Sunday, February 13, 2011

Reflecting on the Peace Corps' 50th Anniversary

Among the institutions created during the heady days of the Kennedy administration, the Peace Corps still stands out as carrying the key signature tune of that idealistic and creative President, in a way that the Apollo moonshot never quite did. Although for rhetorical punch and iconic imagery the Peace Corps did not quite resonate with the American people in quite the same way as the moonshot, there are thousands of peace corps graduates who speak enthusiastically of their experiences and the program is still around today, while the moon remains a pretty empty place. In fact on March 1st this year the Peace Corps will celebrate its 50th anniversary and many more gallons of ink and tons of paper will be expended to figure out what this program means to us today. Here is my effort to make sense of it all at this half century mark based on an excellent New Yorker article, "Village Voice: The Peace Corps Brightest Hope", by Peter Hessler.

The Peace Corps mission was a whole lot more diffuse than the simply setting foot on lunar soil --the three goals encapsulated in the Peace Corps mission seem oddly antiquated even naive --a throw back to when American foreign policy motives were not as widely questioned as they are today:

" 1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans."

The awkward way the program sits as an underfunded throwback to a bygone era
is nowhere better captured than in Peter Hessler's account of a remarkable young man, Rajeev Goyal whose trajectory we follow from Peace Corps volunteer, to advocate to becoming a highly reflective global change agent, is wonderfully described in the way the best New Yorker essays allow. (You can be forgiven for overlooking this essay--I find my New Yorkers tend to pile up unread too frequently these days waiting for that right time to sit through all their often highly rewarding material. The right time rarely ever comes--but come it did this weekend.)

Rajeev is now only 31 but he seems to have lived a few lifetimes. Hessler describes him in an excellent phrase as having the "portable confidence of the second generation immigrant--no matter where he goes, he knows there are benefits to being an outsider." His family wanted him to study medicine but he volunteered instead for the Peace Corps and served in Eastern Nepal from 2001 to 2003. He was locally revered by the Nepalese villagers--because he figured out a way to bring water to a village two hours away from the nearest water source--requiring multiple trips across steep mountain paths carrying 16 litre jugs. Using amazing ingenuity in the way that he worked to design a new kind of water pump and single handedly raised the funds from family friends back in Long Island as well as a number of foundations. 535 people ended up volunteering for the project and amazed visiting engineers. When Rajeev went to lobby for Peace Corps after completing law school it had sat in the budgetary doldrums receiving just $342 million dollars in 2008 --the price of two F-22 fighter jets as Rajeev was quick to say. Hessler's story picks up speed when he describes the way Rajeev went to work in an effort to change this rather dismal funding picture. Hired by the National Peace Corps Association (not the Peace Corps itself which was not allowed to lobby for its own budget) Rajeev did not follow any typical lobbying protocol--he saw himself after all as a big time change and as with the Nepalese water project only"out of the box" thinking would do. He wanted always to go to the power source--to the people in charge--and approach them personally--all he needed was a way to connect. When he heard for example that Obama's half sister once "considered" joining the Peace Corps he found a way to fly to Hawaii and meet with her. He gathered letters not just from her--but from a wide range of famous Peace Corps alums in the media and in elective office. After memorizing the of Congressman and Senators he met them in Hill watering holes and found opportunities for friendly engagement.

Long story short-- Rajeev goes a bit too far in his highly personal lobbying. One of the people offended by Rajeev's personal button holing tactics was Senator Patrick Leahy who as custodian of the Senate appropriations committee was not happy with some of the tactics that included enlisting his father's hospice nurse and calls from Ben and Jerry of Vermont ice cream fame. So you could say that Rajeev went overboard on behalf of his cause-bringing up the question as to how far should you go in support of what you believe before it becomes counter productive? But the more important question raised by this article is whether there was a more fundamental reason why the Peace Corps was not able to attract more significant funding than Rajeev's flawed lobbying strategy?

To answer that question the reader needs to follow Rajeev's journey after he agrees it might be a good idea to give the lobbying a rest (after having raised the appropriation from $348 to a nice round $400 million, despite the Leahy missteps. Symptomatic of the deeper problem was the inability of a majority of Peace Corps volunteers to go to bat politically for the program. When Hessler talked to former Peace Corp volunteers they talk in terms of how much they got out of the experience--"I got so much more out of the experience than I gave" -is a typical sentiment. Congress reflecting a mood that overtook the political establishment soon after President Kennedy's assassination and President Johnson's Great Society program exhausted itself did not believe, to put it crudely, that babyboomers feeling better about themselves and their country was a good enough reason for expanding support. Congress wanted progress measured in standard development terms in the metrics of how many schools and hospitals the Peace Corps helped build, not that in 1966 the agency received 42,000 applications and 15,000 volunteers were working around the world. Construction projects were not the only place where the Peace Corps shined-- there were other parts of the budget (the State Departments' AID for example) that was dedicated to that sort of work. But how to describe what made the Peace Corps unique was harder than it first appeared even for Rajeev to pin down and might explain why Congress has had such a difficult time meeting the expectations of the Peace Corps community. As Hessler digs a bit deeper we recognize that maybe the reason can be found in Rajeev's willingness to see the negative side of what he accomplished in Nepal--for example the success of bringing water to the village brought in developers and the price of land started to rise --tenfold in a year--and locals were concerned that their village identity was going to disappear. Rajeev tells the author that he now believes that construction projects maybe "overvalued" and it is more important to spend time in a community as it moves forward not always support large projects and radical plans.

Hessler closes on an optimistic note however, with a scene where after a successful opening of an agricultural training building in Nepal for which he helped raise the funds, he declines in a meeting with a government minister to whole heartedly support for a full college college for the village saying we need to do "something different..something unusual." What Rajeev seems to be moving towards is interesting and seems a bit akin to the mood that made Avatar such a successful movie--it is a recognition concerning the necessarily highly complex nature of local culture and by extension local ecologies. In the 1960s when the Peace Corps was fashioned we barely knew how to talk about these things and 50 years later we are just on the verge of exploring and explaining what this will all mean to us, the Peace Corps and our world. Working in some kind of harmony with other cultures--rather than siding with an individual intent on suppressing expression seems to be one of the lessons we might take from our interactions with Egypt over the last 30 years. Several billion dollars later and many more F-22 jets purchased we might wonder what a more enterprising "different" and "unusual" approach might have looked like.

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