2008.12.07: December 7, 2008: Headlines: : PCOL Exclusive: Peace Corps Online interviews Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter
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2008.12.07: December 7, 2008: Headlines: : PCOL Exclusive: Peace Corps Online interviews Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter
Peace Corps Online interviews Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter
As we sat down with Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter in his office on the 8th floor of Peace Corps Headquarters on December 4, we talked to the director about his tenure since 2006 and he freely shared his point of view on the vital issues facing the Peace Corps today. As a new administration prepares to come into office, read Director Tschetter's thoughts on the evacuation from Bolivia, the independence of the Peace Corps, the five year rule, political appointees at Peace Corps headquarters, the Peace Corps Foundation, the third goal, the effect of the internet on the Peace Corps, how the transition is going, and what the prospects are for doubling the size of the Peace Corps by 2011. Read the complete interview and you are sure to learn something about the Peace Corps you didn't know before.
Peace Corps Online interviews Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter
Peace Corps Online Publisher Hugh Pickens interviews Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter. Photo: PCOL
What has changed since you served in the 1960's?
"When I was a volunteer, we left America and we pretty well knew we weren't going to speak with our families for two years and that is exactly what happened. We had no telephone in our village and there wasn't one for a hundred miles. Now as I travel, I am estimating that 75% to 80% of our volunteers have their own personal cell phones, and they are connected to the rest of the world. It is truly amazing. You go to the remotest parts of Africa, and they have contact via cell phone with home and friends. So that is probably the most striking change."
Hugh Pickens: You and your wife were Peace Corps volunteers in India in the 1960's and as Director you have visited most of the countries where volunteers are now serving. What have you found most changed about the Peace Corps since you served as a volunteer in the 1960’s?
Director Tschetter: First of all as Director I have visited 55 of the 76 countries we are now in. It's been a fascinating journey to travel around the globe to visit volunteers at their sites, and there are one or two striking changes that have to do with communications–mainly the cell phone and the Internet.
When I was a volunteer, we left America and we pretty well knew we weren't going to speak with our families for two years and that is exactly what happened. We had no telephone in our village and there wasn't one for a hundred miles.
Now as I travel, I am estimating that 75% to 80% of our volunteers have their own personal cell phones, and they are connected to the rest of the world. It is truly amazing.
You go to the remotest parts of Africa, and they have contact via cell phone with home and friends.
So that is probably the most striking change.
The second one, of course, is the Internet. It is not quite as available, and it is a different way of communicating as you well know. A much lower percentage of volunteers have Internet access in their village, but they have access to it most often in their regional towns with Internet cafes.
I have always said this is 90% positive and 10% negative.
The positive of course is that it does keep them in touch with home, and they are sharing their Peace Corps experiences sometimes daily, at least weekly and that's a good thing. It’s fulfilling the third goal. It also gives them protection from a safety and security standpoint. We have access to them so if we need to inform them of a standfast or some type of risk in-country, or even a medical issue, we can do that.
And then if there are emergencies at home they can be contacted very quickly. That is a very positive change.
Why did I say 90% versus 10%? Our country directors will tell me often the volunteers don't stay or get quite as connected to their communities because they have this enhanced communications now. So if they are having a really bad day--and we've all had them as Peace Corps volunteers - they call home, which sometimes is the worst thing they can do. Volunteers need to learn to work out their problems within their communities. So that is the negative side of it, and I know our country directors and training people try to make them aware of this. You can't control that of course, but I think finding your own way makes a difference in your service.
How is the "50 plus initiative" going?
"I am pleased by where we are and am very confident that if we keep up the momentum we will reach the goal of 15% in the next year to 18 months."
Hugh Pickens: In April, 2007, your administration announced the "50 plus initiative" with a goal of boosting the ranks of volunteers 50 and older from 5 percent to 15 percent over the next two years. Where does the "50 plus initiative" stand now?
Director Tschetter: Thank you for asking this. This is one of the initiatives that is near and dear to my heart, and one I felt very strongly about coming to the Peace Corps. And after doing a lot of exploratory work, we concluded it was the right initiative to launch.
Our 50+ initiative was officially launched in September 2007 at the AARP national convention.
So where are we with it now? In the first 12 months of that initiative, September ’07 to September '08, the applications of 50 plussers were up 40% compared to the same twelve months a year earlier.
