May 13, 2002 - PCOL Exclusive: The Case for Peace Corps Independence

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By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, May 13, 2002 - 5:46 pm: Edit Post

The Case for Peace Corps Independence

Read and comment on this op-ed piece on Peace Corps independence, the three previous failed attempts to merge the Peace Corps with other organizations, and why the USA Freedom Corps isn't going to work any better and should be opposed by Returned Volunteers and their representatives in Congress.

The author of this op-ed piece, David Searles, served as a Country Director under Joe Blatchford, Regional Director under Nick Craw, and Deputy Director of the Peace Corps under John Dellenback. He is the author of a history of the Peace Corps during the Nixon and Ford years.

Read the article at:


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For Peace Corps veterans the Bush administration's plan to consolidate several volunteer programs - including the Peace Corps - into a new office of volunteer activity named the USA Freedom Corps calls to mind the well-worn responses of "been there, done that," and "deja vu all over again."

There is something about the governmental mind-set that can not resist the temptation to fix what is working just fine, thank you, and to go down paths already proven to lead to undesirable destinations. Perhaps it is fitting that as the Peace Corps passes its fortieth anniversary it is faced for the fourth time with a proposal to merge it (some would say submerge it) into an organization whose reason for being is far more apparent than real.

As Peace Corps legend Sargent Shriver learned in the early days, various executive branch departments have areas of responsibility that they guard jealousy, the State Department foremost among them. In 1961 the department was aghast at the thought of thousands of 'college kids' roaming about the world unsupervised, untrained in the niceties of diplomacy, and speaking out in ways sure to upset the delicate task of foreign relations. The department's solution was to place the Peace Corps in an obscure corner of a new division devoted to coordinating all American foreign assistance programs. Called the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and going through its own birth pangs, this new agency could be counted on to slow the Peace Corps' pace and potential for harm. Any Peace Corps proposal first would have to work its way through its own management structure, and then step by step through that of USAID, the State Department, and -- if the proposal was truly innovative or contentious -- through the White House bureaucracy. Whatever merit the proposal had in the beginning would surely be snuffed out in the process.

The Peace Corps leadership, even with Shriver's drive and family contacts, was no match for the experience and authority of the State Department and its legions of management experts. A task force charged with organizing the nation's foreign assistance program sided with State, and -- to the horror of the Peace Corps faithful -- President Kennedy sided with the task force. Into this situation came an unlikely hero, Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

With the Peace Corps' bureaucratic fate virtually sealed under the aegis of USAID, Bill Moyers, a Johnson confidante, went to the Vice President and begged him to get the new agency a large measure of independence. This Johnson did with great success. While the details of what happened in Johnson's meeting with Kennedy are not public, the outcome certainly is. As a headline in the New York Times stated on May 4, 1961 "Peace Corps Wins Fight for Autonomy."

In 1971 the Nixon administration's plan to create a new super agency called ACTION to coordinate volunteer activity throughout the federal government was greeted warmly, even by some Peace Corps loyalists. Government-sponsored programs that relied on volunteers already existed in several departments and agencies. The most prominent of these were the Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). These two programs, the first international, the second domestic, would form the core of the new agency. They were joined by the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) and the Active Corps of Executives (ACE), both from the Small Business Administration; and Foster Grandparents and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), both from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Shriver, having fought so hard for independence ten years earlier, told a Senate sub-committee, "Not one additional person will volunteer in the future because of government bureaucratic reorganization. Probably nothing is of less interest to potential volunteers. . . ." His counsel was ignored.

It was to be some years before the magnitude of the mistake became clear. Experience showed that the benefits of combining volunteer agencies were almost non-existent. The principles on which ACTION was founded -- the elimination of duplication, the efficiencies of scale, the concentration of resources, the bringing together of the generations, the transfer of skills and people -- simply were not sufficient to overcome the scheme's basic flaw. The missions and organizational cultures of the participating agencies were fundamentally different, and the effort to bring them together in one bureaucratic family was doomed from the start.

