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.