Why the Agency Continues in this State
A few ideas have been suggested as to why the agency culture has become so out of sync with its mission. One idea is encoded into the Peace Corps with what is called the 5-year rule. It was originally intended to foster innovation and independent thinking: direct US hire employees can work no more than five years for the agency. The rule has contributed to the agency’s lack of institutional memory, and such a high turnover rate, combined with the abusive agency culture portrayed in Peasants Come Last, and the high number of politically appointed positions, seems to have facilitated the proliferation of the myth-milking subculture, instead of an innovative culture centered around Peace Corps ideals.
Ludlam and Strauss have pointed out the inordinately high ratio of political appointees to regular staff. The Peace Corps Director is one of 33 political appointees who work at the agency. Meisler’s history of the first 50 years tells us that Shriver didn’t want the Peace Corps to become a political dumping ground, yet that is exactly what happened, and Meisler’s book, a relatively balanced account of history, documents some of this political cronyism.
Since the very beginning the agency has been focused on the quantitative growth of the number of Volunteers at the exclusion of other priorities. The number of Volunteers is proportionate to the budget money received by Congress. But despite a history of criticism over quality programming, the Peace Corps has always been on an expansion crusade, while sidelining questions over the program quality. Links between program quality and problems such as Early Terminations or risky behavior — a contributing factor to Volunteer incidents of violence — have been ignored in favor of expansion.
Lacking any real oversight from Congress, the public, or anywhere else, the political appointees are free to push for the quantitative growth that would increase their meager budget, and fight over scraps at the corner of the Congressional budget table, like the distant cousins of the mob boss that no one wants around, but who have to be included. Strauss pointed out in his 2010 article that the tiny budget of the Peace Corps is the “equivalent of dryer lint at the bottom of the Federal budgetary pocket.” The pettiness of the money-grubbing politics that sacrifices the volunteer program’s idealistic mission is almost surreal.
Jobs are given to campaign contributors, who make their money back in a year or two. The appointees congregate around the iconic reputation of the Peace Corps, using this relic as political currency in DC international development circles. An entire segment of the international development economy revolves around the Peace Corps brand name…not the program’s results. Anecdote is often used to combat the volunteer program’s lack of measurability, but as Larry Brown said in his book, “Charity is a feel-good thing but it is not development.” This statement was mentioned as an aside, but this simple distinction spotlights the key flaw in Peace Corps propaganda. When questions such as “Does the Peace Corps do any good?” are raised, sentimental anecdote is often used to counter such ideas. This reasoning relies on the flawed assumption that charity is development.
A DC resident, Will Dickinson is a first-hand witness to the power of the Peace Corps label. The reputation of the Peace Corps name, he says, catapults people far ahead in the international development industry. There are numerous perks to having the Peace Corps listed on the resume, such as educational and career benefits, not to mention the fact that one can spin their service a multitude of ways to people back in the States.
Will Dickinson spent years working on PeaceCorpsWiki.org to facilitate the development of institutional memory for the Peace Corps, create transparency, and an open source of information for the Peace Corps community. The agency has not responded well to an individual trying to create more transparency while they were striving to stay hidden behind their opaque, iconic reputation. “The agency has no interest in engaging with projects that promote unfiltered volunteer-centric view points,” he said.
The power of the Peace Corps on a resume is directly proportional to the reputation of the Peace Corps. A certain segment of the Peace Corps community know this and viciously defend the legendary reputation. Others keep silent about the agency, which, if challenged, would ostracize them from these power circles. Whether the zealous defenders actually believe the reputation’s reality or not is another question. Regardless, the reputation’s mythic status is being unconsciously maintained by the larger Peace Corps community, and even the news media, whose own instinctual self-preservation keeps them from digging too deep.
Emotionally charged tales of Volunteers who have suffered beneath a blind and uncaring agency, Volunteers who find themselves cut off at the first sign of trouble, unsupported when they need it the most, and communities who are ignored in favor of petty politics all raise interesting ethical questions about the community’s collective responsibility in maintaining such a false image. When a hopeful Volunteer arrives to a nonexistent or irrelevant program, to poverty America can’t even imagine, and when the agency actively maintains this state of existence, it seems difficult to justify the maintenance of the Peace Corps’ sacrosanct image.
The Big Picture
The last decade reveals a culture obsessively devoted to milking the myth, at the expense of the Volunteers, quality programming, and communities in need. Rather than addressing what one Inspector General named a root cause of the Peace Corps’ pervasive problems regarding early terminations and violence toward Volunteers, quality programming, the Peace Corps blames the Volunteers who are victims of violence, sexual assault, crime, and illness. This represents a decisive culture shift from the culture of the early years.
Larry Brown’s 2011 book, Peasants Come Last, depicted the situation with insight. Brown was a Country Director in Uganda until Washington officials fired him as part of a coup to oust African Country Directors who had begun asking too many questions. He depicted an agency which runs its front line staff like a sweat shop, totally oblivious to the communities beneath its feet.
In excruciating detail, Brown describes the top-down bureaucracy that dictated his every move. He said the country level staff were “the figures at the bottom of the puppet strings. The fingers of Washington reached into every aspect of my work.” Washington ruled by control: “show me, prove it, display it, tell all… even about your personal lives.” He details the absurd micromanagement inflicted on the front end staff, and ridiculous expenditures of money at the hands of incompetent Washington officials. In order to make sure Brown and others were not “freeloading off the American government for…$4 meals, the Peace Corps spent between $800-$1,200 in staff time” to keep him in line.
Brown relates the most disturbing scene in the book when describing his attempts to secure Volunteers for a food crisis that was brewing on the Kenya-Uganda border. He informed Washington he desperately needed a certain number of economic development Volunteers for the following year. Several weeks after submitting the request, he was informed he was too late by a month. This deadline, “a deadline about which Washington had never informed me would now preclude all our planning to respond to the urgent needs of Ugandans — in Karamoja, those coming out of the camps, and those in the war-ravaged north.” He tried hard to work with and appease Washington, but his supervisor Lynn Foden shut him down.
