Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Peace Corps, part 1

Above: me as a skinny Peace Corps Volunteer, 1970. The other two guys are fellow teachers. Those shorts? More tomorrow!

My thoughts never really stray too far from the Peace Corps, for so many reasons. For one, I, like most of the other nearly 200,000 returned volunteers, will tell you that the volunteer experience was a pivotal, defining period of my life which set me on the course I am still on. (By the way, we refer to our status as "returned," rather than "former," because we still consider ourselves volunteers, nothing former about it. We've simply "returned" from our countries of service. The acronym used throughout the Peace Corps universe is RPCV.)

Another reason my thoughts are often with the Peace Corps is that I spent the bulk of my working life there. I am a creature of the institution; if there hadn't been a Peace Corps I'd have had to invent one. There was certainly nothing else at which I could have made a decent and honorable living. And therein lies a story. But first, a peek behind the bureaucratic curtain:

The Peace Corps is an independent executive agency of the federal government. It has a director and a layer or two of upper management appointed by the President, who is their direct boss. As such agencies go, the Peace Corps is barely a blip in the radar. Only about 600 people work at its headquarters in Washington. Another 200 or so US citizens work overseas in directorial and adminstrative positions, supervising operations and programming in the countries where the Peace Corps is invited to serve. The rest of Peace Corps staffing is filled by overseas nationals, people seeking to develop their own countries by working as programmers for the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps budget, $330.8 million for 2008, is infinitesimal--not even a blip in the radar. It is less than half the cost of one Stealth bomber.

Written into the legislation which originally created the Peace Corps is something unique in the federal government: a rule which states that no one can work there more than 5 years. Work time at the Peace Corps is divided into 2 1/2-year tours; most people get two such tours and that's it. A certain percentage of employees are extended for a third tour, thus making their time with the agency 7 1/2 years. If anyone wants to work there again (and most do), they cannot be considered until they have been out for as long as they were in. Those who come back are called "recyclers." Since, once bitten by the bug the addiction appears permanent, there are always lots of people recycling themselves through. This "five-year rule," as it's called, keeps the agency vital, with a constant turnover of new blood in the form of people fresh from volunteer assignments overseas, very dedicated to the agency's mission and eager to work hard to advance it. It also happens to keep the agency cheap, since hardly anybody stays long enough to make an extremely high salary, and virtually no one retires from it.

But as you know if you've been following me for a while, I had a full-fledged, 27-year career at the Peace Corps, and I did retire from it. How did I manage that? Lucky timing, nothing but.

The Peace Corps was a Kennedy invention, by far the highest-profile legacy of that administration. Richard Nixon did not like the Kennedys and so wasn't all that fond of the Peace Corps. His fondest wish was to get rid of the agency altogether, but it had too many friends among the general public, as well as on Capitol Hill, to do that, so he decided to "streamline." Nixon created an umbrella agency, ACTION, to administer all of the Kennedy-Johnson era volunteer programs. The Peace Corps, VISTA, Foster Grandparents, and all the others, were brought into ACTION. This move had the desired effect of drastically lowering the profile of all of these programs, to the point where many people during this period really believed that the Peace Corps was no more. It also happened to create two tracks of employees within the bureaucracy at ACTION headquarters: Overseas and Domestic Operations. Generally, Overseas Ops people were still hired under the five-year rule; folk in Domestic Ops were not.

After many temporary positions, my first permanent job with the Peace Corps was in its travel office. That was in 1980. Travel was considered part of Domestic Operations, so I was hired as a permanent career employee, a very low-level one, but permanent. When Jimmy Carter came into office, he did away with ACTION and freed up all those programs to regain their former individual identities. This was great news for the Peace Corps--unless you happened to have been hired during the Nixon years as a permanent career employee and had advanced to a level of some responsbility. Suddenly in 1984 a 5-year clock started ticking for those people, who became known as "the class of '89." But lucky me, since due to my utter lack of ambition I was still hard at work at my measely little travel office job in 1984, I was allowed to stay.


Kat said...

I cannot believe you were that young, and I never did remember you as that tall. Those poor Ghanaians look like miniatures next to you.

I am one of those returned volunteers who will agree that it was also a pivotal, defining period of my life. It was the best decision I ever made.

Ralph said...

HA! I still think of myself as that young, even though I look so much ***better*** now! And I never think of myself as tall, either, until I see things like this. Then I'm reminded that at any noisy, standup function I can only pretend to understand what's being said half the time because it's all going on "down there" somewhere. And the Ghanaians aren't that short in my memory, either.....