Because the authors believe that Senator Dodd is reserving the right and option to return to mandating the substantive reforms proposed in the PCVEA, we reference and explain its mandates throughout this plan.
Calls for Reform From the Volunteers
In email affidavits sent to the authors of this plan, current and recent Volunteers have called for implementation of fundamental reforms at the Peace Corps. The authors invite other Volunteers and recent RPCVs to send additional affidavits.7 These email affidavits were sent in response to the authors’ testimony in support of Peace Corps reform before the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Narcotics Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 25, 20078, and their call for Peace Corps reform in the November 2008 issue of WorldView, the NPCA quarterly magazine.
These email affidavits highlight deficiencies in the Peace Corps capacity to listen to, respect and empower the Volunteers. They reveal that Volunteers in 28 countries believe that they succeed despite the Peace Corps bureaucracy, not because of the support that it provides. They say that they succeed by ignoring or resisting the management. They say that the Peace Corps bureaucratic command and control approach stifles creativity and collaboration. This approach works poorly with younger Volunteers and is anathema to older, more experienced Volunteers.
Printed here are excerpts from affidavits from every country from which the authors have received affidavits. Where multiple affidavits have been received from one country, the affidavit printed here represents the point of view of the others. Affidavits printed here have not been selected because they represent our point of view on the need for reform.
Brief excerpts from affidavits from these 28 countries follow:
“We had been through numerous discussions before [with the country Director] and been told that things would change that would improve the program. These never occurred. The administration would then flaunt our advice and enact further policies that restricted our ability to be proactive volunteers, treating us like children who couldn't be trusted with even the most basic risk management.” West Africa PCV 2001-2003
“I served as the Co-Chair of our VAC, which reminded me a lot of a Student Council in its lack of effectiveness and in the disdain it was given by our Country Director…I left [name of country withheld] demoralized because the personal efforts I made to bridge the gap between volunteers and the PC administration ended in disaster…[in the face of] an unresponsive and sometimes hostile bureaucracy.” West Africa PCV 2004-06
“The administration appeared to be more concerned with repressing any sort of independent expression from volunteers rather than trying to use such expressions as a guide for what could be changed or improved.” Central Asia PCV 2005-07
“Across the board the administration has turned a blind eye to the sexual assaults that occur to female volunteers by male members of their host families.” Pacific PCV 2003-05
“There really is a lack of support for the development work of PCVs. The country director did not believe that volunteers should help to find funding for projects and he has sabotaged many attempts.” West Africa PCV 2005-07
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your bravery in standing up for what you believe in, especially in an environment that is—at times—as hostile and unyielding as the Peace Corps bureaucracy.” West Africa PCV 2006-08
“Mostly, [Admin] treated us with disdain—as though we were a bother to be dispatched as quickly as possible. It felt as though the staff had no respect for us and for our efforts as Volunteers.”