Mere weeks before the Volunteer placement dates, Washington politics shifted and Obama’s pledge to increase the size of the Peace Corps shifted the agency priorities. Suddenly Foden, an “acting” HQ staff member who was eager for a permanent placement in the Peace Corps, promised whatever help she could give. Through the beneficence of Washington, Brown was to receive all the help he needed, and more.
Brown’s story comes to an end when he and other African Country Directors are summarily fired for being independent thinkers. These vacancies would make convenient space for Acting Director Jody Olsen’s friends. Lynn Foden would be kept on board for a six digit salary.
The Agency’s Plan
Congress would later require the Peace Corps to write up their previously mentioned “self-assessment,” reporting on selected topics. Despite the whole issue which brought about this mandate from Congress, the agency was allowed to “grade” itself.
The Comprehensive Agency Assessment came out in June 2010. It was written by a team hand-picked by the agency Director, Aaron Williams. The report did not address many key issues brought up by Ludlam’s legislation or testimony, particularly the whistle-blowing provisions. The report responded underhandedly to its critics by bringing up the glaring criticisms which could not be ignored, then doing everything in its power to brush over them.
For example, the report began by answering the question, what would the Peace Corps look like if it were created today? This challenge, to re-envision itself as though it had been created today, had been posed by Strauss in an article for The American Interest. The assessment team’s political answer was that “the Peace Corps will be a leader, in partnership with others, in the global effort to further human progress and foster understanding and respect among people.” This sentence just rephrases the Peace Corps’ three goals, prefixed with “the Peace Corps will be a leader.” The whole report downplayed and buried the Peace Corps’ most serious weaknesses. After white washing and burying the agency’s pervasive First Goal failings, the report ended by suggesting it needed more funds for Third Goal activities.
In stark contrast to Ludlam’s passionate testimony for reform, emphasizing a level playing field between agency and Volunteer, this odd document treats Volunteers more like a variable in its business model. “A positive volunteer experience” seems to be about as far as they want to extend the hand of friendship to the Volunteers.
By presenting Congress a plan without substance, they reaffirmed their entrenched opposition to reform.
The 50th Anniversary
The 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps was coming up in 2011. The Peace Corps didn’t want this reform thing hanging over their heads on the year of their 50th anniversary. Hopefully the Comprehensive Agency Assessment would put that whole reform business in the past. The agency had big plans to promote itself in 2011, and publicity from something like that would hurt their image.
Unfortunately for them, a scandal far worse erupted at the beginning of 2011. In 2009, a Peace Corps Volunteer named Kate Puzey had been murdered by a Peace Corps staff member. She had reported to Peace Corps Headquarters that the staff member was raping his students. She had explicitly requested anonymity from headquarters on such a sensitive matter, but they leaked the information to her Country Director, who in turn told the staff member her identity.
The staff member slit her throat in the middle of the night and the Peace Corps tried to keep the whole thing hidden.
Regarding this tragedy, Ludlam wrote in an open letter to the Peace Corps Community:
We learned that the Peace Corps had transferred authority to investigate crimes against Volunteers away from the Peace Corps Inspector General. The motive was that the Peace Corps IG took these investigations seriously and sought to prosecute the perpetrators, which prolonged the bad publicity arising from these crimes. We later learned that after the Kate Puzey murder the Peace Corps had waited two months before sending anyone to Benin to investigate the case and then sent two auditors who had no experience investigating crime scenes. Because the investigation was botched, the Country Director in Benin has informed Volunteers in Benin that that the Peace Corps staff who perpetrated the murder will be released for lack of evidence against them. Director Aaron Williams was aware of this when he testified at the May 2011 hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee but failed to mention these developments.
This scandal hung like a dark cloud over the Peace Corps’ 50th year. A Congressional hearing was called in May. The hearing revealed heart-wrenching stories of victims of sexual violence, their subsequent neglect and abuse by the Peace Corps, and Director Williams acknowledging the agency’s “blame the victim” culture. This widespread practice of blaming the victim has been reported numerous times. Volunteer victims get blamed for bringing about their own sexual assaults, rather than being supported or assisted. This has caused under-reporting of sexual assaults, because Volunteers know they will be blamed and support cut off.
This behavior was not new to the Peace Corps. Dayton Daily News had reported the same trends of bizarre behavior by the agency back in 2003. Since the Peace Corps has terrible record keeping, no institutional memory, and since it consistently misrepresents data, another pattern pointed out back in 2003, it is difficult to gauge how widespread this behavior is, or how far back it goes.
The whole scandal would result in the passage of the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act at the end of 2011. It mandated the creation of a support structure for Volunteer victims of sexual violence, and confidentiality for Volunteer whistleblowers, more than four years after whistleblower protection had been proposed in the Peace Corps Volunteer Empowerment Act.
While all this was going on, the Peace Corps decided it wanted a national monument dedicated to its Volunteers. Ludlam testified against the monument, which he said was a self-aggrandizing ego boost. A monument to a still-existing organization could become a liability if the organization, for example, lost some of its splendor.
The 20 Point Plan
The Peace Corps succeeded in defeating the Peace Corps Volunteer Empowerment Act as well as Dodd’s attempt in 2009 to enact the Peace Corps Improvement and Expansion Act, a much watered down version of the 2007 bill.
In 2009, Ludlam and Hirschoff sent an enormous memo to Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams detailing a 20-point reform plan. This reform plan had the same focus as his earlier legislation efforts: “to listen to, respect, and empower” Volunteers. Again, the emphasis was on an agency working in partnership with the Volunteers. “Only by supporting and empowering Volunteers can the Peace Corps achieve its goal to serve as an effective agent of grassroots development and cross-cultural exchange. Volunteers should succeed in partnership with the Peace Corps, not in spite of the Peace Corps” [italics in original].
