They wanted him to become a doctor, and he took premed courses at Brown University before deciding to apply to law school. They didn’t see the point of deferring admission in order to live in an undeveloped country. Damyanti, who had recently undergone chemotherapy for breast cancer, worried about her son being far away, but his arguments finally swayed her. “He said that this country has given us too much,” she told me. “We have a nice house, nice car, we live in a nice neighborhood. It’s time to give something back. When he explained it like that, I liked the idea a little better.”
Rajeev was assigned to teach English at a school in Namje, a village of fewer than six hundred people, in eastern Nepal, where the Terai Plain gives way suddenly to the foothills of the Himalayas. At an elevation of more than five thousand feet, Namje villagers grow coriander, soybeans, radishes, and other vegetables. Traditionally, they also spent much of their time hauling water. Snowcaps provide Nepal with abundant water resources, but rivers are often inaccessible in mountain towns like Namje. The nearest source was the Saacho Khola, a spring that was more than two hours away by foot on steep mountain paths. People often made three trips a day, carrying sixteen-litre aluminum jugs. “You learn that not everything needs to be washed,” Rajeev told me. “Soap isn’t always necessary. You waste a lot of water with soap. Of course, I didn’t do this as well as they did, so I got sick.”
He caught a case of scabies so bad that it scarred his arm. After visiting a doctor in Kathmandu, he returned to the village and noticed other effects of the water shortage. “One day, a good student didn’t come to class, and I asked him why. He said he was getting water. I brought all the villagers together and asked, ‘If there’s a way to solve this problem, are you willing to donate your labor?’ They were willing to do it.”
Rajeev spoke with engineers in Kathmandu, and he read books about electric pumps, piping, and filtration systems. Using the skills he had acquired in premed physics classes, he learned to calculate water friction. He finally decided that the best option was a two-stage pumping system capable of lifting water thirteen hundred vertical feet. In the city of Dharan, he found a pipe salesman named Kishan Agrawal, whose ancestors came from the same part of India as Rajeev’s. After the two men discussed their family histories, Kishan agreed to order hundreds of pieces of three-inch galvanized-iron pipe on credit, interest-free. In order to raise funds, Rajeev returned to Long Island, where the Goyals invited their doctor friends to dinner, without mentioning that the night’s entertainment would involve Rajeev asking for money. Within ten minutes, he had raised eighteen thousand dollars, which was eventually supplemented by funds from the Peace Corps, U.S.A.I.D., and the American Himalayan Foundation.
For the twenty-two-year-old Rajeev, the most daunting challenge was organizing labor. The villagers had no power tools, and all materials had to be carried via mountain paths to construction sites. Women did much of the work, because many men had gone abroad as laborers. Through his research, Rajeev learned that one of the biggest threats was something called water hammer-the pressure that builds in a long pipe when an outlet is closed. He consulted with engineers, who suggested building a stone staircase more than a mile in length, which would pin down the pipe and also allow access for repairs. In designing the staircase and the pump houses, Rajeev relied heavily on Karna Magar, a villager who was naturally gifted but had only a ninth-grade education. Harka Lama, the headmaster of the local school, organized the village into twenty-five groups, each of which would help coördinate different aspects of the project.
Another teacher, Tanka Bhujel, handled village politics. “I’m only realizing now how much he taught me,” Rajeev told me recently. “We would go to a meeting and he would say, ‘If we can get this one guy, we’ll get everybody.’ And the guy would have three wives and things would be complicated. So much was based on ancestry and bloodlines. It’s the same in Washington. It’s identity.” Tanka was an outsider in the village, a member of an obscure sub-caste, and he relished the political maneuvering. “Tanka would be speaking in Nepali to a group, and then out of nowhere he would say, in English, ‘Po-litics is the dur-ty game,’ ” Rajeev said, mimicking a Nepali accent. “And he wouldn’t translate it! He understood Kathmandu, he understood the Maoists, the military, the family politics.”
At the time, Nepal was ripped apart by unrest. Since the mid-nineties, Maoist groups had been trying to overthrow the monarchy, and after peace talks failed in 2002 there were increased attacks on the Army. Often, the military responded with brutal violence as soldiers searched villages. Thousands of people were killed, and more than a hundred thousand were displaced. Guerrillas set off homemade bombs, which meant that anybody with a pipe was suspect. Rajeev got the local Army commander to issue a letter explaining why villagers were handling so much plumbing equipment, and everybody carried a copy at all times.
