March/ April 2012 Good News First, Bad News Never

How the Peace Corps believes its own PR, looks past its mistakes, and shafts volunteers in the process.

By Ryan Cooper

How might my experience have been avoided or improved? For one, I could have switched sites. In the first few months, my supervisor asked if I wanted to move, but I declined. It was a vexing decision. To change my site—though it probably would have been wise—would have been a sharp insult to my host family that I wasn’t willing to deliver. It is easy, given the deprivations that volunteers are expected to endure, to develop a macho, “I can take it” attitude, and slog on in hopeless situations. I could have been more honest with myself. But a good supervisor probably would have recognized that continuing to work in such a situation would ultimately crush my morale—as indeed it did—and would have encouraged me to relocate.

As it was, however, my supervisor mostly ignored me. I was promised a visit from an official “within the first 4 to 8 months of service and between 14 and 18 months of service.” Instead I was visited once in twenty-three months, and I was almost never called. Budget cuts may have had something to do with this—the Peace Corps was enduring a withering round of them at the time—and again, I could have been more proactive about communicating. But the fact of the agency’s neglect stands. Whatever the reason for it, this sense that I had been forgotten only exacerbated my growing cynicism and apathy.

Most fundamentally, if the Peace Corps had followed its own stated rules, I would not have been placed at my site in the first place. My supervisor can’t have done much research on it before I arrived; even thirty minutes of investigation would have shown how dysfunctional the school was and how many rules my host family was breaking. The family—God bless them—would have cheerfully explained all the details of my housing situation if asked; as far I can tell, they had no idea there were any rules to break. And though I admit it might have been unprofessional to publish my criticisms of training online, the reaction I got is telling: I was dismissed, and my criticisms were largely ignored.

But as noted above, blunt criticism and oversight was critical for the Peace Corps’s early development. In Stanley Meisler’s excellent history of the Peace Corps, When the World Calls, he tells how Peters, as evaluation chief, discovered that many of the first groups of volunteers didn’t have meaningful work at their Peace Corps sites. “It was painful to see the idealism of the Volunteers squandered as they sat there with nothing to do,” Peters wrote in an evaluation. Meisler details how idealists at the D.C. headquarters fought with Peters over the “numbers game”: the idealists pushed for the maximum number of volunteers, while Peters pushed back, as the Peace Corps often had not laid the logistical groundwork to ensure that the volunteers had good sites and meaningful work.

Current top agency administrators would no doubt protest that they have vigorous, extensive, in-house oversight. But they do not. It is true that there is still a division labeled “Evaluation,” but it is only a shadow of its former self, having come under the knife during the Nixon administration after Peters left the agency in 1968. In June 2010, the agency produced for the first time an overall report on the Peace Corps, written by this evaluation division. Though it contains many reasonable recommendations, it is basically a public relations document, slickly produced and written like a corporate press release: “The Peace Corps at fifty is ready for a strong new beginning— rooted in the vibrant past of those early years, yet ready to harness twenty-first century American intellectual power, innovation and commitment to results.”

The Peace Corps’s Office of the Inspector General provides the closest thing the agency has to meaningful oversight. Its reports and congressional testimony, which are posted online, are far more incisive and clear-sighted than the aforementioned report. Unlike the usual IG model, which only investigates problems after they occur, they proactively evaluate a few posts a year. But this is still a far cry from the Peters days. He had his team evaluate every post once a year, and the reports often ran over a hundred pages. Expanding the OIG to the old standard and independence would require a bit of extra money, but the amounts involved are a rounding error in the federal budget—for the 2012 fiscal year, the office requested $5.3 million. To give some perspective, the entire Peace Corps budget is around $375 million (and historically much less), which is only a little more than what the U.S. spent in Iraq every day for the past eight and a half years.

Nevertheless, wringing more funds out of Congress does not seem to be an option at this point. Republicans have been cynically using the budget deficit to slash programs they don’t like; they cut $25 million from the Peace Corps allocation in the last quarter of the 2011 fiscal year, after most of the year’s money had been spent. I can personally testify that this caused all manner of chaos as posts scrambled to pinch pennies.

Even if the Peace Corps must accept some funding cuts, however, keeping the quality of sites as high as possible should be a top priority for the agency—even if that means fewer volunteers and more evaluators. As Peters insisted in his fights over the “numbers game,” bad sites are bad both for the volunteer and for the agency as a whole. My site was shuttered after I left, and though I can’t be sure if it was due to budget cuts or to the bold, all-caps, underlined, twenty- four-point-font complaint I filed before I left, I am confident that the South Africa post as a whole is better for it.

The Peace Corps is well worth improving. It still represents the best of America, plays a crucial but underappreciated role in our efforts at public diplomacy, and provides us with a critical dose of international awareness in a global age. And the problem is not that the agency is incapable of competent management; it’s that the management is uneven. At the beginning of every volunteer’s service, he or she must complete a community survey—a look at the resources and needs of the volunteer’s permanent site. In South Africa, the community survey consisted of a large batch of paperwork, and my supervisor said not one word about it after I turned mine in. Some of my peers never even filled one out. In Nicaragua, however, the community survey takes the form of an extensive presentation that volunteers must deliver in front of their entire village and a Peace Corps representative, in Spanish, and if it is not accepted the volunteer is sent home. In South Africa there was no penalty for failure even on our rigged language exams, while in Nicaragua failure means dismissal, which results in nearly everyone studying hard and passing. Where I had only a single visit from a supervisor in two years, in Nicaragua volunteers are visited frequently and closely monitored.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • Texas Aggie on March 06, 2012 9:04 AM:

    As a former PCV, I had a pretty good experience, but since then, I've heard of a lot of cases where things have not gone well. The disappearance of a volunteer in Bolivia is just one where PC did little or nothing to find out what had happened.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on March 06, 2012 9:16 AM:

    Ironically, that sainted reputation may lie at the root of the kinds of failures that 20/20 calls out—namely, the agency’s propensity to be evasive, opaque, or even callous when things go wrong.

    This reminds me of four words: Catholic Church. Penn State.

  • K Wilson on March 06, 2012 10:53 AM:

    I don't know whether what you describe in the article is really endemic, but it certainly reflects things I saw during my time in the Peace Corps (Costa Rica, late '70s). As long as things were going well, the agency was helpful, but its response to problems was often to either ignore them or blame the volunteer for complaining. Ironically, this caused far more trouble for those volunteers who took their work seriously. Many didn't, at least not after trying unsuccessfully to get problems straightened out. Costa Rica is a relatively wealthy and very pleasant country, and it was all too easy to kick back and head for the beach or the bar.

    Normally things go pretty well, and in general the Peace Corps does good work, but I think you make some excellent points.

  • Wally on March 06, 2012 6:01 PM:

    We had some of these whiners in the Peace Corps in Central America in the 80s. Usually, they spared us the whining and "ETed" (short for early termination and departure). Sure we shared complaints but soon most PCVs toughen their hides.

    But sometimes, some publication will give the whiners a forum to resurrect the same old tired complaints about:
    1) inadequate training;
    2) inadequate financial and personal support; and
    3) non responsive or inefficient bureaucatic processes.

    Kind of Army FUBAR on steroids. The vast majority of Peace Corps Volunteers - who stick it out - acknowledge these problems but knew - GOING IN - that this was what they signed up for. This aint't the World Bank with expense accounts for gold plated projects. It is a challenging learning experience, a cross cultural experience and a lesson in becoming a self starter. Lessons that prepare RPCVs to contribute to and often lead domestic and international organizations in later careers.