Ludlam presented emails from Volunteers which highlighted “deficiencies in the Peace Corps capacity to listen to, respect and empower the Volunteers.” The excerpts paint a different portrait of the Peace Corps than the one portrayed by the agency. The agency treated the Volunteers like children and remained number-focused. Ludlam was not alone in his perception of the Peace Corps. Other Volunteers shared his view as well.
Ludlam quoted one Volunteer:
One might wonder why these dissenting versions of the Peace Corps are rarely presented to staff and to the public. In the course of listening to other PCVs on the topic, we have learned that many have a vested interest in milking the myth for their own personal or career gain…there is little attention for anything but praise for the organization because of the pervasive myth surrounding it.
Ludlam addressed the agency’s reaction to criticism. The agency’s response to criticism by Volunteers is “to castigate and/or ignore them. This is not the sign of a healthy agency committed to listening to the Volunteers and committed to reform.”
He went on to use the underwhelming 2008 biennial survey results to make a case for the volunteer program’s general state of disrepair. Of course, the agency did everything it could to keep those results away from him. After first telling Ludlam the results were too big to fit on a CD and later telling him he would have to pay more than two thousand dollars to have them reproduced, another staff member emailed them the pdf they had requested.
Ludlam went on to discuss the Early Termination rates in depth, contrasted against the so-called Annual Early Termination Rate which had quietly replaced it. “At best, this misleading accounting is incompetent. At worst, it is intentional deception.” He derided the agency’s continued focus on quantity over quality. He continued to point out self-contradictions in Peace Corps’ reported numbers.
At the end of the 150-page memo is the 20 pages of excerpts of affidavits by Peace Corps Volunteers dissatisfied with the state of the agency.
This memo was ignored.
Testimonies: Peace Corps Volunteer Empowerment Act
Below are short summaries of the testimonies that took place on July 25, 2007, at the Peace Corps Volunteer Empowerment Act.
Chuck Ludlam and Paula Hirschoff
Ludlam’s testimony at the 2007 hearing was poignant and persuasive. The testimony is a hundred pages long, an obvious labor of love. The legislation and his testimony focused on reforming the Peace Corps through Volunteer empowerment. He felt that in order to reform, the agency needed to listen to, respect, and empower Peace Corps Volunteers.
The testimony focused on “flattening” the Peace Corps, which Ludlam saw as a self-centered, top-down, command-and-control-oriented bureaucracy. The Volunteers themselves are not respected or supported. According to the testimony, “many Volunteers in the field believe that they serve despite the Peace Corps bureaucracy.”
Originally, he said, the Peace Corps was formed with the notion that we could trust young Americans with the task of making improvements in the developing world. The Volunteers have not changed over the years, but the Peace Corps culture has. Instead of evolving in partnership with Volunteers, and instead of trusting and empowering the Volunteers, the agency’s attitude has shifted to one of condescension, treating the Volunteers like “slackers and adolescents needing strict rules and discipline.”
The testimony listed numerous problems with the current state of the Peace Corps program, as reported by the Volunteers themselves. The agency lacked a listening mechanism to ensure the Peace Corps staff “listens respectfully” to Volunteers in order to provide maximum support for the Volunteers. The agency lacked a mechanism that would allow the Volunteers to review the Peace Corps staff confidentially. Unsupportive staff were retained “despite ample evidence of their poor performance.” The medical screening process was unnecessarily opaque and reduced the leverage of the Volunteers. The agency retained Country Directors and Associate Peace Corps Directors who have no respect for Volunteers and did not support them. Instead of supporting them, Country Directors were retained who “establish a climate of intimidation to stifle dissent.” The Associate Peace Corps Directors failed to identify sources of seed funding for Volunteers to create demonstrations, the best method of teaching villagers a new idea.
Ludlam used the concept of a “flat” organization as presented in Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. Ludlam said, “A flat organization is one that is organized horizontally, not vertically, and one that eschews the hierarchy that impedes collaboration, creativity, and individual initiative. A flat organization thrives on listening, learning and adapting. It delegates and empowers.” The Peace Corps needed to be “led from the bottom up by the Volunteers.”
Prior to the creation of the legislation, the NPCA conducted a survey of 433 Volunteers asking their opinion of the legislation’s proposals. The respondents overwhelmingly supported the proposal, Ludlam said.
In order to develop a “permanent mechanism that yields continuous renewal and reform,” his testimony suggested empowering Volunteers by allowing them to review their managers. The Peace Corps constantly reviewed Volunteers but provided no process where the Volunteers could review their managers. Such a process would have created incentive to perform better and provide more support to the Volunteers. Ludlam used RateMyTeacher.com as an example of such a mechanism; RateMyTeacher.com allows students from around the world to review their middle school and high school teachers anonymously. A similar site could provide the same function for Peace Corps Volunteers.
The testimony emphasized the need for a culture of listening to Volunteers. The culture of the Peace Corps “should be a living example of the values, customs and behaviors as they express participatory democracy and service…where everyone shares the goal of hearing, respecting and supporting Volunteers in the field.” In addition to an upward feedback mechanism allowing Volunteers to rate their managers, the legislation would mandate a creation of a Volunteer Advisory Council for each country program.
It would also mandate the creation of websites and email addresses for Volunteers to use to communicate amongst themselves and with their managers. Ludlam went further and made multiple suggestions for the Peace Corps to launch itself into the digital age, including the creation of a master website and country program websites. He felt a “digital archive” of Volunteer experiences was needed and said, “The fact that the Peace Corps is not as digitized as it should be leads to inefficiencies and alienation.” If the Peace Corps were to “digitize” as it should, this could enhance Congressional and Inspector General oversight and interaction with the Volunteers.