Five hundred and thirty-five people volunteered for the project. They built two pump houses, two holding tanks, three reserve tanks, and 1,236 stone steps-said to be the longest staircase in eastern Nepal. When an agent from the district engineering office visited, he couldn’t believe that an American like Rajeev would depend so heavily on the uneducated Karna Magar. “Our guy is as good as any engineer,” Rajeev said. But, after sixteen months of work, they turned on the power and nothing happened.
Rajeev had only a month left in the Peace Corps. After repeatedly failing to get the pump to work, he became so discouraged that he hardly listened when a local electrician suggested that the problem might be voltage. “All those bastards in India, they’re using too much electricity,” the electrician said. “We have to wait until the middle of the night, when all those people in India will be asleep.”
A group of men hiked to the lowest pump station, where they fished for salamanders while waiting for India to go to bed. Rajeev was so depressed that he stayed home. At three o’clock in the morning, a neighbor woke him up. “Pani aayo! ” he shouted. “The water has come!” Rajeev ran to the staircase, where he heard a sound like rain: water was rising in the pipes. He and others followed the noise up the mountain, step by step. It became louder at the summit, as water poured into the series of reserve tanks, which held almost twenty thousand gallons. Tanka Bhujel, who knew the politically correct response for any occasion, went out and slaughtered a goat.
People usually assume that the Peace Corps came out of a grand idea, but its beginnings may have had more to do with emotions associated with village politics. In October, 1960, during the third debate of the Presidential campaign, Richard Nixon attacked John F. Kennedy by claiming that Democratic Presidents had been responsible for leading Americans into every war of the past half century. Immediately afterward, Kennedy flew to Michigan, where, at two o’clock in the morning, he made an unplanned speech on the Ann Arbor campus. He challenged the students: “How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana?” Kennedy had never mentioned an overseas service program, and the comment surprised his staff. As Stanley Meisler describes it in his forthcoming account of the Peace Corps, “When the World Calls,” Harris Wofford, an aide who later became a senator, believes that Kennedy made the speech because he was angry about Nixon’s insinuation.
Thousands of students sent letters of interest to Kennedy, and the idea also tapped into the popular feeling that the United States needed more grass-roots efforts to fight Communism. After the election, Kennedy founded the Peace Corps and appointed his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, as director. In less than six months, the first volunteers were sent to Ghana, where they had an immediate impact on the education system. Without the Peace Corps, roughly a sixth of Ghanaian secondary schools would have had to shut down owing to lack of teachers. Soon, there were nearly five hundred instructors in Ethiopia alone. By 1966, more than fifteen thousand volunteers were working various jobs around the world, and the agency received forty-two thousand applications that year. Plans for expansion were ambitious: Kennedy once remarked that the Peace Corps would start to become significant when it reached a hundred thousand volunteers.
But 1966 turned out to be the high-water mark. Applications plummeted during the Vietnam years, when idealistic young people weren’t inclined to have anything to do with a government agency. During the seventies and eighties, volunteers continued to go overseas, where they often had a major influence on communities, but the agency’s U.S. profile diminished. Support depended on the whim of a President or a few politicians. Nixon, who hated anything associated with Kennedy, tried to kill the Peace Corps entirely. Reagan was surprisingly supportive, especially after a 1983 meeting with the Prime Minister of Fiji, who effusively praised the volunteers who had served in his country. A week after that meeting, a staffer presented Reagan with a proposal for slashing the federal budget. “Don’t cut the Peace Corps,” Reagan reportedly said. “It’s the only thing I got thanked for last week.”
Over time, though, the Peace Corps came to embody the empty campaign promise. Everybody had heard of it, and impressions were vaguely positive, but there was no real awareness of what volunteers did or how their activities were funded. Clinton claimed that he would increase the size of the organization from fewer than seven thousand volunteers to ten thousand; George W. Bush said he wanted fifteen thousand. Obama promised to double the Peace Corps by its fiftieth anniversary. But none of them pushed hard for more money, and volunteer numbers stayed at roughly half the level of 1966, despite the fact that applications increased significantly after 9/11. In 2008, the Peace Corps’s budget was $342 million-less than what the federal government spent on military bands.
To former volunteers, it seemed a wasted resource. The Peace Corps had sent Americans to Afghanistan for seventeen years, and more than forty-five thousand people had served in predominantly Muslim countries, but these things seemed to have no effect on post-9/11 policy. Kevin Quigley, the president of the National Peace Corps Association, a group for returned volunteers, believed it was time for a campaign to expand the organization. But this had to be done independently of the Peace Corps-by law, a government agency can’t lobby. Quigley told me that the community of former volunteers had been too passive. “You have to get organized,” he said.
