TROUBLE: Transition Trifecta – Email Obama

No permanent Director; budget cuts that mean layoffs looming: and, personnel system changes to the Five Year Rule up in the air, this is Peace Corps, today.  Does it matter to the serving Volunteer? It could. I believe  it imperative to pay  attention to Peace Corps during times of transition to make sure that the safety and service of Volunteers are not compromised. From the outside looking in, it is hard to tell exactly how these stresses are currently impacting Peace Corps. But, there are some  clues to be found in the history. Let us look at them.

In 2008, Obama’s transition team wrote a paper for the President outlining a road map for the Peace Corps. The report made recommendations for the first 90 days of the Obama’s administration, including this: Peace Corps reform needs to start on January 20lh. Under ideal circumstances a new director will have been named by that time.”  and this: “Critical vacancies should be filled for both field and headquarters staff to ensure program continuity and adequate Volunteer support.”

Hugh Pickens published the report on his valuable website, Peace Corps Online, on May 29, 2009. The report was prefaced by John Coyne. At that time, there still was no permanent Peace Corps Director appointed. The date suggests how low on the priority scale Peace Corps was.

John Coyne writes: President Obama has in his hands the Peace Corps Transition Team document “Peace Corps Roadmap” telling the president what should be done to increase and improve the agency. The twenty-page transition document was written by his own team, sent to the Peace Corps after the election and before the president was sworn in. This impressive piece of work manages to be both positive about the Peace Corps and its role in the world, and yet outlines the problems of the agency and makes suggestions on how the president can improve the Peace Corps so that more Americans are able to serve our country. The Transition Team document is sitting on President Obama’s White House desk. It has been (so far) unread by the president. Would you like to read it? Peace Corps Online has the document below. Read it now.

http://peacecorpsonline.org/messages/messages/2629/3215185.html

Today, February 20, 2013, it has been almost six months since Aaron Williams resigned as Peace Corps Director.  His Deputy, Carrie Hessler-Radelet has been the Acting Director. It is more than time for Peace Corps to have a permanent Director.  I think for continuity  and because of the real difficulties that Peace Corps may face with sequestration, Hessler-Radelet should be made permanent Director, as soon as possible. She enjoys support in the Peace Community, and by all accounts, has demonstrated the ability to handle the job well. I urge those in the Peace Corps community who agree, to email the White House and urge her immediate appointment. That email address is: http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact

Serving Volunteers have been victims of crimes in times past during transition from one administration to another. Coincidence or pattern? Again, one can only speculate. The provisions in the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 strengthen the security protection for serving Volunteers. But, it is not clear how in-country vacancies could impact the implementation of those protections. The Inspector General report of the Impact of the Five Year Rule found, in June of 2012, that the Five Year Rule:

Exacerbated the already difficult challenge of managing the frequent transitions of  overseas USDH personnel. Despite the agency’s efforts to minimize vacancies in key direct hire positions overseas, over the past 10 years there have been more  than 180 vacancies lasting at least 30 days. Staff reported that direct hire vacancies overseas had negative impacts on staff workload and morale, Volunteer  support, programming and training, and other areas.

The then Director of the Peace Corps, Aaron Williams, accepted the OIG’s recommendations, but he left before implementing them. To read the OIG report on the Impact of the Five Year Rule, use  this the  link: pc_final_evaluation_report_on_impacts_of_the_five_year_rule_ig1205e

All of these circumstances are complicated by the increasing possibility of more than $30 million in budget cuts to Peace Corps that could happen in less than two weeks. Congress and the President have “called wolf” over fiscal crises that were then adverted at the last moment. But, some are speculating that the chances are 50-50 that sequestration will happen on March 1st.  It has been argued that federal employees are just pawns in this fight between the Congress and the President.  But if employees are pawns, what are Volunteers?

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  • The imminent budget cuts will continue. Aside from the looming sequester to take effect within nine days, discussion of further budget cuts will begin within three weeks. Based upon the recent books by J. Larry Brown and Grigsby Crawford, it is obvious that the Peace Corps is top heavy and listing as it moves through rough seas. It’s time to cut the D.C. staff in half and completely reinvent operations- returning the emphasis of staff to supporting the volunteers. Whether the Peace Corps continues sailing through the twenty-first century might well depend upon it.

  • I am not sure the Peace Corps could survive a “reinvention.” I also fear it will do poorly in the mania to cut Fed expenditures. The Peace Corps lost its reason to be when it opted to be a small, technically competent, development assistance organization, what I call a “Mini-AID,” instead of a grand experiment in cross cultural understanding.

  • Lorenzo,
    The Washington Peace Corps office may well be overstaffed. But neither of your examples proves that. Brown’s book describes precisely the kind of chaotic situation that occurs during a prolonged transition time. From January until the time he was fired, Peace Corps only had an acting director. There was a change from Republican to Democratic administrations. Even tho Brown was a life long Democratic operative, he had been selected CD by his friend, a Republican Director who resigned in January. This left Brown without the support of the person who had chosen him, plus many staff vacancies in decision-making positions. As for Crawford, I did not see that he described a top heavy Washington bureaucracy.

