February 25: Keeping Kennedy's Promise - The Numbers Game

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Keeping Kennedy's Promise - The Numbers Game


One of the finest books written about the history of the Peace Corps is "Keeping Kennedy's Promise" by C. Payne Lucas and Kevin Lowther. Published in 1978 in a limited edition, the book is almost impossible to find today.

Although the book was written almost 25 years ago, the issues that were raised are still as relevant as the day the book was published. In this issue of Peace Corps Online we provide an excerpt from the chapter titled "The Numbers Game" which we believe is extremely important now that the Peace Corps has been given a mandate to double the number of volunteers in the next five years.

The purpose of this article is not to discourage the Peace Corps from reaching their goal. Rather it is to point out that the last time the Peace Corps expanded so rapidly, there were serious problems. By studying the problems in the last rapid expansion and knowing the pitfalls, it is our hope that the Peace Corps will avoid its previous mistakes.

About the Authors

The book was written by C. Payne Lucas and Kevin Lowther who together had almost 20 years cumulative experience working in the Peace Corps. C. Payne joined the Peace Corps headquarters staff in 1961 and served as Peace Corps Director in Togo and Niger before returning to Washington in 1966 to become Deputy Regional Director for Africa. In 1967, he became Regional Director for Africa.

Kevin Lowther served as a Volunteer in Sierra Leone from 1963-65. He then participated in a training program and served recruitment, assigned to visiting historically black colleges in the South during the first half of 1966. He joined the Washington staff as a public information officer in 1966 and the Africa Region in 1967 as Operations Officer for Southern Africa.

In 1969, Lucas and Lowther were asked by Peace Corps Director Joe Blatchford to establish a new office to help returned Volunteers to apply the skills they had developed abroad into relevant community-based and professional activities at home. In 1971, as they departed the Peace Corps, Lucas and a group of ex-PC staff and Volunteers established Africare. Lowther became a newspaper editor for seven years, then joined the Africare staff to open its first program in Southern Africa. He spent five years in Zambia and came back in 1984 to run Africare's expanding portfolio of eight countries in Southern Africa.

C. Payne Lucas has been honored by several U.S. presidents as well as leaders of more than two dozen African nations, receiving decorations from the national orders of Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, Niger, Senegal and Zambia, and the 1984 U.S. Presidential End Hunger Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement "in the effort to achieve a world without hunger." C Payne Lucas was recently honored by the Peace Corps with the Franklin H. Williams Award for outstanding leadership contributions that returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Color have made in the area of community service.

How the Book was written

Their book provides an inside look at the Peace Corps and relies on a large body of internal Peace Corps documents bearing on agency policies, program development, and volunteer performance. One of the principal sources for the book is the agency's own extensive evaluations of individual country programs written by the highly sensitive observers who worked in Charlie Peter's Evaluation Division.

The authors are preparing a second edition to their book which will be ready for sale at the Peace Corps Fortieth plus one in June. In the meantime, please read this excerpt from "Keeping Kennedy's Promise"

The Numbers Game

In the heady days of the New Frontier (and at the height of the Cold War), a large Peace Corps seemed to make eminently greater sense than a small trial effort.

In the heady days of the New Frontier (and at the height of the Cold War), a large Peace Corps seemed to make eminently greater sense than a small trial effort. Although many within and outside the administration counseled caution, the Peace Corps had caught the nations imagination. It was a natural response to embarrassing American failures in the foreign assistance field, an antidote to The Ugly American. It asserted Americans' pride in themselves as a practical as well as peaceful people. It was a daring stroke in the ideological contest between Western democracy and the socialist doctrines for the allegiance of the postcolonial world.

Nothing, however, better explains the unmet promise of the Peace Corps than its initial emphasis on placing large numbers of volunteers in the field. (Warren) Wiggins himself later conceded that the commitment to mounting a Peace Corps of major proportions created a momentum of its own that eventually overwhelmed the agency's ability to develop and manage programs effectively. Too much was left to the overromanticized adaptability of volunteers and too little was subject to sound discovery and planning of jobs. Huge programs were inaugurated before staff could thoroughly scout the unfamiliar terrain of strange cultures. As a result, hundreds of volunteers marked time in poorly chosen assignments.

The numbers game, as it came to be called, was an inherently contradictory process. The Peace Corps first had to find willing host countries, and frequently it had to court uninterested and suspicious governments. Later, the preoccupation with building larger and larger programs contrasted oddly with the agency's abiding belief in the worth of the individual volunteer; and the well-advertised premium on quality in choosing volunteers was compromised when necessary to meet continuing commitments to countries hosting hundreds of volunteers.

