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Debunking the Peace Corps Myth

Debunking the Peace Corps Myth

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Published by aw3k
hypertext version with links on www.PeaceCorpsReform.org
hypertext version with links on www.PeaceCorpsReform.org

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Published by: aw3k on Feb 21, 2012
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Debunking the Peace Corps Myth
Introduction 
In recent years, the Peace Corps has received some very harsh criticism.In 2002, a General Accounting Office report raised concerns over the safety and securityof Peace Corps Volunteers. Scathing criticism came from a series of 
Dayton Daily News
articlesin 2003, depicting an agency which ostracized Volunteer victims of violence, suppressednegative publicity, and behaved very shadily while maintaining a good public image. Over the next few years the Peace Corps took up the political mantra, “The safety and security of volunteers is our number one priority.” This type of criticism of the Peace Corps seemed to be anew thing. Will Dickinson, creator of PeaceCorpsWiki.org, said of the articles, “No one had ever done anything like that before. After that the agency became much more secretive.” Over thenext several years, the Peace Corps agency would retreat further into itself, behind a politicalcampaign that obfuscated its failings and promoted its mythic image.In 2007, Senator Chris Dodd introduced the Peace Corps Volunteer Empowerment Act,legislation designed to modernize the agency, empower Volunteers, give them whistle blower rights, enable them to participate in the reviews of staff performance, give them funding for their projects, and allow them to work in partnership with the agency. At a hearing on the bill, Senator Dodd invited two serving Volunteers, Chuck Ludlam and Paula Hirschoff, to appear to representthe point of view of Volunteers. The Peace Corps vehemently opposed the bill and it died atthe end of the Congress in 2008. Robert Strauss published an article in 2008 which harshlycriticized the agency, saying the organization did not function effectively as a developmentagency, or any other kind of agency for that matter. In
Peasants Come Last 
by Larry Brown, arecently published book by a Peace Corps Country Director, we see a visceral picture painted of a seriously mismanaged agency, and the consequences of this dysfunction.The public first took notice of some serious problems in the Peace Corps at thebeginning of 2011, right at the beginning of the institution’s 50th anniversary year. ABC Newsran a 20/20 special which revealed a shocking scandal. In 2009, a Peace Corps Volunteer whistle blower, Kate Puzey, had been murdered when she accused a Peace Corps staff member of raping his students. Though she had begged for anonymity from Peace Corpsheadquarters, her identity had been revealed to the accused staff member, and he and hisbrother went to Kate’s village and murdered her.The Peace Corps attempted to keep the wholething under wraps to avoid bad publicity; Peace Corps staff murdering Volunteers when theyblow the whistle does not reflect well on the agency. Indeed, in 2007-2008 the Peace Corpshad killed the Dodd bill, which would have given Kate whistle blower protections, includingconfidentiality. In 2009 Senator Dodd had explicitely requested that the Peace Corps assessthe need for whistle blower protections for Volunteers and it refused to do so. Then in mid-2009, Chuck Ludlam and Paula Hirschoff published a comprehensive Peace Corps reform plan,highlighting the criticisms of the agency found in the agency’s own surveys of the Volunteers,shockingly high early quit rates, the agency’s First Goad grassroots development failures, andmany other scandals and inefficiencies.Over the past decade, the agency’s response to criticism and calls for reform has beento ostracize critics and further entrench itself behind its mythologized reputation. Ties aresevered, and discussions are shut down before they can begin. A small number of ReturnedVolunteers have been pushing for transparency and reform for several years, but the PeaceCorps has been consistently stonewalling reform, belittling them, and blackballing them. Thisleads some proponents of reform to conclude the only option remaining is for Volunteers topress for reform themselves. 
 
