Why Don’t We Have A Peace Corps Director?
Months are slipping by without a Peace Corps Director.
Why is that?
When Trump was kicked out of office, Director Jody Olsen (Tunisia 1966-68) ran for the door tossing the office keys to Carol Spahn (Romania 1994-96) who has now been declared Chief Executive Office of the agency. Over the last months, two ‘famous’ names popped up as potential directors. Joe Kennedy (the Dominican Republic 2004-06) was, I’m told, offered the job and he turned it down. Recently the story is that President Biden asked Michelle Obama if she would be the next Peace Corps Director. She also said no.
What we also know is that the Republicans in the Senate are stalling all of Biden’s appointments to federal jobs. 150 government positions have no nominee.
What might the Peace Corps agency do next?
- Limp along with ‘acting’ CEO and make-do staff and no PCVs in the field.
- Close the Peace Corps down. Call it Quits. 60 Years Is Long Enough. Good Bye!
- Turn the ‘Peace Corps into a non-government organization. Create a Private Peace Corps.
- Let the United Nations be the new “Peace Corps”. Americans would apply to the UN.
- Let colleges and universities sponsor their ‘own’ peace corps in nations that they have associations. Give degrees only.
Back in February 2007, writing an op-ed in the StarTribune in the Twin Cities, former Peace Corps Director Carol Bellamy (Guatemala 1963-65) and Eric Utne, founder of Utne Reader magazine, called for the establishment of an independent, nongovernmental, all-volunteer Peace Corps for the whole earth, an Earth Corps that would work with existing service organizations all over the world to recruit and help address the U.N. Millennium Development Goals.
This would mean Earth Corps Volunteers working to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development.
Volunteers would also work to monitor and reverse global warming, clean up polluted rivers and toxic waste sites, teach basic computer skills and business practices to the recipients of micro-credit loans, provide information and medical care, and so forth.
You have to love Carol and Eric Utne (who I do not know) still fighting the good fight, and not going gently into that good night.
Here is a little-known Carol Bellamy story of how Carol first learned about the Peace Corps which, she always claims, changed her life.
As a student at Gettysburg College, Carol was studying in the library and fell asleep late one night high up in the stacks. The library closed down and locked up. Waking, Carol discovered she was locked in and all alone in the empty building. Now, this could have made a great scary novel. Instead, Carol wandered around the empty college library looking for something good to read and came across a story about a new government agency, the Peace Corps….the rest, as they say, is history. In the morning the library doors were opened and Carol walked out to join the Peace Corps and made history as the first RPCV Director.
A true story.
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The problem is the Peace Corps agency is a federal agency established by Congressional legislation. Without congressional authorization, the agency can do nothing but “limp along”, etc. It cannot independently create a private organization. This is a good beginning discussion. I believe the real Peace Corps resides in the hearts and minds of the RPCV community.
The Peace Corps was born in an unusual time of hope and idealism in the early 60s. That turned out to be a very short window. By the late 60s, Americans had begun to lose faith in the USG. Now in the 2020s, nearly all have. As for the Peace Corps itself, how many Americans today even know what it is?
For now, option A (limp along) is probably the near term answer. But if the agency can’t put PCVs into the field, covid or no covid, by the end of this year, the Peace Corps might as well fold up its tent. Maybe it can in a few countries, but its glory days are far behind. It had a great run for 60 years, but USG agencies don’t necessarily live forever.
I’d like to believe that the Peace Corps will never be dismantled given its long history of bipartisan support and the large number of RPCVs and Peace Corps countries that highly value its work. As the Biden Administration works to improve America’s image abroad, it has much to benefit from the people-to-people diplomacy that Peace Corps Volunteers offer. Let’s continue the advocacy work of the National Peace Corps Association and all write our members of Congress demanding that Peace Corps be taken seriously and a director named now.
The agency is best off not placing a prospective director through Senate confirmation hearings until volunteers begin returning to the field. Recalling comments from one Senator which precipitated the closure of the China post, I don’t want a prospective director–given the current political climate–to have to respond to questions such as, “Why do you need a director with no volunteers?” and “Do you need your entire budget?” Such questioning may threaten the agency’s existence or status as an independent agency. We are fortunate to have an Acting Director who has very effectively carried the ball during this Covid hiatus period.
Responding to the point occasionally made that Peace Corps should become an interchange program (we give you an English teacher; you give us a Swahili teacher), it wouldn’t work. The posts aren’t equipped to do the vetting and selection, and the embassies’ regional security officers would need to get involved. NGOs, universities, and other organization are best equipped to do this, and they do it well. A service alternative, UN Volunteers, is a one-year, project-targeted program along the lines of Peace Corps Response. My understanding is that UNV takes some, but not many, U.S. citizen volunteers. While the Peace Corps’ programs and policies must constantly evolve, its overriding mission and goals remain worthy.
