The Peace Corps without it's Alumni - a critical look

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The Peace Corps without it's Alumni - a critical look


Peace Corps Without Its Alumni

by E. Timothy Carroll, 63-65

Editorís Note: This is the second of a three--part series taking a critical look at the NPCA, Peace Corps, and country of service groups. The author was the first director of the NPCA and received the Sergant Shriver Award for Humanitarian Service in 1986. He was a Country Director in Pakistan and Poland before he opened the Moscow Peace Corps Office in 1994.

Two items in the morning paper: Congress plans to increase the Peace Corps budget to achieve the mythic goal of 10,000 volunteers in the field. And House supporter Tom Chapman (R-CA), will be seeking legislation so "Peace Corps volunteers would have the same benefits as Foreign Service Officers."

The thought of your average volunteer headed out to a site with 5,000 pounds of sea freight on the roof of a bus is enough to give this alum a heart attack.

Obviously, a goodly number of people who haven't the first clue about Peace Corps, are reworking its design, while 150,000 alumni, perfectly qualified to improve the agency, sit on their hands.

It takes an informed constituency, dedicated to serious monitoring, to prevent plaque build-up in government-run programs. Peace Corps, like others, is healthier under a regimen of regular flossing. We, the alumni and rightful bearers of the torch, must pitch in to keep the agency focused on values consistent with its mission or be prepared for our present-day counterparts to have an experience considerably diminished from our own.

Most volunteers, once launched, need little from headquarters, merely a fighting chance to deliver their services. These are often personalized beyond recognition by the bean-counters but performed with the spirit that has made Peace Corps legendary. Left to their own devices, volunteers perform superbly in the field. Every American who has been through this excellent experience ought to be concerned that successors are afforded the same opportunities.

There should be a single question on the mind of every staff person on Peace Corps payroll: What can I do to give each volunteer the opportunity to feel successful? A vocal, committed alumni would keep dialogue between the field and headquarters, always capable of improvement, focused on the trenches, a point of view sometimes lost in political Washington.

Here are a few ideas which, if promoted by a healthy percentage of RPCVs, could make a serious difference in the support of present volunteers.

Reduce the number of political appointees in key positions.

When Congress approved John Kennedy's brother-in-law Sargent Schriver, as the first director of the Peace Corps, he and his deputy, were the only political appointees. Shriver is adamant about the need to return to that configuration. Over the years, the steady creep of "Schedule Cs", that softspeak term applied to government employees receiving their positions through connections rather than merit, has risen more sharply in Peace Corps than in other government agencies. It is seen as a dumping ground for presidential favorites. Who couldn't do well at doing good?

Presently, pivotal managerial positions--already weakened by the revolving door of the five-year rule--suffer from party regulars pouring in without benefit of field experience. The agency director is expected to accept employees from various wings of the party, making team building complex and time consuming.

It would be a great service to the agency if concerned RPCVs would address this issue directly with Congress, the only body who can correct the imbalance. Everybody would win, except the cronies.

Purify the Five-Year Rule.

Congress in its wisdom, demanded in 1961 that no staff person serve in Peace Corps longer than five years. While it tears holes in the personal lives of employees, it is a brilliant concept. If it weren't for The Rule, folks who first got the overseas appointments would still be there. It gives new talent a chance to rise and serve the agency at its best. It keeps the agency fresh, free from careerists and hide-bound bureaucrats, and attracts workers who sign up for the love of it.

However, over the past 35-plus years, the agency has approved detours around The Rule. With a nod from the director, the anointed serve up to eight and a half years. This two-tiered system is without transparency, leads to charges of favoritism, and sparks sycophancy. Again, it would serve the agency for the alumni to go directly to Congress, demanding that no exceptions be allowed to this sound concept. Equality in staff ranks would strengthen the agency and considerably boost morale.

The five-year rule should be returned to its ingenious, original simplicity.

Convince Congress to pay Peace Corps for the work it does.

Serious administrative frustration exists within the agency because of the persistent need to find additional, but outside, funds. The agency is weakened ficrst by a network of interagency agreements. These force Peace Corps to go, hat in hand, to other agencies such as USAID or EPA to request additional monies because sufficient funds havenít been allocated. Further, in a desperate search for additional, the Office of Private Sector Cooperation was created within the agency to solicit gifts from non-government sources to help make ends meet. It is an embarrassing mixture of public and private funds, and it has the potential for great mischief.

I administered a program to which a philanthropist gave $1.2 million earmarked for a specific program. The donor, feeling a sense of ownership, sought constant access to my office to keep an eye on how his money was spent. This was discomforting and chaotic.

All this hubbub is avoided if Congress simply pays for a program they profess to admire. A vocal alumni is the ideal instrument for convincing Congress to fully finance the mission of the Peace Corps in an orderly fashion.