And the next step is getting those applicants to be –nominees, or noms. Noms are up as well so they are working their way through the system.
The traction is just beginning because of the lead time that it takes to recruit, nominate, and, ultimately, move them to the field.
So I am pleased by where we are and am very confident that if we keep up the momentum we will reach the goal of 15% in the next year to 18 months.
Hugh Pickens: What has the Peace Corps learned about the special needs of maintaining older volunteers in the field?
Director Tschetter: We have learned a lot of things quite frankly.
The biggest challenge to recruiting the 50+ population is getting them through the medical qualification process. We have a very disciplined process, as you might recall, and for good reason. When you are older, you have more "yeses" on your medical forms when they ask all the elaborate questions, and every yes will lead to a follow-up, so it can lead to a more cumbersome slower process.
We have worked really hard to bring in medical staff who are dedicated to the 50+ initiative. There are two of them on staff now, and we have shortened the time it takes to be cleared medically, but it is probably the single biggest challenge.
And again we do not want to compromise that discipline because it wouldn't be good for the volunteer, or for the Peace Corps, to take on that additional risk of a medical problem.
The second challenge is language learning. It isn't that people over the age of fifty can't learn the language, but they learn it differently. It takes a little more time and a little different technique, and we have spent a lot of time studying this challenge.
I do think we are getting better at helping the 50 + folks learn languages. We have some advanced materials we are providing them, such as Rosetta Stone, which we have found is a very effective tool. It is only limited to 75 languages or so, and we have over 200 in our bailiwick so it isn't magical for everybody but we will use them when we can.
The Peace Corps Foundation and the Third Goal
"I definitely feel that we need a broader constituency of returned Peace Corps volunteers who are actively involved. The third goal is what we are talking about, and I have openly said the third goal of the Peace Corps is our weakest link. Even we here at the Peace Corps have not dedicated enough money to that. We spend something around 2 million a year on third goal initiatives, and that's not enough."
Hugh Pickens: I am going to move over to a question that should be of special interest to you because you are unique in the history of the Peace Corps because you are the only person who has 1) served as a Peace Corps volunteer, 2) served as the Chairman of the National Peace Corps Association, and 3) been Peace Corps Director. There are over 190,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and the membership of the National Peace Corps Association is less than 10,000. Do you think a larger and more broadly based returned volunteer organization is desirable and if so, how do you think the "Friends of" groups, the NPCA, and Returned Volunteers would go about creating a more broadly based organization and how does this tie into the Peace Corps Foundation that you have spoken about recently?
Director Tschetter: That's an excellent question and I definitely feel that we need a broader constituency of returned Peace Corps volunteers who are actively involved.
The third goal is what we are talking about, and I have openly said the third goal of the Peace Corps is our weakest link.
Even we here at the Peace Corps have not dedicated enough money to that. We spend something around 2 million a year on third goal initiatives, and that's not enough.
The NPCA over the years has done a good job - there's no question about that-- but I think if you look at their history, they have plateaued, and I think the reason for that is one of the primary reasons I have come up with the idea of creating a Peace Corps Foundation. Part of the NPCA's challenge is funding, so how do you get this flow of money that you need to support all those initiatives.
Now the one thing that I see across America and around the world is the activities of the "Friends of" groups. I was just in Thailand last week, and we had a luncheon at the Peace Corps office where we invited the Thailand RPCVs - a very close knit group who are very close to the needs and the issues in Thailand. I was very impressed with the amount of money they had raised and projects they have launched in support of people in Thailand. This is just one example, and I see this around the world in so many different countries.
So the Peace Corps Foundation would be private money. There would be no appropriated funds used for this initiative, and I believe once you create a proper legal foundation and we are well on the way to doing that, it will encourage and open up the giving. And it will be primarily for third goal initiatives.
There are 195,000 plus returned volunteers who I think we could encourage to give to an organization such as that. There are corporate monies. I have talked to corporate executives personally, and I know there is potential there, and they would give to a foundation that has structure, accountability, and so on. Right now they just won't consider giving to an organization or an association type structure.
So corporate America is certainly significant but then there are other foundations that will support a foundation such as this. Once we get this launched, it could not replace the NPCA. This is not to eliminate that initiative, but this is to underpin it with finances and with structure so that it doesn't have to worry every month about the next month's revenues. Then NPCA can go about its work of supporting third goal initiatives, friends of groups, and the many creative things that could be done about supporting third goal initiatives that we are not doing today.
