Peace Corps Vets Riled at My Expose

PeaceCorpsWorldWide  reposted a 2011 Future of Freedom Foundation article I wrote,  “The Forgotten Failures of the Peace Corps.”  Several former Peace Corps recruits denounced the piece:

Andy Martin characterized the piece as “a one-sided hatchet job.”

Leo Cecchini complained that my article was “a totally fatuous report devoid of any import. And this guy is a successful writer?”

Edward Mycue harrumphed: “Speculations proffered like onions and stinky armpits, belittling good intentions, blown into the wind, are petty.”

Most painful of all, I find myself accused of being an undercover agent for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  These folks are apparently not aware that AID despises my work almost as much as TSA does.

Bob Arias groused: “John, who in the world is James Bovard, he is either someone that was deselected in Training, or a USAID plant. He is way off base…needs to do his homework, and he writes for a living? I was told by Daniel Ortega the Marxist President of Nicaragua that the Peace Corps is the best of the US, he is a strong believer in the Volunteers. He even argued with Fidel about Peace Corps Volunteers, Fidel said they were all CIA agents. Ortega was joined by Venezuela President Chavez, who told Fidel that Peace Corps was very important during his youth. Chavez even invited Crisis Corps to help in a disaster relief project in Venezuela. And former Presiden of Peru, Alejandro Toledo credits Peace Corps Volunteers for his achievements. Bovard will more than likely be ready to help USAID take over.”

If I was trying to vindicate the Peace Corps, I’m not sure I would be whooping up quotes from Hugo Chavez (who destroyed Venezuela) and Daniel Ortega (who is destroying Nicaragua).

Another commenter, John Turnbull, defended the agency: “I’m always proud to read statements by African leaders today, who affectionately remember their Peace Corps teachers from school days.”

Most of the current crop of African dictators deserve to be overthrown, and many of them should be indicted from crimes against humanity.  Very few African leaders have been selected in bona fide elections.  It would be unfair to blame the Peace Corps for the failure of democratization in Africa. But I would be leery of relying on tyrants to burnish my reputation.

I wrote this article before the Peace Corps rape coverup scandal erupted.   Gushing over the Peace Corps’ record ignores its betrayal of many Peace Corps volunteers who were brutally raped — in some cases, because the Peace Corps had utterly failed to take prudent precautions to avoid sending them in harm’s way.  The agency’s mistreatment of its victims is a blotch on its permanent record.

As I mentioned in my article, I have met some former Peace Corps volunteers who seemed very sharp and competent and who actually helped the residents in the nations where they were sent.  But I have met plenty of others who made me shake my head ruefully.  And the audit reports stretching back decades expose many pratfalls by the agency.

Here’s the article that riled up folks:

by James Bovard
April 1, 2011

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 edition of Freedom Daily

This is the fiftieth anniversary year for the Peace Corps. Prior to the creation of AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps took the cake as the most arrogant and overrated government program in Washington. At a time when the agency is being hailed for idealism and almost saving the world, it is worthwhile to consider its early record of debacles and defaults.

A 1980s Peace Corps recruiting brochure proclaimed, “Most people talk about world problems. The Peace Corps solves them.” The Peace Corps’s world-saving pretensions were a joke on American taxpayers and Third World folks who expected real help.

From its inception, the Peace Corps represented the epitome of emotionalism in American politics. Sargent Shriver, the Corps’s first director, claimed it would “permit America to participate, personally and effectively, in this struggle for human dignity.” Jack Vaughn, Shriver’s successor, declared, “Love — that’s what the Peace Corps is all about.” But the Peace Corps has rarely gotten beyond its loudly trumpeted good intentions.

The Peace Corps’s founders deliberately emphasized amateurism in volunteers as a virtue, which turned out to be a prescription for disasters. Frustrated by the widely perceived ineffectiveness of U.S. foreign aid to developing countries, they thought that personalizing the aid would somehow make it effective.

Robert E. White, Peace Corps regional director for Latin America, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1970, “In the early days … it was like a parachute drop. A Volunteer would be told, ‘Here’s the bus that you take. Go and look around and get off where you think you can do some good.’” An official report by the government of Honduras concluded in 1968, “The Volunteer appears to be someone with nothing to do; his skills are not utilized and the community doesn’t know what he has to offer in the way of help.”