Quigley met with Donald Ross, a former volunteer in Nigeria who had organized public campaigns for Ralph Nader and others. With a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, they hired Rajeev Goyal, who, since leaving Nepal, had attended law school at New York University. Rajeev had continued doing development work in Namje, but he had never had any contact with Capitol Hill. At first, he tried to read up on the legislative process. “They have those books, ‘How Our Government Works,’ whatever,” Rajeev told me. “It’s the most useless waste of time.” He realized that there’s no legal or democratic element-agencies like the Peace Corps are funded through appropriations committees, which aren’t outlined in the Constitution. All that matters is the personal decisions of committee members, and how they can be influenced by constituents, colleagues, and other people.
The grass-roots part was relatively easy. There are more than two hundred thousand former volunteers, and Rajeev eventually developed an e-mail list of thirty-three thousand. He installed computer software that detected whether a message had been opened, which taught him what kind of e-mail inspired people to read and forward. He also tracked his targets. Once, when I visited him in Washington, he checked his computer and told me that a recent message had been opened a hundred and thirty-three times by staffers in the office of a senator. “That means I did something right,” he said. With his list, he generated enormous numbers of phone calls and e-mails from former volunteers across the country. During the week of one key funding decision, so many people called the office of Representative Nita Lowey, the chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, that Lowey’s phones were completely tied up. An aide finally begged an intermediary to convince Rajeev to stop. “Call off the dogs,” the intermediary said. “The interns need to go to lunch.”
Meanwhile, Rajeev contacted the kind of influential people who are known as “grasstops.” He looked for Peace Corps connections: the MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews had been a volunteer in Swaziland; the chairman of the Chicago Bears had served in Ethiopia; Jimmy Carter’s mother had been in India, and his grandson in South Africa. When it came to asking for favors, Rajeev was fearless-he once tried to get all four living former Presidents to sign a letter to Obama, inspiring Jimmy Carter to write back, “This is no way to approach the President of the United States.” But Carter made a call on behalf of the campaign. (I first met Rajeev when he asked me to write a letter about my years in the Peace Corps in China.) After Rajeev heard that Obama’s half sister once considered joining the Peace Corps, he solicited airline miles from another former volunteer, flew to Honolulu, put on a Hawaiian shirt, and met with Maya Soetoro-Ng. By the time he left Hawaii, he had one letter from her and another from Obama’s former high-school teachers. For good measure, he also stopped by the President’s favorite shaved-ice stand and got a pro-Peace Corps message from the proprietor.
Maya Soetoro-Ng told me that she had never endorsed a campaign of this sort, but as an educator who had grown up in Indonesia she supported overseas service. “He seemed very professional, very affable,” she said of Rajeev. “But he wasn’t particularly slick about it. He was very natural and pleasant.” She emphasized that she didn’t represent her brother or his Administration. But, a week after Rajeev’s Hawaii trip, Michelle Obama gave a speech in which she said, “My husband is committed to substantially increasing the number of volunteer opportunities within the Peace Corps.”
In Namje, Tanka Bhujel had taught Rajeev that individuals often matter more than the system. “His style is to go directly to the most powerful person and ask what he wants,” Rajeev told me. Initially, he found this hard to do in Washington, but then he started studying a book with color photographs of everybody in the House and the Senate. He recognized Senator Bob Corker and Senator Christopher Dodd at Reagan National Airport. He struck up a conversation with Representative Russ Carnahan at the Starbucks on Pennsylvania Avenue. He ran into Representative Peter Welch late one night outside Cosi, and he met Representative Dennis Kucinich at Le Pain Quotidien. Anybody can wander around the Senate hallways-you don’t even need an I.D. to get in-and Rajeev spent days there. He attended committee hearings so that he could approach key officials during breaks. He learned that the best spot in the House is the small underground rotunda that connects the Cannon and Longworth buildings; he met dozens of members there. His second year on the job, a hundred and twenty-four House members added their names to a “Dear colleague” letter in support of increased funding for the Peace Corps, which drew more signatures than any other issue.
