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« How to Eliminate Presidential Term Limits (Notes from the Biya Playbook) | Main | Memory Lane: January 15, 1971- UPC Leader, Ernest Ouandie, Executed »

January 10, 2008

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Tyrone Gaston

The Confession of a Failed Country Director
By Tyrone Gaston

In reading Robert Strauss’ article “Too Many Innocents Abroad” I am taken aback by the lack of understanding a former Country Director, Peace Corps Volunteer and Recruiter has of Peace Corps’ mission. Mr. Strauss, are you familiar with the three goals of the Peace Corps? Allow me to refresh your memory:
1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women (provide technical assistance to the people of the host country).
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served (helping people of host country to learn about the American culture).
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans (learn the culture of the host country).
These goals have not change nor have they been compromised since the inception of Peace Corps and after thousands of Volunteers have successfully served. The Volunteers accomplish the latter two goals by simply integrating into the societies in which they serve. To imply that Volunteers, particularly young ones, bring little or nothing to actually aid development in poor countries misses the pictures completely. Does Mr. Strauss have any idea what Volunteers do and the number of lives they touch on a daily bases?

Mr. Strauss should also be reminded that the 1960’s were not the glory day but a time in the life of Peace Corps filled with growing pains, suspicions, identity concerns, and for many Volunteers a lack of focus or clear directions. Simply having a college degree did not then nor does its now pave the road to Volunteer effectiveness. However, over the last 40 plus years the Peace Corps has developed into a world recognized organization with a professional staff that is more than capable of recruiting and filling many of the human resource needs of developing countries. If this did not happen under Mr. Strauss’ watch in Cameroon the consequence of his inabilities fall squarely on his shoulders. Is it not the responsibility of the Country Director to determine the needs of the host country and communicate those needs to Peace Corps headquarters (Country Desk Officers, Regional Directors and recruitment) through the Volunteer Assignment Description (VADs)? Is it not the responsibility of the Country Director to gauge the effectiveness of each program and determine if Volunteers are truly needed through dialogue with Peace Crops staff, Volunteers and host country counterparts?

Is it not the responsibility of the Country Director to insure that Volunteers are properly recruited and trained to serve in a secure environment? This starts with the recruitment process which is initiated by the Country Director and followed by pre-service and in-service training. Once again, if this did not happen under Mr. Strauss’ watch, the person responsible for the outcome or the organization, then who should bear the responsibility?
Is it not the responsibility of the Country Director to articulate the needs of the host country through relationship building with government official and its citizens? If Mr. Strauss wants to cite lack of client/customer relationship, it nonetheless fell upon his shoulders while serving as Country Director in Cameroon. Did he accomplish this task?

“Too Many Innocents Abroad” is an insult to the thousands of Volunteers, young and old, who serve not only the US but also their host countries and its people in need of their energy, passion, commitment and skills. Anyone that has lived or worked in different cultures understands that one’s experiences at home – professional or personal does not necessarily translate into success abroad.

Mr. Strauss’ attempt to smear the Peace Corps is highly disingenuous and self incriminating. The Country Director is responsible for setting the tone of each country’s program. This include: identifying capable Volunteers, setting the standards of excellence, monitoring their performance, establishing a healthy relationship with the host country government and citizens, articulating the needs of the host country, managing host country staff and most importantly supporting the Volunteers in their professional as well as personal lives while serving. Did this occur under Mr. Strauss’ time as Country Director in Cameroon?

Lastly, having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer and an Associate Peace Corps Director in Cameroon, I can assure all that the Peace Corps is as dynamic today as it was in 1961. Mr. Strauss’ statement that the Peace Corps can never be questioned or improved is ludicrous.

To all those who have served and continue to serve, let’s continue to cherish our experience as a member of the Peace Corps family and disregard “Too Many Innocents Abroad” as a failed performance by a former Country Director, Recruiter and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

Written by Tyrone Gaston, Returned PCV Cameroon 1982 – 1984, APCD Cameroon 1999 to 2004, with over 25 years of development experience as Country Representative in Chad, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Ghana , Nigeria and Liberia.

nju

Some additional reactions from the New York Times
------------------------------------------
January 13, 2008
Letters
Who Helps Whom in the Peace Corps?
To the Editor:

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.

Michael Levy
Northampton, Mass., Jan. 9, 2008

To the Editor:

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
Tempe, Ariz., Jan. 9, 2008

To the Editor:

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
Peace Corps Director
Washington, Jan. 9, 2008

To the Editor:

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
Athens, Ga., Jan. 9, 2008

To the Editor:

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.