Programming was shallow. Inexperience conspired with a conscious bias among many Peace Corps staff against becoming too like the technical experts and professional programmers in the foreign aid establishment. Volunteers in any event were assumed to be competent to find their own program if necessary. By definition they were highly flexible self-starters who could adjust to shifting circumstances on the job. To force them into rigidly defined roles might smother their native American ingenuity. Confident that almost any right-spirited American could accomplish some good overseas, the Peace Corps was able in good conscience to sacrifice thousands of volunteers at the altar of expansion.

Five thousand volunteered during the Peace Corps first official month-March 1961. Beyond tentative interest in Ghana, Colombia, Chile, Tanzania, and the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, however, there was no comparable surge of interest abroad. Several governments preferred to study the new, somewhat mystifying, American initiative cautiously. (Sargent) Shriver and senior aides left almost immediately to find willing host countries to accommodate the stampede of applicants. Shriver stimulated many program requests with his charisma and infectious idealism. A president's handshake and a minister's quick calculation of his manpower needs and the thing was done.2 Washington staff dashed abroad, responding to any vibration of interest, and returned to headquarters with skeletal program requests. Job descriptions were supplied later, but the basic commitments were made at the upper echelon, often by Peace Corps and host officials who were only vaguely aware of what the volunteers would be doing or the field conditions they would encounter.

The Philippines seemed an ideal setting for one of the Peace Corps maiden programs.

There were early and widespread signs that the "numbers game" was insinuating itself into the Peace Corps programming process. The first serious embarrassment was the Philippines, where it soon became obvious that the first volunteer arrivals-teachers' aides-were not desperately needed. Yet the Peace Corps proceeded with plans to send hundreds more to serve as teachers aides and to work in something hazily described as community development.

The Philippines seemed an ideal setting for one of the Peace Corps maiden programs. The country had experienced a half century of American stewardship before independence and in a sense shared a common political heritage with the United States. A sizable commitment of volunteers to the Philippines seemed only natural. But their early efforts were largely wasted in ill-defined roles.

In Colombia, the Peace Corps appeared bent on repeating its difficulties in the Philippines. More than 600 volunteers were planned by the end of 1963, prompting the staff member in charge of the community development program to lament the emphasis "on how many they (Washington) can get into the field instead of what they are doing. …Colombia can't support any more."

Declining morale and poor standards of dress among volunteers were reported from Ecuador in 1963 by a concerned American scholar who visited the program. He wrote to Peace Corps/Washington that too many underemployed volunteers were visibly congregating in the cities: "If you see clusters of Ecuadoreans standing on one street corner staring without expression at a cluster of Peace Corpsmen on the opposite corner, as I did on more than one occasion. . . you cannot help but realize that something is amiss." He recommended against sending additional volunteers "to populate other street corners or coffee shops" unless the Peace Corps could find suitable work for them. "A fast build-up of numbers of Volunteers right now," he warned, "may make good reading in the United States and may please even some elements of the Ecuadorean government. But it is a sham and a delusion to 'sell' it as either necessary or desirable."

One of the first severely critical analyses of the numbers phenomenon emerged from an evaluation of the Senegal program in 1963. It strongly implied that the rapid growth of the Peace Corps in its first two years had retarded the ability of staff in Washington and overseas to program carefully. "Reckless expansion and frantic scrambling initially necessary to get the agency on its feet seem to have taken on the qualities of absolute virtue," the report said. "Careful planning, definition of policy, concern with standards. … [are] censured as creeping bureaucracy an epithet. The Peace Corps has acquired a certain momentum. This is desirable, but only so long as we control it. Presently it seems to be controlling us. …We'll do a better job in the long run if we do a better job now. Volunteers lose their dedication when they find sloppy and indifferent programming and back-up, and become sloppy and indifferent themselves."

In a covering note to a similarly uncomplimentary review of the program in Brazil, Charles Peters, the agency's director of evaluation, suggested to Shriver in 1963 that the Peace Corps was "being prostituted by an attempt to play the numbers game with a sick project. … As an evaluator, you feel you have a duty to raise hell-that … you've got to make clear to the people in Washington how demoralizing the numbers game can be when witnessed by unemployed Volunteers." It was a typical comment from the agency gadfly and conscience, a man who was forever citing the gaps between the Peace Corps ideals and reality-to little avail.

