Thursday, October 23, 2008

What do James Bond, Jason Bourne, and John Candy have in common?

Good news: I have had no more bodily fluids land on me since the last update. Jaisalmer was a very interesting little town on the edge of the desert, quite close to the border of Pakistan. Like Jodhpur, the city is hope to a large fort perched high above the town although unlike its counterpart to the east, the town's inhabitants still reside within the fort. The rest of the city is a maze of markets, quaint little homes and livestock. Despite camel safaris being the main draw for many in Jaisalmer, I opted for a more casual route of wandering the city and getting rest in order to kick the stomach flu.

After two nights and days here I hopped on yet another night bus south to the "lake city," Udaipur. James Bond fanatics may know this city from the wild car chases in Octopussy. I however have not seen this film so I can't say much more than that. The city is renowned for its position on a large lake and the palaces which are situated by and within the lake. The one disappointment was that the lake was quite dirty which detracted from the "romantic" setting. Although to be fair, watching the sunset over the lake from the roof of the guest house was one of the more memorable moments of the trip to date.

Opting to spend more time exploring southern India I spent only two days in Udaipur and traveled south to the Goa region by two more (and hopefully the last two) night buses with a day stopover in the city of Mumbai. Although I only spent around ten hours in the city, I was astonished at how different the city was from the rest of India. It was much more developed, less chaotic and had a very modern feel. The architecture of the city center was reminiscent of England, particularly the large and modern train station. After a day of wandering the city I caught my bus and arrived at one of the more interesting moments of my trip. Upon booking my sleeper compartment for the bus, I foolishly assumed that I booked a single. Boarding the bus I realized that the entire bus was full of only doubles. I was initially quite relieved to find that upon leaving the city, I had my double to myself. This sadly all changed about three hours into the journey at a small town where a large group of Indians boarded the bus. Now I know what you may be thinking, Indians are generally small individuals therefore I should have little trouble sharing a double with a stranger. This assumption is correct as a whole but I managed to stumble upon quite the abnormality. Rumbling down the aisle towards me was a young Indian fellow who although shorter than myself, was approximately twice my size. Similar to a previous inter-island flight in Hawaii with an abnormally large seat mate, I watched in horror as this young man walked slowly down the aisle, examining the bunk numbers and arriving at last at me. Although I may be incorrect in this analogy as it has been quite some time since I've seen the movie, imagine John Candy and Steven Martin sharing a double bed in "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles." I spent the evening crammed against the window avoiding body contact and trying to ignore the loud snoring coming from my bunkmate. Needless to say, last nights rest here in Goa was much needed.

Which brings us to Palolem, Goa. Continuing with our movie theme for the post you may recall this little beach town from the opening chase scene in the Bourn Supremacy. It's a beautiful little town tucked into a cove along the Arabian Sea surrounded by lush green forests and palm trees. Oddly enough this is the town which I have found the most tourists although I have yet to stumble upon another American this trip. I will be spending two nights here before heading north in hopes of finding a deserted beachside town to spend a few days relaxing and reading before continuing my journey south to Kerala. On that note, I am off to have a nice seafood lunch and beer before renting a kayak and paddling out into the ocean for an afternoon of exploring.

Currently Reading: "Herzog" by Saul Bellow
Currently Listening to: "Radio Retaliation" by Thievery Corporation

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hell has indeed frozen over

That's right, your favorite lethargic friend/relative is actually posting another blog. Don't get too excited yet though. Although I should be, I will not be posting a lengthy reflection on my time in Bulgaria and what I have learned. That will come at some point when I return to America and have time to fully digest and process the last few years. Instead I will be posting up a bit of info about my travels so you can all keep a tab on me. Don't expect any erudite insight or eloquent prose (ala my brother,) instead I will simply be posting up summaries of the e-mails sent to my family. Better than nothing though right?