“Oftentimes, the PCVs were treated like we were recalcitrant children who were bothering ‘the grownups.’” East Africa PCV 2002-04
“[H]ow very sad that it’s the American [staff] who are acting like Soviets…I found myself constantly saying to the new PCVs, ‘If you want to be a successful PCV—lay low.’ Don’t ever call the PC office—especially if you have a complaint or concern or problem or issue. They will always turn it on YOU for creating the problem. Or blame you for getting sick. Or blame you for putting yourself in a ‘bad situation.’ Or accuse you of not being able to solve your problems…Don’t ever call anyone on staff unless you are dying—and even then think twice.” Eastern Europe PCV 2004-06
“When I started PC I was so excited and eager and now I feel broken down and sad that I couldn't get it to work out. The PC systems really needed to be changed to better attune to Volunteers’ needs. It’s hard enough to come so far from home to learn a new language and way of life without having [no] support from people in the office especially the higher ups that are our fellow Americans.” Pacific PCV 2008-10
“I can't believe that Peace Corps wants to double the number of volunteers by 2011. How about improve the existing system before you throw more people into the mess!!! The quality of the Peace Corps needs to be improved.” Pacific PCV 2008-109
“I left the country…bitter and a bit traumatized. I was a ‘mature’ volunteer in her mid-40s. I had been very vocal about the lack of support for the volunteers throughout my service. I felt that the staff, both USA staff and Host-country National staff, were there to serve themselves instead of the volunteers.” Southern Africa PCV 2006-08
“[I]t became obvious to my entire group that the Bureau, as an entity, did not care about the volunteers, only the numbers being sent to Washington…Volunteers felt trapped and forced to do things that either weren't what they should be doing or were blatantly without reason.” West Africa PCV 2006-08
“The more rules you impose out of Washington, the less effective you make the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps is supposed to represent freedom and the desire to do good in the world, but if you want to show freedom you have to give it to the volunteers. If you treat volunteers like children they will act like children. If you treat them like adults they will act accordingly.” West Africa PCV 2006-0810
“I thank you both for shedding light on the multiple management issues currently affecting the Peace Corps and for striving to bring about change in this important agency…
The bewildering lack of organizational wisdom that has been retained and dearth of project resources that have been complied over Peace Corps’ history also confuse me. In the field it feels as though each volunteer is reinventing the wheel every time he or she initiates a project or trouble-shoots a problem.” South America PCV 2006-08
“As for the PC staff here on the island, they are basically useless and clueless...The Asst. CD cannot carry on a conversation that isn't dialog out of the PC rules and regulations book. She quotes it verbatim, like a wind-up doll…When we tell the locals we are working with some of the rules we have to follow, they are flabbergasted and totally amazed at the stupidity…We all feel that the PC staff are not on our side, are trying to find any reason to send us packing.” Caribbean PCV 2008 to present
“The general view of Volunteers in [name of country withheld] is that Admin should be avoided at all times…As for the CD, the training unit, and Peace Corps Washington, the application of policy is arbitrary, rigid, authoritarian, command and control, all the worst aspects of bureaucracy. Volunteers expect that policy decisions handed down from Washington or from the CD of [name of country withheld] will be worst-case scenario decisions, 180 degrees contrary to Volunteer needs. There seems to be no consideration for Volunteers' personal or professional obligations, no respect for Volunteer input, and no regard for the reputation or the professionalism of individual Volunteers, and by extension for the Peace Corps as a whole.
Individual letters, petitions, or meetings with the CD or the Peace Corps Director in Washington get stonewalled. Individual unofficial protests of policy are ignored. Peace Corps Volunteers are intelligent, creative, idealistic, educated people. They should be treated as an asset.” Central Africa 2007-present
“‘That's Africa’ seems to be the general attitude when any volunteer has a concern; however, it seems more the case that, ‘That's Peace Corps.’ Volunteers are frequently referred to as ‘all 22-year olds, fresh out of college,’ which many of our stage group are not. Besides that fact, why should someone aged 22 not be respected as an adult? Many Peace Corps staff treat volunteers with not just contempt, but outright suspicion. Whereas one should feel that ‘support staff’ are the first ones to go to with a problem, PCVs often avoid seeing and talking to them at all costs. Unless reforms like those proposed by Senators Dodd and Kennedy are fully and well implemented, we could not in good conscience recommend Peace Corps service to anyone without expressing our many reservations, and unlike so many volunteers from the 1960s who served again in retirement, we could never consider doing so. We signed up for Peace Corps because we believed in its mission. We still believe in that mission, but like many volunteers who have ended their service early or stuck it out despite frustrations and anger at an ineffectual, impersonal, and frequently inept bureaucracy, we will look back upon our service with as much sadness as joy.” West Africa PCV 2007-2009
“I love Peace Corps and I have enjoyed my experience. However, I have also been very frustrated with my administration and their unwillingness to include Volunteer input and constructive criticism.” South America PCV 2008 to present.