Shriver was extremely sensitive to suggestions that the Peace Corps was deliberately fostering a "numbers game." In August 1963, Peters told the director that he hoped a critical report on the Liberia program would "deal a deathblow to thinking of Liberia as a dumping ground for large numbers of marginal PCVs. We played that game in the Philippines and brought ourselves one hell of a lot of trouble."

The Peace Corps was proceeding on the basis of America's "historic commitment" to Liberia, it said, and intended to "wedge" a thousand or more volunteers into Africa "by hook or crook."

The report questioned plans to introduce 150 additional volunteers in the fall of 1963 to supplement the eighty-two teachers already in Liberia. The Peace Corps was proceeding on the basis of America's "historic commitment" to Liberia, it said, and intended to "wedge" a thousand or more volunteers into Africa "by hook or crook." Liberia, according to the schedule of projects, was due to escalate shortly to 325 volunteers in a country of just one million people. "If it was done in the assumption that Liberia is a 'safe' place for rapid deployment of Volunteers," the report complained, "our quarrel is with the soundness of Peace Corps expansionist policy."

Shriver tartly denied that the Peace Corps planned to "wedge" volunteers into Africa, which he doubted could absorb the 3,000 volunteers mentioned. "We have no such expansionist policy," he said with finality. Nevertheless, by 1966 there were more than 3,000 volunteers serving in Africa.

Shriver agreed in theory, at least, that a few volunteers doing excellent work were preferable to many doing average or mediocre jobs. He was clearly impressed with one evaluators "firm conviction that the reasoning that pushed us for the numbers at any cost will eventually eat out the heart of the Peace Corps if it is not stopped. . . . Our basic strategy for Congress, for public opinion, for host country acceptance and for recruiting need be nothing more complex than excellence and service. Numbers have little to do with either."

The White House was calling upon the Peace Corps to double its size, and President Johnson was contemplating at least 20,000 as the immediate goal.

Meanwhile, the Peace Corps was growing by quantum leaps to its peak of about 15,000 volunteers and trainees in 1966. The White House was calling upon the Peace Corps to double its size, and President Johnson was contemplating at least 20,000 as the immediate goal. People were volunteering in record numbers in the mid-1960s but still more were needed to satisfy the expanding demand.

The initial doubt and skepticism in foreign minds had quickly given way to substantial acceptance of the Peace Corps and its volunteers. Thirty countries swelled the list of subscribers in 1962, exceeding the agency's ability to recruit and train volunteers who matched its high standards. There simply were not enough qualified volunteers to maintain existing commitments, much less add to them. As programs grew larger and more numerous, bitter controversy arose over which regions and countries were to receive the best applicants.

Jack Vaughn, then regional director for Latin America, expressed concern to Shriver early in 1963 that Africa and the Philippines were getting most of the college graduates, thus leaving Latin America with less-qualified manpower. Peters, meanwhile, urged stricter selection standards across the board and suggested that the "strong element of fantasy in our program projections for Latin America will be revealed if we apply tough standards." In other words, if the Peace Corps truly accepted only the top applicants, it would be unable to provide the number and caliber of volunteers promised. Shriver conceded that congressional criticism of the size of the Philippines program-and the need for volunteers elsewhere-might dictate postponing new programs there until later in 1963. But he never conceded that the Peace Corps might be deliberately or unintentionally compromising selection standards.

Peace Corps selection criteria graded trainees from 5 to 1 in descending order of excellence. From early 1962 it had been policy to select for training only applicants classified 5 and 4, although 3s were being taken into some programs. Wiggins, in fact, decided in the spring of 1962-just as the Peace Corps was entering its most hectic period of growth-to experiment with 3s. He personally reviewed a number of applications and agreed with the selection staff that only a third to a half of the 3s were worth inviting to training. Wiggins-the architect of expansion-decreed that the Peace Corps should cut back its programs rather than accept 3s who had not been reviewed jointly by program staff as well as by selection personnel. This laborious procedure was followed for a time, but it soon was honored more often in the breach because of competing pressures on the program staff. As a result, many poorly qualified 3s slipped into training to help satisfy overseas "demand."

One program in Central America began floundering badly. Both the program and selection offices conceded that the volunteers serving there (circa 1963) were a "barrel-scraped crew." Faced with internal rumblings that the Peace Corps was deliberately lowering its standards rather than canceling projects or accepting shortfalls, Shriver rejected advice that the number of 3s selected for training should be carefully limited and that the Peace Corps awake to its "crisis of quality." He strongly disagreed that 3s were necessarily weak. Many had performed as well as the top-rated volunteers. He doubted that limiting selection to 5s would have any more than marginal effect on the quality of volunteer work.