    But whenever there is a murder or rape, these whiners come out of the woods again. Mind you, not vigorously investigating and pursuing perpetrators of violent crimes against Peace Corps Volunteers is outrageous and the Peace Corps Country Directors responsible should be fired and possibly prosecuted. But those crimes are NOT related to the author's bitch session.

    Sorry Ryan, my assigned counterpart stole from me, challenged me to fisticuffs and claimed I impregnated a neighbor. The government agency I was with had no financial resources, so I raised some money on my own. A former military police neighbor falsely accused me of beating his kid and his ex cronies imprisoned me in a dark hole for two days. And you know what, so what? This is what Peace Corps Volunteers routinely encounter and it makes us tough.

    When I got out of the Peace Corps, I helped indigenous people on two continents fend off illegal loggers and I was a key negotiator pushing the World Bank to establish their first mandatory environmental and public participation procedures. And those things are just run of the mill for many RPCVs who go on to change the world BECAUSE of their difficult Peace Corps experiences.

    And Ryan? He is still complaining about his site.

    Me? Toughest job I ever loved.

  • Wally on March 06, 2012 6:13 PM:

    And for you Equal Opportunity Critic, well, I think Rush Limbaugh compares favorably to you. At least he took the trouble to try to connect the person to the vicious slander. You make no such effort in your connection of those protecting child rapists to anybody or anything in the Peace Corps.

    First, the Peace Corps had nothing to do with the accused rapist and has no role in investigating host country crime - this complaint needed to go through host country law enforcement channels. Second, the PCV herself and Peace Corps staff mishandled her complaint by not making sure it was kept confidential. But most PCVs would know not to trust something so sensitive to host country staff in a clannish society. For example, do the same thing in Alabama and let's see what happens.

    But these tragic missteps have NOTHING to do with the Catholic church protecting child molesters. Now go back to listening to Rush.

  • Carrie Dawson on March 06, 2012 6:36 PM:

    I served as a Peace Corps education volunteer in South Africa just before Ryan. The problems he experienced with his schools (poor teaching, corporal punishment, etc) are endemic to the country and not just his site.

    The point is PCVs aren't sent to countries with happy, working education systems. We are sent to places that need help, which means having to deal with unusual and often very challenging situations. We aren't placed in frat houses, we are placed in rural housing situations where families deal with difficulties that might make them not so happy-go-lucky all the time.

    Ryan accepted such challenging possibilities by taking on his Peace Corps assignment. He should have read all about them when he prepared his application -- or did he really just join the Peace Corps simply to avoid joblessness or to put off paying student loans, as he alluded early in his article?

    Ryan should not have expected his supervisor to read his mind when he said no to a change in living situation ("but I really meant 'yes'"). He should have tried to find more creative solutions to helping students at the school instead of simply giving up and spending more time at other PCV sites. What about after school clubs? Tutoring? Did he try alternative behavior modification efforts to deal with misbehaving students who knew you didn't use corporal punishment?

    Although he claims to have wanted to "give back" to PC by participating in a volunteer training, it seems that Ryan was a bit more self serving. Why not try a more effective method of creating change instead of writing a nasty blog post? What good did that do?

    Sadly, this story just highlights what I consider to the biggest problem in Peace Corps: many of the volunteers are young college graduates who are working a real job for the first time in their lives and because they have been coddled at elite private schools by helicopter parents for 23 years, they do not have the strength for the challenge. Instead of working through it and actually learning and growing from the experience and accepting some of the blame, they just complain.

  • Kristin on March 06, 2012 7:16 PM:

    I think readers are missing a huge point here. Set aside all of Ryan's personal issues he had in his site and what he could have/should have done, Peace Corps did not hold up its end of the deal in finding him a safe, productive site that would actually benefit from a PCV. That should be 100% the first priority of the Peace Corps, the entire program is useless without that first, most simple, step. And speaking from experience (I was in Ryan's group and was his closest neighbor), the PC staff was stretched so thin (limited staff and budget for the # of volunteers) that it was unable to put in the proper amount of work to prepare a host site, as well as properly supporting the volunteer once they were there.

    Of course there are the unprepared volunteers who just complain the whole time (and for the record, Ryan was not one of these, but one of the only ones who sucked it up and dealt with what he was given however he could). I wholly disagree that this is because too many PCVs are recent grads just trying to evade the rough job market. While many of us were fresh out of college, I would say (again from experience based on my group) some of the volunteers who struggled the most in our group were the older, sometimes even retired, PCVs who had too high of expectations for how they were going to make a difference based on their years of experience in the field (which almost never mattered). Of course there were issues with some of the "gen Y" recent grads, but I would say on a whole, the younger volunteers are able to very quickly adapt to their situations and are exceptionally eager.

    In any case, I believe the point of the article is that PC isn't taking a look at how it can really solve problems and improve its programming, and that there is a huge disconnect between the mission of the org and what is actually happening on the ground. I wholeheartedly agree that PC needs to take major steps to improve the quality of service across the board, as opposed to increasing the number of PCVs.

  • Sarah Mattingly on March 06, 2012 7:46 PM:

    I was a volunteer in South Africa from 2006-08. I was 64 when I went, hardly a fresh, wet-behind-the-ears graduate of an elite private school with helicopter parents. How snide! My experience, though with NGO's, not the pitiful education system, was much like Ryan's. I had to go to Botswana to purchase Setswana language materials as we had been given NONE; rather we had a series of three instructors during our training, each with her own unique way of utilizing an easel and paper pad. As an older volunteer, learning Setswana was extremely difficult for me, especially with the dismal state of the training. And then I was sent to an urban area where most everyone spoke English and I had little to no opportunity to use Setswana on an ongoing basis. I mention this only because my lack of language skills became an issue later.

    But, still, for nearly two years I lived in my little bubble, ignoring or forgiving Peace Corps and offering emotional support to as many volunteers as I could. I overlooked all the shortcomings of my site and really loved being there. However, when a difficulty arose with my NGO's manager, I was verbally attacked by my APCDs for my "American" ways and lack of language skills and left a month later, having fulfilled my commitment, bitter and angry. I am disappointed and angry to this day when I think about my experience.

    I went with a full arsenal of skills, which would clearly have been best utilized in a new, developing NGO. This I made clear in all my writing and interviews. I was sent to a international NGO and had nothing to do but data entry. It got worse, but that tells enough about my experience for you to get the idea. Everything about Peace Corps South Africa was a mess, in my experience. Most volunteers with whom I've spoken agree that we shouldn't even BE in South Africa.

    I met, worked with and maintain friendships with several South Africans, who call me Soul Mom. The South Africans weren't, with notable exceptions, the problem. The problem for me was the total lack of support from the Peace Corps, itself.

    Ryan, I wish I'd known you in South Africa. Your experience mirrors that of most of the volunteers I knew there. Great article and it moved me to my first writing about my experience.

  • Karen Kaye on March 06, 2012 10:00 PM:

    What Sarah said! And count me in total agreement with "everything in Peace Corps South Africa was a mess" and as one of "the volunteers that agree we shouldn't even BE in South Africa." Wally and Carrie?? Eish!

    Ryan, carry on!

