Too Many Innocents Abroad
Antananarivo, Madagascar --THE Peace Corps recently began a laudable initiative to increase the number of volunteers who are 50 and older. As the Peace Corps' country director in Cameroon from 2002 until last February, I observed how many older volunteers brought something to their service that most young volunteers could not: extensive professional and life experience and the ability to mentor younger volunteers.
However, even if the Peace Corps reaches its goal of having 15 percent of its volunteers over 50, the overwhelming majority will remain recently minted college graduates. And too often these young volunteers lack the maturity and professional experience to be effective development workers in the 21st century.
This wasn't the case in 1961 when the Peace Corps sent its first volunteers overseas. Back then, enthusiastic young Americans offered something that many newly independent nations counted in double and even single digits: college graduates. But today, those same nations have millions of well-educated citizens of their own desperately in need of work. So it's much less clear what inexperienced Americans have to offer.
The Peace Corps has long shipped out well-meaning young people possessing little more than good intentions and a college diploma. What the agency should begin doing is recruiting only the best of recent graduates -- as the top professional schools do -- and only those older people whose skills and personal characteristics are a solid fit for the needs of the host country.
The Peace Corps has resisted doing this for fear that it would cause the number of volunteers to plummet. The name of the game has been getting volunteers into the field, qualified or not.
In Cameroon, we had many volunteers sent to serve in the agriculture program whose only experience was puttering around in their mom and dad's backyard during high school. I wrote to our headquarters in Washington to ask if anyone had considered how an American farmer would feel if a fresh-out-of-college Cameroonian with a liberal arts degree who had occasionally visited Grandma's cassava plot were sent to Iowa to consult on pig-raising techniques learned in a three-month crash course. I'm pretty sure the American farmer would see it as a publicity stunt and a bunch of hooey, but I never heard back from headquarters.
For the Peace Corps, the number of volunteers has always trumped the quality of their work, perhaps because the agency fears that an objective assessment of its impact would reveal that while volunteers generate good will for the United States, they do little or nothing to actually aid development in poor countries. The agency has no comprehensive system for self-evaluation, but rather relies heavily on personal anecdote to demonstrate its worth.
Every few years, the agency polls its volunteers, but in my experience it does not systematically ask the people it is supposedly helping what they think the volunteers have achieved. This is a clear indication of how the Peace Corps neglects its customers; as long as the volunteers are enjoying themselves, it doesn't matter whether they improve the quality of life in the host countries. Any well-run organization must know what its customers want and then deliver the goods, but this is something the Peace Corps has never learned.
This lack of organizational introspection allows the agency to continue sending, for example, unqualified volunteers to teach English when nearly every developing country could easily find high-caliber English teachers among its own population. Even after Cameroonian teachers and education officials ranked English instruction as their lowest priority (after help with computer literacy, math and science, for example), headquarters in Washington continued to send trainees with little or no classroom experience to teach English in Cameroonian schools. One volunteer told me that the only possible reason he could think of for having been selected was that he was a native English speaker.
The Peace Corps was born during the glory days of the early Kennedy administration. Since then, its leaders and many of the more than 190,000 volunteers who have served have mythologized the agency into something that can never be questioned or improved. The result is an organization that finds itself less and less able to provide what the people of developing countries need -- at a time when the United States has never had a greater need for their good will.
Robert L. Strauss has been a Peace Corps volunteer, recruiter and country director. He now heads a management consulting company.