I arrived in Delhi last Monday afternoon after a late night flight from Istanbul. Upon arriving at the airport I found that there were no working ATMs and the twenty Turkish lira which I brought with me would not be accepted by the currency exchange. Not to fear, I found three American dollars stuffed in the bottom of my bag with which I haggled a ride into the city on a motorized rickshaw. All in all a very fitting way to arrive in India. As for Delhi itself, it is an absolute mess but with a certain charm to it. Think of Guatemala City combined with Naples, Italy and then multiply that by four. People, cows, pigs, animals, bikes, rickshaws and trash litter the streets to the soundtrack of yelling vendors and an uneccesary amount of honking.

After two days in Delhi I hopped a night train to the city of Jodhpur in the region of Rajistan. Not wanting to travel in any posh conditions I opted for the second class sleeper car which consisted of one large car with no individual compartment, no bedding or sheets provided, vendors walking up and down the hall all night, and people sitting and sleeping anywhere they could find an available spot. Quite the experience.

Jodhpur itself is a quaint little city of about 1.2 million in the central Western region of Rajistan. It is a town full of white and blue houses lining small, busy streets all to the backdrop of the majestic Mehrangarh Fort. The fort is incredibly well preseverved (thanks to the sale of bat excrement which built up over the years in the fort) and in my opinion is even more impressive than La Alhambra in Granada, Spain. My second day in the town I took to the streets and ended up playing soccer with some school children, learned how traditional Indian bracelets are made, and sat on a stoop drinking chia and talking with a group of teenagers for an hour and a half.

Yet as they say, "what goes up, most come down." I awoke in the middle of the night to a good case of stomach cramps, which is quite common for travelers in the region, that kept me on my feet throughout the night and has satyed with me the last few days. Despite my illness I decided to take a 11 AM train to the town of Jaisalmer the next morning. Although I was initially pleased to find my single seat next to the window, my excitement quickly faded as I baked in the sun the entire way and in a moment reminiscent of a certain incident involving my dad, brother, and a bottle of urine on a road trip to California, I awoke from a mild slumber to find that the child in the compartment above me was vomiting out the window. The vomit was then falling down the side of the bus and coming in my open window splashing my shorts, arm and books. In addition to the saying "what goes up, must come down," others use the saying "payback's a..." well, that's a whole different story. To wrap up we'll just go with: Welcome to India!

Currently reading: "Death in the Afternoon" by Ernest Hemingway
Currently Listening to: "Cancer and Delirium" by J. Tillman

Monday, August 11, 2008

Europe's Roma

Last month The Economist put out a very interesting article on the Roma population throughout Europe. Hopefully within the next week or so I'll post another blog about my experience working at the Roma and multi-ethnic youth camps on the Black Sea last month. Until then, enjoy the article.

Bottom of the heap
From The Economist print edition

The dismal lives and unhappy prospects of Europe's biggest stateless minority

THE village of Vizuresti lies 35km (22 miles) from Bucharest and on the wrong side of the tracks. For the first few miles the road from the highway is paved, passing through a prosperous district with solid houses and well-tended fields. But once it crosses the railway, leading only to the Roma settlement, the tarmac stops. The way to Vizuresti is 20 minutes of deep potholes and ruts. Life for its 2,500 people, four-fifths of them Roma, is just as tough.

Mihai Sanda and his family, 37 of them, live in half-a-dozen self-built, mud-floored huts. In his two-room dwelling, seven people share one bedroom; chickens cluck in the other room. The dirt and smell, the lack of mains water, electricity, sewerage and telephone are all redolent of the poorest countries in the world. So is the illiteracy. Ionela Calin, a 34-year-old member of Mr Sanda's extended family, married at 15 without ever going to school. Of her eight children, four are unschooled. Two, Leonard, aged four and Narcissa, aged two, do not even have birth certificates; Ionela believes (wrongly, in fact) that she cannot register their birth because her own identity document has expired.

For the millions of Europeans—estimates range between 4m and 12m—loosely labelled as Roma or Gypsies, that is life: corralled into settlements that put them physically and psychologically at the edge of mainstream existence, with the gap between them and modernity growing rather than shrinking. The statistics are shocking: a Unicef report released in 2005 said that 84% of Roma in Bulgaria, 88% in Romania and 91% in Hungary lived below the poverty line. Perhaps even more shocking is the lack of a more detailed picture. Official indifference and Roma reluctance mean that data on life expectancy, infant mortality, employment and literacy rates are sparse. Yet all are deplorably lower than those of mainstream society.

