In response to : Too Many Innocents Abroad (January 9, 2008)
Image by: Kelly Blair
In "Too Many Innocents Abroad" (Op-Ed, Jan. 9), Robert L. Strauss criticizes the Peace Corps, saying that often its "young volunteers lack the maturity and professional experience to be effective development workers in the 21st century."
The agency, he says, "neglects its customers." In fact, volunteers are trained to integrate into their host communities and listen carefully.
As a volunteer, I spent more than a year in direct dialogue with my Chinese counterparts before helping to set up a weekend program for children. My "customers" -- peasant farmers and their children -- were immensely grateful.
Mr. Strauss also suggests that the Peace Corps is satisfied if "volunteers are enjoying themselves." This is, quite frankly, an insult to those who work tirelessly -- at great sacrifice and, at times, with little enjoyment -- to fulfill their missions.
In applying the metrics of management consulting to the Peace Corps, Mr. Strauss ignores the essence of this marvelous organization: its humanity.
If he wants to deal with "customers," his matrix for analysis makes sense. The Peace Corps, however, deals with people.
I served in Cameroon as just the kind of agricultural volunteer Robert L. Strauss mentions. As a 20-year-old journalism graduate, I'd grown nary a houseplant before trying to teach farmers how to improve their crops.
The audacity of my arrogance in assuming that this time abroad would do Cameroon any good was apparent on Day 1. I lasted just five months before returning home, frustrated, confused and annoyed that I had put so much thought into a system that failed both the host country and a volunteer with the best of intentions.
The Peace Corps is a great program in true need of reorganization.
Kelli M. Donley
My wife and I were Peace Corps volunteers in India in the 1960s. Since becoming director, I have seen volunteers in action in more than 30 countries, including Cameroon. The quality of the volunteer experience has not changed, nor has the quality of the volunteers who serve. The Peace Corps remains true to President John F. Kennedy's vision articulated in 1961.
The Peace Corps recruits the best and brightest, and only one out of every three applicants becomes a volunteer. Volunteers provide trained skills at the grass-roots level and promote a better understanding of Americans and our culture. Government officials throughout the world praise the work of volunteers, and the list of countries requesting new programs continues to grow.
The agency's success is more than anecdotal. Ninety-one percent of volunteers say they feel integrated into their communities, and we have created evaluation plans to better quantify the volunteers' impact.
We can all be proud of the volunteers serving today. I encourage Americans of all ages and backgrounds to consider serving.
Ronald A. Tschetter
In 2000, when I was a 23-year-old straight out of graduate school, I had very little to offer the Senegalese village I was sent to by the Peace Corps.
Sure, I was the only one in my village with a college degree, but I was in no position to tell the villagers how to run their businesses. Sure, I taught them a little about accounting and some basic math, but my real value was being one extra person to hold a shovel.
The reality was that I was the one who learned the most and got the most from the experience. The Peace Corps is really more of a cultural-exchange program than an international development organization.
Benjamin Y. Clark
Today, a friend and fellow returned Peace Corps volunteer is being buried in Orchard Park, N.Y. He was murdered while working to end the violence in Sudan.
John Granville was nothing like the ill-prepared young people Robert L. Strauss describes. During his Peace Corps service in Cameroon from 1997 to 1999, he was so successful and well loved by the community that he was given an honorary title by the chief of the village.
He returned to Cameroon as a Fulbright scholar to research culturally appropriate approaches to H.I.V. prevention. When I visited him that year, we took many walks through "his" village. It could take hours -- every few houses or so, neighbors waved us over to exchange greetings and news. He was welcomed because he understood something about living and working internationally that Mr. Strauss seems not to have grasped -- the value of human relationships and the importance of being willing to learn.
The Peace Corps is not just about what "fresh out of college" Americans can teach citizens of other countries. It is an opportunity for Americans to prove to the world that hubris is not the defining characteristic of our country.
While Mr. Strauss worries about how America can fix other nations, former Peace Corps volunteers like me will be putting to good use the skills we learned during our service. We will be listening, learning and sharing anywhere in the world we're still welcome.
Maybe Robert L. Strauss should talk to the average person in the countries the Peace Corps serves. In my work outside the United States, I am always surprised when people ask me questions about things that are taken for granted by Americans.
Why, I've been asked, do Americans wear shoes in their houses? What is the Dow Jones (or who is Dow Jones and why is he average)? And is root beer alcoholic?
The value of the Peace Corps is that people in other countries who may never have seen a foreigner are happy for the opportunity to ask questions directly to an American.
Robert Wong [Deputy Political Counselor at the United States Embassy in Khartoum.]