Hugh Pickens: You mentioned legal issues. In the past there have been some issues regarding the use of the words "Peace Corps." Will legislation be required to facilitate the Peace Corps Foundation or to bring it into existence?
Director Tschetter: Yes, legislation will be required to create a Peace Corps Foundation, and we have vetted it through, if I may use that term, the various governmental agencies that are impacted to make approval of this. That would be OMB, Treasury, IRS, the State Department - people that need to look at how this would operate and so on. That has all been done, and it's all been approved by those vettings. It is actually in bill form ready to be introduced, and we were actually going to do this in September but there was an incident that took place called the economic crisis. That really distracted everybody and everything away from whatever might be going on legislatively to pay attention to this, and so we concluded that it would not be an appropriate time to draft the bill, and we hope to do that early in the 111th Congress.
Senior Staff at Peace Corps Headquarters
"I think having been a returned volunteer and experiencing first hand what's involved in doing this for two years and three months certainly gives me a sensitivity and an understanding of what a volunteer is going through. I relate to that. It's subtle in some cases; in some cases it is very overt so I would recommend that as much as possible returned Peace Corps volunteers be given consideration for those posts."
Hugh Pickens: There are twenty-three senior staff positions at PC Headquarters and only a small number of the senior appointments, the so-called "political appointees" are presently filled by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Do you see any benefit or do you have any recommendations for the Peace Corps in the future with reference to placing more RPCVs in policy making positions at Peace Corps headquarters? Of course, I am not referring to you or to Jody Olsen or Allene Zanger or I don't know if Betsi Shays is still here or not. Would you have any thoughts on that or any recommendations for future administrations?
Director Tschetter: Yes, I would. Having been a Peace Corps volunteer and now 40 years later going full circle and coming back to be the Director of the Peace Corps and having traveled the world to 55 different countries, across America to our eleven regional recruiting offices, and many other places, I think having been a returned volunteer and experiencing first hand what's involved in doing this for two years and three months certainly gives me a sensitivity and an understanding of what a volunteer is going through. I relate to that. It's subtle in some cases; in some cases it is very overt so I would recommend that as much as possible returned Peace Corps volunteers be given consideration for those posts.
Is it absolutely mandatory? Not in all cases but as much as possible. If it's a tie in the various criteria that might be used, then I would lean towards the RPCVs.
Should it be 100%? No, I don't think that is healthy either. The people I work with here among those 23, some who have not been RPCVs, bring a tremendous value of other experiences to the table that we here at Peace Corps need to keep in mind as we run this organization and try to make it better and improve it for the future.
The Five Year Rule
"I think there is some fine tuning that we could do to the five year rule. One of the tweaks I would propose we make to the five year rule is that at that point in time when an internal staffer is elevated to country director, the meter starts over again, and they have at least the two tours that they can perform as country director."
Hugh Pickens: The Consolidated Appropriations Bill passed by Congress in February 2003 contained a statute that exempted Peace Corps staff who work in safety and security from the employment limitations of the five year rule. How many Peace Corps staff members presently have an exemption from the five year rule due to their job being related to safety and security?
Director Tschetter: There are about 20, and it is all the safety and security people. We have nine Peace Corps Safety and Security Officers, or "PCSSOs," that are the regional safety and security people around the globe - that's almost half of the group right there, and the various safety and security people here at headquarters as well.
Hugh Pickens: At the time the change was made in the five year rule, some RPCVs said that the change in the law could lead to a two tier employment system among PC staff that could potentially cause morale problems among staff. Five years have now elapsed since the passage of the statute. Have you seen any indications of problems created by having two classes of employees at Peace Corps – those subject to the five year rule and those exempt from the five year rule?
Director Tschetter: No, I really have not. I will tell you that I often say that safety and security is our number one, two, and three priorities not just here at headquarters but around the world. It is a much different world out there today in the world of safety and security than when I was a volunteer or when you were a volunteer back in the early 70's.
There are so many different drivers and dynamics out there that impact the safety and security of our volunteers that it is a very high priority for us. We monitor it literally every day. I have staff meetings three times every week, and in every one of those staff meetings, the first agenda item is going around the regions of the world and asking what is happening. Probably 80% of those discussions are about the safety and security of the countries we are serving in, so it is a very high priority, and I have not heard even a whimper here of any impact like you mentioned.