People told him that this routine was called “bird-dogging.” Lobbyists rarely work like this, because elected officials don’t want to be seen in public with a special interest, but the Peace Corps is far less threatening, especially when represented by Rajeev. “It’s rare that they see somebody a little bit young and a little bit brown,” he said. In August, I spent time with him on the Hill, and within two and a half days he had talked to fifteen senators without appointments. It was as if the political world had suddenly become very small, and yet it had a distinctly exotic tilt-Rajeev could find a Nepali connection that would start almost any conversation. He approached Mark Udall, the senator from Colorado, by mentioning that Udall’s mother had also served as a volunteer in Nepal. The Senator immediately brought his hands together, bowed slightly, and said, “Namaste.” Rajeev introduced himself to Senator Dianne Feinstein by noting that her husband was the honorary consul-general to Nepal. At a breakfast for Iowa constituents, Rajeev caught Senator Tom Harkin’s attention by referring to another Midwesterner who exports Tibetan rugs from Kathmandu. When he mentioned the Peace Corps, the Senator said, “I wonder how many volunteers we have in Haiti.”
“None?” Harkin said. “That’s unconscionable!”
“There’s no money,” Rajeev said. “They cut the Haiti program a number of years ago, because of unrest, but now they need to bring it back. That’s why we’re asking for an increase. I know that you were in Vietnam recently, and they’d like volunteers as well.”
“I just got back from Vietnam,” the Senator said. “There’s no Peace Corps there?” He called to his foreign-affairs aide, who was across the room. “Tom! Tom! Agent Orange and the Peace Corps!” The aide hustled over, no doubt wondering what the short Indian had to do with Agent Orange and the Peace Corps. “That’s what I want you to check on,” the Senator explained, mentioning Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, which funds the organization. “Talk to Leahy about the Peace Corps and Agent Orange.”
Rajeev attended a public confirmation for the Ambassador to East Timor, an Armed Forces hearing about Russian nuclear weapons, and a meeting dedicated to rare and neglected pediatric diseases. To him, this was all background noise; he sat in the back and wrote e-mails to constituents on his iPhone while waiting to bird-dog during breaks. Between sessions, he called Jimmy Carter’s grandson, and the daughter of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He studied the proposed budget that had come out of the House, making sure that he knew the figures. Certain facts were always on the tip of his tongue: the entire Peace Corps budget is less than the price of two F-22 jet planes. He calculated that it costs approximately twenty-five thousand dollars a year to send a volunteer abroad, versus a million dollars for a Foreign Service officer. The proposed budget for 2011 allocates twelve times as much to the militaries of foreign countries as it does to the Peace Corps. When he approached Senator Feinstein, she explained that a big increase would be hard in this economic climate.
Rajeev took a copy of the budget out of his pocket. “Look at the foreign military finance,” he said. “It’s almost five and a half billion dollars, and that includes a one-point-two-billion-dollar increase. All we’re asking for is dust compared to that. It’s forty-six million.”
The Senator raised her eyebrows. “Just dust?” she said.
“Well, we’ll take a look at it.”
“Look at this money,” Rajeev continued. “A one-point-two-billion-dollar increase for foreign militaries, and nine hundred million for Pakistan counterinsurgency.”
Feinstein had turned to go, but the numbers caught her attention. “How much is that?”
Rajeev held out the paper. “One point two billion and nine hundred million.”
“Let me take a look at that,” she said, and he handed over the paper. She called to an aide, “Give this to Rich.”
Rajeev told me that he sometimes gets into trouble for being too bold. He had recently got kicked out of a military reception for Rhode Island veterans, where he had hoped to meet a senator. When asked who he was, Rajeev responded that he was a Brown graduate and “a Peace Corps veteran.” “To succeed, you have to be a little bit cunning,” he told me. He didn’t believe there was necessarily anything dirty about politics, but he agreed with Tanka Bhujel’s description of it as a game. “It’s part of being human-it’s a human game,” Rajeev said. “Like all games, you should relish it and take pleasure in it. People believe that in order to be in politics you have to be a politician. That’s not true at all. You can be the lowest villager and still be involved.”
Rajeev occasionally got into trouble in Namje, too. Even before the water line was finished, he knew that there would be political complications, especially after workers discovered that somebody had taken a shit in the lower holding tank. That was the simplest political statement: it meant that a neighboring village was unhappy. The Namje residents called a meeting and eventually agreed to give their neighbors a ten-thousand-dollar water line. While Rajeev was at law school, he raised funds, and over the years the villagers steadily extended the project, until it served seven small communities. Water fees allowed Namje to hire three full-time maintenance workers, and they used the extra profits to add another salaried teacher at the local school.
Rajeev also worried about what Namje women would do now that they no longer spent six hours a day hauling water. Before he left the Peace Corps, he founded a women’s co-op, although he had no clear idea of its future activities. As he was leaving, a woman presented him with a gift of a traditional hand-knit woollen cap. The craftsmanship impressed Rajeev, who said, “I’m sure you could sell this for fifteen dollars in New York City.”