  • Zinto on March 07, 2012 1:10 AM:

    As a South African RPCV in the same time frame as Ryan, I would disagree with the above sentiments that PC should not even be in South Africa. South Africa has one of the highest HIV rates on the planet coupled with one of the most dysfunctional education systems - there are tons of opportunities to properly utilize a volunteer's skills (weather it be Americans or South African's themselves which is a whole different discussion). The difficulty arises in what Ryan (and so many PCV experience) - that much of training and placement feels random; some get amazing opportunities while others are assigned placements which are stacked against them solely because Peace Corps staff did not/could not/would not spend the time to prepare and place volunteers or address serious issues.

    I absolutely loved my time in Peace Corps and I loved living and working along side my neighbors. Yes it was hard, damn hard, yes it was a sink or swim trial by fire. Most of my frustration however came from Peace Corps itself and I wish I learned faster what outgoing PCVs told me when I was new: 'Don't let Peace Corps ruin your Peace Corps'. Efforts to improve training/placement/addressing issues by PCVs were so often doomed to failure from the start due to apathy on staff's part that many learn simply to smile and nod, then promptly ignore Peace Corps as much as possible and do the best one can without the guidance.

    Look at all you accomplished and learned, and then imagine what could have been with even only marginally better preparation/oversight. Heck one might even learn to become 'hard' without being kidnapped for two days in Central America! A race to the bottom with PCVs experiences is counterproductive - we all have our horror stories but our host countries are better served by reducing them.

  • PQuincy on March 07, 2012 9:03 AM:

    Great parody, there, from Wally! I bet he used to walk 18 miles in the snow to kindergarten, too!

    The author may be whiny, but that does not make the underlying point less valid: _particularly_ when dealing with institutionally erratic situations, good management (not heroic toughness) are exactly the quality the PC should insist on. What exactly is there to defend about a PC language-training program in which the assessment process was faked -- not to benefit the trainees, but to protect the _trainers_, who were PC employees?

  • RPCV on March 07, 2012 1:32 PM:

    I had an excellent service, with little to no thanks to my country office. My initial site placement involved an apartment that was shared by a total stranger, with half of it filled with the landlord's belongings, in a town 30 min away from my actual site. That took 3 months to resolve. My roommate was assaulted and nothing was done until the US ambassador intervened. Many other volunteers had issues ranging from attempted sexual assault to ineffective counterparts. Most things weren't so bad that none of us couldn't tough it out, but everything could have been prevented. Cooper is right - most country offices can skate by with the bare minimum.

    I loved my service and continue to recommend it to others, but there is so much to be done.

  • K Wilson on March 07, 2012 5:28 PM:

    "We had some of these whiners in the Peace Corps in Central America in the 80s . . "

    Yes, we did too; whiners are always with us. We also had our share of macho types who thought pointing out a real problem with the system and trying to correct it was "whining", and that the way to deal with any problem was to sit down, shut up, and "toughen your hide". I sometimes wondered why they didn't just go join the Marines, which seemed more their style.

    Some systemic problems are real, some criticisms are legitimate, and tying to improve the system so that volunteers can do their jobs better is not always "whining".

  • Cheryl Frances on March 07, 2012 8:33 PM:

    As RPCVs, my husband & I concur with Mr. Cooper's viewpoint and applaud his decision to go public with his concerns. We too experienced similar situations during our service (2007-09); and, for those who may categorize us, along with Mr. Cooper, as "whiners", please see peacecorpsonline.org/messages/documents/ludlamhirschoffplan.doc for volunteer affidavits 28 different countries. The movement to reform Peace Corps is based on a desire to create an agency that lives up to its goals, properly cares for the well-being of volunteers, and uses citizens' tax dollars wisely.

  • Mellie on March 08, 2012 12:59 PM:

    Wait, so your supervisor said you could switch sites and you said no. How is this Peace Corps' fault?

    The school was fraught with problems? You wanted to do Peace Corps in an easy setting?

  • Wally on March 08, 2012 7:34 PM:

    "The problem for me was the total lack of support from the Peace Corps, itself."

    This quote sums up what Ryan and his buddies here are saying. And guess what? It's. Called. Complaining. You people are complaining about an institutional characteristic that is intrinsic and well known - what was so different about a small group of you who had high expectations for support from the 10s of THOUSANDS of us who had low and accurate expectations of support?

    @PQ - Nice try to twist my post to claim that I, like Ryan, was whining about my experience. Read my post again. You conveniently skipped the part where I said that these challenging things happened to me but; "And you know what, so what?"

    @ KWilson. That is the funny part about making claims about people you don't know - you might disprove your own point. During my service in Peace Corps, another volunteer and I introduced an environmental impact assessment (EIA) system so that PCV projects (e.g. construction projects like bridges) didn't unintentionally harm the local environment. After Close of Service , I was in D.C. and instead of public teeth gnashing in a column, I worked with PC to integrate this EIA process into all PC training.

    So read my post again: it said nothing about not doing anything about REAL problems; it said that this lack of support scenario is well know and vital part of the Peace Corps experience. Those who deal with the challenges in PC and learn from them actually go on to fix more important REAL WORLD problems.

    Bad trainers can be a problem but perhaps, in you people's case, the problem was bad recruiters.

  • Wally on March 08, 2012 7:43 PM:

    Oh, and Washington Monthly? Thanks for the insipid and banal image of a Peace Corps volunteer with the guitar and smiley face.

    This may be a generational humor thing, but in my view it is stereotyping Peace Corps volunteers as naive do- gooders. While I may not agree with Ryan and his two friends here, my guess is they, like other PCVs who stuck it out, were not naive do-gooders.

  • wanda wood on March 08, 2012 10:42 PM:

    I so agree with this article, I feel I could have written it myself. I served as an older volunteer in South Africa between 2007-2009 and found most of the same things. I saw rapes being hushed up, volunteers being mugged regularly, and sites were so badly assigned and followed up on that it was literally as if there was no support and no concern once you were there. All in all I served about 4 years with PC, but feel totally jaded by them at this point. In no location did I find the supervision team involved, nor did I find them responsive to particular need. It was always the volunteer who was at fault.

  • Sa24er on March 09, 2012 3:11 PM:

    I'm a current education volunteer in South Africa in the same region as Ryan. My experience so far has been fairly rewarding, I'm teaching English at a primary school and am working with kids after school.

    Pre service training covered a lot, my language teacher did her best to teach me Setswana and I passed the language proficiency interview as advanced. It's my job to continue working on learning the language. Any time we had a suggestion for improvement during our training, we saw changes almost immediately. Sa26 will be receiving much more thorough training in teaching English as a Second Language.

    The safety and security officer here is amazing, he responds quickly and is proactive in warning us about potential pitfalls and dangers. As for site placement, sometimes sites do not work out, it's the responsibility of the pcv to let the apcd know when things aren't working out. There have been a few volunteers in our group who have had to change sites for one reason or another but they're genuinely happy about where they are and the work that they are doing. One major lesson we learned during training is that the quality of our peace corps experience, depends on what we choose to do. It has a lot to do with attitude and being proactive.

    One major improvement since Ryan's group cosed is that we have a wonderful Peace Corps Volunteer Leader who has been supporting us as we are adjusting to teaching in the South African education system.

    There are still improvements that can be made in the Peace Corps agency but its important to remember that it is run by people and that they genuinely are doing the best they can with the resources they have. Much the same way volunteers have to work with what they have. If you're trying to improve the Peace Corps, as a current volunteer, thank you. But just so you know, change takes time and our current group is benefitting from the lessons learned during your time as a pcv.

  • K Wilson on March 09, 2012 3:32 PM:

    @wally - " . . . it said nothing about not doing anything about REAL problems; it said that this lack of support scenario is well known and vital part of the Peace Corps experience."

