The Peace Corps Replies: A Project Director Responds to Criticism
(In response to an article by Peace Corps Volunteer Paul Cowan in the CRIMSON of Jan. 27, the Director of the Peace Corps for Botswana has sent us the following spirited rebuttal.)
Paul Cowan resigned when his world went bad; but will the need for peace await his pleasure? If violence is the agony of the times, will abstention end it? By participation only can this generation affect the cause of peace.
Paul Cowan's article raises one over-riding issue; the role of the committed man in an imperfect world. Only for those who fight in Vietnam today, or with equal full time vigor oppose the war, is the moral stance toward peace quite clean. But what of the committed Volunteer in an imperfect Peace Corps, the Vista Volunteer beneath a bigoted mayor, believers in peace in a time of war? All face the dilemma of hippiedom, the choice between the scars of participation and the righteousness of abstention. All must ask if progress toward peace is advanced or retarded by the act of disassociation, all must judge the relevance of beads and speed to Newark or Vietnam.
If peace remains the issue or our times, if cultural misunderstanding, disrespect and economic backwardness are prelude to inevitable violence, the unpleasant facts of life remain in our own and in a hundred nations. Despite the Peace Corps' distance from perfection, despite a bigoted mayor or the sadness of a war-torn land, the needs and dreams, the hopes and the frustrations of three billion people remain throughout the globe. These hopes are less tortured now, but agony tomorrow is certain if we shut them out today.
Many who know the prerequisites of domestic and foreign peace mourn today the loss of programs which recognize these needs. Yet many of the same people in a fit of pique, would compound the loss--ignoring the least fettered instrument of peace in America today.
Criticism of the Peace Corps by Paul Cowan, based on one experience in Ecuador reflects a sense of responsibilities and some effort to meet them. Those who have served long enough to make some useful progress permit themselves a larger scope: 397 programs in 57 nations. That scope provides more evidence to weigh and an opportunity to repeat success and to learn from error.
It is ironic that one who has departed from the scene should presume title to the very themes of this endeavor. Yet to raise these issues soundly is to discuss the soul of Peace Corps, and is the certain responsibility of each of its participants. These issues were raised before Paul Cowan's entrance on the scene and will be raised again through the life of Peace Corps. On some we have fared well, on some we have fared poorly; on all we are committed to progress, to the search for peace.
I. Is the Peace Corps preoccupied with numbers, placing unqualified Volunteers in inadequate positions, misplacing qualified Volunteers? It has taken us most of seven years to realize our potential and our limitations. Technological skills are needed, and many Volunteers provide them. One minister of education has stated, "We have only ten Botswana nationals teaching at the post-primary level in Botswana out of a total complement of some 125 teachers.... For several years we are going to have to rely upon these Volunteers and speaking on behalf of the government, we are very happy to do so." Attitudinal qualities have been identified in nations such as India, where a thoousand Volunteers now serve. The joint Secretary Planning and Peace Corps Co-ordinator of one Indian state writes, "It is in attitudes that the Volunteer can make his most significant contribution. We expect he would have ingenuity, initiative, and dedication...." And the role of specialists is doubly difficult, frequently combining the skills of profession with the adaptive characteristics often required of generalists.
We have probably made by now all the mistakes that can be made in programming. Cowan's project, without doubt a failure on Peace Corps' part, was overly dependent on two key people in Guyaquil, a mayor voted out of office and an administrator transferred. That mistake has not been repeated.
Other projects have failed as well. Six other Volunteers in Ecuador turned effectively to a new task and have now extended a third year to establish a new agrarian reform project solidly on its feet. Fifteen Volunteers in Sierra Leone found their self-help construction project a terrible design. Within six weeks we knew the folly of a major program which was entirely disassociated from the local government. It took sixteen months to honorably meet original commitments and integrate a new program thoroughly into the existing administration. That program became perhaps the most effective self-help construction program in West Africa. Precisely because these mistakes have been made, and recognized, there is no answer--if the purpose of peace is valid--in righteous resignation.
There has been without doubt a very real desire for growth in the Peace Corps, for any economist will note that 14,000 Volunteers will hardly scratch the surface of the problems between present and peace. One thousand Volunteers in India are too few for final solutions; therefore they aim at "confrontation rather than solution." Yet on a proportionate per capita basis, Botswana would merit only two Volunteers rather than the eighty British and American Volunteers it now requests and uses. Thus a concern for growth is a function of a quest for impact: if peace is at issue, impact is imperative.