The legislation had sections designed to encourage older and more experienced Volunteers to enter the program and would require the Peace Corps to identify disincentives for older Volunteer candidates.
The opacity of the medical screening process was presented as a “major disincentive for all applicants.” Apparently, the Peace Corps had guidelines around the medical screening process which it did not publish or provide. Ludlam had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the guidelines, and it took the Peace Corps seven months to provide the guidelines, after which it charged him $360 to copy the electronic files. The first file he received was corrupted, so when he finally got a readable copy, PeaceCorpsOnLine published them.
The testimony continued:
“Chuck published them reluctantly. When he had won the right to a copy of the guidelines, he invited the Peace Corps to publish them itself. He thought that the Peace Corps could explain the guidelines in its own words. He forwarded a copy of his explanation, which he said he would publish if the Peace Corps didn’t publish its own explanation. It would not listen to this proposal and refused to publish the guidelines or to give Chuck edits or comments on his explanation. Thus, Chuck had the guidelines published along with his commentary.
His commentary in PeaceCorpsOnLine proposed an agenda of reforms of the medical screening process, not just a posting of the Guidelines. In April 2006 Congressional staff forwarded these medical screening reforms to the Peace Corps with a request for comments. The Peace Corps never responded to the inquiry.”
Had the legislation been passed, it would have required the Peace Corps to publish its Medical Screening Guidelines on the Internet and a detailed description of the medical screening process. It would have created a process by which amendments could be proposed to the Guidelines and would have allowed appeals based on the inadequacy of the Guidelines. There are several other reforms to the medical screening process the legislation would have mandated, all designed to increase the transparency of the medical screening process and provide information and support to applicants. The NPCA survey conducted earlier that year showed that Volunteers overwhelmingly supported the legislation’s reforms.
The legislation would have provided development funds to Volunteers to be used for demonstrations. “In the Developing World, a live demonstration is worth a million words and is, in fact, the best way — often the only way — to teach a new idea.” In the Developing World, villagers don’t have the economic leeway to take risks based on reports and data. They must see a project demonstrated before taking a risk on it. A family could go hungry or die if a new idea fails. Ludlam listed several demonstrations he and his wife funded, which would have been covered by the legislation’s provision. The provision set a maximum seed fund of $1000 per Volunteer. The money would have been used specifically for demonstrations.
A key part of the legislation would have protected whistleblower Volunteers in the same way that Federal employees have been protected for more than 30 years. The legislation would have clarified other Volunteer rights, so the Volunteers would know their rights and could assert them.
Ludlam’s testimony argued that the Peace Corps regulations regarding leave and the out-of-site policies were inordinately restrictive. Violation of these strict policies such as the maximum number of leave days per month and maximum number of consecutive leave days, could result in Administrative Separation. These policies “embody a lack of respect” for the Volunteers. The regulations, he said, are a codification of the condescension toward Volunteers that had been reported numerous times over recent years.
For years the Peace Corps had been trying to increase its numbers, promoting the slogan to “double” the number of Volunteers in the field. Ludlam’s testimony argued for a substantial increase in the quality of the Volunteer support as a prerequisite to an increase in the quantity of Volunteers.
Ludlam’s testimony proposed several additions to the legislation: an analysis of the salary and benefits of Peace Corps managers to support retention of “top talent,” an annual survey of the Volunteers by Congress so Congress could know exactly how the Peace Corps was functioning, a confidential survey of Volunteers who Early Terminated, a mandate that would prevent the Peace Corps from switching a Volunteer’s assigned program without their consent, allowed Volunteer use of the diplomatic pouch to ship personal items or valuables. Ludlam also proposed several improvements to medical support for Volunteers and several technical amendments to the legislation.
The testimony concluded with his heartfelt gratitude for the Peace Corps and the impact it has made on his and his wife’s life. Their experiences changed their lives for the better, and it was also the reason they met.
“With enactment of these reforms, we have a vision of the Peace Corps thriving for another 45 years, a Peace Corps where a culture of listening to, respecting and empowering the Volunteers prevails. In this vision Volunteers of all ages lend their enthusiasm and resourcefulness to addressing the world’s development challenges, thereby promoting peace and understanding.”
The testimony reveals Ludlam’s deep understanding of the Peace Corps ideals and mission, and an honest desire to enhance that mission through Volunteer empowerment.
Ronald Tschetter’s Testimony
The Peace Corps had other ideas, however.
Ronald Tschetter was the Director of the Peace Corps at the time the legislation was introduced, and his 16-page testimony vehemently opposed the bill. A number of the legislation’s proposed reforms were conveniently already underway, a legislative tactic that had been predicted in Ludlam’s testimony. The Peace Corps repeatedly used this tactic when faced with criticism in official circles.
He opened by saying the Peace Corps itself was in great shape, and that from his visits to the Volunteers, he could see the Volunteers “are happy and are fulfilled by the constructive work they are accomplishing.” He cited that Volunteer service extensions were the highest they had been in four years, which was a reflection of Volunteer satisfaction. Over 20 countries were requesting Peace Corps presence, a new program was opened in Cambodia, and the Volunteers were excelling in a number of project areas.
Several new initiatives had been unveiled in February: Strategic Recruitment and Outreach, Measuring Success and Impact, and Promoting Volunteerism. Tschetter believed the Peace Corps should enhance its recruitment and outreach efforts to the 50+ population, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and other organizations. The Peace Corps was becoming better at partnering with other organizations, and would continue its efforts to increase diversity among Volunteers.
Regarding the second initiative, Measuring Success and Impact, Tschetter said, “Congress is always asking for better accountability, and we at the Peace Corps have heard that call…the agency is looking to bolster its ability to capture our impact in more measurable terms.” To meet this need, Tschetter created the Office of Strategic Information, Research, and Planning. This office would focus on “performance planning and reporting, evaluation and measurement, and data management needs.” The office would use a database to create global infrastructure and a “seamless system” for the agency.
