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Friends of Nigeria Website - Has the NCPA been a Success?
IS THE NPCA A SUCCESS?
By Roger Landrum, 61-63
Editor's Note: In the next three issues, the last before we head into the 21st century, the FON Newsletter will present a Millennium Series. Distinguished RPCVs will take a critical look at the NPCA, the Peace Corps, and country-of-service groups. Our first author is former president of the NPCA Board and PCV/Washington. Founder and CEO of Youth Service America, he also currently heads Youth Service International, a group of RPCVs sponsoring youth service programming in emerging democracies.
From the earliest days, expectations about the impact of returning Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) were high. "The most important development in the future of the Peace Corps will be the impact of returning Volunteers on American society," Sargent Shriver announced in 1963. Peace Corps would be the Harvard of foreign assistance whose alumni would not come home merely to fit into established work places. RPCVs would remain part of an extended Peace Corps family, loyal to a core of international interests distilled from their experience. In due time, they would transform the direction and aims of America’s institutions, making them into better world citizens.
That was the vision in those heady early years. But, unlike detailed plans for programming impact with PCVs overseas, there was no blueprint for achieving tangible goals with RPCVs. The task was left to spontaneous combustion.
So what has happened in 38 years? It is difficult to assess. Some 150,000 RPCVs have diffused back into American culture. The majority have little to do with Peace Corps. As defined by practice, the agency focuses on placing and supervising current PCVs in priority development programming, and returning them home safely. Rhetoric aside, budget allocations and staffing suggest that Peace Corps is largely indifferent to RPCVs.
On their own, 150,000 RPCVs have certainly not transformed American foreign assistance. Congressional and popular opinion today are more reactionary about foreign development assistance than they were during JFK’s presidency. RPCVs may subtly influence the globalization of certain private American and international institutions, but how can that be measured?
The impact of the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) can be assessed. How successful is this central RPCV alumni organization?
The first waves of RPCVs did not want a national organization, at least not one under the influence of the federal government. Lord, Not Another American Legion was the title of a position paper circulated at the first national conference of RPCVs in March 1965. A large majority wanted a national association only if one bubbled up from local groups. Fourteen years passed before a National Council of RPCVs was incorporated in 1979. Seven years later, it had less than 1,500 members, no paid staff, and no clear program agenda. In 1986, a high-spirited 25th anniversary Peace Corps conference organized by RPCVs in D.C. against White House opposition changed things dramatically. It was attended by some 5,000 RPCVs.
Within a year, National Council membership leaped to over 5,000; geographical and country-of-service RPCV groups rapidly proliferated; and conference earnings, membership dues and grants made it possible to open a D.C. office with paid staff. WorldView magazine and several modest program initiatives were launched. A new governance structure incorporating board members from local and country-of-service groups was put in place. Working in coordination, RPCV organizations achieved behind-the-scenes legislative victories in Congress.
They successfully lobbied for the first significant increases in the Peace Corps budget in many years, for removal of country director appointments from White House political patronage, for a Congressional goal of 10,000 PCVs, and for blocking efforts to move Peace Corps headquarters to Virginia. The White House rebuffed efforts to get qualified RPCVs appointed as Peace Corps director, with the exception of RPCV Carol Bellamy (who was appointed because of political connections and served only a brief tenure before moving on). Pleas to give the Third Goal a higher priority have had limited success.
One clear achievement is a steady climb in the membership of the renamed National Peace Corps Association (NPCA). From 5,000 in 1987, membership has reached 17,000 today. WorldView has been transformed into a distinctive magazine about the developing world with significant advertising revenue. Local and country-of-service groups are part of a national network of communication. These achievements should not be underestimated. NPCA has stabilized a membership and budget.
But program initiatives are described as unremarkable, invisible, and too weak to justify significant alumni contributions. NPCA staff praises its Global TeachNet with some 3,000 domestic teachers but it does not have wide appeal to members. One is hard pressed to say that NPCA is having a large public impact here or abroad. There may be at least three reasons.
NPCA founders defined the mission as "bringing the world back home," essentially the Third Goal of Peace Corps. It has not evolved into a high-impact program agenda to attract strong alumni loyalty or major outside funding. Peace Corps could delegate the Third Goal totally to NPCA.
The organizations could collaborate to define an effective program agenda with funding though subcontracts. This requires Peace Corps to dedicate a larger portion of its budget to the Third Goal, helping fund NPCA. Thus far no Peace Corps director has been willing to take the Third Goal this seriously or delegate this much control to NPCA. The Third Goal lacks traction with Congress, Peace Corps, RPCV alumni, and outside funders.
NPCA could develop an activist overseas program agenda (some country-of-service groups have done this on a small, effective scale). Alumni and funding sources would likely have more interest in programs rooted in the unique grassroots development experience of RPCVs. The board, however, has not decided if NPCA’s focus should be domestic or overseas. Two things seem clear. The NPCA mission ought to have stronger direct impact. There must be at least one visible, compelling program to attract alumni loyalty.
RELATIONS WITH PEACE CORPS
The relationship between NPCA and Peace Corps is an odd one. Overseas there is no relationship. It exists only in Washington. NPCA has supported Peace Corps budget appropriations, legislative reforms, and alumni networking. But Peace Corps provides no significant financial support to NPCA. Perhaps the relationship is too cozy—Peace Corps has low expectations of the NPCA while NPCA is exceedingly timid about exercising critical oversight of Peace Corps policies and operations.
The relationship needs to be redefined. It should be mutually beneficial in tangible terms or NPCA should strike out in bolder, independent directions with programs rooted in the unique experience of volunteers. Congress might directly fund high-impact NPCA programming, as it funds many national nonprofits, with a strong Congressional champion—a Senator Dodd or a Kennedy or a Lugar.
Two-thirds of NPCA board members are elected to represent geographical and country-of-service groups, one-third are directly appointed members. It is a democratic arrangement. However, RPCVs (or others) of broad influence or specialized knowledge rarely serve on the NPCA board. The board does not look or act like an influential, independent-sector national board. NPCA members may want grassroots representation, but there are plenty of nationally-influential and wealthy RPCVs to call upon.
Governance decisions are fundamental to NPCA impact. Until NPCA becomes a high-impact organization it will not have strong appeal to alumni or other funders. With 17,000 members, the organization needs a strong, national board to establish ambitious goals and produce results.
It is often argued that RPCVs have little in common once the Peace Corps experience is over and modest success is all we can expect of NPCA. It is possible that whatever special promise RPCVs represent is richly fulfilled through random acts of individual kindness rather than incisive collective actions.
Still, NPCA’s potential is a haunting challenge. It might be able to cut through American cynicism about foreign assistance; to pioneer innovative development models; to expand the ethic of volunteer service world-wide; to translate alumni loyalty and know-how into a well-financed force.
This new frontier requires a sharper mission focus, more visible programming, and path-breaking leadership.