Peace Corps in Brazil: Lesson from Failure

Brazil, U.S, Officials Bungle Plans; Corpsmen Find Own Jobs in Villages

"Dysentery and boredom" was how one volunteer summed it up: sitting around the house all day swatting flied, gulping down paregoric, and feeling generally out of touch with the world. For most of the 88 volunteers in the interior of Brazil, that is what the Peace Corps meant last year. By August of this summer, the Brazil project had already set a record for the highest drop-out rate in a single Peace Corps program. The project suffered a severe case of the ills that beset the Peace Corps around the world during its first two years. The Brazilian example proved how easily the Great Idea could turn into a miserable experience.

Most Peace Corpsmen will agree that the volunteer's job is the most important part of his day. The rest--meeting the people, speaking the foreign language, the poor condition most corpsmen live in--these are incidentals. But the 88 who arrived in Brazil last November didn't have jobs for a very long time. Most of them had imagined that they would settle right into work slots. As it turned out, they had to find their own jobs and even make them up where there were none. It was a slow and frustrating process, and for 32 corpsmen not worth the trouble.

A year ago, when they left Rio de Janeiro for their "duty stations" in a long, arid river basin 500 miles away, the volunteers were advised to look up the local officials of the Commissao do Vale do Sao Francisco (CVSF). The CVSF, a federal agency charged with developing the river basin, was supposed to supply Brazilian technician counterparts to the volunteers in each station.

No Work

What happened to geology majors Bill Chase, 21, from Trinity College, and Paul Onstad, 22, from the University of Montana, was fairly typical. The "chefe" at the CVSF office in their station of Lapa told the volunteers that "at the moment" there was no work in geology around Lapa and suggested that the boys spend a few weeks "getting to know the environment." Getting to know Lapa, a tiny fishing village with no industry, no movies, no newspapers, and 60 per cent illiteracy, was roughly a two-day project. After that the volunteers began to get desperate. They borrowed a CVSF Jeep and went to examine a nearby hill. "It was sort of a joke," reported Onstad. "Even if we found something out, no one here in interested."

Howard Hunt, 38, another volunteer in Lapa, was out of luck as well. The CVSF had no program in his field--agriculture. He as told to sit tight--something might be started in irrigation as soon as electricity was available in Lapa.

And up the river 300 miles, the CVSF office in Joazeiro, Bahia, was telling Princeton geology student John Cadman, 21, to "come back tomorrow," until Cadman stopped coming and started reading books from the Peace Corps book locker instead.

Boredom and Desertions

It was the same all over the interior. A good 75 per cent of the volunteers found themselves unemployed during the first month, November, 1962. In December, with the situation largely unchanged, the desertion began.

"I hate to think about those first months," recalls Cadman. "I just about went crazy with boredom." Only the excitement of the Christmas and Carnaval celebrations kept him from quitting the Corps during that period. Volunteers all over the interior began withdrawing from village life and retiring to the houses provided for them by the CVSF. One volunteer said she was so bored she found herself reading the same two-month-old copy of TIME Magazine three times through. Progress in speaking Portuguese came to a dead stop. "Everyone sat around and griped about the vigah of the New Frontier," said Cadman.

The least adaptable volunteers wanted out, and began requesting passage to the U.S. There were many who felt they ought to stay, but not in their original duty stations. On the chance that there might be work elsewhere, they began drifting from one outpost to another. They would cruise into Peace Corps stations in the CVSF planes, look around town for a few days, and move on. It became a habit to find out where drifters were hanging out, and go there for short reunions. Most of the drifters couldn't find work and headed for home.

Planning a Rush Job

What had gone wrong? Mainly the planning by the Peace Corps administration. But a large share of the blame should fall on the Brazilian officials involved, and on some of the volunteers themselves.