Yet in frequent times and places, especially in the early years, the concern for impact outstripped the capacity of the host country to fully and usefully employ Volunteers. An inability to recognize this capacity was one of the greater weaknesses of Peace Corps staff. While Peace Corps Director Jack Vaughn is committed to significant impact, he has stressed and repeated for two years now that in any choice between growth and quality, the latter must remain supreme. Selection standards have indeed gone up; most newer programs have stayed small or grown slowly. In Botswana, we calmly waited eighteen months for the completion of a new teacher training center in order to introduce a group of Volunteers who will assist the upgrading of unqualified Botswana primary teachers. This is a Botswana program, focused at the training center, which will integrate dollars from Sweden, lectures from Britain and extension agents from the Peace Crops. Our pace is set by the Government of Botswana. Any Volunteers or staff who has witnessed underemployment will never be tempted to prefer growth to sound judgment. Two further factors now guarantee against excessively rapid growth: a new system of budgeting introduced by the Bureau of the Budget and the clear excess of needs for Volunteers over current response of this generation.
2. Should the Peace Corps be "internationalized" in order to better sensitize its operations on the local scene? "Internationalization" of Volunteers was debated before there was a Peace Corps. But the sensitivity of an overseas program depends above all upon the freedom delegated to overseas representatives and the sensitivity of these individuals and their contacts. While internationalizing the organization would complicate its administration and perhaps constrict its scope, sensitivity in host countries would not necessarily be increased.
Jack Vaughn's most difficult job is finding sensitive overseas representatives. By and large he has been successful. But sometimes representatives are bad; sometimes they are wrong. If they are bad these days they are fired; if they are wrong, they do not repeat the same mistake.
When the men are right, the process can and must be imporved. Twenty of Cowan's fellow Volunteers have outlined two improvements: "The 'internationalization of the Peace Corps' has become an audible if not popular catch phrase. We do not bring to that discussion another far-reaching proposal fraught with basic difficulty, but two concrete suggestions.... Proud of the fact that PC/Ecuador pioneered in the hiring of staff members who are citizens of the host country," these Volunteers propose: (1) a Peace Corps advisory council composed of Ecuadorians, (2) more Ecuadorians in responsible staff positions. Micronesia has had a National Advisory Council since the inception of its Peace Corps program in 1966. Proposals such as these, now widely circulated to other countries, must indeed be implemented; fortunately some of us remain with the Peace Corps to implement them.
But there are in fact too many countries where Peace Corps is not yet considered to be of critical significance, and there will be "too many" until there is not one. We cannot rest with Cowan's suggestion that Peace Corps "offer (host country) citizens at least equal voice in the programming and execution of Peace Corps activities." If host countries do not see Peace Corps as merely a vehicle for implementation of their own programs, this organization, in a few short years, is dead. All papers related to the purpose and training of Volunteers are prepared cooperatively. It is presumptuous, then, for the Peace Corps to delegate host country programs to multi-national bodies. We must speed not internationalization, but nationalization. The theme of the 1968 Conference of Peace Corps Directors in Africa: An African Peace Corps.
3. Does an "arrogant" Peace Corps stand guilty of cultural imperialism? In earlier decades it was undoubtedly possible to charge the majority of Americans abroad with a comprehensive package of sins. Motives, behavior and impact were paternal or imperialist, materialist or presumptuous. But to claim today that one draft dodging friend represents 14,000 colonialists in the Peace Corps world may be politely described as wrong. The role of those Americans has changed--not to a point of perfection, certainly, but to a point where perfection is a less impossible goal.
Motives have changed. Said Cowan: "We joined the Peace Corps because we thought it would afford us a means of helping developing nations without imposing the United States' political and cultural values on them." Strange indeed, if "we" were the only ones.
Behavior has changed. The Peace Corps' effort in the last two years to improve language proficiency has been called the most significant force in linguistic development in the nation today. Still, for one whose Spanish still halts after a year in Latin America, sensitivity is indeed a distressing problem. The Peace Corps, spectacularly successful in some language programs, must still admit too many disappointments. In many countries, particularly in Africa, fluency in indigenous languages has for most Volunteers been total illusion. But very recent developments in language immersion do promise substantial progress from wish to reality in both exotic and romance languages.