    And right here you demonstrate my point. Yes, lack of support is a well-known condition. It is, however, no less of a problem for being well-known. In many cases it prevents volunteers from being as effective as they might otherwise be. Most volunteers manage to do good work nonetheless, but pointing out that the problem exists is not "whining".

    Claiming that an organizational problem which makes PCVs less effective is a "vital part of the Peace Corps experience" is nonsense. It's not. It's just a screwup, poorly done work, and helps no one. This is exactly the sort of macho posturing of which I was speaking.

  • Wally on March 12, 2012 6:27 PM:

    @K Wilson.

    You don't seem to get it what almost all PCVs understand; you were NOT a development professional. You were NOT someone who was paid as any kind of professional, like World Bank, AID, CARE or the WHO would pay real professionals in the field.

    No, you, like all PCVs, were VOLUNTEERS. Get it? Volunteers. AKA rookies, non-professionals. And thus, your claims of having some kind of potential to be "effective" as a PCV are just fantasy. If, IF you were effective in Peace Corps, it was because you showed a outstanding entreprenurial and organizational skills. But like most PCVs, you didn't. And that is how Peace Corps operates.

    But unlike me and the vast majority of PCVs, your small group of complaining South Africa RPCVs didn't seem to understand that you were getting something: real world subsidized opportunities to learn entreprenurial, language and organizational skills. And why did you get this government subsidized training in international development skills? Because you DIDN'T have them when you went in. It appears that you still don't.

    But this thread has stimulated me to action. I am going to urge PC that they close the South Africa Peace Corps mission. Not because SA does not need help but because it seems to get nothing but PCVs who feel entitled to be treated as professionals, even though they are not.

  • Rob on March 13, 2012 1:52 AM:

    Wally, quit digging.

    In my group of twenty PCT's the average age was 46, and nearly every person had at least one master's degree or a PhD. We got sworn in as PCV's, aka VOLUNTEERS, which doesn't mean rookies or non-professionals.

    Cut the bluster, Wally. You're talking smack, insulting others, and trying to portray yourself as a hard-ass and top performer. Instead, you come across as a jerk, who is fear-biting constructive contributors.

    Ryan: the budget issue you mentioned in passing may very well be a root cause of many of the problems you describe: when the county's budget get's zeroed-out, the staff cannot travel. Visiting the northernmost PCV and southernmost PCV in Costa Rica can easily be done in a day. Not so in many countries, where it is a full-day's drive to get to a single site. And barring a direct emergency, that travel gets cancelled when there's budget stress, (at least it did where I served).

    I've heard that in some countries the local government demands PC staff their offices with friends of the administration in power. These are the worst staffs in the world. My personal choice would be that PC close the post rather than support such corruption, but we all know that the real damage will be to those who could have received life-changing influence by a PCV, and didn't. That's not fair. Even unhappy PCV's can change people's lives in profound positive ways.

  • Wally on March 13, 2012 9:23 PM:

    @Rob. And good morning to you, my fellow RPCV. Now, I don't recall spieling such bluster as you accuse me of, claiming oh, for example that K Wilson or Ryan "talked smack" or "insulted" people or made "fear biting" comments (whatever that is...) Yet according to you, it is I who am a "jerk." Interesting projection Rob.

    And your post AGAIN proves my point. Let's compare my post to yours. Me - I was not a development professional and had no experience in international development (despite a graduate degree) and I said I got no support. For me, though, like most PCVs, the lack of support not only didn't cause me to complain years later but it helped me become a tougher person.

    You - You also were not a development professional and had no experience in international development but BECAUSE you had a graduate degree from an AMERICAN university in well, something, you believed you had some kind of status in the third world and should be given some kind of financial or human resources support.

    So, there it is. You had no reason to feel entitled but like Ryan, you did feel entitled. And when someone like me points out that most RPCVs understood the lack of support and that only the minority, like you, that have a displaced sense of entitlement, you respond with vitriolic insults to another RPCV, me.

    My comments stand. While I think Ryan was well intentioned, I don't think people like Ryan or you made good volunteers. I didn't think it then and you are confirming why. You felt entitled and needed to blame someone for not getting some kind of accomplishment or affirmation of your value when in the Peace Corps. That is not what Peace Corps is about. Sorry you missed the point.

  • Anonymous on March 13, 2012 9:26 PM:

    @ Rob.

    In regard to your attempt to critique the entire management and staff of the Peace Corps, you say, "I've heard that in some countries PC staffs its offices with friends..."

    Wait, you "heard" that? So you heard some nonsense and write an entire post slandering all of Peace Corps ("corruption")? Why is what you say nonsense? Because PC eliminated politically appointed Country Directors THIRTY years ago. Every company hires people based on personal connections.

    Weird post.

  • Ryan Cooper (@RyanLouisCooper) on March 19, 2012 7:22 PM:

    I'm pleased to see this article got enough attention to get a good old flame war going. I'm particularly pleased to see someone from SA24 here saying things have improved. As I said in the piece, I think the Peace Corps is a good organization and well worth improving. Nothing would make me happier than to see the South Africa post get better.

    As to Wally, I'm happy that you had a good experience, and that you have derived an extremely high self-regard from it, but it is puzzling to me how this bears on my critique. Surely you concede that volunteers should not be placed in taverns? Or that the Peace Corps should follow its own rules? You seem to think that the more dysfunctional the organization, the better, so it can toughen people up. (Except for the whiners, of course.)

    Moving beyond the insults, one thing that didn't make it into my article was that there has been a secular decline in the reported satisfaction of volunteers. In the 80s, eight percent of volunteers called their experience "frustrating," while in the 00s 19 percent said so. Young people are getting soft, no doubt. Now we're into Charles Murray territory.

    Wally's brand of Peace Corps fanboy sloganeering is exactly the kind of thing that almost got Charlie Peters canned back in the day. Organizations don't like having their flaws pointed out and react like cornered cats when it happens, arching their backs and hissing. It's part of what makes real oversight so hard. Thanks Wally, for inadvertently demonstrating my point.

  • Anthony Watkins on March 20, 2012 7:40 PM:

    If the PC doesn't want its flaws pointed out, they'll be furious when they read the recent report Peace Corps: the Icon and the Reality.

  • Wally on March 21, 2012 10:07 PM:

    @Ryan: Seems like you took a long time to come up with your quite clever retorts.

    "And you gained extremely high self-regard from it ... " You would rather I be a public self esteem case, like you perhaps? Again, is this some kind of generation thing? My Dad - a WWII veteran never complained about anything. Boomers complain and act. You guys gnash your teeth.

    "Surely you concede that volunteers should not be placed in taverns?" Nice strawman. Who said I wanted PCVs placed in taverns? And what has that got to do with the price of tea in China?

    "Or that the Peace Corps should follow its own rules?" Strawman #2. Who said PC should not follow its rules? Ohhh, you are claiming I did. Do you mean when I said any PC Director that does not vigorously pursue crimes against PCVs should be fired and possibly prosecuted? Yeah, um, sure, that means just what you said.

    In any case, are you referring to some set of internal PC bureaucratic guidelines? Should PC APCDs in the field have discretion on how to implement them? Of course.

    "You seem to think that the more dysfunctional the organization, the better, so it can toughen people up. (Except for the whiners, of course.)"