Karen Greiner
Athens, Ohio, Jan. 9, 2008

To the Editor:

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
Khartoum, Sudan, Jan. 9, 2008

The writer is deputy political counselor at the United States Embassy in Khartoum.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/opinion/l13corps.html?pagewanted=print

achiri

Stop sending unqualified,out for adventure young people to Cameroon.There are many Cameroonians better qualified to do what these youngsters are sent to do.The experience I had with Peace corps volunteers seen to teach in Cameroon was horrible.I believe this program is just a way of reducing unemployment among american youth who have lost a sense of purpose at the detriment of fresh graduates from developing countries.This program has no use anymore.Stop it!!!

Ma Mary

The Peace Corps volunteers are usually but not always contributive to their host countries, nonetheless is a good program, because American citizens tend to be very insular and uninterested in the rest of the planet. That is true in spite of the millions of immigrants to the USA. That is unfortunate, because the United States is so powerful and influential. Any program that elevates understanding about the rest of the world has to be a good thing. Even if all a young PCV does is to regularly join his new found friends at the local watering hole, something wonderful is gained. Please, keep the program going, with or without super duper experts.

Blair

As a Peace Corps volunteer myself in Cameroon (Ambam, 2005-2007), I know there's a kernel of truth to what Strauss says. Many young volunteers are unexperienced, a few are immature. But the majority are earnest and hard-working, and bring a lot of skills and energy to the areas where they work. There are over a hundred PC volunteers in Cameroon at any given time, so there are examples of all types.

Remember that the education program, in which volunteers teach in schools, is only one of the four programs in PC/Cameroon. For my part, I knew that most of the volunteers who taught were good at their jobs. They came to work every day, on time; they weren't drunk; they knew the material; and they were honest, which is a lot more than could be said for many of their local coworkers.

For my part, I dug a lot of latrines. My counterparts and I built basic latrines all over the arrondissement and taught others how to do so. We built simple wells and taught basic sanitation techniques. Along the way, I picked up Bulu and some Bassa and learned an awful lot about a completely different culture. And I like to think they learned something about Americans. And by the way, I don't drink.

The Peace Corps is never going to make Cameroon a rich country. That's not what it's there for. But it's far too easy to make fun of Peace Corps volunteers. There are bad ones and good ones; the administration is downright awful (Robert Strauss in particular); but on balance, the PC does a lot of good. Maybe all the invective here would be better directed at lazy fonctionnaires....

Blair

As a Peace Corps volunteer myself in Cameroon (Ambam, 2005-2007), I know there's a kernel of truth to what Strauss says. Many young volunteers are unexperienced, a few are immature. But the majority are earnest and hard-working, and bring a lot of skills and energy to the areas where they work. There are over a hundred PC volunteers in Cameroon at any given time, so there are examples of all types.

Remember that the education program, in which volunteers teach in schools, is only one of the four programs in PC/Cameroon. For my part, I knew that most of the volunteers who taught were good at their jobs. They came to work every day, on time; they weren't drunk; they knew the material; and they were honest, which is a lot more than could be said for many of their local coworkers.

For my part, I dug a lot of latrines. My counterparts and I built basic latrines all over the arrondissement and taught others how to do so. We built simple wells and taught basic sanitation techniques. Along the way, I picked up Bulu and some Bassa and learned an awful lot about a completely different culture. And I like to think they learned something about Americans. And by the way, I don't drink.

The Peace Corps is never going to make Cameroon a rich country. That's not what it's there for. But it's far too easy to make fun of Peace Corps volunteers. There are bad ones and good ones; the administration is downright awful (Robert Strauss in particular); but on balance, the PC does a lot of good. Maybe all the invective here would be better directed at lazy fonctionnaires....

Blair

Oops. Didn't mean to double-post that. Sorry.

Nataliya

I am a PCV currently serving in The Gambia. I would have to say that there is truth in Mr. Strauss's article. However he is missing the point: PC is not a development organization. It is a cross-culture-learning organization. And it gives more to volunteers then to the host country. If Mr. Strauss thinks it is not important to educate and broaden the horizons of young Americans - well... then we should probably shut down Peace Corps. I would be sad about it as I think it is important. I joined and I would recommend anyone regardless of age to join. There is much to learn, more to see and even more to do. But that is beyond the point...

Elizabeth Matip

Inspector General's report about Robert L. Strauss's tenure as Peace Corps Cameroon Country Director:

http://www.peacecorpswiki.org/FOIAdocs/CameroonOIGOct06.pdf

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