“Volunteers are often not treated as adults by PC...Site development and site selection is severely lacking. Nearly all the Volunteers who have left early claim that some part of their decision was related to site development. PC staff often spends no more than a couple of hours at a site before determining it suitable for a Volunteer. What needs to happen is to put more resources and time into site development.” South America PCV 2008 to present11
“As volunteers we are treated as if we have little ability to manage our personal lives or make job decisions. Most of the volunteers I am serving with are the age of my three adult children but Peace Corps policies and rules restrict our own decision making as if we were children of 8 or 9 years…One of the reasons that I object so to these policy restrictions is the fact that when you treat people as if they can’t make their own decisions some stop making good decisions, some ignore policies and others just leave.” Central Asia PCV 1968-9 and 2008-present
“Training…was geared for high school graduates, not college grads, let alone those with years of professional careers behind them...Training: Redundant, over and over the same material…Although we fill out forms asking for suggestions for training content, the same old, same old is presented…Staff do not return emails or phone calls: No matter the issue, they are too busy to help with anything, grants, simple questions, etc…Reimbursements are so slow that younger volunteers fake medical conditions to go into the PC office to obtain their past medical, VAC, or other reimbursements…Any concerns are framed as complaining or as your fault, so I am pleasant but distance myself from country staff. Where this plan is effective for me as an older volunteer, it is very difficult for some of the younger volunteers…I was told early in my service that “under the radar” is the best plan by far…Grants are not reviewed for months on end, then alternate directions are given as to how to complete grant forms, only to reverse or change directions once stated changes were made.” East Africa PCV 2008 to present
“[We] discovered that our sites [as a couple] were 10 hours apart. When we told this to Peace Corps they responded with “you can see each other on weekends...I was bullied by the PCACD into staying in the site that he set up [that was not safe], because he did not want the embarrassment of admitting the site was a failure…[Our case] is a prime example of gross Peace Corps oversight, lack of planning, and inability and (in some cases) outright refusal to sufficiently support its volunteers. In our situation our treatment on behalf of the Peace Corps [name of country withheld] staff was unethical at best and at worse a breach of contract and knowingly exposing us to dangerous situations.” Central America PCVs 2007 to present
“There has been a chronic pattern of insensitive communication from staff to PCVs that creates low morale. The most disturbing examples of this were communications surrounding the violent assault and robbery of one PCV (and gang rape of his girlfriend,) and a volunteer’s death. Both of these incidents were handled throughout with administration’s obvious primary concern being to control media coverage of the incidents, rather than to relay clear information and attend to the emotional responses and needs of the remaining PCVs.” Central America 2007-present
“My wife and I are 1 3/4 years into our service in [name of country withheld]. We are in our early 50s and gave up a beautiful home and very nice careers in order to try and make a contribution to the needs of the world's poor. That was our sole motivation for joining and is probably the reason why, unlike so many of the younger volunteers, we feel like our experience has been a waste. Where they have been able to create positive spins on their time here thru resume building, personal and romantic relationships, travel, and avoiding the start of a working life (or in most cases grad school), we can only see the wasted tax dollars and completely ineffective manner in which PC operates as a development service to its host countries, and how it fails in supporting the philanthropic motives of its volunteers.” Central America, 2007 to present.
Extended excerpts from these email affidavits are presented in Appendix A of this plan.
The authors continue to receive emails documenting mismanagement of the Volunteers. These email reports are confirmed in similar stories the authors have heard in many dozens of conversations with PCVs and RPCVs.12 The strikingly similar tone and content of these reports indicates that the agency’s management problems are widespread and deeply embedded in Peace Corps culture.