    Strawman #3! I never said that either, nor implied it. What I said was that PC provided you a fantastic and unique opportunity to learn self starter skills and become tougher mentally. Not only did you fail to take advantage of that opportunity, you are ungrateful about it. PC spent about $100,000 of taxpayer money on you. ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS. And you think that is not good enough? So, let's recap, the taxpayer gave you good training, good health care, transportation, and insurance with some limited technical support. And you are still complaining years later about your $100,000 training program?

    "Moving beyond the insults" ... "Wally's brand of Peace Corps fanboy sloganeering"

    What are you Sean Hannity? Do you get to claim you are moving beyond insults and then in the next paragraph direct a catchy but infantile insult to a commenter who challenges you? Is Washington Monthly trying to compete with Fox?

    "Organizations don't like having their flaws pointed out and react like cornered cats when it happens, arching their backs and hissing. It's part of what makes real oversight so hard. Thanks Wally, for inadvertently demonstrating my point."

    Wow, talking about Hubris. Well, if wasn't for Ryan, we would all be screwed cause he is "the Man" who is brave enough to challenge the great mighty Peace Corps. Oh, wait. Peace Corps is not great and mighty. It is a forgotten little agency on a shoe string budget, works in awful circumstances and as a result, screws up a lot. It also has a lot of administrators that are resistant to change. So? What else is new. Why don't you do something about the important Peace Corps challenges besides gripe? I actually did - as I mentioned above. If you think that makes me boastful fine. I would rather enact change and boast than just complain and commiserate with other complainers.

    But the bigger picture that you and your fellow SA gripers miss is that PC has a central policy that is not transparent but becomes obvious when you look at their budget and mission. Most PCVs get it pretty quickly in their 2 years but you still don't get it, Virginia. So here is for you: There is no 3rd goal. Peace Corps is not an international development organization. It is a cross cultural and training organization. The super volunteers - basically on their own - do get some things done. But 90% of PCVs figure out soon that it is not a development organization and then logically figure out, "And hey, I am not a development professional anyway." So, most appreciate the $100,000 spent on them, take advantage of a fantastic opportunity to learn real world skills, travel, learn a language, and experience camraderie and other

  • Anonymous on March 22, 2012 8:18 AM:

    @Ryan Cooper,

    My objection to your article is that it was badly researched. Three facts you either did not know or, worse, chose to leave out.
    1) Legislation was passed and signed in November of 2011 by the President mandating Peace Corps take measures to protect serving Volunteers from violence and insuring that victims of sexual assault receive "best practices" in treatment and support. If a serving Volunteer notifies the CD that they do not feel safe in their site and want a transfer, the CD is OBLIGATED to transfer the Volunteer. The law also expands the ability of the Inspector General to investigate. There is a hotline posted on the Peace Corps website. You should use it to report to the IG your concerns about how language testing was done.
    Back in 2007, there was legislation proposed that would have done all of this and also called for an independent Ombudsman for Volunteers. It died in Congress because the then Peace Corps administration, reportedly, did not support it. The current administration headed by RPCV Aaron Williams actively supported the 2011 law, known as the "Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011."
    2) Which brings me to my second point, there is no monolithic, decades old bureaucracy at Peace Corps. The top 30 decision-making positions are all political appointees. The Bush appointees all resigned the day that Obama was inaugurated, January 2009. Williams was not sworn in until August of 2009.
    A real vacuum exists in administrative leadership during these times of political transition. This fact is complicated because agency civil service employees can only work for Peace Corps for five years. So, in addition, to the political appointees, there is always administrative and management staff in flux. The HCN in-country staff is not restricted to five years.
    3) The Agency Assessment Report you cited was not done by an "Evaluation Division." It was done by a six member team, five of whom were RPCVs (Returned PEace Corps Volunteers) and I believe that all of them had agency staff experience.

    Now for my opinions:
    1) I served during the time of Peters Evaluation Unit. My group was one of the ones evaluated. The evaluator visited my site and asked me how things were going. I was working with desperately poor women who had many medical needs and wanted to keep their babies from dying. There were little or no medical resources available, nor had we been giving any clinical training. After I explained all of this, emphasizing our lack of skills, the evaluator said that overpopulation was a real problem and so perhaps we shouldn't be concerned with reducing infant mortality. So, Ryan, I don't hero worship the evaluators from 50 years ago. But, I do like the Washington Monthly and hope that you are encouraged, as their intern, to fact check.

    2) Now, here is another opinion with which you might agree. Peace Corps Volunteers are adult US citizens who are NOT employees of the agency and do not have the protection of personal service contracts. Basically, PCVs are private citizens in a legal situation that resembles middle school more than anything else. If people are treated like children, sometimes they react like children.


  • Sally Boden on March 25, 2012 3:42 PM:

    ryan, I enjoyed reading your honest, insightful comments about the Peace Corp and your experience as a volunteer.
    I am proud of the way you tried to improve things by helping with the training of new volunteers. I am proud of the way you helped at a neighboring elementary school's computer lab when there wasn't work to do at your school.
    Accountability is important at all schools! Leadership is basic if children are to learn in that school.
    Concise, clear writing! A+

  • JoanneinDenver on March 26, 2012 9:41 AM:

    @Sally and Ryan,

    Every person who served has the right to describe that experience in their own words. But Ryan Cooper is not just describing his own experience, he is attempting to described the entire Peace Corps operations, both at PC/W and overseas. He fails in the latter because he did not research his subject.

    Peace Corps is too important to be defined by an article that reads like a high school term paper. Cooper has to be accountable. It is not fair to all of us who have served and it not fair to currently serving Volunteers and to potential Volunteers to do a sloppy job in describing the very complicated operations of Peace Corps. Most importantly, it makes it very difficult to begin real discussions of what the problems are and how to improve the Peace Corps if people are not all dealing with the same set of facts.

  • Just a taxpayer on March 27, 2012 1:43 AM:

    As someone who never, ever considered joining the Peace Corps OR the Marines, I simply note that almost all Peace Corps volunteers chatter about their experiences almost exclusively in terms of whether it was fulfilling, satisfying, frustrating, disappointing for them. I have never seen any evidence that the Peace Corps actually does much good in the places where volunteers are deployed. The Peace Corps was created in the 1960s at the height (or depths) of the Cold War largely to promote "the American Way of Life" around the world and fight the propaganda war against the Red hordes. I hope we can agree that the world has changed in the last half-century. The modern model for effective foreign assistance has come from private organizations that focus business skills on solving specific problems: the Gates foundation's programs to fight HIV and malaria are sterling examples. So why do we still have the Peace Corps, other than to give fresh young college grads a place to punch a ticket on their way to graduate school? If the PC was abolished and its $375 million dollars a year was paid out directly to support local programs that dig water wells, deliver mosquito nets and malaria medication, promote safer sex practices etc., with suitable controls against corruption, would more people in more places be better off than now? My suspicion is that the answer is "yes." But we're not going to hear about it from anybody who is or ever was associated with the Peace Corps.

  • Just a taxpayer on March 27, 2012 10:08 AM:

    "..... Peace Corps is not an international development organization. It is a cross cultural and training organization. The super volunteers - basically on their own - do get some things done. Most appreciate the $100,000 spent on them, take advantage of a fantastic opportunity to learn real world skills, travel, learn a language, and experience camraderie ...."

    If this is really the case, maybe the government should be charging for the experience. Volunteers could just add the tuition to their college loans. But I can imagine better uses for my tax dollars than "experiencing camaraderie," and better ways to help the desperately needy in the Third World.