We owe more than a tendency to ‘limp along’ to those dedicated Volunteers who believed with their lives in the concept of a Peace Corps. As a first step, perhaps it is time to recognize that while the world has changed, Peace Corps hasn’t changed with it, largely programming today as it did yesterday. Take for example one of its newest countries if the Agency can get beyond Covid-19: Belize with English teachers, the only country in Central America with English as its official language. Because of its former Commonwealth status, all of its banana harvests and South Korean fish farm production can be exported to the EU Duty Free. We have to inquiry: does Belize, Dive Capital of South America, really need Peace Corps or does Peace Corps need Belize!
The Agency has largely failed to evolve with an emergent highly technological global environment, totally different than 1961.
In my former employment with Hudson Institute, we hosted a luncheon for a Board Member of the Central Bank of Rwanda.
When she learned during introductions that I had been a PC Volunteer, she asked this question: Mr. Norris, why are you sending me Volunteers to work in our health sector. What we need are Volunteers to help us structure a mortgage system so we can promote home ownership in my country. If you can help us do that, we can take care of our health needs.
An example of programming evolution is the Marina Orth Foundation. It began with a single room schoolhouse by a Volunteer in the mid-1960s, featuring TESL Then, as Colombia’s economy changed, the Foundation changed with it. Today, it is in 31 public schools, with a mission to give its students the tools to compete in the 21st Century. In 2020, 3,300 students were trained in English, 4,000 in Technology, 1,005 in STEM and Robotics, 482 in Vocational Training, and 20 that won scholarships to pursue a higher education degree. It has introduced XO Lap Tops to its students. Over 40% of its Robotic students are girls, and in Robotics alone, it has 850 students, who successfully compete in international competition.
Peace Corps programming is tied too closely to yesterday. It is also somewhat duplicative to what many other agencies, such as WHO, UNICEF, PAHO, the World Bank, etc. are doing, as well as hundreds of non-governmental organizations are doing, many funded via USAID. I may not have noticed, but since Volunteers left their countries some 21 months ago, I haven’t heard directly what countries are requesting from Peace Corps. I have heard a lot, though, of what Peace Corps plans to do once it returns to the field.
I think your analysis absolutely right on, with one minor exception. How do you proposed to implement your suggestions for Peace Corps? I think your are an excellent person to try and bring about some of the needed changes. But, I cannot imagine how that could be done, given the administrational structure of Peace Corps.
What do you think?
One of the reasons I applied for the Peace Corps back in 1963, is I realized I had all the answers on how to moderize the underdeveloped. world. After all,I had been writing papers, taking exams, and most importantly involved in many formal and informal conversations for four years in college. But then I noticed, the world had ignored my heartfeld suggestions. It seemed it was necessary to leave the comfort of the college campus and actually try and do something. Which I did.
Almost forty years later, when I became interested in Peace Corps history, I was shocked to find there was very little in the PC’s public record. Cerainly all my site reports and “fine” suggestions where nowhere to be found. (Perhaps, it is just me). I had a facinating discussion with a Assitant Manager at PC/HQ who did not know what a site report was. And, as a reitired military hospital administrator, he was shocked to learn that “dirty needles” were a major concern of early PC Health Education Volunteers.
There is little or no institutional memory at Peace Corps. If there is an archive of what worked and what did not, I couldn’t find it. Each change in administration in the White House has a corresponding change at Peace Corps. One most recent example is Michelle Obama program from 2015 to “Let Girls Learn,” Trump eliminated that program in 2017.
The host country citizens who staff the host country administration are the only employees in the entire Peace Corps apparatus who are permanent and not subjec to the Five Year Rule. They may be the ones determining Peace Corps policy and programs. I don’t know.
Great thanks for your response. One suggestion is for PC/W to sponsor a Blueprint Commission to visit several representative countries with one simply question: what is it that you would want Volunteers to address?
Given today’s communication technologies, I don’t believe Volunteers need to be in the field for 24-27 months. For instance, if PC had been able to respond to the Board Member of Rwanda’s Central Bank, that would require a Volunteer to spend an initial 2-3 months in the field, establishing relationships, then returning to whatever position he/she had in the States. Contacts could continue over the next year or so with problem solving via Zoom, and other forms of electronic communications. In the second year, the Volunteer could return for an additional few months for technical conversations, updates on recommendations, conferences, implementation activities, etc.
Although programming against this model would result in less Volunteers in the field, it might also increase their importance to host countries.
When PC first entered the field in 1961, it was among the very few organizations doing development work, e.g., CARE, Catholic Relief, Project HOPE, etc, Today, there are hundreds such organizations. And most recipient countries were newly emergent from colonialism–with absolutely no private sectors.
Today, in most every country referred to as ‘3r world’, the private sector is well above 60% in such sectors as health. In 1961, the WHO’s sole partner abroad were ministries of public health. Today, those ministries struggle for relevancy in their national economies. Yet, as a dues paying Member, the U. S. Peace Corps must conform to program guidance from WHO. Thus, if WHO is struggling for attention, can Peace Corps ignore its advice?
How about we ask citizens of countries served what they want versus a county’s Central Bank? I don’t want Peace Corps to turn into a tool of for financial institutions to make money or for anyone to make money off of the citizens of the countries served. It would be satisfying to me to empower citizens of countries to think for themselves and help them shape the fate of their own futures without necessarily replicating what the US or west does. I know this may be way too radical of an approach for some and if it is, we should stick to assisting with basic needs while volunteers can learn how similar humans are within the context of a different cultures. US citizens need that simple experience desperately and en masse. I believe that is the essence of Peace Corps anyway, cultural exchange. We don’t need to make it much more complicated than that.