The immediate response to this (as for most of eastern Europe's ills) is to blame history. The lot of the Roma has been miserable for a millennium, ever since their mysterious migration from Rajasthan in northern India sometime around 1000 AD. With the possible exception of a principality in Corfu around 1360, they have never had a state. In parts of the Balkans, Roma were traded as slaves until the middle of the 19th century. Mirroring America's history at the same time, emancipation proved a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for freedom. The Roma of Vizuresti went from being slaves to being landless peasants. Even now, seasonal agricultural labour of the most menial kind is the main source of income; that, and begging.

But a twist of history in the next century meant that Europe's Roma suffered even more than America's blacks. Hundreds of thousands perished in the Nazi Holocaust. Compensation has been stingy, belated and badly administered.

It would be even easier to blame the Roma's plight on communism. Certainly that system largely stamped out the Roma's traditional nomadism. Countries such as Czechoslovakia also practised forced sterilisation (though Sweden did that, too). But the paternalistic structures of state socialism to some extent sheltered, if usually in the most menial jobs, those unable or unwilling to compete in a market economy. And an ostensible commitment to the brotherhood of man restrained at least some racial prejudices. For the Roma, democracy unleashed their fellow-citizens' latent hostility, while capitalism offered them few prospects.

As eastern Europe prospered, the Roma fell further behind. Their surviving traditional skills (handicrafts, horsetrading) were out of date; they lacked the administrative skills to set up businesses in the formal economy; even those wanting to work found few factories or offices willing to employ them. And European Union membership has added a new bureaucratic burden even to the businesses in which they thrive. In Balteni, near Vizuresti, the local Gypsy chieftain or Bulibasha (at the age of 84 himself a Holocaust survivor) runs an immense informal scrapyard, where tractor-trailers, car shells drawn by horses and rickety lorries deliver precariously loaded piles of rusty metal to be sorted and then sold to a nearby metallurgy plant. A vast bonfire of copper cables fills the air with fumes as insulating material is burnt off. A ragged, shoeless workforce of all ages sorts the inventory by hand. There is not a safety notice, a glove or a visor in sight, and it is hard to imagine the business or its illiterate owner managing to cope with any kind of bureaucratic inspection.

The most conspicuous problem for the Roma is lack of education, which keeps them out of jobs. Others include hostility from the majority population, apathy in officialdom, dreadful public services and infrastructure, and a pervasive feeling of hopelessness. It is hardly surprising that many tens of thousands of Roma have moved west in search of a better life. But if they did not fit in well at home, they adjust even worse to life in western Europe. Begging on the street, for example, often with young children, scandalises the citizenry, as do Roma encampments in public spaces such as parks or road junctions. A delegation of top Finnish politicians visiting Romania this month publicly complained. “In Finland, begging is not a job,” the country's president, Tarja Halonen, told her hosts with Nordic hauteur. Maybe not, but for Roma it may be the only choice they have.

West Europeans also tend to believe that Roma migrants are responsible for an epidemic of pickpocketing, shoplifting, mugging—and worse. In Italy, public patience snapped earlier this year after reports of gruesome muggings, rapes and the alleged stealing of a baby. Such reports were not matched by any change in the crime statistics. But coupled with some incendiary statements by the incoming right-of-centre government, they were enough to provoke something close to an anti-Roma pogrom in May in Naples and other cities. Rioters burned Roma caravans and huts; the authorities followed up with arrests and deportations.

West European attitudes differ little in essence from those of the ex-communist bureaucrats in the east. They want the problem to go away. Emma Bonino, a feisty Italian politician and former EU commissioner, says that Roma make a “perfect scapegoat” for politicians who have failed to deal with Italy's other, graver problems. The authorities' response has been milder than their rhetoric suggests, she says, but she laments the lack of any programme to help the Roma integrate into Italian society. The biggest danger, in her view, is that politicians have made anti-Roma racism respectable for the first time: “When you go down that road, you will not stop it just by saying ‘Enough is enough’.”