  • JoanneinDenver on March 27, 2012 2:13 PM:

    @Just a taxpayer.
    I am a returned Peace Corps Volunteer or RPCV and I absolutely support your demand for accountability. But first, some ground rules. You are mistaken about the reason for the creation of the Peace Corps when you state it was to "promote "the American Way of Life" around the world and fight the propaganda war against the Red hordes." That's crazy. There were (are) US agencies that do just that, such as the Voice of America; United States Information Agency. President Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961 to promote world peace and friendship through three goals: helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

    The first goal to help meet the need for trained men and women has been the
    most difficult. Volunteers are not paid and so finding qualified men and women to serve for two years without pay, only a subsistence allowance, has proved
    difficult through the last fifty years. Also, Volunteers are working cross-culturally and what works in our culture does not necessarily work in another. Also, the infrastructure necessary for modern technology to be effective may not be present in the Third World.

    But, JaT, the activities you list –digging water well, promoting safer sex practices, etc., is actually what Peace Corps has been training host country nationals to do for fifty years. The problem is that a complete record of what has been done and what worked and what did not is not available, because it was never maintained.
    The Peace Corps Library at the Washington agency was closed ten years ago and much documentation lost. So it is very difficult to provide the kind of answers to which you, me, Ryan Cooper, and everyone else is entitled.

    One measure of Peace Corps success, however, is that countries continue to request Peace Corps help. Currently, Peace Corps can not fulfill all the requests.
    In terms of funding, you should know that the administrative cost of Peace Corps also includes paying for a in-country program administration that employs the citizens of that country. Also because Peace Corps Washington has a five year limit on employment with the agency, there are extraordinary costs for replacement and training to cope with the staff turnover.

    I think, JaT, that you pose good questions. But, you go on to answer them without even checking out the information that is available, which is the problem I have with Ryan Cooper and his article.

  • Just a taxpayer... on March 27, 2012 6:40 PM:

    "..... countries continue to request Peace Corps help..... the administrative cost of Peace Corps also includes paying for a in-country program administration that employs the citizens of that country....."

    So the Peace Corps puts locals on the payroll. It's no surprise that countries would want to maintain that arrangement. I wonder who gets hired for those jobs and how effective they are at delivering services. From other accounts, it sounds like the in-country local administrators are a big part of the PC's systemic problems.

    "..... Also because Peace Corps Washington has a five year limit on employment with the agency, there are extraordinary costs for replacement and training to cope with the staff turnover...."

    That's just plain stupid. That pretty much guarantees that the PC will be always run by politically connected amateurs who will keep trying to reinvent the wheel without access to any institutional memory. I can't think of too many industries that don't value experience. Imagine what the military, the State Dept., big universities and major corporations would be like if nobody could work there longer than five years. Like I said, the PC is just a ticket to punch on the way to somewhere else. Sounds like one more reason to dump the whole thing and just send money to people who can use it better.

  • JoanneinDenver on March 27, 2012 10:55 PM:

    What you are saying is legitimate. There is very little that I know about the
    administration overseas. The top positions are held by US citizens who do compete for the jobs. Director Williams is talking about improving support and training to Host Country Nationals. However, remember, that Peace Corps is committed to working cross culturally and the people who are best suited to help manage that are the citizens who live in that culture. This is the prime area in which Volunteers are different from their NGO/US government counterparts. Volunteers live at the level of the people with whom they are working and agree to be supervised by host country nationals, in some situations.

    The Five Year Rule developed out of a very sound proposal from a cultural anthropologist who worked for Peace Corps in 1961, Dr. Robert Textor. He proposed a limit of eight years employment; however, this was designed to allow Volunteers, who successfully completed their service in country, who knew that country and the programs, to bring that knowledge back to Washington and work in the Peace Corps agency. The idea was designed to ensure that new ideas and new information, based on the actual field work, was flowing into Washington to keep it from becoming a hide bound bureaucracy. It also guaranteed that they would be the carriers of the “institutional memory.” The problem is that the part about keeping positions open for Returning Volunteers and guaranteeing that people who had proved that they could work, successfully, in Peace Corps programs overseas, was left out of the legislation. You are absolutely right that the agency is loaded with well meaning "ticket punchers" and political appointees. There are those of us who are working to change that.

    I think that Peace Corps Volunteers have done much good. I think the potential of the agency has never been reached. Other than that, I find myself in agreement with many of your observations. You are, of course, entitled to your opinions.

  • Older than water on March 27, 2012 11:14 PM:

    Ryan, it is depressing beyond words to hear that the problems you encountered - particularly the lack of appropriate language and cultural training - persist in today's Peace Corps. These were exactly the problems observed when, in the late sixties and early seventies, I was conducting research in Africa. Every time a group of these sweet, well-meaning kids passed through the area where I was working, relations with the locals deteriorated drastically. The kids thought they spoke the language, and they didn't. The kids thought that just by virtue of being American, they knew how to solve African problems. And a certain proportion of the kids had no sense about things like showing up barefoot to teach school, strolling down the main market area in a bikini, trying to make dates with the local girls...

    The programs can't all have been as slapdash and haphazard as that; I'm sure there was good work being done in some other locales. But where I was, (and for several hunded miles around) researchers greeted the news of a new bevy of Peace Corps Volunteers with fear and trembling and a desperate dash to collect the rest of our data before the locals met this new kind of American and slammed their doors on all of us.

  • JoanneinDenver on March 28, 2012 6:46 AM:

    The most important groups within the Peace Corps were the Volunteers and the
    people with whom they worked. Charlie Peters' evaluators talked to both groups, but did not focus on their opinions. The reports that were generated did not circulate to Host Country Nationals, the people with whom Volunteers worked or the Volunteers themselves.

    I think the failure to get adequate and ongoing feedback from the field, to respect what was being said, and to act on it, is the single most important failure of the Peace Corps. I also think that the profession least represented in the Peace Corps staff and most needed was Anthropology. But to be fair, Anthropologists have their own set of ethics. The presence of Volunteers would change the cultural environment and could impact negatively the data that was being collected. Also, back in the day, I remember that most Anthropologists did not believe in "intervention" and so the very fact of Peace Corps was contrary to that belief.

    I have a question. Did you ever report this behavior to American officials in the country in which you were? Did you ever report this behavior to your Congressional delegation? My criticism of Cooper is not his description of his own service or his own frustration with Peace Corps administration, but his failure to more accurately describe how the agency works. He also failed to describe the reforms created by the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Act of 2011 that addressed safety and security issues and gave the Inspector General of the Peace Corps increased power to investigate all kinds of problems. If he has not reported already the problem with language training to that office, he should.

    It was very hard for me as a Returned Volunteer to read your comments. I do not for a moment question their validity. It was important for you to write what you did. Thank you.

  • Just a taxpayer.... on March 28, 2012 11:45 AM:

    "..... The Five Year Rule developed out of a very sound proposal from a cultural anthropologist who worked for Peace Corps in 1961, Dr. Robert Textor....."

    "Sound proposal?" Another example of how the PC was built on a flawed fantasy and is obsolete today. A cultural anthropologist is an academic researcher, not an administrator or a technical expert. Someone with experience in the Civil Service or private industry -- or really anyplace in the real world -- should have been able to squash an idea like that. Would you limit your choice of doctors to people who had been out of medical school less than five years? The people running the PC should be a source of stability and wisdom, not turmoil and confusion. A rule like this guarantees that Peace Corps service cannot be a career, only a way station, and the people associated with it are always on a route to someplace else. And modern communications and transportation should make feedback instantaneous. Volunteers should be able to report observations, problems, needs -- and success stories -- to headquarters pretty much in real-time, and headquarters should be equipped to send somebody with authority to any outpost in the world within 24 hours as needed. Actual crimes should be reported to law enforcement immediately, and when local law enforcement is itself the problem maybe the PC should leave the country. The PC continues to look like its primary function is to make do-gooders feel good. It's time to shut it down.