Hugh Pickens: In broad terms what is your opinion about the five year rule and do you think the rule should be restored to its pre-2003 status, kept the way it is now, or expanded to include additional categories of staff?
Director Tschetter: I do have an opinion about the five year rule. I think it needs to be looked at, and actually I think there is some fine tuning that we could do to the five year rule.
Hugh Pickens: I have heard medical personnel mentioned as one category where it is very hard to get people.
Director Tschetter: And finance people are also very difficult, but I am not even heading in that direction yet.
I would like to have us take a look at the five year rule in regards to our country directors. Around the world, there are 76 countries we are in, and we typically have three Americans on staff. You have a country director, oftentimes you have an administrative officer, and usually one of the APCDs. So you will have three Americans and the rest are all host country nationals, and by law the country director has to be an American.
Now let's say there is an Administrative Officer who has been at post for four years and has really been doing an outstanding job and shown tremendous growth and the potential to be a country director. You make this person a country director and now they don't have very much time left. So one of the tweaks I would propose we make to the five year rule is that at that point in time when an internal staffer is elevated to country director, the meter starts over again, and they have at least the two tours that they can perform as country director.
So that is a tweak that I would really like us to dig into. We haven't done that yet. We've had quite a bit of dialog about it. It has to be legislatively changed quite rapidly when the time is right.
Secondly, I think we should take a look at the length of time folks have to stay away from Peace Corps before they can come back. Right now you have to be gone as long as you were employed by the agency. So if you worked here five years, you couldn’t come back for five years. I would rather see the maximum time you have to be gone is two years. I think that would greatly add to the institutional knowledge of the agency and allow us to bring back quality talent.
Evacuation of Volunteers from Bolivia
"The situation was just becoming politically less and less stable. I know some of our volunteers disagreed with that conclusion, and in isolated cases that was no doubt the case. Now some volunteers have gone back on their own as they have in a couple of other countries where we've had to leave."
Hugh Pickens: What were the factors that went into making the decision to evacuate Peace Corps Volunteers from Bolivia in September, 2008?
Director Tschetter: Safety and Security is the issue, and we monitored that situation closely. I personally was down there nine months prior to making the decision just on a routine country visit.
Certainly it is a country that needs us, and we were doing some wonderful work. I came back – as I come back from every trip--inspired with new stories with the work of our volunteers, but that one in particular was a strong program.
But you know there has been a lot of turmoil in that country politically, a lot of unrest, unsettledness, and we monitor that very, very closely. For the most part, it seemed like it was very isolated with a lot happening in areas where we were not, but you know finally it was starting to spread. We were getting reports of demonstrations and maybe even risk of life spreading out beyond the isolated locations that previously it had been happening in. Finally we got contacted by our country director who said, "You know, I think it's finally time to consolidate," so we consolidated the volunteers. The situation actually exacerbated, not because of our consolidation, but the situation was just becoming politically less and less stable. I know some of our volunteers disagreed with that conclusion, and in isolated cases that was no doubt the case. Now some volunteers have gone back on their own as they have in a couple of other countries where we've had to leave.
Those things do happen, but overall, it was not a viable program, and so we concluded that for now until it becomes safer we should leave and that's what we did, we evacuated.
Hugh Pickens: I understand that in a number of countries the Peace Corps stays out of certain areas because of safety and security concerns. For example, in the Philippines no Peace Corps volunteers have been placed in Mindanao since 2003. Do you think that when the Peace Corps returns to Bolivia, they may return on a limited basis only in certain areas?
Director Tschetter: That's entirely possible, and that is our experience and practice in other countries. In Kenya, as you might recall, we evacuated in February of '08, and we went back in July of '08. And that's exactly what we did when we went back. We stayed away from the far west where most of this turmoil was taking place, and we actually moved volunteers further east quite frankly, and they are fine there. There are some other examples of that, so I could easily see that to be the case in Bolivia at the right time.
Independence of the Peace Corps
"The one thing I take great pride in as I travel the world and I talk with our ambassadors and other embassy employees who really appreciate the Peace Corps, is the fact we are independent and autonomous, and we are not foreign policy."