    The vacancies caused by the FYR; the resignation of “political appointees” who may be looking to upgrade their careers in a second Obama administration; and, potential cross-the board budget cuts, do not guarantee that the staff reduction will result in a more efficient operation. The very best people may leave. The vacancies may be in key positions. It is a lousy way to run an operation.

    Leo,
    Exactly when did Peace Corps decide to become a mini AID agency? I thought that the first goal has always been to provide trained people to interested countries. My impression is that “cross-cultural exchange” is a fall back position that Peace Corps uses when its “technical programs” fail and/or it can not find adequately trained people to volunteer.

  • I served with great pleasue and pride in three nat’l gov’t units: in chronilogical order the USMC, the Peace Corps, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Twelve years in all. I fear that all three will disappear if the present budget madness continues. As they say,’sic transit gloria mundi,’

  • Joey. JFK launched the Peace Corps to improve America’s image abroad, a direct reply to the “Ugly American.” Helping less fortunate peoples added luster to our image. But the intention was to make Americans better viewed abroad. He wanted thousands of volunteers, as many as 100,000 per year. And by the late 1960s we had as many as 15,000 in the field. However, the Agency itself decided to forgo the “numbers” game and focus on placing the right person in the right job. Our numbers declined to less than 10,000 where we stay today. Hard to change an image with 7000 when our culture and image is more the product of our military or culture flung far more widely around this wide world.

  • Leo,
    I disagree with your interpretation of the beginning of the Peace Corps. Those of us who grew up in the aftermath of WWII and then the cold war were taught that poverty, injustice and the sense of desperation were the fuels that fired war. And, if we were to find ways to avoid another war, that would be nuclear, then we had to find a way to combat “the common enemies of mankind”…poverty etc.

    The communists were presenting an alternate to democratic capitalism to the emerging countries of the Third World. Young men and women who were Russian or Marxist in philosophy were working in Africa and South America and Asia towards the triumph of communism. What Kennedy wanted to do was put America in that contest with trained people who would work at the village and urban slum level to help change those conditions.

    The triumph of the Peace Corps and one that is just never heralded as it should be, (and it is something that you of all people should know) is that when the colonial powers abdicated in Africa and emptied out the staff in those school systems that they had created;
    those teaching positions were filled, not by Russian trained teachers, but by American Peace Corps Volunteers.

    The tragedy of Peace Corps is in South America, the public health systems were manned not by Americans, but by cuban trained doctors and nurses. Those two continents represent the alpha and omega of Peace Corps.

    You speak of Peace Corps as if it were a monolithic agency with the same basic personnel and values, a humanitarian equivalent of the Army Corps of Engineers. It is not. Your recounting of history obscures what really happened with Peace Corps. The growth in the 60s was partly a reflection of the draft and Johnson’s demand for 500,000 troops for Vietnam. Peace Corps was a draft haven. But, it really lacked the capacity to adequately train and place the 15,000 or so Volunteers during the mid-sixties. Jack Vaughn, who succeeded
    Shriver began to make more deliberate placements so that Volunteers were not idle, a situation that was really causing problems.

    Blanchard, Nixon’s Peace Corps Director, further expanded Vaughn’s plan by recruiting professionals and placing them in mid-level jobs. I think this is what you meant by “mini AID agency” But Sam Brown, Carter’s appointment to ACTION, reversed direction and insisted that Peace Corps Volunteers focus on the basics…

    As for putting “luster” on the image, a positive image for America couldn’t be “faked” under the conditions in which volunteers worked and could only be a by-product of real work done.

    “Luster?” It reminds me of the shampoo of stars. I was there, too, Leo. You can’t rewrite history.

  • Joey. JFK referred to the “Ugly American” in discussing the Peace Corps. He wanted to project an image other than that of the aloof ambassador in that book who did not imerse himself in the local society and endear himself to the local people. Rather it was the “ugly” farm boy who left an image of a caring, understanding American.

    The fact is that the world did not need another small, development agency. It was already served by many from different lands. But we needed to improve our image abroad. And that is what disginguished the Peace Corps.

    As for Latin America we already had a very successul Point Four program there succeeded by AID and no other country has done as much to help the people of those lands overcome poverty, ignorance, disease than has Spain. And the Catholic Church has been laboring in that vineyard for centuries. Surely you don’t consider the Peace Corps being more important than those other programs in overcoming the plight of the Latin American people. .

    Oh, by the way, Peace Corps teachers were replaced by Communist Russian teachers in Ethiopia..

  • Leo,
    The first goal of Kennedy’s Peace Goal was to meet the need for “trained,” not “friendly” Americans. The Ugly American was beloved because he brought innovation to his village. Could you define what successful Point Four program was operative in South America in the early 60s? I must have missed it (them?) in my two years of living in Colombia and traveling along the West Coast of South America.

    As for this comment:
    “and no other country has done as much to help the people of those lands overcome poverty, ignorance, disease than has Spain.” Are you crazy?

    You are, however, absolutely right about Communist Russian teachers in Ethiopia. Although, Ethiopia was never a colony of an European power; it was invaded and occupied by Italy during WWII.
    I know very little about the origins of that revolution and its consequences.

    This kind of discussion, however, speaks to the need to have a Peace Corps Library/Museum/Research Center. There could be an entire conference, there, devoted to the question: Should Peace Corps be a cultural-exhange program or a grassroots assistance program?

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