First of all, the Brazil project was obviously a rush job. On the Brazilian end, the CVSF headquarters put out a list of requests without much consultation with its branches in the interior. When Peace Corps directors from Rio flew into the interior on a check, they found most village officials very vague about what the volunteers would be doing. The CVSF people would assure the Corps officials that their superiors knew about work for the volunteers, but that unfortunately the superiors were travelling.

Negotiations for the Brazil project went ahead anyway, Lapa volunteer Jim Murray, 32, from St. Paul, Minn., had the impression that "the whole thing was a big political move by President Joao Goulart. Having the Peace Corps here is a political advantage to Brazil. Goulart was in a hurry to get as many down here as possible. When we arrived, naturally many of us didn't have work."

Quite often the CVSF requested volunteers for projects not slated to begin until long after the corpsmen's arrival date. In Lapa, geologists Chase and Onstad are still waiting for a long-promised well-drilling operation which is slowly working its way south from Joazeiro. Any irrigation work that Howard Hunt might have done in Lapa could only follow the installation of electricity--which occurred in July, eight months after Hunt arrived.


The Brazilians involved say there is another side to the story. The Peace Corps volunteers turned out to be a lot less "experts" than their hosts expected. When the Brazilians asked for agronomists, mechanics, geologists, they were thinking of the highly-trained technicians sent by the Point Four aid program which preceded the Alliance for Progress by a decade. Instead the Corps sent young (average age: 23) unprofessionals whose reference cards listed summer jobs growing up on a farm, a college major, or 4-H work. The volunteer from Memphis, Tenn., who as a high school student had tuned up cars in a downtown garage walked into a mechanic shop in Bahia and was helpless. Another corpsman was selected for geology, but by the time he arrived at his station, he had lost interest in the field.

It wasn't just a case of misunderstanding between the contracting parties. The problem stemmed equally from a mistaken notion that is heard all too often in the Peace Corps--namely, that good old American roll-up-the-sleeves know-how is adequate for the underdeveloped world That formula hasn't worked in Brazil. Two geologists and one radio mechanic were unemployed this summer because they were no use at their jobs. Here were cases where the CVSF had come through on good jobs that were too specialized for the Americans. At least as many Peace Corpsmen in Brazil were out of work because of inexperience as because of negligence on the part of the CVSF.

Americans aren't the only ones with faith in U.S. know-how, Brazilians who joined the U.S. officials in preparing the Peace Corps project agreed that it didn't matter much that the volunteers had no professional training. Dr. Jose Pacheco Pimenta, head of the CVSF, travelled to Oklahoma University to encourage the volunteers in training. When one girl told him she didn't have enough experience to set up hospital labs in Brazil, he shrugged and said, "Come anyhow, you can learn." She said Pimenta seemed convinced that "Americans can do anything."

'Casual Training'

The Peace Corps administration was also guilty of careless selection and a casual training program. Every volunteer is selected in a "practical" field--based on a very general aptitude test, outside recomendations, and the volunteer's past experience. Volunteer Jim Murray tried to convince the Peace Corps all through training that he was not a radio man despite what the IBM machine said. On his application he had listed his brief experience at a radio operator the Army. He says he knows enough about radios to turn them on and off. When he protested his placement to a Peace Corps official, the official told Murray to "keep going, we'll find something for you to do in Brazil."

Training at Oklahoma, and later at Muscle Shoals, had a tinge of the absurd. Still classified as a radio mechanic, Murray was confronted with some TVA electrical machinery and told to work on it for practice. "It was ridiculous--I grabbed my Portugese book and took off," said Murray. Of a similar cursory nature was the training for the geologists. They got to look at one well-rig in operation. But it was hands off, according to Chase.

Psychological Borderline

Even the selection committee at Oklahoma seemed in a hurry to get everyone packed off to Brazil. Several volunteers were very surprised when a number of obvious "psychological borderline cases" were left in the final group at the end of training. Several volunteers told me about the case of the girl who had the habit of sleeping around. According to one source, "If the psychiatrists on the selection committee didn't know about this girl, they were the only ones." Three months after arriving in her duty station, the girl was involved in a sex scandal that became more widely known than all other volunteer work in Brazil. Most of those "borderline cases" are now back in the States, the informant said.