That is not just a moral cop-out. It is also bad economics. Excluding an Ireland-sized group of millions of people from the labour market, particularly when they typically have much larger families than the average in fast-greying Europe, is a colossal waste of human potential. But those looking for encouraging signs have to hunt hard indeed.

Europe is supposedly in the middle of a “Decade of Roma Inclusion”, launched in 2005 when the governments of the countries with big Roma populations (Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia) agreed to close the gap in education, employment, health and housing. Fully €11 billion ($17 billion) is available from the EU's social fund, with a further €23 billion earmarked from the regional development fund in coming years.

Yet the main effect so far has been to create a well-paid elite of Roma lobbying outfits, fluent in bureaucratic jargon, adept at organising seminars and conferences and nobbling decision-makers. It has had little effect on the lives of the Roma themselves. As the Open Society Institute, funded by George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist, says in a recent report, most governments see the answer to the Roma problem in terms of “sporadic measures” rather than coherent policies. An official in Brussels says: “We don't lack the laws and we don't lack the money. The problem is political will.”

Certainly a bit of willpower can work wonders. In Vizuresti, for example, only 6% of the children never go to school at all—a triumph by local standards. But it is still nothing to cheer about. “When the girls reach nine or ten they are ready to get married, and it is shameful for them to come to school,” explains a local, firmly adding that “marriage” in this sense means betrothal, not conjugality. “The boys don't come if they are busy helping their fathers to collect scrap,” he continues, “and the boys drop out at 15 because then they have completed the eighth grade, which you need to get a driving licence.”

In much of eastern Europe Roma children are packed off to special schools for “backward” children, reinforcing stigma and prejudice and guaranteeing that they enter the labour market with a third-class ticket. Another obstacle is the lack of birth certificates: schools that do not want Roma children can simply refuse to register those without official papers. But perhaps the biggest barriers are parental reluctance and poverty. Children in school can't work. They need expensive uniforms and books. It may even be embarrassing if they can read when their parents can't. So why bother?

A well-run country can try to spend large amounts of taxpayers' money on alleviating social problems. The results may be patchy, but at least in western Europe they have got somewhere. Spain, for example, is regarded as a big success story. Its Roma were marginalised and neglected under authoritarian rule; now a mixture of good policy and generous EU funding has brought widespread literacy, better housing and integration in the labour market. But the ex-communist countries have much weaker public administration, and neither politicians nor voters consider Gypsies a priority.

Vizuresti is doing better than most places. Thanks to a charismatic and impressive head teacher, Ion Nila, lack of documents is no barrier to registration at the village school. His teachers go door to door in the mornings, cajoling parents into sending their children to class. The real breakthrough, he says, will come if he can get Roma children to attend the nursery attached to the school. But, says Mr Nila, parents are reluctant to send their young children, as they don't have the money to buy them shoes. He hopes that hot midday meals will be an incentive, if he can find the money to pay for them.

So, at the top, billions of euros are being pumped in; while, at the bottom, a teacher struggles to find the tiny amount needed simply to feed his charges. Indeed, most of the progress in Vizuresti comes not from taxpayers' money, which soaks away into bureaucracy far from the village, but from the work of a charity, Ovidiu Rom, headed by a fiery American philanthropist, Leslie Hawke. The charity, not the state, has paid for and helped with IDs, teacher training, student workbooks and a special summer programme designed to prepare 20 of the poorest children and their often illiterate parents for what seems, to them, scary school life.

So why is Europe floundering? The conventional answer is that the Roma's biggest problem is racism pure and simple. Enforcement of tough anti-discrimination laws, Roma-friendly curriculums in schools, cultural self-esteem, positive discrimination in both officialdom and private business are the necessary ingredients for change, say the politically correct.