Nowhere is this statement more true than in the contrasting objectives of the Peace Corps and VISTA, the former being concerned with Third World development and the latter with anti-poverty work in the United States. Peace Corps has a strong social and economic development bent combined, of course, with important cross-cultural objectives. Volunteers participate in public and private development projects in Third World countries while simultaneously experiencing the life of the host country and bringing a more balanced sense of Americans and American life to their hosts. When their efforts are successful, the entire community benefits because typically all but a small portion of Third World populations suffered the adverse effects of underdevelopment.

This development work of the Peace Corps is at its core different from the anti-poverty work of VISTA. In the Third World, the vast majority of the people suffer from the economic inadequacies of their countries. An absolute shortage of resources is the problem, not, as in the United States, the distribution of resources. The poor in the Third World are not a neglected, downtrodden, or despised minority. They are the majority. Development work takes place within the existing social structures, it enlists the efforts of the local leadership as well as that of the ordinary people. This is not to say that class differences are absent in the Third World. They certainly exist and can be obstacles to progress. But the larger point is that the vested interest of the leadership is rarely sufficient to cause them to block development because in doing so they would also deny themselves its benefits.

In VISTA the volunteers work among minority populations (minority in the sense of numbers, not necessarily in the sense of race, gender, or age.) VISTA constituencies often feel, and at times actually are, isolated from the mainstream; they are living in poverty in a society where most people have enough. Local power structures ignore or consciously exploit them, and their lives often seem bereft of the cultural support structures that add so much meaning to the lives of people in the Third World. Add to these differences the further difference that comes from working in the United States instead of in one of scores of foreign countries and one can begin to see why there was so little overlap in interests, programs, problems, and solutions between VISTA and Peace Corps. One was not more difficult than the other, nor was one more important than the other. They were just different.

The incompatibility of the various programs grouped together under ACTION continued to be apparent even after President Carter appointed Sam Brown as ACTION director. Brown, as liberal as Nixon's appointee Mike Balzano had been conservative, found himself constantly at odds with his Peace Corps director, Carolyn Payton. Their disagreements became legendary. Once again, the root cause of the continuing problem was the failure to understand the fundamental differences between the missions of ACTION's domestic components and the mission of the Peace Corps. The problem was finally resolved when Carter's second Peace Corps director, Richard Celeste, negotiated an understanding with the White House in 1978 giving Peace Corps considerable autonomy to direct its own affairs. This understanding proved to be the first step in a series of executive actions that eventually led to the restoration of Peace Corps independence in 1981.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear the creation of ACTION was a disaster because the proponents were wrong on three counts. First, they had brought together programs that had little in common despite surface similarities. Second, they had seriously underestimated the Peace Corps' strong need for independence. Third, they had even more seriously underestimated the Peace Corps' ability to organize its loyalists into a determined, powerful, and eventually effective force for independence.

But, sleeping dogs do not sleep forever. In 1995 Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the chairman of a key Foreign Affairs subcommittee, recommended that the Peace Corps be merged into the State Department. No sooner had McConnell's plan been made public than the Peace Corps world reacted with alarm, remembering with dread the consequences of an earlier forced institutional marriage. The six-member contingent of Peace Corps veterans in the House signed a joint letter urging McConnell to keep the Peace Corps independent. Senator Christopher Dodd, a former volunteer, Senator Paul Coverdell, a former Peace Corps director under President Bush, and Senator Arlen Spector, a former member of the Peace Corps advisory council, led the fight in the Senate. In the end McConnell - perhaps also listening to 'pillow-talk' from his wife Elaine Chao, herself a former Peace Corps director - bowed to the pressure, citing the "considerable experience and strong views" of his petitioners, and removed the Peace Corps from his proposed reorganization plan.