In the last year, the Peace Corps significantly increased participation of host countries in training plans and programs, rapidly increased the number of training programs in host countries. Ecuadorian staff members have designed and supervised U.S. training of several groups of non-urban Volunteers. A group of teachers trained entirely in Ghana last summer. The increased relevance of in-country training is marked; the reduction of skepticism and distrust by nationals is substantial. This year, perhaps half of all Volunteers will be at least partly trained in-country; in 1969, the great majority. The Peace Corps has now largely gained the insights and the technical tools, such as language and training, to split the historic syndrome of the American abroad; to identify his useful and constructive elements, to reject the insensitive and the arrogant. That is has taken the best of seven years to do so is a poor argument for a return to imperialism or to isolation.
And impact has changed. The President of Niger, Hamani Diori, thus described his Peace Corps Volunteers four months ago: "When one is 22 to 25 years old with his future before him and accepts to come work in the difficult conditions of Niger...for such young men and women one can have only admiration and consideration, and esteem. I believe that the founders of the Peace Corps promoted this...idea as a means to rediscover universal brotherhood, brotherhood among people. It is this rediscovery of man, of this brotherhood of human dignity that I say, Long live the Peace Corps."
Such conviction in the sensitivity of the Peace Corps does not embrace every citizen of the country, nor each country, perhaps, in which the Peace Corps serves. But conviction balances doubts and demands not rejection but improvement. The complexity of development does not diminish its urgency, unless the riots of New Haven and Detroit suggest that progressive majors are now superfluous manpower.
The Peace Corps' Fifth Annual Report describes the beginning of the Peace Corps program in Niger: "The language problems, programming problems and the inhospitable climate (which seemed to preclude any dramatic developmental studies) plus a high turnover of Peace Corps staff ...threatened to turn this...project into a near shambles. At the end of the first year there was serious talk of 'pulling out.' Where, if so, would have been 'the rediscovery of universal brotherhood.'"
4. Is Peace Corps indistinguishable from the U.S. Government? Can the U.S. honestly be working for peace in some countries while dropping napalm on another country? If peace is the product of understanding, respect, and economic development, the need to work for peace is real in several score of countries whether or not there is peace in Vietnam. The imperative may indeed be greater as there is so much misunderstood and remaining to be said about Vietnam.
Is it immoral to join the Peace Corps if one opposes the Vietnam war? The Peace Corps is funded by the Congress because it is to the American people without doubt the most popular from of foreign involvement. To reject the Peace Corps on the grounds of the war is to restrict the American experience to war, not to strengthen the belief in peace; to obstruct progress in public opinion far more than to obstruct the war.
Is the Peace Corps a tool of foreign policy? Not the foreign policy of this country but the domestic policy of 57 nations. Do we speak the official line? Says Dean Rusk, "The Peace Corps cannot be used as an instrument of foreign policy, for to do so would be to destroy its contribution to our foreign policy."
Can Volunteers express their beliefs in domestic media about contemporary issues? Yes, witness Vietnam, Will the Peace Corps become a homogeneous group? Only if the heterogeneous abdicate in favor of the puritan vacuum of abstention.
Does the Peace Corps have a bureaucracy? Yes, as does any program large enough to be significant.
Is the bureaucracy closed? Ask twenty Ecuadorian PCV's if anyone listened to their recommendations; ask Paul Cowan if the former Peace Corps view on the expression of opinion on public issues was modified as a result of articulate Volunteer ideas; ask nine former Volunteers who now direct country programs if, like some lower form of life, they are unable to learn from their experience.
If there were a promise path to peace, our predecessors would have walked it sprightly, many years ago. Will now a generation participate individually, collectively, doggedly, creatively, not merely in the doing, but in the discovery of how to do? Will they not only walk the road toward peace, but with fifty or one-hundred nations together find the road: through misunderstanding and economic backwardness, imperfect agencies abroad and imperfect agencies at home? Precisely because the path is cloudy, not merely with Vietnam but with major violence in 55 nations of the world since World War II, 15,000 Volunteers and staff now welcome this responsibility. The Year 2000 will ask their generation, the rest of several million, Did They Join