The first box of hats arrived as he was beginning law school. It was more than four feet tall, and it had been shipped to the home of Ravindra and Damyanti Goyal, on Long Island. It didn’t take long for the second box to appear. The boxes had not been well packed, and they smelled like wool that’s wilted a little after the Himalayan monsoon. The Goyals requested that future shipments be directed to the West Village, where Rajeev was living with his older brother Rishi, who had begun his residency at Columbia University Medical Center. The apartment measured eight hundred square feet, and soon the living room was devoted entirely to boxes.
On weekends, Rajeev stood on Houston Street and sold hats. It was near the law school, and he often saw students and professors, who said, “Rajeev, what the hell are you doing?” Rishi told me that he didn’t like having an apartment full of rotting hats, but he found some consolation in watching his brother work as a vender. “He wouldn’t get a permit,” Rishi said. “He brings a table from God knows where, and he gets into squabbles with the other people who were supposed to be there. He enjoys that little squabble. He thinks that’s the stuff of life. It was a good show. I’d get a cup of coffee. He’d be standing there in the freezing cold. He would target couples and play the liberal guilt.”
Back in Namje, it became impossible to buy a hat, because prices were inflated to Manhattan levels. The women’s co-op grew as people drifted in from other villages to make hats. Finally, after Rajeev had sold five thousand dollars’ worth-he was also hawking them in the back of tax-law class at N.Y.U.-Tanka Bhujel put a stop to it. He called a village meeting and said, “This is unsustainable.” Five years later, when I visited the Goyals on Long Island, they still had more than six hundred Nepali hats.
Rajeev did not like law school. He found most classes boring, and he got the only D that was handed out in criminal procedure. But he graduated, and he passed the New York bar exam easily. Still, much of his energy went into organizing fund-raisers, and he returned regularly to Namje. By 2004, the Maoist conflict was so bad that all Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated from Nepal, but Rajeev started a series of school-building projects. Some local communities had terrible facilities, and the Namje crew could build a seven-room school for about twenty-five thousand dollars. They always applied Harka Lama’s strategy of dividing villages into volunteer work groups-other Nepali N.G.O.s have since adopted this method. Karna Magar, now nicknamed Local Engineer, helped with technical issues. Priyanka Bista, a Nepali-Canadian architecture student, designed two of the schools with him. Through these projects she met Rajeev, and they eventually fell in love, marrying earlier this year at a wedding in Queens, where priests from both India and Nepal officiated.
Kishan Agrawal, the pipe salesman whose family had come from the same region as Rajeev’s, became more active in the projects. Kishan was a Rotary Club member in the city of Dharan, and one of Rajeev’s uncles was a Rotarian in Plainsboro, New Jersey. Somebody in the New Jersey club suggested that they raise funds and have them matched by Rotary grants. The only problem was that Rotary International has a policy against using matching grant funds for construction, in part because of legal and liability concerns. But the Rotarians assured Rajeev that this wouldn’t be a problem; they could build facilities and simply describe them as “school supplies.” Nobody would ever know the difference unless Rotary International sent somebody to the Himalayas to audit the project. Rajeev raised twenty-eight thousand dollars at N.Y.U., and Rotary contributed another twenty thousand in grants, and two schools were built. At Rajeev’s suggestion, Tanka Bhujel bought forty dollars’ worth of school uniforms, pens, and notebooks, took photographs of smiling children with the gear, and mailed them off with letters certifying that the project had been for supplies.
Rotary International announced that it was sending a member from South India to audit the project. On a hot day, he arrived wearing a button-down shirt, a necktie, and a white loincloth. When I asked Kishan what the auditor looked like, he said, “He was very healthy,” which is the Nepali way of saying “massively obese.” In the town of Karkichap, the Rotarian became emotional when children poured out of the beautiful new school building and adorned him with ceremonial flower necklaces. He tried to continue on foot to the second Rotary-funded school, but after five minutes he was overwhelmed by healthiness and had to sit down. The teachers from the other school hiked up to visit him there instead. “You’ve done a great thing,” Kishan remembers him saying. “So everything is fine?” Kishan asked.
“No, I’m afraid you’re in big trouble,” the Rotarian said. “You’re not supposed to build schools.”