  • Just a taxpayer... on March 28, 2012 11:50 AM:

    Addendum to above:

    Here is what Robert Textor says about himself:

    "I am a Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Stanford. I joined the Stanford faculty in 1964 and took early retirement in 1990....."

    I guess he didn't think the five-year rule was such a great idea after all.

  • JoanneinDenver on March 28, 2012 1:49 PM:

    Well, "Just a Taxpayer," for someone who has never been in the marines or even considered it, you are quite dogmatic. And, for someone who has never, ever, even considered the Peace Corps, you have the ability to richly imagine a world that never was! First, here is the link to the memo Dr. Textor wrote about his recommendations for staffing the Peace Corps agency: http://www.stanford.edu/~rbtextor/History_of_In_Up_Out_Policy.pdf

    Part of the impetus for Peace Corps back in the 60s was to create a program that would not duplicate existing programs and would attempt to avoid the problems of those programs. The book, "The Ugly American" (who was a good American) described well those problems. So the idea was to create something new and to work as directly as possible with poor people in the Third World and to live as closely as possible at the economic and social level in which they were living.

    You fantasize about a civil service loaded with technical experts who would know how to do all of that. Such a world did not exist. So, there was trial and error and trying to learn from mistakes and getting the best cross cultural advise possible. That is why Dr. Robert Textor was a consultant to the new Peace Corps.

    You are the idealist and your comments are loaded with "shoulds." I don't question your suggestions...but translating "shoulds" into action is very difficult. Ask any Peace Corps Volunteer.

  • Anonymous on March 30, 2012 1:25 PM:

    What's up with the picture? The photograph is as false as much of your article.

  • Wally on April 04, 2012 8:50 PM:

    @ Just a Taxpayer. Eureka! One of the reasons Peace Corps was founded was to remedy a geopolitical reality that has stymied U.S. interests in the rest of the world. That reality is that most Americans, despite high incomes and even high educational levels are extremely culturally close minded. One reason for this is geography - we have few neighbors. But more than that, the American cultural focus has traditionally been internal, as documented by many visitors such as de Toqueville.

    Close minded, dogmatic thinking Americans with no experience and more importantly - NO INTEREST in cutlural differences are what Peace Corps was founded to remedy. "Never consider" joining any national or armed service organization. When crimes happen, "Peace Corps should leave the country immediately." "Like I said, the PC is just a ticket to punch on the way to somewhere else."

    All of these statements and many more indicate a mind that is not open to cultural differences, the value in education and the challenges of managing an underfunded institution with difficult mission. Indeed, your - 'just give the poor guy the damn money' represents the classic short sighted view that giving someone a fish is better than showing him how to build a fishing pole.

    PC's budget is scrawny but thankfully it exists so that some understanding can be taken back to other Americans so that the views of cock-sure people with no experience or cultural understanding outside this country are countered.

  • Wally on April 04, 2012 9:38 PM:

    @Washington Monthly. Well, Joanne has indeed proven what I thought to be the case. The lead ins about the attacks on PCVs were addressed by legislation well before your intern wrote this complaint, er article.

    Thank you Washington Monthly for letting someone inaccurately exploit a serious issue to provide a platform for a handful of RPCVs to kvetch about not getting more money to do their work.

  • Francesco Sinibaldi on April 06, 2012 9:53 AM:

    The first singing.

    the soft wind
    becomes an
    that calls
    the desire of
    an inner

    Francesco Sinibaldi

  • Herman Munster on April 09, 2012 7:38 PM:

    Thanks, Franc!

  • Anonymous on April 18, 2012 9:49 AM:

    "First, the Peace Corps had nothing to do with the accused rapist and has no role in investigating host country crime - this complaint needed to go through host country law enforcement channels. Second, the PCV herself and Peace Corps staff mishandled her complaint by not making sure it was kept confidential. But most PCVs would know not to trust something so sensitive to host country staff in a clannish society. For example, do the same thing in Alabama and let's see what happens. "

    @Wally the Peace Corps employee was actually fired for having inappropriate relationships with peace corps trainees, which is absolutely grounds for his termination as a peace corps employee. Kate Puzey reported him for that because she was disgusted that he was also raping 12 year old girls in her village. Maybe you should get your facts straight before you criticize a murdered Peace Corps Volunteer.

  • anoni on April 18, 2012 7:26 PM:

    Benin has/had strict policy stating no sleeping outside

    she was murdered while she was sleeping outside on her porch.

    PC has very strict, obvious rules.
    The missing PC in Bolivia, I heard PC asked him to stay at HQ and he left on his free will.

  • Anonymous on April 18, 2012 8:58 PM:

    @anoni Peace Corps Benin does not have a strict no sleeping outside policy. They recommended that you do not sleep outside but that is not the same thing.

  • JoanneinDenver on April 19, 2012 6:55 PM:


    "The missing PC in Bolivia, I heard PC asked him to stay at HQ and he left on his free will."

    Where do you get this stuff? Who knew we would be back playing the "blame the victim" game.

    Name your sources.

  • Wally on April 23, 2012 9:11 PM:

    @Anonymous; Nothing wrong with my facts. I did not say the PCV should not have reported the guy. I SAID that it was unwise to not insure that her complaints were confidential. Are you that confused that you don't get that a perfectly good person meaning to do good can do something unwise in a difficult situation, thereby putting herself at risk? (That is what good samaritan laws are about.) PC violence prevention training in many countries was inadequate and Benin looks like one of them as Ms. Puzey should have been informed of and taken a different path in reporting the guy.

    I also SAID that any PC manager who covered up or did not pursue perpetrators of violence against a PCV should be pursued legally. Previous to 2009, this was rarely done. One reason is that no law covered it. Now, thanks to many RPCVs and Buzey's family a law WAS passed. So this has been ADDRESSED by legislation. And despite this issue being addressed Ryan used it anyway as an excuse for his kvetching.


  • JoanneinDenver on April 24, 2012 9:21 AM:

    Way to Go, Wally!

    My biggest criticism of Cooper is that he did not do his research and did not report on the critically important Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011. That legislation, as you state, addressed the very problems Cooper complained about.

    Ironically, the opposition to the passage of that law, did not come from PC/Washington staff, as Cooper insinuated might happen if improvements were proposed. Rather, it was the "old hands" and others in the RPCV and Staff community, who did not want the Peace Corps image of their wistful memories
    tarnished. Plus, maybe they were trying to sell books.

  • Wally on April 25, 2012 8:02 PM:

    Joanne, You were the one the put the finger on Ryan's exploitive premise.

    That said, I was, for a long time, like that latter group of RPCV's who were dubious about the need for change in procedures in the Peace Corps. This was until I met an RPCV, who served in Central Africa, who was raped. She was an early advocate on this issue and I was dubious that the problem was widespread. She set me right.

    But a reason that initially I was not sold was for a legitimate although probably incorrect reason. Once you put in protective meausures for PCVs, then some PCVs, knowing that there are some protective mechanisms in place, might drop their guard. You just CAN'T do that in the Peace Corps - unlike the military, no one gives us a platoon and M16s - and anything encouraging a relaxed attitude might be counterproductive. But the reality is that rape and violence against PCV women needed special treatment and focus by PC, including mandatory education for women PCVs about how to deal with it.