Hugh Pickens: There was an issue in February 2008 when a US embassy employee briefed a group of Peace Corps Volunteers and allegedly asked them to keep an eye out on Cubans and Venezuelans during their service. As Director, you vigorously protested the briefing and the Peace Corps Press Office issued a press release reaffirming that by law there is no connection between Peace Corps and intelligence gathering. My question is: With the US government’s emphasis on the war on terror, how often have issues like this come up behind the scenes and how difficult is it to maintain the Peace Corps’ separation from US intelligence agencies and homeland security?
Director Tschetter: It is a rare occasion. It is a rare occasion. In fact, as you asked that question I was thinking of where else might this have happened, and I have not encountered it.
Now I want to set the record straight on that in Bolivia. That request was made of a Fulbright scholar - that is where that whole request initiated by this person from the embassy and then apparently that same person speaking to a group of volunteers made some reference to that as well. It wasn't as overt as the other I was told. But we were quickly pulled into it and sometimes you just can't control that. The one thing I take great pride in as I travel the world and I talk with our ambassadors and other embassy employees who really appreciate the Peace Corps, is the fact we are independent and autonomous, and we are not foreign policy. I say that time and time again, and we are not a part of the military or any of the organizations that you referred to. It's not a problem for the most part and it's a rare occasion that will occur from time to time I suppose. Bolivia is the only one I have had to encounter in my two years and three months here.
Hugh Pickens: You know there was an incident in Tanzania with the Ambassador where the Peace Corps country director was not allowed to return to the country. Was that something similar, it wasn't with an intelligence agency, but was that a conflict between the Peace Corps and the diplomatic service?
Director Tschetter: Well, I don't want to get into the details of that situation. I am very very familiar with it, and the ambassador in country technically has the final say which Americans are in that country and in that particular case the ambassador stated that "I have lost confidence in the country director and I am going to ask her to leave." It had nothing to do with the kinds of things we have been talking about here. It had to do with business decisions so it was very very different, and the ambassador does have the final say.
Doubling the Size of the Peace Corps
"First of all I cheer President Elect Obama's desire to double the size of the Peace Corps or to grow the Peace Corps at least. Quite frankly I think it will be a real stretch to double the Peace Corps by 2011. I don't think it's appropriately possible to double the size of the Peace Corps with quality, with placing of 8,000 volunteers, adding some countries to the list in that short of a period of time. What I would encourage us to look towards and think about is starting the growth curve of a double over some significant growth over maybe a five year to an eight year period. That I think is doable. By 2011 I don't think that is doable."
Hugh Pickens: President Elect Obama has stated that he would like to see the Peace Corps double in size by its fiftieth anniversary in 2011 but the sheer logistics of placing 8,000 new volunteers in the field in a three year period makes that goal a formidable task. What countries have asked for the Peace Corps to start new programs and what countries have asked for the Peace Corps to return?
Director Tschetter: First of all I cheer President Elect Obama's desire to double the size of the Peace Corps or to grow the Peace Corps at least. Quite frankly I think it will be a real stretch to double the Peace Corps by 2011. Look at it this way. The 2009 budget is cooked. We are pretty well locked in - right now it's a continuing resolution but even if we received the requested amount, it's not going to provide much room for additional growth, so you are talking about 2010 and 2011, and 2011 doesn't start until later in the year past the anniversary date, so you are really talking about the 2010 budget.
Now is it possible? Sure. It's possible to get enough money to do it but I don't think it's appropriately possible to double the size of the Peace Corps with quality, with placing of 8,000 volunteers, adding some countries to the list in that short of a period of time.
What I would encourage us to look towards and think about is starting the growth curve of a double over some significant growth over maybe a five year to an eight year period. That I think is doable. By 2011 I don't think that is doable.
Hugh Pickens: I know you are a businessman. So would you say a controlled growth of 10, 15, or 20 percent a year is possible?
Director Tschetter: I've never really put my mind to a specific percentage but that is exactly what I would do. I would look at a five year controlled growth plan and build the budget accordingly. I've had these numbers run out. What would it cost us to double? And it's a big number. It's a very big number.
Hugh Pickens: Is it more than double the actual budget of Peace Corps?
Director Tschetter: Yes. Because you have to build in some inflationary cost and this is one of the things we have pained with in 08. The inflationary cost of food around the world, the inflationary cost of energy. Now energy has mitigated some but that was a bad issue six months ago.
With regards to specific countries I can only mention a couple because if we have not done an assessment it is not appropriate for me to mention which countries are on that list. Once it gets out, it becomes anticipation ahead of when it should.