 
Understanding the Myth 
It is difficult to criticize the Peace Corps given that it has become an American icon of mythic status. A certain subculture of the Peace Corps community consistently characterizescritics as attackers no matter how constructive their critiques.The Peace Corps is perfect,divinely conceived by the martyred President John Kennedy, and anyone who dares tochallenge this myth is viewed as a threat.This presents a serious obstacle to honest and constructive criticism of the PeaceCorps, whose zealous defenders denounce all criticism as purely destructive and blasphemous.When their backs are against the wall, as has happened a couple of times when their failingscame under public scrutiny, they will admit they are wrong. Then they push criticism under therug and go back to promoting the myth.Strauss said in his
Foreign Policy 
article, “To become effective and relevant, thePeace Corps must now give up on the myth that its creation was the result of an immaculateconception that can never be questioned or altered.” This myth is the political currency of thePeace Corps community. Its section of the international development economy revolves aroundthis myth. Understanding how the agency uses its iconic reputation is key to understanding theagency’s mentality and its secretive and defensive behavior. In
When the World Calls
, Stanley Meisler paints a picture of an energetic Shriver focused on expansion in the first years of the program. Meisler quotes an early evaluator -- a job no longer existing in the agency -- as saying of Shriver, “He rightly understood the principlethat if you don’t grow, you go downhill,” and added that the evaluators “were against stupidexpansion, and there was a lot of it going on.” Unfortunately that quantitative focus has notchanged since then. The agency’s campaign rests on the mistaken notion that the Peace Corpsis already perfect.In his well-researched book, Meisler paints a thorough picture of the first 50 years.The Peace Corps has had its ups and downs, and has received praise as well as criticism.This contrasts with the one-sided dream portrayed by the Peace Corps. The agency and itsdefenders actively promote the Peace Corps as the golden standard of Volunteerism, shunningall criticism as heretical, and clinging voraciously to the mythic image as though it were reality.In investigating this phenomenon, it would help to consider why this situation may have comeabout in the first place.Meisler notes how Kennedy’s death affected the Peace Corps: The Peace Corps, of course, did not die with John F. Kennedy. But theassassination would affect the Peace Corps in significant ways. First of all, the emotionalanguish that raged for weeks, even months, would make Americans embrace all thingsthat bore the stamp of their beloved and martyred president. Nothing bore that stampmore than the Peace Corps. Shriver moved on from the Peace Corps to work for the program War on Poverty, andthe volunteer program has since been mythologized, iconized, and idolized. The focus hasalways been on quantitative growth, and promoting this idealistic myth.This iconic reputation has since taken on a life of its own, a picture completely divorcedfrom reality, of an agency and program which is sacrosanct and can do no wrong. All thewhile, the agency hides its consistently dubious behavior. A subculture within the Peace Corpscommunity seems to actually believe this one-sided picture, which it promotes almost like apolitical or religious doctrine.The reputation of the Peace Corps is its only political tool, since it can generate no
 
measurable impact without using obfuscating and misleading statistics. The Peace Corps’golden stamp is a valuable career-building tool in the international development and aidcommunity. Combine that with an agency that will blacklist and suppress you if you expressany criticism about them, and there is little incentive for anyone to stand up to them, criticize, or press for reform.The agency has come to be dominated by a secretive, self-centered culture, whichleeches off the mythic reputation, while irresponsibly shirking its duties as a development andcultural exchange agency. Now the volunteer program is, as Strauss points out, “schizophrenic.”He calls it a “Peter Pan organization” that does not know what it is supposed to be, or howto fulfill its mission. It does not know if it is a development program or a cultural exchangeprogram, so it has become neither.Strauss says in order to make progress, the agency needs to give up its myth for arealistic picture of the world. The current operating model is based around the propagation of this myth, so it appears this is the one thing they will not give up.
The Peace Corps Experience
The Peace Corps transforms lives, and to say that a positive Volunteer experience ismeaningful is often an understatement. Many Returned Volunteers say that their Volunteer service changed their lives and became part of their identity. “Many say it is the most importantthing they ever did,” PeaceCorpsWiki.org’s Will Dickinson said. The Peace Corps has hadheaps of praise since it began, and plasters this praise everywhere for everyone to see. Thesepositive experiences are the fuel for the myth.A negative experience, however, can have the opposite effect. In recent years a number of stories have been emerging of Returned Volunteers which paints a different side of the PeaceCorps. The agency has been accused of neglect that has caused illness, injury, and death.Instead of being supported by the agency, victims of violence, sexual assault, and illness getblamed and ostracized from the Peace Corps community. And instead of taking responsibilityfor its actions, the agency continues to blame the victims and spout its one-sided politicalrhetoric about the Peace Corps being the gold standard for volunteerism.Debased, demeaned, and blamed, Volunteers are left dehumanized, hurt, and confusedby a numbers-focused agency. The agency’s culture of blaming Volunteers takes its toll on anyVolunteers who cause problems for the agency. The rebound process for Volunteers is often apainful catharsis.Larry Brown wrote his book,
Peasants Come Last 
, as his cathartic process, he says.Will Dickinson of PeaceCorpsWiki.org built the wiki site as his catharsis. He built it for anagency with no institutional memory, but the Peace Corps made it clear it had little interest intransparency, and chose to maintain is opaque campaign of silence. “I went three years thinkingI was doing something wrong, that these people were good. But the reality was that I wasn’tplaying the political game that was demanded in Washington.” Dickinson said he has privatelyheard other deeply personal stories illustrating sad consequences of the agency’s abusiveculture.Instead of supporting Volunteers who are victims of crime or service-related illness,the agency castigates and blacklists victims who have now become threats to its image. Thisbizarre hostility seems to stem from self-denial of those who either believe the Peace Corpsmyth or at least recognize the myth’s value as a political tool, at the expense of all else. Aculture of blaming leaves Volunteers in various states of confusion and hurt. Active maintenanceof a culture of silence and the suppression of criticism beneath the banner of the myth alsoprevents Volunteers from speaking out. All this can go on “behind closed doors,” as it were, solong as the Peace Corps community maintains the myth at the expense of Volunteer victims,quality programming, and the communities who need the help of the Peace Corps.

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