But that is not the whole story. Even defining what “Roma” really means is exceptionally tricky. Europe has plenty of marginalised social groups, often with traditions of nomadism and their own languages: Irish Tinkers, for example, who speak Shelta. Their problems and history may in part be similar to the Roma's, but they are not the same. Even within the broad category of Roma (meaning those with some connection to the original migrants from Rajasthan) the subdivisions are complex. Some prefer not to use the word Roma at all, arguing that “Gypsy”, sometimes thought derogatory, is actually more inclusive. The impressive catalogue to the Roma Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale insists that Roma is too narrow a term, excluding as it does “Sintis, Romunglo, Beas, Gitanes, Manus etc”. Even ethnographers find it hard to nail down the differences and similarities between such groups.

Moreover, those more narrowly defined as Roma have surprisingly little in common. The Roma tongue—originally related to Sanskrit—has splintered into dozens of mutually incomprehensible dialects. The sprinkling of internationally active Roma activists have developed their own version (sometimes derisively known as “NGO Roma”), but it bears little relationship to the creoles still spoken in the settlements. The strongest common culture is traditional Roma music, where it survives. But its haunting chords and rhythms do not conquer tone-deaf bureaucracies.

The boundaries between the marginalised groups and “normal” society are fluid. One reason that a Roma middle class, which supposedly would provide role models, lessen prejudice and increase social and economic mobility, has failed so far to take root is that most Roma who become middle-class drop the “Roma” label at once. Hopes for a change rest on the new generation of thousands of young Roma graduates, who may be less shy about their origins.

Similarly, those not born into the Roma world can end up there—by marriage, adoption or choice. In Balteni, a blonde girl, Roxana, shyly shows off a necklace of seven big gold coins given to her as a mark of impending puberty; not born a Roma, she was adopted from an orphanage into the family of a local patriarch. A Roma—which comes from the Romani word “Rom”, meaning husband—is, ultimately, anyone who wants that label.

Furthermore, as Zoltan Barany, author of a controversial but acute book on the Gypsies of eastern Europe, points out, Roma lobbyists tend not to notice that the Roma's own habits and attitudes may aggravate their plight. Speaking off the record, a westerner engaged in Roma welfare tells the story of an exceptionally talented teenage pupil at her country's top academy. She was bound for university and a stellar career, but her family decided that this was too risky: she was bride-snatched, taken to a remote village, raped and kept in seclusion. From there she was trafficked to western Europe, where she is now in a group of beggars camping out near one of Europe's best-known stadiums. Well-wishers tried to rescue her, offering a safe-house where she could continue her studies; she refused, frightened that her family would find her.

The result of that is what a senior official dealing with the issue calls “self-decapitation”. A handful of Roma politicians have emerged, including a couple of impressive members of the European Parliament. But even their symbolic value is limited. The vast majority of Roma do not even vote in elections, let alone join the campaigns waged on their behalf. There is no sign of a Roma Martin Luther King, let alone a Barack Obama. But, notes the official, “There are lots of angry young men.”

Amid all this, the EU is tottering forward. A report due to be issued next week will criticise the “implementation gap” in the worthy policies conceived so far. It will rebuke governments for slow progress. Controversially, it is likely to say that formal equality before the law is only a starting point, and that American-style positive discrimination will be needed.

That may prove a risky course. As in America, race and a history of slavery make a potent combination, entrenching stereotypes and attitudes on all sides. But also as in America, it is unclear how far the problem is race, and how far it is a matter of poverty and other factors. Stop treating Roma as a racial minority, Ms Hawke argues, and concentrate on the poor level of public services they receive in housing, health and particularly education.

Seeing the problem only through an ethnic lens is great news for the “Roma industry”, as the campaigning groups are sometimes derisively known. Their activities turn all too quickly into a theoretical, nit-picking discussion about politically correct language, complete with internecine feuds between different lobbies. It plays badly with voters, who already tend to blame the Roma for their own misfortunes. In most ex-communist countries, polls show striking degrees of prejudice: as many as 80% of those asked say they would not want Roma neighbours, for example. In Hungary, the commendable idea of integrating Roma and non-Roma children in the same schools has sent parents scurrying elsewhere.