Hugh Pickens: I've seen news reports that Viet Nam for example has requested Peace Corps volunteers.
Director Tschetter: There have been conversations with Viet Nam and they are still ongoing and that is certainly one that is a possibility when we can talk through all the issues that need to be resolved there.
But the number one country to return to is Sierra Leone, and we have already done an assessment there. I have to tell you that the "Friends of Sierra Leone" are the most active "Friends of" group in America and my hat's off to them. I respect them fully for their desire to have us go back there and so as soon as budget provides, we are going to pull that trigger and it will take us several months to put that together - first of all to put the country team in place, do the recruiting, and then develop the programs, but they very much want us to return there.
Comoros, which is a remote series of islands off the east coast of Africa near Madagascar, is on the list. Their President's been here, they need us, and we should be there. That would be a smaller program, but that would be one also that would get a high level of attention once the budget releases itself.
I am pleased to tell you that in the last year we went into three new countries. We went into Ethiopia early in the year, we went into Liberia within the last 45 days, and in Rwanda the volunteers haven't arrived yet but the country director is in place, the staff is in place, the facilities are ready as of this week, and a group is being assembled to go over in late January.
Hugh Pickens: If funding were available from Congress, what do you see as the biggest challenge in accomplishing the goal of doubling the Peace Corps in a controlled growth manner: recruiting the volunteers, identifying new countries that want volunteers, putting the infrastructure in place to support volunteers on new programs, or something else? What would you see as the primary challenge?
Director Tschetter: Clearly there is growth potential, we'll start with that.
The recruitment of volunteers is very strong. We have only been accepting one out of three applicants, so there are many of those two thirds left behind that could be volunteers. We can be selective, that's a luxury we have, but also there is some growth potential in that. Our 50+ initiative is starting to unfold, so we will be able to add more of those people from the baby boomer generation --that large bulge of 77 million Americans born from 46 to 64 who just started to retire last year -- so just look at the next decade. That is a very large bulge that will provide some real recruiting potential, and it is right at the center of that 50+ initiative. So the recruiting side, the supply side of the equation, is strong, and I look for that to stay strong.
Now I've traveled to fifty-five countries, and I didn't keep track on a ledger, but two-thirds, maybe even three-quarters, of the countries I've visited, when I sit down with the Minister of Education or the Minister of Health, the President, or the Prime Minister, or whomever I'm visiting with, one of the questions I get is "Mr. Director, could you send us more?"
I estimate with the existing infrastructure we have fairly significant growth potential. Twenty percent? Maybe even stronger than that, but we could easily add twenty percent to the 8,000 so that is 1,500 right there. So it would not be that hard to have some nice controlled growth.
And then from the twenty or so countries that we have requests for the Peace Corps from, we have not assessed all them, but as we look at the list intuitively, probably half of them we would get a favorable assessment in safety and security, program ability, living conditions, health, all the things that we look at when we assess - so let's say there are eight or ten there. Most average programs have about 125 volunteers at least, and many countries could increase their numbers of volunteers, so there is another 1,500 and things would build from there.
The rest would probably be new programs, return programs--places like Nepal or Bangladesh that we hope to return to one day.
Hugh Pickens: How much does it cost to go into a new country? What is that one time cost of putting the infrastructure in place to support a new program?
Director Tschetter: Two and a half to three million dollars. Then your ongoing program, a lot of variables go into that, but you could say that it is a 2.5 million one time cost.
Transition to the Obama Administration
"I had a meeting with senior staff, we talked about the transition and I said, "We are going to sprint to the finish" and do everything possible to make this transition as smooth as possible."
Hugh Pickens: What is being done here at Peace Corps headquarters to ensure a smooth transition to the new administration?
Director Tschetter: First of all I am unequivocally 100 percent committed to that, and thirty days ago, I don't remember if it was before or after the election, I had a meeting with senior staff, we talked about the transition and I said, "We are going to sprint to the finish" and do everything possible to make this transition as smooth as possible. We have prepared transition books, they are ready to go. We've got lists of topics. I have got a number of things that I would like to talk to the new Director about. Initiatives that I have been thinking about that I haven't quite finished and so on and so forth. But we are very committed to a smooth transition, everybody is, not just me, so we believe it is going to happen.
Hugh Pickens: Has the Obama transition team given you any indication of a time frame for when they will announce a new director?
