LGB RPCV NewsLetter - August 2003
Peace Corps: Priority to People or the State?
- Tom La Belle, RPCV Colombia
Since the 1960s, PeaceCorps involvement inthese government togovernment and govern-ment to NGO programsseem to sanction animplicit support for thestatus quo rather thanchange.
Many of us go into the PeaceCorps with an idealistic bent, thinkingthat somehow our investment will payoff in greater equity, access, andequality for those with whom wework. And many of us are able towork with a handful of people and seethose benefits accrue. On the otherhand, thinking back over the life of the Peace Corps as an organization,buffeted by the politics of the day, Idon’t believe it has lived up to theideals which many of us, no doubtnaively, thought it might. Instead, ithas often found itself at the service of short term U.S. or multilateral policiesbased upon who is in the WhiteHouse or who determines U.S. foreignpolicy. In reflecting on its forty plusyear history, either such idealisticexpectations have not been realisticor its contributions should be judgedby other criteria.In the 1960s, and probably much of the 1970s, Volunteers in Latin Americawere likely to be assigned to work abroad through host country govern-ments rather than non governmentagencies (NGOs). In recent years,because of more frequent assignmentto large, multinational NGOs, thepattern has been different. But ineither case, Peace Corps alignmentwith both governments and NGOshas often meant representing thosewho set policy in seats of power orthose, like the World Bank, whoprovide a majority of NGO funding.These patterns of association havemeant that Peace Corps has oftenmissed working with the moreinnovative grass roots programs andinitiatives in the region, programswhich have been more aligned withthe poor and disenfranchised thanwith policy makers.
Government to Government:The Early Years
I was in Colombia in the mid 60sduring the heyday of Kennedy’sAlliance for Progress when most of the 700 Volunteers there worked withand through government to govern-ment programs. Volunteers wereassigned to government schools anduniversities, community developmentagencies, a national educationaltelevision initiative, agricultural andhealth extension programs, and so on,almost always associated with somelevel of the Colombian bureaucracy.Our particular group taught physicaleducation and coached athletic teams,so we were often in normal schoolstraining teachers or we worked withstate affiliated sports teams. Forawhile, one of my jobs, for example,was to train the swimming team fromthe National Police Academy, which Iwas scheduled to do several times aweek before sunrise, at an army baseoutside of Bogota. Another examplefound Volunteers helping prepareColombian athletes for the PanAmerican Games.Since the 1960s, Peace Corpsinvolvement in these government togovernment and government to NGOprograms seem to sanction an implicitsupport for the status quo rather thanchange. If change was intended, itwas usually gradual rather thanradical. The more radical change wasgenerally occurring around PeaceCorps, rather than with it. Radicalchange was also being put down, aswhen Lyndon Johnson landed U.S.military forces in the DominicanRepublic in the mid-1960s forcing thePeace Corps out. The left, however,kept pushing for progress in the1960s and 1970s. The Cuban literacybrigades, for example, brought a newperspective to rural education with afocus on political socialization. It wasa time when the Catholic Church, ledby relatively radical Bishops, spon-sored community based social actionprograms. It was also the time whenPaulo Freire was said to have severalhundred community based organiza-tions associated with his conscious-ness raising pedagogy of liberation inNortheast Brazil. His method usedgraphics to show the daily life of poorpeople in contrast to the wealthy. Hedisplayed these graphics to organizedcommunity groups of the poor andthen discussed the causes of beingrich and poor. By labeling thegraphics he also taught literacy.Originally associated with the Church,he influenced similar programselsewhere, including that of theBishops. He was exiled from Braziland then used the method underAllende in Chile. While some of theactivity in the region wasn’t soradical, like radio schools in Colom-bia, or family schools in Argentina,they nevertheless operated with aview from the community rather thanthe state. And while there were someinnovative government initiatives, likethe Brazilian (MOBRAL) and Ecua-dorian literacy and numeracy pro-grams, most attention was on thepolitical left, outside of governmentchannels, and associated with grassroots organizations. These wereloosely knit groups, maybe financedby the Church or a philanthropicfoundation, or perhaps operating withno funding at all. While individualVolunteers no doubt were influencedin their own work by what was goingon around them, they were not likelyto be officially placed with suchorganizations.The left was active because the