To accomplish the third initiative, Tschetter said, “I believe the Peace Corps is the gold standard for volunteerism,” and he created a Volunteerism Task Force to promote volunteerism in other countries. Countries such as Benin and Jordan had recently asked the Peace Corps for help in creating their own service corps.
Tschetter had the desire to keep the Peace Corps relevant to the 21st century, yet he also wanted to maintain the agency’s flexibility in a changing world. He said the creators of the bill evidently believed parts of the Peace Corps were “broken,” but that was not the case. The Peace Corps “is actually thriving.” He cited statistics that the majority of Volunteers found the work personally rewarding, that they would recommend it to others, and that they were meeting the second goal of the Peace Corps, helping other cultures better understand Americans.
The bill would cause three main problems: “1) it would create unforeseen administrative burdens and consequences; 2) raise significant safety and security concerns; and 3) would be costly for the Peace Corps to implement.” He said the bill would hamper the agency’s adaptability, cause the agency to close programs, reduce Volunteer numbers, and become locked into “initiatives without a proven track record.”
If passed, the legislation would create serious safety and security concerns. “The agency’s number one priority is the safety and security of our Volunteers,” he said [underline in original].
The reforms in the proposed legislation would be too expensive to carry out, and there was no guarantee the Peace Corps would receive sufficient funds from Congress in the future. The President’s budget request for the agency for Fiscal Year 2008 would certainly be too small to carry out the legislation’s proposed programs.
Many elements of the proposed reforms were already underway. The Volunteer Advisory Council systems already exist, Tschetter said, and “the vast majority of Volunteers are satisfied with the process.” Mandating a council at each post could inhibit certain rules designed to keep the Volunteers safe.
The bill would require that the Peace Corps fully reimburse Volunteers for the medical testing they undergo as part of the screening process. This would cost the agency “upwards of $10 million, vs. under $1 million the agency is currently spending.” [bold & underline in original]
Tschetter said that publishing the guidelines for the medical screening process would be confusing for applicants, due to fluctuations in which countries that could accommodate which medical conditions. Different diseases could affect people differently; asthma, for example, could disqualify one person from service due to its severity but maybe not someone else. The Inspector General was currently conducting an evaluation of the medical screening process.
The legislation’s mandate of doubling the number of more experienced Volunteers was already underway, according to Tschetter. The legislation mandated the creation of a website with email addresses for the Volunteers, but the Peace Corps was already doing something similar, Tschetter said. “These include a pilot program to enable each post to have its own website and an online program called ‘Peace Wiki,’ which will allow Volunteers to share their best practices with other Volunteers around the world.”
As for the seed funding provision, Tschetter argued that this would cause Volunteers to be viewed as a source of cash by the community, rather than helping the community raise their own funds. A vehicle for fund-raising already exists, and raising funds outside of the existing methods could cause legal problems, accountability issues, among other things. Volunteers “are not encouraged to give out money or be seen as a constant source of funds; nor are they are allowed to sell personal items for cash. Allowing Volunteers to either raise funds or use seed funding for demonstration projects diminishes their primary objectives.”
The legislation would allow Volunteers to write articles for publication without the Country Director’s prior approval, but this could cause adverse consequences and become cause for administrative separation.
Part of the bill calls for 20 new “sector-specific programs” in 20 countries for experienced Volunteers; this would create a heavy burden for staff, could reduce effectiveness of preexisting programs, and the bill’s use of the term “substantial work experience” could cause legal problems.
The bill also mandates that Volunteers can only be administratively separated for certain conduct violations in section 204 of the Peace Corps manual, which would mean Volunteers could not be separated for poor performance, lying on the application, or leaving their site without notifying their Country Director.
The Peace Corps takes Volunteer feedback very seriously, Tschetter said, bringing up the biennial survey, a 50+ survey, and the Close of Service survey.
“I would like to reiterate and re-emphasize that many aspects of S. 732 would be costly for the Peace Corps to implement; create unforeseen administrative burdens and consequences; and raise significant safety and security concerns. Moreover, other aspects of the legislation are unnecessary because they are already being implemented, and still others could be accomplished administratively—without legislation.”
He went on to reiterate his earlier point about Volunteer levels dropping if the legislation is enacted. He and his wife were grateful they had an opportunity to serve, and their Peace Corps service impacted their lives greatly.
“My promise to you is to work as hard as I possibly can to support our Volunteers, to strengthen the systems and programs of the agency, and to ensure that the agency’s presence remains a benefit to the United States and to countries around the world—all while protecting its original mission and goals.”
Mark L. Schneider, former Director of the Peace Corps.
Mark supported the bill, and said the bill had three critical elements which would enable the Peace Corps to double its size by March 1st, 2011, the 50th birthday of the Peace Corps.
“Those elements are first, authorizing the necessary funds; second, empowering Volunteers which will mean better management, improved programming and site selection, safer and more satisfied Volunteers and third, removal of financial, medical, and bureaucratic obstacles to recruiting senior Volunteers.“
The rest of his testimony breaks down these points.
David Kotz, Inspector General
Kotz’s position: “It is my hope that the Committee remains committed to the issues raised in the legislation and the continued improvements to the Peace Corps in the future.”
Most of his testimony is devoted to his office’s evaluation of the medical screening process, to see if frustrations during the medical screening process acted as a barrier to serving in the Peace Corps. His investigation revealed that 82% of applicants who withdrew their application did so during the medical screening process. The top four reasons for application withdrawals were all related to the medical screening process.
He went on to detail several problems with the medical screening process, he agreed that posting medical screening guidelines online was a good idea, and that a list of typically disqualifying medical conditions should be provided to applicants. While he cautiously supported doubling, as long as program quality did not suffer, he strongly supported the whistleblower protection provision.