For the next year, Rajeev engaged in evasive correspondence with Rotary International, which wanted its money back. His uncle stopped attending Rotary meetings in Plainsboro, which along with the Dharan chapter was suspended from Rotary grant programs until the dispute was settled. Finally, Rajeev and Tanka decided to blame everything on the Maoists. They wrote letters claiming that they had fully intended to purchase school supplies, but Maoists came to the village and forced them to build the schools instead. Rajeev dipped into his law-school loans, and he and his uncle and various Rotarians sent a total of seven thousand dollars to Rotary International, which finally resolved the matter. “It completely wiped me out,” Rajeev said.
When I met Kishan in Nepal, he told me proudly that he no longer attends Rotary meetings. “I didn’t go according to the Rotary system,” he said. “I went according to Rajeev’s system.” He said that even during terrible times Namje and nearby communities didn’t become violent, because people were busy with development work. And Kishan said that Rajeev had changed his life. “I realized that every person should be involved,” he said. “You need to do something for other people.”
I stopped by the school in Karkichap, which looked deceptively peaceful, considering that it had destroyed Rotary careers all the way from Dharan to Plainsboro. On the bright-blue roof, somebody had painted an enormous white Rotary symbol. The headmaster told me that Nepali and Indian Rotarians occasionally travel long distances to admire the building. The library had a beautiful door made of sisau wood, more valuable than mahogany, into which had been carved a riot of figures: Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge; a lotus flower; a Buddhist swastika; a Nepali flag; and a Rotary wheel.
During his first year on the Hill, Rajeev realized that even the President has less power than Senator Patrick Leahy when it comes to Peace Corps funding. The President makes a budget proposal, which moves to the House, and then the Senate committee effectively has the final decision. And Leahy had become disillusioned with the Peace Corps bureaucracy during the George W. Bush Administration. People told me that the agency’s Washington office became so poorly managed that staffers often didn’t know who Leahy was. “He would call the Peace Corps and say, ‘This is Patrick Leahy,’ and they would ask him to spell his name,” Rajeev said. “And this is the guy in charge of funding them!”
Rajeev heard that Tim Rieser, Leahy’s top aide for appropriations, was particularly critical. Rieser told me that the agency badly needs reform, especially in terms of directing more resources toward strategic countries. “The number of volunteers in Benin, a country so small that most people wouldn’t know how to find it, is only about twenty-five less than China,” Rieser said. “What we want to have a conversation about is: Does that make sense?” He emphasized that the appropriations committee works with a limited budget. “Every dollar for the Peace Corps comes out of something else,” he said. “It comes out of programs for water, for food aid, for refugee resettlement.” Rajeev told me that Rieser was right about the Peace Corps office’s needing reform, but he believed that the new director, Aaron Williams, who was appointed in the summer of 2009, was committed to making changes. Williams arrived after a successful career as a U.S.A.I.D. administrator, and he told me that one of his top priorities was evaluating where volunteers should be sent. In any case, Rajeev thought that Leahy’s perspective would change if he spent more time in the field. “You can’t judge the Peace Corps by what you see in Washington,” Rajeev said. He wanted funding to be taken away from military programs, not from aid. “Can you imagine how much bureaucratic waste there is when you give all this money to Pakistan and other foreign militaries?” he said.
But Rajeev couldn’t figure out how to get to Leahy. He knew that the Senator likes the Grateful Dead, and he’s such a Batman fan that he had a cameo in “The Dark Knight.” “I talked to a longtime aide to Senator Kennedy, and I asked what I should do to convince Leahy,” Rajeev told me. “She said, ‘Dress up in a Batman suit and stand outside the Senate.’ She was serious. I thought about it.” Rajeev was able to persuade Jimmy Carter to call Leahy, but he couldn’t get a statement from the Grateful Dead. He called everybody on a list of two hundred former volunteers who live in Vermont, asking them to telephone the Senator. One of them happened to be the C.E.O. of the hospice that provided care for Leahy’s father when he was dying, and she agreed to contact the Senator.
By this time, Rajeev’s relationship with the National Peace Corps Association had begun to deteriorate. The organization wouldn’t comment, but I heard from others that it became uncomfortable with Rajeev’s tactics, especially after he and others began publishing editorials that targeted Leahy. Washington people responded in vastly different ways to this unorthodox approach. Republicans could be surprisingly supportive; they seemed to like Rajeev’s individualism and outsider status. Elected officials and other important figures often admired his gall. Negative responses seemed most likely to come from younger people, especially congressional aides. “He makes things personal,” one of them told me, and others complained that he hassled them and didn’t follow the rules. Rajeev told me that each congressional office functions like a miniature village, with complex relations between the various aides and the elected official. In these villages, generational stereotypes can seem reversed: often, the younger people are most conservatively committed to a system, because they run the day-to-day affairs. Marc Hanson, a former staffer for Representative Sam Farr, told me that officials tend to relish the personal and spontaneous side of politics, whereas staff members are focussed on logistical issues. “They try to manage and choreograph that stuff,” he said. “And Rajeev interrupted that process and forced members to hear about the Peace Corps on a day when it wasn’t on the schedule.”
