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Peace Corps hurt by unwise policies by Alan E. Guskin
Peace Corps hurt by unwise policies by Alan E. Guskin
Peace Corps hurt by unwise policies
Wonderful agency could be improved
By Alan E. Guskin
It’s been 42 years since I entered the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Thailand. Over the years, I have continued my love affair with the agency.
Because of my involvement with President John F. Kennedy in the founding of the Peace Corps, I'm often asked to speak about the Peace Corps. In 1986, I attended the 25th anniversary of the Peace Corps and had the honor of placing a wreath on Kennedy’s grave. I was there as a representative of all Peace Corps volunteers. I cried for those who were killed or died in service. And my tears were as much for me as those being honored; I had been seriously ill and hospitalized in Thailand.
As I read the Dayton Daily News series on the Peace Corps, I was deeply saddened. At the same time, I was pleased that the shadow-side of Peace Corps service and practices was being brought into the light. The articles point out how a wonderful and important program is hurt by unwise policies.
Volunteers once called ‘Kennedy’s children’
In the early 1960s, when I served in Thailand, developing countries where Peace Corps volunteers went were less violent; anti-Americanism did not exist or was much less virulent; and there was great receptivity to young, idealistic Americans. We were often called Kennedy’s children.
Just as significant, Peace Corps leaders in those early days — Sargent Shriver, Bill Moyers and Harris Wofford — were also an idealistic group who told the volunteers that they represented the best in American society and were an alternative to a foreign policy built around the Cold War. Maybe naively, the volunteers and staff believed that the Peace Corps had the potential to redirect American foreign policy rather than be subsumed under it.
The countries in which we served seemed to be chosen for idealistic as well as practical reasons. Mainly we went to the newly independent nations of Africa and Asia and the developing nations of Asia and Latin America. Volunteers were not placed in countries to further narrow foreign policy objectives, but were there to help.
While the glamour was and is deserved, there has always been a dark side that the Peace Corps and the media have not shared. I remember in the early 1960s in Thailand, I spoke with a reporter from a national news magazine and asked him why he and his colleagues didn’t report the negative stuff that volunteers did. His answer was direct — the Peace Corps is such a positive venture so we’re not going to tear it down.
I also remember a group of volunteers, meeting with Shriver — the Peace Corps’ founding director — in the American ambassador’s home in Bangkok, demanding to know why the Peace Corps didn’t tell the truth — the bad and the good about the agency. Shriver was almost speechless and could only say how good we were.
These days the Peace Corps seems to have become more political in its choice of countries, and it reacts to criticism like a typical government agency. Its defensiveness about the negative seems to be even more intense.
Some practices exacerbate problems
Still today, there are aspects of the shadow-side of the Peace Corps that remain, and many exacerbate the problems of the volunteers in an increasingly violent world.
First, the Peace Corps has always had trouble facing the reality of its real mission. Most, if not all, volunteers will assert that the Peace Corps was not really a force for economic and social development, but rather was and is the most successful government-sponsored people-to-people program ever conceived. Accepting — not denying — this real mission of a people-to-people program has serious implications for the nature of Peace Corps assignments.
Second, the Peace Corps in the early 1960s, and to this day, continues to send volunteers alone to extremely remote rural areas, often without significant local language capability, usable skills or meaningful support. I have never understood the rationale behind these assignments; they're too dangerous.
Third, the Peace Corps has always had a problem assuring volunteers and itself that the job assignments overseas were real and meaningful. Too often Peace Corps assignments have been marginal and sometimes nearly nonexistent — with ill-equipped young people having to fashion a job on the spot under the watchful eyes of local people.
At other times, the Peace Corps has sent "experts" to "help" local people who were more experienced and more expert than they. I can understand how this can happen in the first few years of the Peace Corps; it is difficult to justify four decades later.
Fourth, most Peace Corps volunteers experience serious illnesses, something not understood by the public. The Peace Corps may well be one of the most important experiences of an individual’s life, but it exacts a price that the Peace Corps rarely acknowledges. And rarely, if ever, does the Peace Corps follow up with the huge number of volunteers to check on their health.
Fifth, the Peace Corps seems to remain oblivious to the difficulty many volunteers have in returning home. They receive little preparation and little Peace Corps support once they do.
One of the most paradoxical aspects of Peace Corps service is that the more successful a volunteer is overseas, the more difficult is the adjustment returning home.
Important reforms should be made
There are important reforms to be made:
• The Peace Corps needs to face the societal realities of the 21st century and stop sending volunteers into areas that are potentially politically volatile or violent.
• It needs to plan assignments with the same knowledge, care and seriousness that any organization would do when making a job assignment.
• The Peace Corps needs to stop sending volunteers into remote rural areas. They're unlikely to be successful, and they're being endangered physically and psychologically.
• The Peace Corps needs to utilize new communications technology to stay in touch with volunteers. This may mean not assigning individuals in settings that are outside the range of communication.
• The Peace Corps needs to resist the temptation to send volunteers into countries to enhance United States foreign policy interests.
• The Peace Corps needs to utilize the considerable skills of young (and not-so-young) idealistic Americans by placing them in jobs that are consistent with their abilities. Similarly, the Peace Corps should be restrained in overstating the capabilities of nonexperts.
• The Peace Corps needs to respect the volunteers during and after their service by maintaining contact with them and helping those who need help, especially those who have suffered serious physical or psychological ailments.
• Finally, the Peace Corps needs to be absolutely clear about its mission as a people-to-people program and align all its activities around that mission.
I remain convinced that the Peace Corps is a wonderful concept and program. It is also a boon to American society, as each year thousands of people return to this country with important insights into the realities of the world and with a sense of cultural humility that is so critical to the future success of our nation.
Alan E. Guskin is the former president of Antioch University and Antioch College. Currently, he is an Antioch faculty member. He resides in Edmonds, Wash.
[From the Dayton Daily News: 11.04.2003]