He supported giving Volunteers whistleblower rights and protections. He applauded Senator Dodd for bringing this bill forward, but felt that with Congress’s support, legislative mandates may not be necessary.
Nicole Fiol, Peace Corps Nominee
She pointed out her financial difficulties with the medical screening process, and that the Peace Corps would only reimburse a portion of her required screening tests.
She fully supported the bill. “This bill will ensure that all volunteers and applicants like myself get the resources they require to help those who are in great need of our services; which is the foundation of freedom and condition of Peace.”
Kevin Quigley, Director of NPCA
Kevin mentioned the survey the NPCA conducted and that overall the respondents supported the bill.
Quigley supported the doubling of the Peace Corps, stating there were more than 20 countries requesting Peace Corps presence, and that there were three applicants for every Volunteer position. The Peace Corps’ upcoming 50th anniversary could increase applications even more. Quigley supported increased funding for the Peace Corps’ third goal. Peace Corps service should be a national priority to help the USA become more trusted around the world.
In order to improve recruitment of minorities and the 50+ crowd, Quigley supported other aspects of the bill, such as transparency in the recruitment process and better reimbursement for the medical screening costs.
Quigley’s conclusion: “As Chairman Dodd said in his statement introducing this legislation, this will make ‘make the Peace Corps even more relevant to the dynamic world of the 21st Century.’ And for that reason, we strongly support it.”
Disturbing Patterns Emerge
The body of literature critical of the Peace Corps is tiny but compelling. The first real criticism of the Peace Corps in mainstream media came from the aforementioned Dayton Daily News in 2003. This seven-part series of articles revealed a disturbing negative trend in Peace Corps behavior toward crime victims and Volunteers who get ill during service. Lack of support, according to one Volunteer, caused her to lose her right eye. Murders were kept quiet. Victims were blamed and ostracized. Agency mismanagement was repeatedly implicated. The series revealed conscious misrepresentation and manipulation of data. It would be one of many times the Peace Corps would stonewall and resist acquisition of its documentation through the Freedom of Information Act.
Following a year behind the 2002 GAO Report citing safety concerns for Volunteers, this type of criticism had the agency touting its prioritization of safety and security for years afterward. Indeed, structural changes were made to enhance the safety and security of the Volunteers, but this did not stop the agency from trying to downplay and even manipulate statistics regarding the safety concerns. Manipulation of statistics was not new to the Peace Corps, and it has not changed to this day.
The Early Termination Rate, for example, appears to be the bane of the agency’s existence. It has been trying to obfuscate and misrepresent this number for at least the past decade. This number is the percent of Volunteers who do not complete their full service term, for one of four reasons: administrative separation (when a Volunteer gets “fired”), medical separation due to illness, resignation on the part of the Volunteer, or by an interruption in service beyond anyone’s control. This number has been at around a third or more for the agency’s whole history, meaning one out of three Volunteers do not complete their full service term.
In the early 2000’s, the Early Termination Rate – always calculated appropriately as the number who terminate early from a cohort of Volunteers — was replaced by a calculation of the Annual Rate of early terminations, which does not measure the percentage of Volunteers who complete their two years of service. When the Early Termination rate quietly changed to the “Annual Early Termination Rate,” the fraction of early terminators suddenly seemed to drop. The Peace Corps had changed the way it calculated this statistic, a calculation method it had been asked to use by the GAO in 1981. Instead of representing the percent of Volunteers who fail to complete their full term, this percent took the number of dropouts and put that number over all Volunteers who had been active that year, including incoming, outgoing, and short-term Volunteers. This much smaller percent obfuscated the earlier performance indicator, the Early Termination rate, considered by many to be an accurate metric of program performance. Mike Shepphard is a co-founder of Developmentary, Inc., the non-profit which owns PeaceCorpsWiki.org and PeaceCorpsJournals.com. He wrote a report detailing the difference between the two measurements which is posted on PeaceCorpsWiki.org.
In 2009 Chuck Ludlam, who had been campaigning for reform since 2004, filed a FOIA request to the Peace Corps for any documents that explained why the Peace Corps had switched from the cohort to the annual rate in calculating ET rates. It said that no documents existed to explain the switch – a clear indication of a coverup. The timing of the change explains why the change was made; the Peace Corps was under pressure from the Office of Management and Budget to file “performance and results” reports together with metrics of its success. The Peace Corps had to find a way to cover up the 35% ET rates, an embarrassing and expensive scandal.
In 2004, an Inspector General memo to Director Vasquez named quality programming as the number one challenge and priority for the Peace Corps. It read, “lack of meaningful work is closely linked to early termination, travel out of site, feelings of isolation, and risky behavior.” These, in turn, were linked to incidents of violence. Vasquez — a Director whose own questionable appointment had caused divisions within the Returned Volunteer Community — rebuffed the Inspector General’s concerns with the Peace Corps’ usual tactic to official criticism: don’t worry, we’re already making progress. He downplayed the connection between quality programming and the Early Termination rate.
The Peace Corps would later completely obfuscate the Early Termination rate issue in its 2010 Comprehensive Agency Assessment. This report would be their plan for reforming agency “operations,” written at the request of Congress.
In an extended section on the Early Termination Rate, the report tries to legitimize the calculation method of the Annual Rate, then goes on to downplay that number as being unimportant. It says Volunteers usually resign for “personal reasons,” and besides, the Peace Corps only wants to concern itself with controllable reasons for Early Termination, namely, those who resign. This is problematic. It assumes that the agency could not possibly be at fault when it terminates a Volunteer’s service. It assumes medical separation is always out of the agency’s control. This gives the agency tremendous leeway when presenting these statistics, and virtually no oversight when it chooses to terminate a Volunteer’s service or medically separate them.