But there are some shoots of hope. One is that the violence in Italy has highlighted the Roma issue in a way that would never have happened if the misery had remained concentrated in the slums and ghettos of eastern Europe. “Just as Putin has galvanised Europe on energy policy, Berlusconi has galvanised Europe on Roma policy,” says Andre Wilkens, a thoughtful Brussels-based observer of the region who heads the Open Society Institute's Roma efforts. He believes that the new member states of the EU have a chance to derive advantage from the Roma by finding an economic niche for them—for example, by turning their tradition of scrap-dealing into the basis for a modern recycling industry.

Such hopeful nibbles abound. But even an optimist would have to concede that Europe's biggest social problem will persist for the lifetime of anyone reading this article, and probably far longer.

Friday, May 23, 2008

HIV/STD Prevention Project

This past Tuesday I was able to complete a project which I have been thinking about and working on for quite some time now. The idea for this project arose last summer while hanging out with my friends from the Roma community in town.
Throughout the course of the summer I found that most of the community is sexually active but that there is little to no sexual education programs in place. After doing some research I found that although although not nearly as high as other ethnic groups, there is a higher than normal risk of HIV within the Roma community.

Thanks to the help of Taylor, a fellow volunteer in Pazardzhik, and her organization, I was able to organize an HIV/STD awareness campaign to be held in the Bratsigovo Roma community. The campaign involved talking about the risk of HIV and STDs with the community, handing out informational materials and condoms, and most importantly providing free HIV tests. I spent the last few weeks publicizing the event and getting feedback from the community.

Coming into the event, we were hoping to get at least twenty people to take these tests although we had a goal of around thirty. Thanks to the help of my Roma buddies and the efforts of the organization from Pazardzhik we finished the day with a total of 37 test given (not to mention Taylor and I who also took the test to ensure them that the tests were painless and easy.) At the end of the day we fired up a grill, bought some meat, soda, and beer, and had a little BBQ in the main square of the Roma neighborhood. All in all, the event went incredibly well and I am very happy with the result. In the near future I hope to plan a similar event for the village of Isperihovo which has an even larger Roma population.

-Currently Reading: "Snow" by Orhan Pamuk
-Currently Listening to: "Safari" by Jovanotti

Monday, April 28, 2008

Peace Corps in the Media

Foreign Policy Online recently posted a lengthy article on the Peace Corps organization which I found quite interesting. The author published another article a few months ago focusing more specifically on the youth and inexperience in the Peace Corps. Despite the overall negative slant, as a whole I agree with many of Strauss' observations. This is not to say that I don't think there are volunteers around the world doing solid work and actually helping others, but I agree that a certain reform is in order, particularly in terms of the volunteer selection process and volunteer placement. Is there really a need to have a volunteer working in an ethnological museum in Bulgaria or Romania while there is a growing need for HIV education in Africa or unsanitary water conditions in Central America? Probably not. Give the article a read and if you have a moment, leave your thoughts on it.

On a personal note, all is going well and I am currently in the process of organizing an STD/HIV awareness day in the Roma community which will take place on the 20th of May. I will post more next week, as this week is full of holidays and I will be heading to Boboshevo for the wedding of my host brother.

Think Again: The Peace Corps

By Robert L. Strauss
April 2008 : Foreign Policy Online

In the eyes of Americans, no government agency better exemplifies the optimism, can-do spirit, and selfless nature of the United States than the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, it’s never lived up to its purpose or principles.

“The Peace Corps Is a Potent Diplomatic Weapon”

No. With diplomats stuck inside barricaded compounds or loath to venture from expatriate residential ghettos, a Peace Corps volunteer is likely to be the only representative of the U.S. government that poor, rural populations ever see. As the State Department cuts back on its public diplomacy and cultural exchange programs, the Peace Corps’ predominantly young volunteers wind up carrying more and more of the responsibility for demonstrating that the United States still has good intentions abroad.