To be sure, many outstanding staff, both Americans and host country nationals, provide professional, respectful and loyal service to the Peace Corps. It is apparent, however, that far too many others resemble those described above, certainly enough to justify implementation of the reforms in this report. We will not know the full extent of these problems until we adopt the proposals that solicit Volunteer feedback about managers and programs on a confidential basis (360 degree reviews)—an issue addressed in detail below under Point Two.13
Some may wonder why these views of the Volunteers have not been widely heard before. A key reason is that the overwhelming majority of Volunteers are young and straight out of college. They often fear that if they speak out, the Peace Corps will “fire them from their first job.” For fear of retaliation, Volunteers do not dare criticize their managers in their blogs.14 Also, young Volunteers have little experience being managed and do not always know what constitutes unsupportive management. The most discontented Volunteers terminate their service early and then often blame themselves for "failing." Their family and friends want to see them as heroes and they don't want to undermine this storyline with disparaging reports about the Peace Corps. A 50+ couple currently serving in Central America explains these points as follows:
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. These motivations may include fear of repercussions, the need for future recommendations, a desire to obtain Peace Corps Fellowships, or even a justification of their time spent abroad. Still others may believe the problem is within them, or may not look at the bigger picture, so really have no critique of the organization. In addition, we have found that there is little attention for anything but praise for the organization because of the pervasive myth surrounding it.
Finally, Volunteers have essentially no experience expressing themselves to the Congress or the media, so they do not have outlets for their views, and for decades the Congress has not engaged in serious oversight of the agency or attempted to listen to the Volunteers.
While the malaise and discontent expressed in these Volunteer emails is no longer news to the authors, it may come as a surprise to others. The authors have encountered RPCVs who resist the news that there are problems at the Peace Corps. Having served as Volunteers 40 years ago, the authors can understand this resistance. It’s common for RPCVs to be sentimental about their experience as Volunteers. Many RPCVs were profoundly affected by their service and many are still engaged with the communities in which they served. Proud of their service, they are fiercely loyal alumni, just as college graduates tend to be fiercely loyal to alma maters. What grad wants to hear that their university or college is not thriving, declining, and has many dissatisfied students and a low graduation rate? Some RPCVs have misinterpreted drafts of this plan as criticizing the idea of the Peace Corps, rather than its practice, or criticizing the Volunteers rather than the managers, neither of which is true. Denial comes in many guises.
Predictably, the Peace Corps staff in Washington deny that there is any problem in need of fixing. When a Senator asked at the July 25, 2007 hearing on the Dodd/Kennedy PCVEA if "there [is any] rub" between Volunteers and management within the Peace Corps organization, Director Tschetter responded, "[C]ertainly not that I'm aware of…[T]here are really no major rubs that I know of at all." He said the Peace Corps was "ship shape." Commenting on the legislation, he said, "[I]t's evident to me that those consulted on the bill believe that there are parts of the Peace Corps that need fixing. I'm here to tell you that the agency is thriving."
Consistent with its denials, Director Tschetter generally opposed enactment of any legislation focused on Volunteer-manager relations and expressed concern about 5 of the 16 provisions of the Dodd/Kennedy PCVEA. Suffice it to say, given that the PCVEA would press the managers to better listen to, respect and empower the Volunteers, the management’s concerns about the bill highlight the depth and range of the problem and the need to implement this plan and enact elements of it into law. In addition, the agency’s response to its PCV, RPCV and Peace Corps staff critics 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.
Despite the denials of the Peace Corps management, the tensions documented in the emails have the appearance of a classic labor-management divide. In addition, these dysfunctional relationships appear to arise in part due to political considerations in the selection of Country Directors. The Peace Corps has the highest percentage of political appointees at headquarters of any agency of the government; virtually none of those who served in the Bush Administration had ever served as a Volunteer.
These email affidavits indicate that the Peace Corps has lost track of a simple fact—that only through its Volunteers acting at the grassroots does the agency accomplish its overseas missions to serve as an effective agent of development and cross-cultural exchange. It has not established a culture that encourages listening to, respecting, and empowering the Volunteers. It remains a top down, command and control, risk-averse government hierarchy. Simply put, it has lost its way.
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