    This is NOT analogous to financial support for PCV projects as Ryan wants to make us believe. PCV does not give non development know-nothings like Ryan and Wally $$ because Ryan and Wally were not development professionals and would waste that money. Instead, PC made us learn to rely on local resources thereby getting more local buy in and more sustainable projects. But Ryan wanted the Ryan Cooper Education Center built and is mad someone did not give him the $100k for it.

  • RPCV Benin on April 27, 2012 4:06 PM:

    I served in Benin just after Kate was murdered. Yes, she was sleeping outside when she was killed, which is why Peace Corps Benin changed its policy that volunteers should sleep indoors for their own safety reasons. This was not strictly enforced, however, nor was it realistic. My home was so hot and stifling that I would literally wake up in the middle of the night gasping for air. I was not alone as many other volunteers slept outside too because of the heat. After her death, all volunteers were also required to live in a closed concession with other neighbors around, but I was one of the few that actually met these housing requirements.

    My training group had a very love/hate relationship with PC Benin administration. I think that's partly why our ET rate was so high (we started with 56 and only around 25 of us finished on time). From the very beginning, we were left in the dark about the details behind Kate's murder. Anytime we asked questions, it was always "No comment," or "The investigation is still on going." Even when I COSed, it wasn't really clear what was going on with the trial, or if the alleged suspect was even still a suspect. We really just wanted answers and some justice for Kate, and without the 20/20 documentary I don't think the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act would've ever been signed.

  • ccon on April 30, 2012 2:00 PM:

    I am a current PCV in Paraguay.

    The article certainly comes off as that of a whiner who doesn't take responsibility for his own culpability in his failed service. But you have to admit that there is a lot of room for improvement in the Peace Corps. And in general, there is always room for improvement, everywhere. PC would do well to recognize this.

    Cooper's critiques and suggestions for improvement shouldn't HAVE to be posted in an online article, because his PC post in SAfrica should have welcomed them, given him a voice THERE, and made every effort to validate his efforts and re-assess its failed processes. Ideally they should have taken this person's critical energy and found a way to channel it constructively (put him on a strategy team to re-design PST? put him in charge of researching & recommending new evaluations processes and/or implementing them?) It sounds like this particular post is an example of failed leadership from post staff and an example of how Washington demands almost no accountability from its posts and is willing to turn a blind eye to major issues (e.g. the language and placement programs in SAfrica).

    As internal evaluations processes don't seem to have been effective on the national level, it seems like PC-Washington should request a special budget to hire (an) independent evaluations team(s) to conduct evaluations on a number of criteria in most or all PC countries over the course of a year or so.

    Furthermore, critique and feedback from PCVs should be encouraged and even solicited by ALL post staff members, and used constructively to improve operations as much as possible- it should be in the job description of APCD, PCVCs, Trainers, and all other staff.

  • JoanneinDenver on May 02, 2012 8:33 AM:

    The Inspector General of the Peace Corps has just published a report on "Recurring Issues of OIG Post Audits and Evaluations FYs 2009 - 2011"
    Here is the link:


    The Report identifies many of the same problems reported here and in Cooper's article. It appears to me that the problem is not lack of information or evaluation; but, rather the inability of Peace Corps Washington to force compliance with existing policies and regulations. This was the same problem I believe existed back in the "Eden days" of the early Peace Corps when Charlie Peters evaluators roamed the world. The problem then was complicated by logistics. There were no computers or phones. Evaluators spent months in country. The work was time intensive. By the time reports were prepared and circulated, the programs studied and the staff and Volunteers involved were gone.

    The OIG webpage has a hotline for staff and Volunteers to report problems.

  • JoanneinDenver on May 08, 2012 4:43 PM:

    Casey Frazee, RPCV, Rape Survivor, and founder of First Action Response, tells the story of how she and other RPCV survivors brought about the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011. Read it at:


  • Anonymous on June 04, 2012 8:37 AM:

    I would like to comment that Ryan Cooper's Peace Corps experience was in South Africa. I cannot comment on the daily functions of Peace Corps in South Africa, but I would at least say that the Peace Corps office and its staff in my current country of service is nothing like his very colorful and negative description.

    I feel that its important to remember that every PC program is a bit different. Its my understanding that, yes, there is the headquarters in DC which sets the standards and evaluation tools for Peace Corps but all PC programs are run autonomously by its Country Director and his/her staff. And the staff is a mixture of many cultures not just American staff who have similar outlooks to professionalism and interpersonal relations. So on that point, yes, there may be problems with PC in South Africa that need to be fixed, but that does not reflect on all PC programs.

    Its also possible that training varies from country to country. I'm an education volunteer and I felt very well prepared for the field. In addition to learning about writing a lesson plan, etc, we had two weeks of 'model school' where we taught classes and had our peers, trainers, and local respected teachers evaluate our methods and give us constructive feedback after each class.

    Yes, I had a lot of the same difficulties at school that Cooper expressed in his article (i.e corporal punishment) but we has extensive training in classroom management that mitigated some of those difficulties of students not taking us, PCVs, seriously. My students respect me, but it took a little while to create that classroom discipline.

    Again, I just want to reiterate, Cooper's depiction of PC South Africa is not reflective of all PC programs. And sure bad things happen, which is horrible and unfortunate (and deserve administrative attention), but its often the negative things that are written about. So its important to not let an individual's story taint the many wonderful and fruitful experiences volunteers in many countries have had... with their PC staff, their post, and their work.

  • Patrick on June 20, 2012 7:52 PM:

    Truly an embarrassment of a PCV. The fault obviously lies with you and you laziness. The only true fault of the PC lies I letting you become a volunteer. You should have.been weeded out with the other 'undesireables' not fit for PC service. As a real RPCV, I am embarrassed and ashamed to have you be counted as part of our kind. You had the option and ability to change your situation or just leave any time you wanted and the ONLY person to blame for your situation is yourself. And now you want to lie and disparage a truly great organization to make a name for yourself in journalism. Truly a disgrace to yourself, your family, and to Reed College. How sad.

  • john on October 20, 2012 4:55 AM:

    Recent RPCV, my country's bureau was totally inept from a staffing point of view, the volunteer's were rock stars, local people were rocks stars, peace corps staff were incompetent losers. I was definitely in one of the more difficult places to serve - the sahel, and the sh*t we put up with from our administration/cd/apcds was outrageous. We loved the experiences we had in our country despite Peace Corps (washington or country office) not because of them... You would think being in one of the least developed country's in the world would be your biggest hurdle, but alas it wasn't, it was actually the peace corps administration itself that FUBARed everything they touched. PS - would still do it all over again because hey, Burkina Faso rocks and so do peace corps volunteers, mostly the best people ive ever been around.

  • stacey on October 20, 2012 5:08 AM:

    The peace corps volunteers in my group were extraordinarily well credentialed and professional, the lack of professionalism came from the our CD and admins. I think it is ridiculous to suggest that peace corps volunteers are "know nothings" and don't deserve funding for viable projects. I would suggest that much of the time these so called "professionals" you refer to working at the world bank and other major donor/aid agencies are the "know nothings" who are devoid of knowledge and experience relating to their target regions and populations. Peace corps volunteers are indeed the worlds foremost "experts" on whats actually happening on the ground and in the grassroots of many of the countries that are the most targeted through development assistance.