That puts the Peace Corps and its volunteers in an awkward position. The Peace Corps was created as a separate, independent agency so that it would not be subject to short-term foreign-policy objectives. Volunteers aren’t trained or expected to represent the U.S. government, its positions, or its interests. When the Peace Corps is characterized as an effective diplomatic weapon, it is thanks to the goodwill that volunteers generate toward the American people, not toward official U.S. policy.

Unfortunately, of the tens of millions of people with whom Peace Corps volunteers have interacted during the last 47 years, many have no idea what the Peace Corps is. Few have any idea that the Peace Corps is a U.S. government agency funded 100 percent by American taxpayers. On the plus side, over my five years as a country director in Cameroon, hundreds of villagers and officials told me how happy they were simply to have volunteers in their communities. Less encouraging is that just as often, I was told how fondly they remembered the Peace Corps volunteer from Rome, Paris, or Tokyo. It’s tough to be an effective diplomatic weapon and build goodwill among nations if people don’t understand what nation you came from in the first place.

“The Peace Corps Recruits Only the Best and the Brightest”

False. The Peace Corps learned how to recruit by emulating traditional fishermen in developing countries—toss a large net and hope for the best. For decades, this system has been notoriously ineffective, sending Spanish speakers to Arabic-speaking North Africa and offering the rare, farm-raised, French-speaking applicant a job teaching English in Mongolia.

The Peace Corps claims that about 1 in 3 applicants eventually becomes a volunteer, implying that the agency is about as selective as many “elite” schools in the United States. Not long ago, the figure commonly cited was 1 in 7. Either way, the truth is that so long as applicants meet the minimum standards and are healthy and persistent, the Peace Corps rarely rejects them outright. Each group sent overseas includes a few highly motivated and capable individuals—and then there are the vast majority who before joining the Peace Corps weren’t sure what to do with their lives, were fresh out of school and seeking a government-subsidized travel experience or something to bolster their résumé, or for whom the Peace Corps represented a chance to escape a humdrum life or recent divorce.

Once overseas, the chances of being kicked out are slim. I queried my fellow country directors in Africa to find out how many trainees they had sent packing due to unacceptable performance. The figure was less than 2 percent a year, meaning that once accepted, an individual—qualified or not, motivated or not—is pretty much assured of sticking around.

Unfortunately, the Peace Corps’ failure to recruit the best isn’t limited to volunteers. Few agencies rival the Peace Corps for the percentage of political appointees filling mission-critical positions. Hardly the sexiest of sinecures, the Peace Corps’ 29 political appointments tend to be lower-level politicians, third-tier party loyalists, the relatives of elected officials, or minor political underlings who get “parked” at the Peace Corps.

“The Peace Corps Sends Volunteers Where They Are Needed Most”

Rarely. Like many bureaucracies, the Peace Corps operates predominantly on inertia. The agency sends most volunteers to the same places where volunteers have been sent before, often to do the same thing volunteers were doing 20 and 30 years ago—regardless of whether their mission still makes sense.

Reviewing the most recent U.N. Human Development Report shows that the Peace Corps is active in 10 countries with “high human development,” 49 with “medium human development,” and 11 with “low human development.” With so few resources to achieve its goals, one wonders why the Peace Corps hasn’t concentrated what little it has on the world’s poorest countries, where the need is likely greatest. Granted, half a dozen of those places are either so unstable or dangerous that there’s little hope of achieving much. But even if the Peace Corps didn’t concentrate only on the poorest of the poor, one has to question what it is still doing in Romania and Bulgaria, two countries that have already become members of the European Union.

One might also ask why there is approximately one volunteer sent to Tonga for every 3,800 Tongans but only one sent to Tanzania for every 245,000 Tanzanians. Or what the logic is of having one volunteer for every 2.5 million Mexicans when tens of thousands of Americans live in Mexico, millions of Mexicans live in the United States, and the two countries are among each others’ largest trading partners. The reason, in many cases, is that someone simply decided on a number and no one asked if it made much sense. Of course, closing a program in one country and transferring its resources to another requires explanation and large expenses, and is often resisted by the State Department and by zealous, vocal former volunteers who hate to see programs in their countries shut down.

