The Apparently Controversial Peace Corps

As I was reading this nytimes article about how the U.S. Foreign Service is one of the few places in today’s economy where there might be jobs that are opening up.

For the last several years, hiring in the United States Foreign Service was minimal because of a lack of Congressional funding. In addition, war has created an urgent need for diplomatic personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as officers have moved to these countries their previous jobs have remained unfilled.

So, in the last several months — with a new president on the horizon and new funding from Congress — both the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development, or Usaid, are ramping back up.

Part of the article later goes on to talk about the USAID program, and how many of the employees in its ranks are former peace corps volunteers.

I wanted to see what else was going on in the Times about the Peace Corps, and I found this article by Robert L. Strauss.  I’ve come across his anti-Peace Corps rhetoric a few times before, and I think he comes off as leftover cynic from the pre-Downsize This era.

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.

It reads to me like starve-the-beast economics.  According to Strauss, PC is a bloated government agency which ought to be scaled back like any other and until it is, it will continue to be ineffective.  I have to disagree with this guy though.  Obviously, a more-qualified corps of volunteers would better serve the communities in which they serve, but I don’t see how this necessarily means that the number of volunteers needs to be cut down.  What about providing better training?  How about a more appropriate examination of where volunteers are placed?

To share my own perspective as a volunteer (and then turn it on its head), I feel that even though I don’t have a compelling background in TEFL, I still do quite well as a TEFL volunteer.  Sure I could have used a couple of years teaching English somewhere else to straighten up my classroom style, but doesn’t that argument apply to every job out there?  Wouldn’t Barack Obama be better as a president if he had already spent time as such?  One might argue that a leadership position, like governor, could have been given him the experience he is going to need as president.  All one would have to do is look across the aisle at george bush and sarah palin and see that a gubernatorial position doesn’t necessarily lead for a fit executive branch.  In the same way that Barack Obama is going into the white house with relatively little experience, many volunteers join the Peace Corps straight out of college.  And equally, the experience is so unique that there isn’t really anything that you could do in the past that is going to adequately prepare you to be successful.

Finally, there is this page, which is letters written in the the nytimes, replying to the Strauss piece.  A bunch of people wrote in (including the current PC Director), writing about how their experience proves that PC should be expanded or contracted.  My favorite argument is written in the first letter on the page.

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.

No matter how small or large, professionally seasoned or impractically green, the PC experience seems to be so unquantifiable that there will never be a blanket solution to the imperfections that will exist.

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