Indeed, throughout Latin America, volunteers were sometimes referred to as “vagos” — Spanish for “vagabonds.” A Brazilian development expert concluded in a Peace Corps-commissioned study in 1968, “As economic developers, Volunteers have not had any lasting impact on any community. They are more efficient spokesmen for their interests than … for the poor.” One Latin American government official complained to a Peace Corps auditor in 1968, “The Volunteers I have known recently — with one exception — are not helping us at all. They created problems for us.”

The Peace Corps sought to uplift foreign countries with “community-development programs.” “The political and social development of the country can only come through the infusion of a kind of revolutionary spirit such as the Peace Corps represents,” declared Frank Mankiewicz, Peace Corps Latin American regional director during the 1960s. But again, reality did not coincide with the flowery rhetoric. For example, a 1965 Corps report focusing on community-development programs concluded of the experience in Togo, “After four years, the Peace Corps record in Togo is one of waste, illusion, and irrelevance that far outweighs what little good may have been done.”

Competence has often been a Peace Corps stumbling block. In the Peace Corps’s first quarter-century, 21 governments kicked it out of their countries, often because volunteers had little or nothing to offer. The inability of the volunteers to speak the local language has been a perennial problem. Bonehead planning sometimes worsened the situation: in the early 1960s, up to a third of all volunteers for Ethiopia were taught the wrong local language.

Many volunteers have worked as teachers abroad, but often with little success. Two studies of volunteers’ effectiveness in Korea found that they did little or no good for their students. The Cameroon Foreign Ministry once complained that volunteers’ “work showed a complete lack of worthwhile teaching method” and suggested that they confine their efforts to physical education and sports. A young Ceylonese observed, “It was because of their complete unsuitability as teachers that these Volunteers became the laughingstock among our teachers and students.”

Working with “snake oil salesmen”

After teaching, agriculture was the Peace Corps’s most frequent focus. However, as with teaching, incompetence inhibited Peace Corps benevolence. As one Chilean agronomist complained to an evaluator in 1968, “The trouble with most of the Volunteers is that they can’t do the job. Most of them are good people, filled with good faith, and they like to live and get their hands dirty with the peasants. But they know nothing about agriculture.”

Some Peace Corps agricultural efforts directly hurt Third World poor. An internal evaluation of the program in Togo, for instance, concluded,

In some cases the Peace Corps Volunteers may actually have harmed the cause of development and taxed the patience and good will of the Togolese villagers by the lack of realism in their approach…. Most of the chicken and rabbit projects (which were built primarily because lumber and wire were available) proved disasters.

Volunteers encouraged Togolese to raise rabbits — even though eating rabbits is taboo among many Togo tribes. Similar rabbit results occurred in Guatemala. Volunteers got grants from the Agency for International Development (AID) to set up their own rabbit-raising businesses and then encouraged local villagers to borrow money to do the same. But while the volunteers’ heavy subsidies produced the appearance of success, a Peace Corps evaluation of the project revealed that peasants who “indebted themselves for breeding stock, cages, and feed found themselves saddled with debt when the projects failed.”

Other Peace Corps evaluations tell stories of volunteers who urged farmers to use fertilizer that cost the farmers more than the value of the increased crop output. Indeed, volunteers’ lack of economic realism often bushwhacked the recipients of their benevolence. In Niger, for example, volunteers worked as extension agents for the government’s Union Nigerien de Credit et Cooperation. But as a Peace Corps audit concluded, “In its agricultural operations, UNCC looks like a bunch of snake oil salesmen…. The sad truth is that, in all likelihood, more farmers have lost than gained by buying from UNCC.”

The agricultural program in Nigeria — one of the Peace Corps’s stars — was racked with problems in the 1960s. A General Accounting Office (GAO) examination concluded that “only a limited number of these volunteers possessed the background, either by virtue of education or experience, required for the jobs to which they have been assigned; and that the technical training provided these volunteers by the Peace Corps was not adequate or appropriate for the jobs they were requested to perform.” The Peace Corps bureaucracy

The Peace Corps had become far more bureaucratic by the 1980s. In the beginning, it portrayed itself as a grass-roots organization working person-to-person with the foreign poor. During the Reagan era, the great majority of volunteers worked either for host-government bureaucracies or with AID projects. In Malawi, volunteers are used as “slot-fillers” in government bureaus. Volunteers often busy themselves trying to get government grants for local organizations. A mid-1980s Peace Corps Briefing Book for Africa bragged, “Volunteers figure predominantly in Bot swana’s civil service.” The same briefing book declared, “Since its beginning, Peace Corps/Burundi has worked closely with the Government of Burundi to establish programs responsive to the needs and priorities of the government.” In Mali and Togo, the Peace Corps worked closely with the governments to help carry out their “five-year plans.”