Instead of using even the resignation rate as an agency performance indicator, though, the Peace Corps would like to measure the “average length of service.” This “metric” subsequently replaced the already-misleading “Annual Rate” as a performance indicator, completely obscuring the concept of Early Termination. The report also stated that 25% of Early Terminations occur within the first three months, during training, but since the trainees were not officially sworn in as Volunteers, the agency would like to begin measuring the Early Termination rates after the first three months of training. Measuring after this time precludes the possibility that the 25% of Volunteers who leave during training do so for agency-controllable reasons, such as immediately evident concerns over things like programming quality, training quality, staff professionalism, etc.
These critical concerns get brushed under the rug in this “reform plan.” The entire report is weasel-worded obfuscation incarnate.
Congress had requested the self-assessment from the Peace Corps as part of a political struggle begun in 2007. Senator Chris Dodd introduced the Peace Corps Volunteer Empowerment Act on March 1, 2007 (S. 732). The legislation was a comprehensive reform plan which would have mandated into law multiple agency reforms. The focus and design of the legislation was Volunteer-empowerment. It envisioned a “flattened” Peace Corps, where the agency worked in partnership with the Volunteers.
The Peace Corps Experience
The Peace Corps transforms lives, and to say that a positive Volunteer experience is meaningful is often an understatement. Many Returned Volunteers say that their Volunteer service changed their lives and became part of their identity. “Many say it is the most important thing they ever did,” PeaceCorpsWiki.org’s Will Dickinson said. The Peace Corps has had heaps of praise since it began, and plasters this praise everywhere for everyone to see. These positive experiences are the fuel for the myth.
A negative experience, however, can have the opposite effect. In recent years a number of stories have been emerging of Returned Volunteers which paints a different side of the Peace Corps. The agency has been accused of neglect that has caused illness, injury, and death. Instead of being supported by the agency, victims of violence, sexual assault, and illness get blamed and ostracized from the Peace Corps community. And instead of taking responsibility for its actions, the agency continues to blame the victims and spout its one-sided political rhetoric about the Peace Corps being the gold standard for volunteerism.
Debased, demeaned, and blamed, Volunteers are left dehumanized, hurt, and confused by a number-focused agency. The agency’s culture of blaming Volunteers takes its toll on any Volunteers who cause problems for the agency. The rebound process for Volunteers is often a painful catharsis.
Larry Brown wrote his book, Peasants Come Last, as his cathartic process, he says. Will Dickinson of PeaceCorpsWiki.org built the wiki site as his catharsis. He built it as a knowledge repository for the volunteer program and the community, but the Peace Corps made itself clear: the agency had little interest in a project which would enable accountability and transparency, and instead chose to maintain is opaque campaign of silence. “I went three years thinking I was doing something wrong, that these people were good. But the reality was that I wasn’t playing the political game that was demanded in Washington.” Dickinson said he has privately heard other deeply personal stories illustrating sad consequences of the agency’s abusive culture.
Instead of supporting Volunteers who are victims of crime or service-related illness, the agency castigates and blacklists victims who have now become threats to its image. This bizarre hostility seems to stem from self-denial of those who either believe the Peace Corps myth or at least recognize the myth’s value as a political tool, at the expense of all else. A culture of blaming leaves Volunteers in various states of confusion and hurt. Active maintenance of a culture of silence and the suppression of criticism beneath the banner of the myth also prevents Volunteers from speaking out. All this can go on “behind closed doors,” as it were, so long as the Peace Corps community maintains the myth at the expense of Volunteer victims, quality programming, and the communities who need the help of the Peace Corps.
Part 2: Understanding the Myth
It is difficult to criticize the Peace Corps given that it has become an American icon of mythic status. A certain subculture of the Peace Corps community consistently characterizes critics as attackers no matter how constructive their critiques.The Peace Corps is perfect, divinely conceived by the martyred President John Kennedy, and anyone who dares to challenge this myth is viewed as a threat.
This presents a serious obstacle to honest and constructive criticism of the Peace Corps, whose zealous defenders denounce all criticism as purely destructive and blasphemous. When their backs are against the wall, as has happened a couple of times when their failings came under public scrutiny, they will admit they are wrong. Then they push criticism under the rug and go back to promoting the myth.
Strauss said in his Foreign Policy article, “To become effective and relevant, the Peace Corps must now give up on the myth that its creation was the result of an immaculate conception that can never be questioned or altered.” This myth is the political currency of the Peace Corps community. Its section of the international development economy revolves around this myth. Understanding how the agency uses its iconic reputation is key to understanding the agency’s mentality and secretive and defensive behavior.
In When the World Calls, Stanley Meisler paints a picture of an energetic Shriver focused on expansion in the first years of the program. Meisler quotes an early evaluator — a job no longer existing in the agency — as saying of Shriver, “He rightly understood the principle that if you don’t grow, you go downhill,” and added that the evaluators “were against stupid expansion, and there was a lot of it going on.” Unfortunately that quantitative focus has not changed since then. The agency’s campaign rests on the mistaken notion that the Peace Corps is already perfect.
In his well-researched book, Meisler paints a thorough picture of the first 50 years. The Peace Corps has had its ups and downs, and has received praise as well as criticism. This contrasts with the one-sided dream portrayed by the Peace Corps. The agency and its defenders actively promote the Peace Corps as the golden standard of Volunteerism, shunning all criticism as heretical, and clinging voraciously to the mythic image as though it were reality. In investigating this phenomenon, it would help to consider why this situation may have come about in the first place.
Meisler notes how Kennedy’s death affected the Peace Corps:
The Peace Corps, of course, did not die with John F. Kennedy. But the assassination would affect the Peace Corps in significant ways. First of all, the emotional anguish that raged for weeks, even months, would make Americans embrace all things that bore the stamp of their beloved and martyred president. Nothing bore that stamp more than the Peace Corps.