Thus there are many facts to support the Brazilian charge that the Peace Corps was sloppy in the selection and training of its volunteers. In Washington the defense is that it is a deliberate policy of the corps to choose all-around, adaptable types instead of specialists. If that is so, then the Peace Corps' fundamental error was in signing the contract with the CVSF. The CVSF expected experts and did not get many. The few specialists who came to Brazil were let down by the CVSF. The Peace Corps stood to lose every way, and did. Because they were promised jobs in their "field," the corpsmen were unprepared to find other work. Instead of looking around for other opportunities, they stayed home and cursed the organization that sent them, Said Judy Draper, 23, a sology major from the U. of Tennessee who found no lab work in Lapa: "When my job fall through, I felt the Corps had betrayed me, I didn't feel much like looking for other work."

Find Jobs

But Judy Draper and her compatriots who stuck it out with the Brazil project have finally found work. They did so by digging in at the grass roots--by befriending the townspeople. In Lapa, for example, every Peace Corps project has grown out of interchange with the villagers. Mrs. Frances Cunha, 74, the oldest women in the Corps, started a day nursery and sewing class at the insistence of the local padre. Jim Murray was invited to teach English and geography in two Lapa schools. On the outskirts of the town, three corpsmen are building low-income houses in a cooperative venture that includes six Lapa workers. Jury Draper provides medical supplies and teaches sewing and hygiene to the wives of the six workers.

Only 15 per cent of the Brazil volunteers are still working with the CVSF. The rest are engaged in independent projects like those in Lapa. This is ushering in sweeping changes in Peace Corps policy.

Close to Villagers

The Corps is shying away from contracts calling for experts like the one with the CVSF. Moreover, the volunteers are not longer labelled by the Peace Corps as "experts" in a specific field. They are supposed to be prepared to do almost anything. Instead of working with CVSF counterparts separated from village life, they are now following the Lapa example of working through the townspeople. Not only are they doing better work, they are drawing closer to Brazilian village society.

The volunteers who moved into the interior this summer are having a much better time of it. Profiting from the experience of the first group, the "new wave" volunteers are settling in with the attitude that they must respond to the community's needs. To case then through the difficult first months, the new volunteers took up a few ideas--and animals.

Fifteen rabbits made it safely on a 500-mile Jeep trip from Rio to Barra, Bahia, with two corpsmen last month. The volunteers will do some demonstration rabbit-raising, hoping to move on to rabbit cooperative from there. A Peace Corps couple a Anglical, Bahia have a veritable "two-year plan": illiteracy programs, ceramics industry, youth clubs, a library, a vegetable garden, a health education class, model furniture, privies, water filters, and small dams. The couple, and most of the "new wave," call themselves "community developers."

Modest Approach

What the Brazilian case has shown, above all, is that the Peace Corps profect cannot be run as another kid program. The Corps administrators should have realized that the CVSF contract was putting the Brazil project into a Four Point guise that would inevitably lead to trouble. The project is finally turning out well because the administrators and volunteers are trying a more modest approach. The "helping-out-around-the-village" role of the Brazil volunteers may not sound impressive but it is effective. A favorable sign is that the requests being sent to the Rio Peace Corps office by village mayors call for volunteers to do "more of same."

The new technique is bound to be more popular among the townspeople. With the CVSF, the volunteers worked and lived apart from the village. Association with the federal agency could only bring upon the Peace Corps the mistrust which the town folk feel toward a political organization and its paid technicians, who come to work on specific projects and hurry off as soon as they are finished.

There once had been talk of disbanding the Peace Corps Project in Brazil. The first few months had been a miserable experience. And the Cops' sloppy selection and training program did not help matters. But the Peace Corps has seen its errors, and moved swiftly to correct them. The Corps has learned from its mistakes in Brazil a valuable lesson in how to run a project in the underdeveloped world