fixing peace corps

first posted 1/6/2010:
robert strauss just published yet another article on "how to fix the peace corps" (American Interest, Jan/Feb 2010). this is something like his 3rd or 4th public piece on the topic. as always – though i'm sure not everyone in the peace corps community would agree – i found the article intelligent, insightful, scathing and well-written.

i agree with just about all of the main points strauss makes, though i'd take the edge out of the piece if i was writing it. but that's robert's style. it stings... just to make sure you're paying attention. for the most scathing peace corps critique, however, one still has to go back to ivan illich's 1968 "to hell with good intentions."

again, i don't agree with everything in strauss' article. but i do think his major suggestions for "re-imagining" the peace corps are right on point. that idea in and of itself, for the peace corps to re-imagine itself anew, is a compelling one.

here are nine of his main "fixes" for the peace corps (eight more suggestions can be found in the original piece):
  1. tabling any discussion of enlarging the Peace Corps until it fixes the basics regarding administration, recruiting, country selection and volunteer placement;
  2. reducing the number of political appointees from around thirty to two or three;
  3. getting rid of the Peace Corps’s unique-in-government rule, which forces 85 percent of all American staff members out of the agency, along with whatever expertise they have gained, after a maximum of five years of employment;
  4. exponentially increasing support to volunteers so that they are visited and supervised directly every six weeks rather than every six months, as is currently the norm under the best of conditions;
  5. getting serious about doing meaningful, quantifiable work that makes a difference in standards of living overseas;
  6. demanding a much higher standard of volunteer performance (and a much lower AWOL rate);
  7. providing post-service benefits, comparable to the GI bill, so that more Americans would serve in the Peace Corps in the first place;
  8. focusing on a limited number of technical fields that would give volunteers true expertise to offer; and
  9. allowing terms of service shorter than the standard 24 months so that, again, more people could consider serving
all that said, i disagree with a point strauss makes in the article about peace corps' "unwritten 4th goal" (here are the first three PC goals). perhaps not total disagreement, but i'd state the point differently. strauss writes:

And forget the unwritten fourth goal of the Peace Corps being a place for young Americans to “expand their horizons.” Host countries aren’t interested in Americans who are searching for life’s meaning; they’re looking for people who can get stuff done. Americans who are lost, whether young or old, don’t often “find themselves” in developing countries.
i agree that inexperienced, unprofessional and immature volunteers aren't going to learn much about themselves or do much to help others. but i do think experienced, professional and mature volunteers learn a good deal about themselves through their peace corps experience.

and here's where i really emphasize my difference with robert's take... that if such volunteers aren't learning something about themselves, then there's something wrong. precisely b/c that would mean that they're not open to learning from others as others learn from them.

if they aren't open to that deep reflection and learning about another culture (or people or way of doing things) as they work together to "get stuff done," and to learning about themselves in the process, then something is very wrong.

i frame this in teaching-learning language, b/c i'm an educator. for robert strauss and others, it's about development. but there's international development and its focus on results (with facts and figures, monitoring and evaluation), and then there's internal or self-development that facts and figures can't capture. but that relationship, between "development agents" and "recipients," can. in both directions.

i suppose this comes down to what part of the relationship/results (or process/product) pairing one chooses to emphasize. robert strauss is emphasizing the importance of results for peace corps. a major point of neglect for an organization that thinks of itself as an agent of sustainable development.

on my part, i'd emphasize relationship for peace corps volunteers as agents of development. i wouldn't disparage that unwritten 4th goal, b/c the kind of cross-cultural learning implied by goals 2 and 3 isn't enough. americans need to learn more about themselves through more open, engaged, and unprejudiced relationship with other peoples.

but ivan illich's words still haunt us, in that regard: "The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn't have been volunteers in the first place" (from To Hell with Good Intentions, 1968). i have two points to make about this. the first is cynical... maybe it is important for other people to learn how "lost" young americans can be, in spite of all the stuff we bring along with us!

my second response to illich's argument is that, in this day and age (though surely even in his), it isn't simply volunteers going abroad that "do damage." our american lifestyle does enough of that, without us even having to leave the comfort of our homes, cars, supermarkets, schools, suburbs, etc. i'm making a social, politico-economic and ecological argument here.

with that in mind, perhaps it is important for a generation of americans (not immature and inexperienced) to learn about themselves and their lifestyles... and about what it means for other people in the world, who can only dream about living that life. and what it means for a world that couldn't sustain it if well all did.

training americans to be change agents is what the peace corps is about. but you can't bring change if you're not open to it yourself. in fact, if you're not open to changing first. as i've written before, my notion of change starts inward and reverberates outward. in both directions. in my case, that means for both this young american and for his cameroonian friends and colleagues.