Thank you for your thoughtful response. Do you think it is possible that a Congressional Delegation could visit countries with that question? Peace Corps, right now, does not have a permanent director. I don’t know what is the status of Country Director positions. When we use the term Peace Corps, we really need to define “whose Peace Corps?” Which political administration with its own policies is in charge” And, what will happen with a new Director, let alone with probably a new Congress in 2022?
In the early days, Shriver used people outside of Peace Corps to do program evaluations. Could there be a way to incorporate Peace Corps staff, RPCVs, experts in the various countries, as an ongoing group to tour and ask questions?
Do think the Peace Corps Response program could be modified to address what you describe in terms of Rewanda: “hat would require a Volunteer to spend an initial 2-3 months in the field, establishing relationships, then returning to whatever position he/she had in the States. Contacts could continue over the next year or so with problem solving via Zoom, and other forms of electronic communications. In the second year, the Volunteer could return for an additional few months for technical conversations, updates on recommendations, conferences, implementation activities, etc.”
I think you are absolutely right about the prolification of NGOs and host country organizations. I have some questions, but I really don’t know. I do not know the world, now, outside of Western Europe so I don’t know if other organizations are as rooted in “poor” communities as Peace Corps has traditionally been. To me, there was and is real value in the Volunteer spending time, not necessarily program productive, in learning how to live in another culture and with people who are very different.
Good questions here, let me try to answer them all in a general manner. Can there be a Congressional Delegation to examine Peace Corps future? Answer: the chances for that are poor to slim–and slim just left the room.
Perhaps what would be better is having the Peace Corps National Advisory Council do the same thing. But to my knowledge, there hasn’t been a Council in some years now. In 2010, I was nominated to the Council and then went through a very thorough review of my past writings and positions, including stock holdings, professional associations, etc. by someone on the White House staff. At about month 3, a new person was assigned to my case and for some reason, the records of my first 3 months were lost. I had to start all over again. Finally, I passed a ‘name check’ in the U. S. Senate. Then, the entire slate for new Council members was presented to then-President Obama. He declined to sign, commenting that the Council was “too expensive”.
When I returned from PC Colombia in 1965 and was on PC/W staff, one of my duties was to serve as the Secretariat for the PC National Advisory Council. At that time, it had such luminaries as Prof. David Reisman, he of literary fame with his publication of “The Lonely Crowd”, and a professor at Harvard; Saul Bellow, populator author at the Univ. of Chicago; Harry Belafonte, very population singer of his day; and etc.
As you might imagine, I was a bit over the moon with being able to drop a dime and talk with any of these Council Members–with mud still on my shoes from Colombia! All they wanted to know was ‘where do you want me and at what time’. None ever asked for tickets or reimbursement for their services.
But when they spoke in support of whatever Sarge wanted from them, the Arts and Entertainment and Academic Community listened! Peace Corps/W couldn’t buy that kind of support in those days gone by now. These Council Members believed in the concept of Peace Corps and were willing to devote their valuable time to its promotion.
If there is such a Council today, then it would be an appropriate task for it to undertake a review of its future. It could be a book-end to the NPCA’s Peace Corps Connect 21, especially if its focus was:
this is about them rather than us.
I like the idea of the Peace Corps Advisory Council being reinstated. Is it just dormant or does it require Congressional action to be opertative again? Initially, I think its original purpose was to promote the new Peace Corps and garner support for it outside the political world. But it certainly could be a way to reexamine and plan for the Peace Corps in the future, now.
I am surprised you had to undergo such a extensive vetting process. Five years later, when the White House initiated “Let Girls Learn”, it pulled many of the government’s overseas agencies into the effort, coordinated by the National Security Council. It was a real change for the Peace Corps, as the request for the program did not come from host countries and I think (hope) it was the first time and only time the Peace Corps was coordinated by the National Security Council.
In some manner, the PC National Advisory Council had to have had Congressional approval, otherwise PC/W could not have devoted staff and funds to it. But since then-President Obama didn’t want to expend funds on it in 2010, maybe it just drifted away without any White House support in subsequent years.
Thanks to both Marian and John for so many decades of keeping this door of communication open!
The great majority of former volunteers I know cherish the memory of their experience which always reminds me of a wagon master. He pulls on the reigns while yelling, “Whoaaa,” then leans over to wrap them on the wooden brake handle, climbs down and in one quick motion, rips the mule’s blinders off. While the mule looks from side to side, the wagon master dryly remarks, “It’s always been there. You just didn’t see it.”
A Chinese emperor once gathered his wise men to compose a fitting epitaph for a new construction project. After much thought, they presented- “This too shall pass.”
Regardless of possible changes to the program, the world has changed. Where’s the Pony Express? The Buffalo Soldiers? The CCC?
If we regard this experience as so important, then it is our duty to record our thoughts and find a worthy archive to save them.