Moreover, throughout Africa in the 1980s, governments butchered their people, scuttled their economies, and devastated living standards. Bad government policies starved far more Africans than did bad weather.

Throughout much of Africa, governments monopolized the buying and selling of crops, and to boost revenue, most governments paid farmers far less than the market value of their harvests. As a consequence, per-capita food production fell 20 percent in Africa between 1960 and 1982.

Far from protesting those destructive policies, the Peace Corps enthusiastically poured in more volunteers to staff government agricultural bureaucracies. In some countries, Peace Corps volunteers toiled on state farms and cooperatives that have been unmitigated disasters across the continent, with production falling by 30, 40, 50 percent, or more over previous levels.

The Peace Corps often relied on a “body count” approach to prove its benevolence. From the beginning, Congress, auditors, and critics questioned the Corps’s excessive reliance on numbers as the ultimate measure of success. A 1966 evaluation of the Cameroon program, for exam ple, concluded, “The Peace Corps is hurt by its mammoth presence.” Flooding a country with volunteers discouraged the achievement of self-reliance — supposedly the Corps’s ultimate objective. “By taking over the town in force,” a report on Togo noted, “we weaken the Togolese sense of responsibility — lack of which is the chief complaint we then make against the Togolese.”

Loret Ruppe, Reagan’s Peace Corps director, declared, “The number of people whose lives have been touched by the Peace Corps was estimated at one million every month.” This is one more reflection of the “Pope’s robe” mentality — the idea that foreigners are benefited simply by seeing idealistic young Americans. The Corps’s obsession with measuring its success not by what is achieved but by what can most easily be counted often ventures into the absurd.

Faced with 20 years of such grim evaluations, the Reagan administration got rid of the Inspector General. Instead of an IG that evaluated what volunteers did abroad, the Peace Corps got a new “Office of Compliance,” which mainly worried about whether the country’s programs were following regulations. Charles Peters, chief of Peace Corps evaluation in the 1960s and now editor of The Washington Monthly, observes, “That means the guy in charge doesn’t want to find out what’s wrong.” A former top Peace Corps official under Reagan confirms this charge: “You’re talking about Alice in Wonderland management. It’s not important what’s happening — it’s only important what people think is happening.” The Peace Corps under Reagan even stopped taking annual surveys of volunteers’ assessment of the Corps’s strengths and weaknesses.

As early as 1969, a Peace Corps official complained that the Peace Corps had become an organization “of the volunteers, by the volunteers, and for the volunteers.” Chilean sociologist Ricardo Zuniga, in his Harvard doctoral dissertation on the Peace Corps, observed, “There is a pervasive focusing on the giver rather than the host.” After surveying thousands of pages of Peace Corps literature, Zuniga concluded that it gives “almost no attention to ‘goal attainment’ (effectiveness).”

Most of the former Peace Corps volunteers I have met conceded that their time abroad did little good for the foreigners but was a wonderful growing experience for them personally. It’s nice to have growing experiences — but we don’t morally canonize people for going to graduate school, and we shouldn’t do it for those who join the Peace Corps.

Some Peace Corps volunteers, like some Americans who volunteer for religion missions abroad, have truly helped foreigners. But that cannot redeem either the Peace Corps or U.S. foreign policy. Insofar as the Peace Corps makes Americans believe that the U.S. government’s actions abroad are a fount of benevolence, they prevent citizens from recognizing the harm inflicted on many nations in their name.


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5 Responses to Peace Corps Vets Riled at My Expose

  1. Joanne Roll January 7, 2017 at 8:27 am #

    I have some questions about your research, Mr. Bovard. First a correction, your statement “Faced with 20 years of such grim evaluations, the Reagan administration got rid of the Inspector General…..” All of the 20 years of evaluation did not come from the Office of the Inspector General. You quote from many reports done by the Peace Corps internal evaluation unit created by Charlie Peters, operative from 1962 to 1969, especially designed to alert Peace Corps top management to problems.