Now, in 2002, there is another threat looming on the horizon: the USA Freedom Corps. The administration's plan, with most of its details still to be worked out, would bring the Peace Corps into some form of bureaucratic relationship with an Executive Branch 'office' in charge of volunteer activity at home and abroad. Once again the problem is not with the basic thrust of the domestic portion of the President's plan: encouraging Americans to share their bounty, skills, and time by serving as volunteers at schools, police stations, soup kitchens, ball fields, scout troops and wherever else they might be helpful. These are good and valuable services which Americans should offer one another. The problem is these domestic concerns and opportunities are different both in style and in substance from the international concerns and opportunities facing the Peace Corps.

History shows that the bureaucratic coupling of the Peace Corps to a variety of domestic programs will lead to wasted energy and resources. Organizational theorists have long recognized that the nature of a bureaucracy is to generate activity without necessarily having any regard for whether or not the activity generated accomplishes something worthwhile. To require the Peace Corps to participate in an activity with so little direct relevance to its own mission would be burdensome at any time. To do so now when the Peace Corps is in the midst of the laudable but demanding task of placing an additional 7,000 volunteers overseas would be doubly burdensome.

The Peace Corps world is united in its determination to keep the agency independent. With a bit of luck and solid representation on the Hill and in the Executive Branch history says independence can be retained. Both the mission of the Peace Corps and the mission of the USA Freedom Corps are important. But, they are different and must not be confused. Therefore, keep them separate.

About the Author

P. David Searles' career has included periods during which he worked in international business, government service and education. After service in the United States Marine Corps (1955-58) Searles worked in consumer goods marketing and in general management positions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Latin America. His business career was interrupted by a brief stint as a high school teacher (1969-71) and longer periods of service with the Peace Corps (1971-76) and the National Endowment for the Arts (1976-1980).

Searles served three years as the country director for the Peace Corps in the Philippines, and two years at Peace Corps headquarters as a Regional Director for North Africa, Near East, Asia, and Pacific (NANEAP) and as Deputy Director under John Dellenback.

Following the end of his business career in 1990 Searles earned a Ph. D. from the university of Kentucky (1993), and published two books: A College For Appalachia (1995) and The Peace Corps Experience (1997), both by The University Press of Kentucky.

He and his wife live in Owensboro, Kentucky

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Special Reports; Speaking Out



By Phil Lilienthal on Tuesday, May 21, 2002 - 9:22 am: Edit Post

David Searles' excellent analysis should be heeded. In fairness, however, the acceptance by Peace Corps of the ACTION umbrella proposed by Pres. Nixon, was more occasioned by a fear of dissolution by the anti-Kennedy paranoid than by any belief that ACTION was the wave of the future. The Peace Corps/Washington staff (of which I was one) saw ACTION as a means for Peace Corps' survival.

By Geraldine Gillio on Tuesday, June 04, 2002 - 10:38 pm: Edit Post

Independence has been and should be a hallmark of the Peace Corps. I thoroughly agree with the article. Volunteers cannot be thought of as US government "agents" although we are loyal Americans. We are a "people to people" organization.

I don't give my password-just a little independence on my part.

By JinnyBatterson on Monday, June 10, 2002 - 7:20 pm: Edit Post

I was a U.N. Volunteer in Burundi through the auspices of the Peace Corps in 1983-85. I believe it was during the period when the Peace Corps was part of ACTION. My experience was that the front-end and back-end bureaucracy were minimal, mitigated by competent and dedicated staffers. (When I was on-site, it helped that my U.N. boss was several thousand miles away in Geneva.) There was some tension and potential conflict in serving both the U.N. and the U.S. My experience was an immensely rewarding and enriching one.
I am somewhat skeptical of the tenor of our current "war on terrorism" and want to add my voice to those cautioning against creating too close a linkage between the Peace Corps and "official U.S. policy." My impression is that a "Freedom Corps" may dilute the development aims of the Peace Corps and put some volunteers at unnecessary risk. For me, the Peace Corps/UNV experience reinforced my belief in the values and responsibilities of being both a U.S. citizen and a citizen of the world.

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