Director Tschetter: No, nothing at all in that realm. We have only just begun to have conversations with them. Nobody has even been here yet or said who the initial oversight or transition team will be. So that is still in the formulating stages of the Obama team, and I anticipate that within the next couple of weeks we will be having some significant discussions with them.
The Job of Peace Corps Director
"I have to tell you there hasn't been a day that I have been director of the Peace Corps I haven't been excited to get in here to work in the morning because even here, the passion runs deep. It is all over this building and it is all over the world. "
Hugh Pickens: What have you enjoyed most about the job of Peace Corps Director?
Director Tschetter: Good question. First of all, to be Director of the Peace Corps after having been a volunteer and had a career in between, that is an honor that you can only dream about, much less experience. So it has just been an honor to be here. I guess the most stimulating exciting part of it is just going out and seeing the volunteers. When I go out there, I make sure that we carve out at least half of our time in country visiting with volunteers, and we try to go to sites and see them at their work. I've done home stays out there to see what it is like again after 40 years, and I come back from those trips with insights and understanding, with ideas, with unbelievable respect and encouragement, because these young people, older people, these Americans, are the best we have that are giving their best and are making a difference. It's very satisfying to see all of that happen.
I have to tell you there hasn't been a day that I have been director of the Peace Corps I haven't been excited to get in here to work in the morning because even here, the passion runs deep. It is all over this building and it is all over the world. Some of our host country staff have been with the Peace Corps for thirty years now because they are immune to the five year rule as you might recall, and they feel as strongly about it today as the day they joined.
We are a very unique organization I think with regards to how people contribute to make it happen.
Accomplishments as Director
"I was sitting with the King and Queen of Jordan, and they were expressing their appreciation of our program there. The Queen looked at me and said "Can you help us generate or create volunteerism from within - get our people to volunteer?" and I said "we're going to look into that, see what we can do." And it wasn't thirty days later when the President of Benin was here and asked for the same thing and several other requests like this came up so I said, "We've got to be better at creating and leaving a legacy of volunteerism with the people that we are serving." We came up with the idea creating - I call it - the "volunteerism toolbox." It's really an information source for every volunteer, a manual. It's going to give them all the why's the how-to's, wherefores, what to look for, the variables of how to generate volunteerism in the countries they are serving in."
Hugh Pickens: And what one accomplishment are you most proud of?
Director Tschetter: Well, I can't give you one, I can give you a couple. I could give you three.
Certainly our 50+ initiative, I am really pleased with how that's caught on. The reason we didn't roll it out for almost a year was we wanted to spend time studying and evaluating it and seeing what the pitfalls were, where the hurdles were, and that was the staff that was doing all of that. I think the 50+ initiative is one that I am really proud of.
The second one is measuring our contribution, our accountability, and our successes. You know the Peace Corps is an organization of great stories and we have many - in fact every returned volunteer could tell you many - but we haven't done a good job of measuring our impact. What do we do out there? How many people do we touch every day? All of those kinds of things. It's not even rolled out because the budget has to be approved first, but we have done a whole new five year plan and part of the plan that is so unique is there are measurements that weren't there before so now we are not only able to be held accountable but we know what we are doing, who we are touching, how we are impacting people.
Hugh Pickens: Senator Norm Coleman suggested something like that a couple of years ago. Is that what you are doing, basically metrics to measure the effectiveness of volunteers?
Director Tschetter: He did, yes he did. It gets complex when you wade into it so I said look we are not going to do this overnight because it is a moving target and we are going to get better and better and better at it, but we have started measuring our impact now and that's the good news. Part of it was technology. We had to enhance our technology ability. You know country directors would tell me this. They would say, "You know you come out here and ask for all this information and I have it but it isn't in a box. It's not in one database, it's in four, five six different databases. And me, the country director, or my assistant has to go in there and do this for you and why can't you just have one look?" I call it the google of the Peace Corps, and I say tell me whatever this information is and it will go in and do that and extract that for you. That's an oversimplification but that's kind of where I want to take it, and I think that we are well on our way.