Professionalize executive recruitment of staff members.

Horror stories abound. There is no consistent path for alumni talent to find work at Peace Corps. Flourishing insider trading and powerful corridor-talk make blind recruiting impossible. An alumni ombudsman would help keep executive recruitment open, honest, and effective.

Recruit volunteers with new methodology.

The dirtiest secret in the agency is that delivering the fabled 10,000 volunteers is only remotely possible. Under the present recruiting regime, a constant battle is waged between facing an under-fill or dumbing down the skills requested by host countries.

Stories from 635 volunteers who served during my five years in the field, had one persistent theme: nobody got through recruitment smoothly and no two people were treated to the same process. Surely some experienced professional can make recruitment an effective network for finding the brightest and best. Presently the task is handed off to a political appointee.

Alumni, where are you? This is tailor-made for you.

Coordinate exiting a country with establishing an indigenous volunteer NGO.

As Peace Corps continues to extract itself from Eastern and Central Europe, a thoughtful exit policy which combines agency needs with the interests of the host country government should be brought into play. Thus far, the agency has bundled up its volunteers and staff and gone home. Lip service and feeble attempts are the present legacy in Hungary and the Czech Republic. No successful conduit has been found for an ongoing program of dynamic community volunteerism after the agency closes.

It would fit RPCV goals for a local NGO to inherit the methodology of the Peace Corps. An appropriate successor would encourage, train, and raise public awareness regarding community service. It could also serve as a conduit for people-to-people programming to which RPCVs are dedicated.

Alumni should demand that Peace Corps not leave a country without considering the needs of the RPCVs who depart from their country-of-service with a lifetime commitment. They would be appropriately served to have a new generation of NGOs, led by local volunteers, available to them and their inevitable generosity.

If local hires were also obliged to observe the five-year rule, they would be a regular and rich resource for leadership in the idiginous NGO community.

Tolerate no more insults from the President.

Imagine the Veterans' Administration being run by someone who had never served in the military. The President would never consider it for a nanosecond because that alumni would excoriate him. Why are we RPCVs so docile and pathetic on this issue? We need a Peace corps Director who has served well in the field, lived by those principles, and views the agency as more than a political plum, a stepping stone, a podium. The director must be one returning to familiar ground, leading from experience, ignoring the myths, compounding the dividend, nurturing the esprit de corps.

Never again should an election pass with the alumni standing still. Never again should a pal of the winner be confirmed as director without the endoresement of an alumni advisory panel. Never again should the RPCV voice be ignored in the process of choosing the leader whose mandate is to understand our brothers and sisters in the field. RPCVs instinctively know the values of volunteers are such that if they are feeling successful, one can be sure the project is working. Yet we are overlooked in determining the most important decision the President makes for us.

If inequities of this magnitude occurred in our villages, you can bet we would have done something about it, and in a lot less time. We need to act smart. When are 150,000 voting alumni going to be heard from?

Enlarge the role of the NPCA to seriously lobby

and monitor the agency.

As noted above, there are serious ways in which NPCA could effectively serve the agency. In its earliest days, the RPCV movement was able to both support and openly monitor the agency, an enviable track record. But today the agency is a funding source for the NPCA and alumni may be hesitant to interfere with the cash flow. That must not deter us. We should feel free to speak out whenever the agency veers from the course thought best by the returned volunteers.

And as importantly, a powerful caring arm of protection, represented by thousands of alumni across the country, should be thrown around the administration if the agency is threatened.

On two occasions the alumni were effective in exactly that role. When political enemies of a Reagan-appointed director decided to move Peace Corps headquarters into rural Virginia, a mailing campaign of majestic proportions was mounted in record time and successfully convinced the designated Hill Committee the agency must remain in central Washington.

And, in one of Peace Corpsí darkest hours, when all the country directors were coming out of the White House, then-Senator Alan Cranston, was convinced by a persistent RPCV lobby to put a rider on a bill speeding through Congress which demanded such practice halt. And it did.

Peace Corps should embrace the concept of a powerful lobby of private citizens dedicated to agency excellence and possessing demographics capable of making Congress quiver in its quorum. This smallest of federal agencies, such an uniquely American institution, would gain in every way by welcoming and encouraging RPCV participation, utilizing past leadership. There would be inevitable bonuses for all, always the outcome in our tradition of service.

All we need to do is care, and act, to make the difference.

By Michael Mery ( - on Sunday, April 22, 2007 - 11:32 am: Edit Post

Wonderful essay - I just stumbled on it by accident. My wife and I were in Thailand 63-65 running a special program at Chulalongkorn Univ. Although I agree with your approach, I think that the private NGO world is far better equipped than the PC what ever the problems might be. I've had long experience working with groups in India that far better fulfill the better intentions of the PC without the burden of carrying the flag, the inevitable outcome of being a government employee.

all the best.

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