When people discussed the Peace Corps campaign, they often said, in tones slightly ominous, “You know about the ice-cream social, right?” I heard about it again and again, until the words “ice-cream social” began to sound, at least to my ears, like “Bay of Pigs.” Each summer, there’s a Washington fund-raiser for Patrick Leahy, featuring Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and other Vermont products. At the time of the 2009 event, the Peace Corps’s budget had reached a critical moment. Obama had asked for $373 million, a modest increase over the current $340 million, but the House, responding to the campaign, requested $450 million. Rajeev and Laurence Leamer, a former volunteer in Nepal and an author, attended the ice-cream social. In front of a large group of people, Leamer introduced himself to Leahy. “Senator, I’m afraid I’ve got something to say that’s not going to make you happy,” he said, and then he read from a statement: “You should listen to your true progressive heart and not your negative aides.” Leahy responded angrily, saying that he relied on his own judgment and was tired of volunteers hassling him. But Leamer refused to back down: “Senator, that’s what democracy is all about.”
An aide finally stepped between the men and ended the exchange. Leamer sent a written apology, but people involved in the campaign sensed that a line had been crossed. As Rieser told me recently, “It’s not a smart way to start a conversation with the person in charge of funding.” Not long after the social, the budget came in at $400 million-the largest single-year increase ever, but far less than the $450 million that had been approved by the House. A member of the House told me that Leahy complained to him about the rudeness of former volunteers, saying, “That’ll cost the Peace Corps fifty million dollars.” Leahy denies this.
Most people viewed the campaign as a resounding success, but Rajeev had mixed feelings. After the ice-cream social, his relations with the N.P.C.A. became so bad that he left the organization. For the next year, he worked independently, supported by grants arranged by a group of advisers led by Donald Ross, the former Nader activist. He used a less aggressive approach, and the campaign resulted in the Senate’s proposing a twenty-million-dollar increase for next year’s budget. But Rajeev believed that critical energy had been lost; he had hoped to have a bigger effect on the Peace Corps itself, whose reforms have been modest to this point. He told me that he had taken the personal approach too far. Village politics can be nondemocratic: there’s a point at which a powerful individual hears so many unified voices that his instinct is to ignore them. Leahy had been called by everybody from his father’s hospice administrator to a former President, and he was confronted at the Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream social. As if that weren’t enough, he also received phone calls from both Ben and Jerry. Ben Cohen told me that, after being contacted by Rajeev, he called Leahy and suggested putting more money into the Peace Corps instead of the Pentagon. I asked Cohen how the Senator had responded. “His response was ‘Enough already! Everybody and his brother has been calling me about this!’ ”
In September, I accompanied Rajeev on a trip to Nepal. On the way to Namje, we stopped in the nearby town of Bhedetar, where a man named Mani Tamang approached us. Mani had piercing eyes and a dark, gaunt face, and he introduced himself by saying that he had been the guerrilla commander of local Maoist forces during the years of unrest. In 2008, the monarchy was abolished, and the U.N. has been monitoring the country’s peace process. The Maoists are now a legitimate political party, but they have not been aboveground for long and Mani seemed nervous. He wore a dirty T-shirt that said “Casual Style.”
“Are you upset with me for some reason?” Rajeev asked.
“I’ve said thank you so many times that ‘thank you’ cannot describe how we feel,” Mani said. “All over the district, we have no buildings like the school you built.”
“Do you have any criticisms?”
Mani believed that Maoists had been excluded from development work. “When you were building the first water project, I really wanted to meet you,” he said. “But the people in Namje wouldn’t let me.” He asked Rajeev if he would organize a water project in a nearby community, but Rajeev explained that he wasn’t doing that work anymore. “I can raise the idea with the district irrigation officer,” he said.
Rajeev didn’t want to coördinate more infrastructure projects. “If you do something well, then other people copy it,” he said, noting that other communities were building their own water systems. “You don’t need to do it on a huge scale.” He had stopped building schools, too. He saw his role as ever-changing, and he was highly critical of himself. Some projects had failed entirely, like the woollen hats, and the women’s co-op had yet to figure out a productive endeavor. Rajeev believed that the school buildings were too utilitarian; at one dedication, he gave a speech in which he said that the building “looks like a jail.” He told the villagers that they should paint it in brighter colors. Even the water project had some negative effects. Water allowed people to build in cement, and villagers had embarked on a chaotic construction phase. Outside investors had moved in, realizing that Namje could become a resort town for people wishing to escape the heat of the Terai Plain. They had bought so much land that prices had risen tenfold in the span of a year, and locals worried about losing cohesion.