And then the third one, if I may be so bold, started with my very first trip as Director. I was sitting with the King and Queen of Jordan, and they were expressing their appreciation of our program there. The Queen looked at me and said "Can you help us generate or create volunteerism from within - get our people to volunteer?" and I said "we're going to look into that, see what we can do." And it wasn't thirty days later when the President of Benin was here and asked for the same thing and several other requests like this came up so I said, "We've got to be better at creating and leaving a legacy of volunteerism with the people that we are serving." We came up with the idea creating - I call it - the "volunteerism toolbox." It's really an information source for every volunteer, a manual. It's going to give them all the why's the how-to's, wherefores, what to look for, the variables of how to generate volunteerism in the countries they are serving in. And guess what - we are rolling it out tomorrow.
So I'm proud of all three of those accomplishments. I wish I could tell you I have established the Peace Corps Foundation for a fourth one - but it's on its way.
A message for the Returned Volunteer Community
"I think my appreciation for the returned Peace Corps community is larger than it has ever been for what they continue to do because once you have done this it never leaves you, and it is a life changing experience. That is the most common descriptor that any of us have of our experience as volunteers and it is a life commitment so you are never an ex-Peace Corps volunteer, you are a returned Peace Corps volunteer. So keep up the good work - that's my message."
Hugh Pickens: And what is next for you Director?
Director Tschetter: You know, I've committed that I'm not going to think about that until I'm out of here and I really haven't. I was retired before I came here so I could certainly go back and do that but that doesn't sound very exciting to me. I'll be doing something and then maybe helping on a pro bono basis with Peace Corps initiatives or whatever. But I don't really know.
Hugh Pickens: That concludes my interview questions. Any message for the Returned Volunteer community?
Director Tschetter: I think we've really covered a lot in this interview. I appreciate returned volunteers' interest in the Peace Corps. I happened to be in Panama when the "Friends of Panama" were having a reunion there. There were some that had served within the last five years and some that went back to Panama I from way back. But when you sit down with a group like that like I did in Thailand and see their interest and passion for that country they served in and in that case they were raising money for various projects. I think my appreciation for the returned Peace Corps community is larger than it has ever been for what they continue to do because once you have done this it never leaves you, and it is a life changing experience. That is the most common descriptor that any of us have of our experience as volunteers and it is a life commitment so you are never an ex-Peace Corps volunteer, you are a returned Peace Corps volunteer. So keep up the good work - that's my message.
Links to Related Topics (Tags):
Headlines: December, 2008; Ron Tschetter; Peace Corps Headquarters; Staff; Five Year Rule; Legislation; Peace Corps Bolivia; Directory of Bolivia RPCVs; Messages and Announcements for Bolivia RPCVs; Safety and Security of Volunteers; Expansion
When this story was posted in December 2008, this was on the front page of PCOL:
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As a 50+ person, I have attempted the PC application process twice, and found it just way too difficult for an older American. The most difficult parts are the gathering of docments, in my case, 3 divorce decrees, and transcripts. Why ask for High School transcripts when I can provide those from my college, which would mean I obviously fulfilled HS requirements? Then comes the daunting medical clearance, which is the onus of the volunteer with all the forms, etc.
I am a working individual, and I do not have the time to get this done in a timely manner. It takes ages to get the time off, and to make the appointments, etc.
Why can the PC not use a system similar to the military, or the military AFEES system itself? All of these functions could be housed in regional centers and completed in two, maybe three visits. The application could be used to indicate schools and divorce records etc, and in this day and age, could be checked electronically. In the county in which I work, we do routine background checks for even part-time employees, and the process is complete within a week or month or so, depending on the employee. Extremely simple. The medical exam is done in a day, and the individual is on the job the next.
Another item: Why only a two-year maximum? I am in a position, common to quite a few "baby-boomers", whee I will not be able to retire until I am quite old. I am extremely willing to offer the rest of my "golden years" to the PC, either moving from loation to location, or several long-term assignments. Two years, especially to those of us who have already spent time living abroad, know that two years is just the initial adjustment period, and more time would allow us to make a greater impact assisting communities to help themselves. I would love to be involved in the PC while I am still in good shape and health, and not too far on the fragile side of life.
I can guarantee that if the process is simplified and streamlined you would be able to blow the 15% goal completely out of the water.
Everyone read Ron siskind's new book on "the way of the world"? (sic)best interview in years supporting the peace corps fropm an unlikely source: wendy Chamberlin, at p.147, former USAID, now Deputy at UN Refugee: Basecially Peace corps people-to-people contact vs. gov.-to-gov is the best program ever, far more than the billions she handed out that went into corruption and wrong-minded projects. Dan Wemhoff colombia I