Think Again RPCVs: Robert L. Strauss

Sargent Shriver, the agency’s first director, recognized that a “Peace Corps, small and symbolic, might be good public relations, but a Peace Corps that was large and had a major impact on problems in other countries could transform the economic development of the world,” according to former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford. Because the Peace Corps has tried to be all things to all comers, that grand vision has never been realized or even approached. To become effective and relevant, the Peace Corps must now give up on the myth that its creation was the result of an immaculate conception that can never be questioned or altered. It must go out and recruit the best of the best. It must avoid goodwill-generating window dressing and concentrate its resources in a limited number of countries that are truly interested in the development of their people. And it must give up on the risible excuse that in the absence of quantifiable results, good intentions are enough. Only then will it be able to achieve its original objective of significantly altering the lives of millions for the better.

Think Again: The Peace Corps, Robert L. Strauss, in Foreign Policy, April 2008

I have to say that, even though I am a “Returned Peace Corps Volunteer” (RPCV) myself, I don’t like what I have seen of RPCV culture, here or abroad. It’s too often self-congratulatory, if not self-righteous.

On the other hand, I haven’t sought out other RPCVs, and when I am contacted by the Peace Corps it is usually in the context of promoting the program or celebrating our service. None of these situations are conductive to critical self-reflection.

The people I knew in the Peace Corps would welcome some sort of critical discussion. Strauss makes a great start although he leans towards hyperbole. Still, I can’t help but agree that the Peace Corps has not achieved is original mission and could use an overhaul.

I think this new, revised Peace Corps ought to be coupled closely with it’s domestic parallels, such as AmericaCorps, and linked to a wide-spread initiative to expand higher education and to make college fully accessible.

An ideal program would include several components. It would have to begin, as Strauss says, with specific countries making specific requests. My sense is that much if not all of this sort of development would require a little expertise, and a lot of labor.

In any case, the basic bargain would be a trade of overseas development work for college expenses. I think this might best be done as a year long program either before or after college. It might also be possible to have a program that allows you to do two-months at a time, starting in High School.

I think this sort of program would come much closer to the original ideals of the Peace Corps. If well run and designed, it could accelerate development all over the world. Just as importantly, it would help to create a less insular culture here, which might help the world more than anything else.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

3 Thoughts on “Think Again RPCVs: Robert L. Strauss

  1. Paul Pfeiffer on May 19, 2008 at 12:24 pm said:

    Oh man, I thought for sure you were going to go in the direction of the new divisions proposed sometime after midnight in Manila: “Development Corps, Peace Camp, etc.” For some reason, the other arms of the remodeled corps escape me.

  2. Avram Primack on May 20, 2008 at 11:42 am said:

    While I sympathise with Mr. Strauss’ sentiments above I think that Mr. Watkins is being a little silly. He wants the Peace Corps to be a perfect organization in which everyone is always doing good.

    First of all, the Peace Corps does help pay for college. I got my loans deferred while I was there and I came back with 3,000 (25 years ago) that I could have invested in loan payments. I am sure that it is used this way by many people today.

    Second, no established national political culture wants to invite another country to come in and reform it. For reference see Burma and recent events. Besides, how do we know what should be done. Western agriculturalists upon arriving in the highlands of New Guinea were horrified when they found native fields going against the contour. They learned why it was this way after heavy rainfall destroyed their contour plowed fields.

    The only country that I know of that really wanted to change the conditions of its people and welcomed help from abroad is Cuba. I would welcome the opinions of volunteers who thought otherwise. Certainly the local and regional government at my site in the Philippines thought they were developing just fine, and did not want interference from me. I could tell some stories about this if requested.

    Most Peace Corps volunteer placements will be in soft positions where big steps towards progress are not feasable. I have sent some students into Peace Corps. One gave up after 6 months. The other stayed an extra year and when her project failed it because of local government interference it broke her heart.

    The idea of bringing high school students to rural Haiti is ridiculous. I have been with undergraduate and graduate students. They have to be mature enough to deal with what they have to live in. College grads are just barely mature enough to be away from home in a strange country.

    Not to sound like I am a pollyanna for the Corps, but I do think that Volunteers have a big impact. Maybe not all of us, but enough come back and teach, enter public service, run for office, conduct research. The rest of us understand foriegn events better than the average citizen, who I might add could use a better international education here. I served with some of the best of the best. I wasn’t one of them, but I tried. I could enter a short list here, but I don’t want to embarrass anybody.

    The world isn’t perfect. Stop waiting and get doing.

  3. Jorge on May 30, 2008 at 12:57 pm said:

    Hmmm. Also an RPCV, I’ll crib bits of everyone’s comments – even RLS. Given the near irreversible risk-aversion and liability-avoidance strategies practiced by the current Corps [curfews, no motor vehicles, etc…] it’s clear that they have failed, present company excluded, to find the “best and the brightest” without treating them like slow children. On the other hand, the complex strategies and solutions that some PCVs were able to pull off is, in my experience anyway, invariably in spite of the cretinous US managers. (By the way, the rule about term limits should be enforced ! 25 years later, the worst circumstance I recall about my service in a country at civil war was a careerist country director who bounced back and forth from AID to Peace Corps.) So let the go-getters sign up with the UN Volunteer programs, or similar more professional agencies, and let the Peace Corps seek its own level. But guide that lowest denominator to something more credible than the current entropic state; use the high-schoolers [esp. since you’re going to treat PCVs like children anyway] and even for 2 month summer McVolunteer service, loading off rice or cheap laptops or whatever to aid recipients. The current practice of having US emergency aid delivered by the US military may make logistical sense, but little PR sensibility. US teens or 20-somethings can see real-life experience regarding poverty or the intricacies of food delivery via C-130s, get in some credit towards college or public service, and come home better informed and aware, if not chastened.

    The current iteration of the Peace Corps tries to be all things to all people, yet has to treat all PCVs equally, whether recent community college graduates or retired CEOs. It’s time to mitote if anyone cares. BTW, Coverdell came to see me in my gunfire ridden rural province, collecting hazard pay for his 24 hour visit and a day’s per diem in excess of my entire monthly allotment, and brought not so much as a candy bar [forget me, not even my co-workers or host family.] His name now “graces” the building ? That’s my metonymous $.02 for where much of the failure lies: with the haole management who brought him out [they collected the same bennies; how can I get 75K + per diem a year and live in Embassy housing ?] as opposed to the volunteers or the host country agencies. The best managers I saw were the “host country nationals”, as long as they weren’t being pushed around by the American staffers gripping the latest sheet of directives like a latter day Book of Mao.

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