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