But Shriver's ideals rested on mere mortals. It was one thing to philosophize that 3s should be given an opportunity to serve because some had performed above expectation. It was quite another to overlook the widespread consequences of the Peace Corps concession to benign mediocrity. This became increasingly evident during the Peace Corps surge of expansion in 1963-1966. The agency was committed to having 10,000 volunteers in the field by August 1965, and although the shortage of qualified applicants forced the agency to trim its projections, the selection machinery actually overfilled some projects. One selection officer that year admitted making a "farce" of a Latin American country's request: "We dumped PCVs . . . with hardly a by-your-leave to the country director. We told young Americans they were vitally needed to fill non-existent jobs."

The numbers complex had firmly insinuated itself in the Peace Corps operational ethic. Thus the African regional office in Washington could write to its director in Guinea of "our mutual wish for a big program" while the director strove hard to save what program he already had. And the Turkey program could forge ahead in 1966 on a record of four years of non-accomplishment-living testimony, said one Peace Corps observer, to the Peace Corps "enormous faith in the magic power of numbers."

A 1965 program document drafted in Washington spoke of the Turkey project in almost fictional terms

A 1965 program document drafted in Washington spoke of the Turkey project in almost fictional terms: "The government of Turkey now accepts the Peace Corps fully and is ready to initiate formative and institutional changes based on the competency and availability of Volunteers. There is no question that when a program involves a large number of PC Vs, the leverage for induced change and improvement increases." The statement was meaningless, of course, except for what it revealed about the agency's abstract programming and its preoccupation with scale as a measure of impact. The arrogance of "leverage for induced change" made an odd contrast with Shriver's stated belief that the size and impact of a program were not necessarily related.

While the Peace Corps was inflating programs of questionable substance in Turkey and elsewhere, it was also holding at bay several smaller countries that were requesting relatively modest projects. Shriver was opposed in principle to spreading the Peace Corps among too many nations, especially ministates, lest this stretch the abilities of talented overseas staff-not volunteers-beyond the breaking point. The view had not yet taken hold, as it would a few years later, that narrower, tightly planned, and tightly administered projects in smaller countries offered better hope of genuine impact than did many of the massive, diffuse, and inefficient programs then in vogue.

After establishing forty-six country programs within the first two years, the Peace Corps added only two nations to its roster-Kenya and Uganda-in 1964 - 1965. Many small countries were put off, their requests tabled while the Peace Corps shepherded hundreds of volunteers into Nigeria, Brazil, Colombia, India, the Philippines, and Thailand to sustain large, ongoing commitments.

As early as 1962, the bias against smaller countries was challenged within the agency. Many directors in the French speaking countries of West Africa objected to the stress upon big programs-only large projects seemed to be entertained in Washington. Shriver sympathized. but argued that small projects were a poor test of a programs potential and were costlier to mount.

Three years later, country directors in Africa were still concerned that imaginative new programs, requiring ten or fifteen volunteers, were being rejected in Washington in favor of large, established projects. David Hapgood, one of the agency's most perspicacious evaluators, lent special force to this refrain when he returned in 1965 greatly impressed by what he had seen a handful of volunteers accomplishing in Niger, a poor Saharan nation that the Peace Corps clearly regarded as a marginal program. The Peace Corps, Hapgood said, was cheating itself by ignoring or shortchanging smaller countries. Man for man, woman for woman, volunteers had a better opportunity to achieve tangible results in these less grandiose, more manageable undertakings than in the larger arenas preferred by the Peace Corps. "The individual Volunteer is of declining importance as the program expands," Hapgood said with conviction.

Hapgood criticized the Peace Corps tendency to think big-a fault that he believed encouraged some host countries to let their imaginations exceed their capacity to employ large numbers of volunteers effectively. He was not against bigness per Se; he was worried that the agency's clarity of purpose and the quality of its programs might suffer in proportion to a project's obesity.

Shriver disagreed. The entire Peace Corps was "minuscule" in terms of the overall needs. Even 20,000 volunteers would be pitifully few. To Hapgood's recommendation that the Peace Corps expand successful programs slowly at first and build on sound experience, Shriver replied that this risked allowing good projects to stagnate.

The Peace Corps never did place 20,000 volunteers in the field at one time. But it tried.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; US Peace Corps - Overseas Programs; US Peace Corps - History; Special Report - Keeping Kennedy's Promise



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