    You don’t give a formal citation for many of your quotes about Peace Corps records. My first question is: Did you do original research out at National Archives II in College Park, MD, by researching all the evaluation reports done by Peter’s evaluation unit or were the quoted taken from articles that did cite the evaluations? If the latter, could you identify those essays/articles/research pieces? I am attempting to gather as much information about Peace Corps records and ask the question for that reason.

    My second question is: Your article does not continue beyond the Reagan administration, although Peace Corps had for 23 years by the time you wrote. What was the reason for stopping your review in 1988?

    Thank you very much.

    • Jim January 8, 2017 at 5:22 pm #

      Ms. Roll – I did my research at Peace Corps hdq in 1985 & 1986. The management did everything they could to stymie my investigation. I sought copies of those early evaluation reports; I was told that I would have to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Then the management complained it would be too burdensome to produce the full reports – they asked if I could compromise and simply ask for the summaries of the reports. OK, so I filed a FOIA for the summaries. I returned a few weeks later – after the statutory limit had expired for the agency to respond to my request – and was informed that I would have to start the process all over again. Why? Because the reports had “abstracts,” not “summaries.” There were other evasions of simple requests. The management sensed that my article would not be a puff piece so perhaps they presumed they were entitled to obstruct it.

      I will be writing shortly about more recent Peace Corps developments. I have seen excellent comments from RPCVs on the long-term coverup of the rape scandal and how it placed legions of female volunteers at grave (sometimes fatal) risk. Is that something that the folks at the PeaceCorpsWorldWide site have paid attention to?

      • Jim January 9, 2017 at 9:30 am #

        Following up on my previous comment – Joanne Roll emailed me about the stalwart role this group played in the passage of the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011. That law was a long overdue reform and it was good that the RPCVs in this group and elsewhere raised hell for this cause.

  2. Joanne Roll January 9, 2017 at 10:48 am #

    Mr. Bovard. Thank you for answering my questions, and for acknowledging the tremendous work
    of the RPCV women of First Response Action. Before I continue,
    I wanted to make sure that you and your readers knew about the web site
    Peace Corps World Wide. It is not an official Peace Corps site. Here is the
    Description of the web site:
    “Peace Corps Worldwide celebrates the Peace Corps experience by publishing stories from around the world by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), and Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), to share with all who have a desire for international understanding.
    This effort is at the heart of the Third Goal of the Peace Corps — to “bring the world back home.” Publicizing the writings of RPCVs and PCVs, all their novels, short stories, essays and poetry is a positive way of educating Americans about the world, an essential Peace Corps Third Goal activity to provided a link between the cultures of the world and our culture.
    All work done for Peace Corps Worldwide is volunteer, and the site is in no way associated with the Peace Corps or the National Peace Corps Association.” Here is the link to learn more.

  3. Joanne Roll January 9, 2017 at 10:53 am #

    You asked about the interest in the rape scandals.

    Peace Corps World Wide posted information available
    about the rape scandal starting months before your April 2011 article is
    dated. We absolutely cared about the victims and supported all the efforts
    to deal with the problem. First Response Action was the group of very
    brave RPCV women, who had been victims, and organized to demand
    changes. Thank you again for acknowledging them.

    Here are the links all the articles we posted about the rape scandal.

    I can appreciate the difficulty you had getting information from Peace Corps.
    The Evaluation Reports from 1962 to 1969 are now archived at the National
    Archives at College Park, MD. They are all hard copy and the ones I have
    read are all over sixty pages. In those “olden days”, Evaluators went to the]
    host country, spent months traveling all over to interview Volunteers and
    Host Country Citizens about the programs. There was no Internet or
    C phones. The evaluators would submit their reports when they came back
    to the States. I think the “turn around time” could be close to a year, in
    some cases.

    Up until the late 90s, Peace Corps Washington had an in-house library and
    Librarian. The Library was dissembled when the agency moved to its current
    Location. As far as I know, there is no Librarian. I don’t know what happened to all the documents. I think those deemed most important are at the National Archives.

    Thank you.