Among charities, replicability is a key goal, but Rajeev didn’t see the point of a development worker’s repeating the same thing in many areas without ever sticking around to see the long-term results. He believed that construction projects tend to be overvalued, when in fact it’s more important to spend time in one community as it moves forward. “People often ask me, ‘How many schools has the Peace Corps built? How many hospitals?’ ” he said. “The Peace Corps has been very good about not playing that game. But it’s part of why the organization is still small, and why people don’t know as much about it.” In the Peace Corps, whose twenty-seven-month commitment is longer than that for most service organizations, volunteers often become ambivalent about traditional development work. They’re more likely to see the complexities of change, and less likely to cheerlead for big projects and sweeping plans. The novelist Paul Theroux, who served in Malawi in the sixties, has written critically about the N.G.O. presence in Africa; he told me that great ambitions tend to be destructive. He was more positive about the small projects he had seen in Costa Rica which were organized at the village level. “We need to inspire people, not intimidate them,” he said. “There’s something about all aid that is somehow subversive.”
When I spoke with former volunteers, they invariably said, “I got so much more out of the experience than I gave.” It was also common to hear that the Peace Corps benefits the United States more than it does the rest of the world. I didn’t really believe these sentiments-they seemed to be a way of expressing humility and respect. I had always liked the slightly subversive element of the Peace Corps, because it tended to be quiet and personal. But it seemed that the failure of the Peace Corps is that former volunteers rarely play the same outsider role back home, at least politically. Somebody like Rajeev could go from Namje to Congress, where he saw the place through new eyes, which made his presence disruptive. He was unusual, though. The United States is very good at shaking up the rest of the world, but it’s all but impervious to anything that moves in the other direction.
On our last day in Namje, we attended the dedication of a new building for agricultural training. A year earlier, Rajeev had raised money to buy five acres of prime mountaintop land, and the village hoped to become a center where Nepalis could study organic farming. Namje had enough water to handle the growth, and villagers were becoming ambitious. They had recently organized their own fund-raiser in the city of Dharan, coming away with the staggering sum of a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. But plans were even bigger: they wanted a million dollars from the Nepali government, so that they could expand the new training center into a real college.
Tanka Bhujel had organized everything for the dedication event. There were big tents and banners, and officials came from all over the district. They received elaborate ceremonial gifts of Buddha statues and Gurkha knives. Rajeev gave a speech about development, and the audience cheered every time he mentioned money.
The next day in Kathmandu, we went to the office of Rakam Chemjong, the Minister for Peace and Reconstruction. Tanka Bhujel had prepared three letters requesting government support for a college, and he asked Rajeev to deliver them. But Rajeev seemed distracted; he told me that he had trouble processing the extravagance of yesterday’s event, and that he wasn’t sure what to say to the Minister.
They met in a high-ceilinged room, where the Minister greeted Rajeev warmly. He was accompanied by a couple of aides, known as peons, one of the more satisfying loanwords in the Nepali language. There was also a Maoist official who was helping to draft Nepal’s new constitution. Rajeev began his presentation, but instead of asking for support he said that it would be a mistake to build a full college in Namje. First, the villagers needed to focus on their plot of land. “They will listen if you say a few words to them,” he said.
“I will tell them to be careful and go slowly,” the Minister said.
“There’s a lot of danger in the community right now,” Rajeev said. “When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, half an acre of land was three hundred dollars. Now it’s ten thousand. It’s like the Wild West.”
“I understand,” the Minister said. The Maoist’s cell phone rang-it played the “Internationale.” He cut it off before the part about “the damned of the earth.”
“We need to do something different in Namje,” Rajeev said. “Something unusual.”
The Minister promised to keep an eye on the project, and everybody shook hands. Rajeev and I went outside and caught a cab. He still had the three request letters, undelivered, and I asked if Tanka and others would be upset.
“They know me,” he said. “Tanka Sir is amused by things like this. It will be a story for him to tell: ‘We sent Rajeev in there with all these letters and he turned it around on us!’ ” The cabbie honked; we swerved through traffic, and Rajeev laughed: “He’s the one who says that politics is the dirty game.” ♦
Peter Hessler joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2000.