Shriver moved on from the Peace Corps to work for the program War on Poverty, and the volunteer program has since been mythologized, iconized, and idolized. The focus has always been on quantitative growth, and promoting this idealistic myth.
The reputation of the Peace Corps is its only political tool, since it can generate no measurable impact without using obfuscating and misleading statistics. The Peace Corps’ golden stamp is a valuable career-building tool in the international development and aid community. Combine that with an agency that will blacklist and suppress you if you express any criticism about them, and there is little incentive for anyone to stand up to them, criticize, or press for reform.
The agency has come to be dominated by a secretive, self-centered culture, which leeches off the mythic reputation, while irresponsibly shirking its duties as a development and cultural exchange agency. Now the volunteer program is, as Strauss points out, “schizophrenic.” He calls it a “Peter Pan organization” that does not know what it is supposed to be, or how to fulfill its mission. It does not know if it is a development program or a cultural exchange program, so it has become neither.
Strauss says in order to make progress, the agency needs to give up its myth for a realistic picture of the world. The current operating model is based around the propagation of this myth, so it appears this is the one thing they will not give up.
It has been a year since this report was published. Developments in DC move at a snail’s pace, and it may be another five or ten years before there is any more substantial criticism of the Peace Corps. There are no further plans to expand on this report or continue researching the Peace Corps, so the entire report will be published on RAW English in installments. It is also available on amazon.com in paperback and on kindle.
Peace Corps: the Icon and the Reality, Part 1
The Peace Corps has fallen far short of its first goal as a grassroots development program, but the agency goes to great lengths to hide this information from the public. It has not only maintained its reputation as the “gold standard” of development agencies, it actively suppresses any negative publicity or criticism. Peace Corps: the Icon and the Reality reveals that this government agency will go to extreme measures to maintain its mythic reputation, rather than address its need for reform.
The ones who suffer are Volunteer victims — victims of violence, sexual assault, and illness — and the communities who need the Peace Corps’ help.
In 2002, a General Accounting Office report raised concerns over the safety and security of Peace Corps Volunteers. Scathing criticism came from a series of Dayton Daily News articles in 2003, depicting an agency which ostracized Volunteer victims of violence, suppressed negative publicity, and behaved very shadily while working hard to maintain a good public image. Over the next few years the Peace Corps took up the political mantra, “The safety and security of volunteers is our number one priority.” This type of criticism of the Peace Corps seemed to be a new thing. Will Dickinson, creator of PeaceCorpsWiki.org, said of the articles, “No one had ever done anything like that before. After that the agency became much more secretive.” Over the next several years, the Peace Corps agency would retreat further into itself, behind a political campaign that obfuscated its failings and promoted its mythic image.
This was followed by journalist Philip Weiss’s book American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps, in 2005. This book revealed a death in 1976 which the Peace Corps acted to protect a man they themselves believed had committed the murder. The man was supposed to be committed, the agency told the family of the victim, but the Peace Corps, and a psychiatrist who had pronounced him sane, had no authority to commit him anywhere. The family was not told this, and did not find out until Weiss interviewed the victim’s family more than twenty-five years later. Weiss had to dig the Peace Corps files up himself to discover the story.
In 2007, Senator Chris Dodd introduced the Peace Corps Volunteer Empowerment Act, legislation designed to modernize the agency, empower Volunteers, give them whistleblower rights, enable them to participate in the reviews of staff performance, give them funding for their projects, and allow them to work in partnership with the agency. At a hearing on the bill, Senator Dodd invited two serving Volunteers, Chuck Ludlam and Paula Hirschoff, to appear to represent the point of view of Volunteers. The Peace Corps vehemently opposed the bill and it died at the end of the Congress in 2008. Robert Strauss published an article that year which harshly criticized the agency, saying the organization did not function effectively as a development agency, or any other kind of agency for that matter. In Peasants Come Last by Larry Brown, a recently published book by a former Peace Corps Country Director, we see a visceral picture painted of a seriously mismanaged agency, and the frightening consequences of this dysfunction, which affects the Volunteers as well as the communities who need the agency’s help.
The public first took notice of some serious problems in the Peace Corps at the beginning of 2011, right at the beginning of the institution’s 50th anniversary year. ABC News ran a 20/20 special which revealed a shocking scandal. In 2009, a Peace Corps Volunteer whistleblower, Kate Puzey, had been murdered when she accused a Peace Corps staff member of raping his students. Though she had begged for anonymity from Peace Corps headquarters, her identity had been revealed to the accused staff member, and he and his brother went to Kate’s village and murdered her. The Peace Corps attempted to keep the whole thing under wraps to avoid bad publicity; Peace Corps staff murdering Volunteers when they blow the whistle does not reflect well on the iconic agency. In 2007-2008 the Peace Corps had defeated the Dodd bill, which would have given Kate Puzey whistleblower protections, including confidentiality. In 2009 Senator Dodd had explicitely requested that the Peace Corps assess the need for whistleblower protections for Volunteers and it refused to do so. Then in mid-2009, Chuck Ludlam and Paula Hirschoff published a comprehensive Peace Corps reform plan, highlighting the criticisms of the agency found in the agency’s own surveys of the Volunteers, shockingly high early termination rates, the agency’s First Goal grassroots development failures, and many other scandals and inefficiencies.
The agency’s pattern of hiding negative publicity, even to the extent of protecting murderers, has been noticed back as far as 1976, and resurfaced again in 2003, and again in 2011. One may wonder the extent of this behavior. Over the past decade, the agency’s response to criticism and calls for reform has been to ostracize critics and further entrench itself behind its mythologized reputation. Ties are severed, and discussions are shut down before they can begin. A small number of Returned Volunteers have been pushing for transparency and reform for several years, but the Peace Corps has been consistently stonewalling reform and belittling and blackballing them. This leads some proponents of reform to conclude the only option remaining is for Volunteers to press for reform.
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