Peace Corps was created in the golden glow of Post-World War II America. That war was won with our fossil fuel based industrial might. With the Marshall Plan, our ideals, our resources, our technology, we rebuilt our enemies, Germany and Japan, into strong capitalist economics and laid the foundation for their democratic governments. Both countries became our strong, independent allies. At home, the GI Bill gave veterans a college education and support to own a home, building blocks for our growing middle class. Our economy was a golden cornucopia spewing forth millions of products, from a polio vaccine to pastel, scented toilet paper.
In his Inaugural Address, President Kennedy acknowledged our wealth and our success with this call:
Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”
The long twilight struggle continues, but now, we are beginning to understand the cost of the unintended and unforeseen consequences of our powerful and swiftly changing technologies. Now, both at home and in host countries, Peace Corps must deal with global warming caused by fossil fuel emissions and environmental destruction caused by chemical pollution. Perhaps that pastel, scented toilet paper was a clue.
Cornell University worked in the Peruvian Andes in Vicos, an indigenous community from for ten years beginning in the mid ’50s. Fifty years later, Vicos invited the University to return to see the results of their work. It is an excellent example of “what worked and why” and “ what did not work and why”. To read the report CLICK HERE.
From the report:
The green revolution, of course, contained a gotcha: It produced a monoculture — in this case, a particular variety of potatoes. When a nematode came along that liked that particular variety and was resistant to pesticides, the crop was devastated. Heavy applications of chemicals also caused long-term damage to the environment and human health.
Fortunately, another piece of prevailing wisdom of the time was that the development team should deal only with male heads of households. Many women continued the old ways, cultivating a wide variety of different strains of potatoes, and their nonconformity paid off in the survival of crop diversity. Today Vicos produces about 120 varieties of potatoes for food and for sale.
PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER Evelyn LaTorre (Peru 1964-66)) described one incidence in her village in the Andes, in 1965. Her observations are wonderfully accurate and relate to the findings of Cornell so many years later. Read her story here.
Peace Corps can learn from Cornell and Vicos. But the need is great and the hour late. Peace Corps cannot wait fifty years to evaluate programs. When Volunteers return to the field, evaluation systems must already be in place. Each project should be evaluated at the Close of Service. The evaluation should include the Volunteer, the host country counterpart, members of the host community and an independent evaluator, who is expert in the project work. The Evaluation should also include a date for a Follow Up. Such project evaluations should be maintained and properly processed as public records.
The collection could form a foundation for a research facility at some date. Such a Research Institute was envisioned by Robert Klein, (Ghana I). Bob crisscrossed this country interviewing RPCVs to create what became the RPCV Oral History Project at JFK Library and now at the University of Kentucky. He hoped a Research and Library facility could be built to house the RPCV Oral History Project as well as Peace Corps materials for research. Sadly, Bob died before he could work to realize his dream.
In remembrance of Bob, I would like to close with his favorite quote:
“It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:21
The privilege of being part of Peace Corps World Wide has been a gift, for which I am so grateful. I have learned so much from the stories, the articles, the books, and the comments. Thank you to everyone who contributed. Thank you, above all to John Coyne and Marian Haley Beil.