Some will argue that wherever there are poor people the Peace Corps has a role. But with the Peace Corps’ 8,000 volunteers spread out across more than 70 countries, giving each one such a small presence guarantees that no one can say with any authority if the agency is making a difference or not.

“The Peace Corps Is a Development Organization”

Says who? Since its founding in 1961, the Peace Corps has probably sent more development workers overseas, now upward of 190,000, than any other organization. But if the Peace Corps is a development organization, then it’s a bit like the late, bug-eyed comedian Rodney Dangerfield who, no matter what happened, claimed, “I don’t get no respect.”

Indeed, if the Peace Corps were as successful at development as its literature and many volunteers and staff members attest, one would expect other organizations and scholars to cite it as a model. Yet pick up any of the recently popular books on development by Paul Collier, William Easterly, or Jeffrey Sachs, and you won’t find a single reference to the Peace Corps. Tony Blair’s 464-page Commission for Africa report? Not a word. “Beyond Assistance,” the 215-page report of the HELP Commission on foreign-assistance reform? Just three passing mentions.

The reason the Peace Corps is overlooked as a development organization has a lot to do with the youth and inexperience of the majority of its volunteers. Equally important is its unwillingness to decide if it is a development organization or an organization with a mission “to promote world peace and friendship,” as stipulated by Congress in the Peace Corps Act. It would like to be both, but finds itself falling short on both objectives because it cannot decide which is the more important.

Many Peace Corps staff and volunteers see development work as a burdensome obligation undertaken only to legitimize the cultural exchange aspects of the agency. But without a focus on economic development and an improvement in standards of living, the Peace Corps is really little more than an extended, government-sponsored semester-abroad program. For applicants, the Peace Corps emphasizes the personal experience, not the volunteer’s development impact. That, of course, is not how the Peace Corps pitches itself to foreign governments, to whom it promises significant technical development assistance—only to provide predominantly recent college graduates who may or may not have any useful skills to offer.

The real problem is that the Peace Corps has never done a serious job of evaluating its impact. If it is a world peace and friendship organization designed to “help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served,” then, as a start, it ought to ask the peoples served if they even know which country Peace Corps volunteers come from. If it’s a development agency, then it needs to undertake rigorous measures to assess its impact. Currently, it does neither but rather relies on biannual surveys in which volunteers comment on whether they think they are making a difference. It’s a bit like asking a bunch of doctors how they think they are doing without ever talking to the patients—or even checking to see if they are still alive.

“Locals Love Peace Corps Volunteers”

Not always. People everywhere almost always get a kick out of hearing a foreigner speaking—or trying to speak—their language. In small villages around the world, a foreigner who can use local parables correctly or dance the sacred traditional dance, or who appears content to sit around the village circle for hours on end, is a curiosity, an amusement. Lifelong attachments can and do grow. In Cameroon, dozens, if not hundreds of times, I was asked what had become of so and so, a volunteer who had served 30 or even 40 years earlier. I loved that many people had such fond memories of volunteers. For better or worse, people often loved “their” volunteers as much for the volunteer’s willingness to buy rounds of drinks as for any concrete thing he or she might have achieved.

But just as often, people were disturbed by volunteers who had set terrible examples by abusing drugs or alcohol or violating cultural sensitivities and professional norms. The Peace Corps strives to represent the diversity of the American population, but in casting its net wide, it scoops up many who represent less than the best American traditions of dedication, persistence, creativity, optimism, and honesty. Like any large organization, the Peace Corps has its share of deadbeats, philanderers, parasites, gamblers, and alcoholics. The problem is that the agency sends these people tens of thousands of miles from home and expects them to work responsibly with minimal supervision. Disasters logically result.

The Peace Corps is remarkably effective at cleaning up the messes those volunteers make and getting them back to the United States before local authorities step in. What’s less clear is the Peace Corps’ overall impact on people’s impressions and understandings of the United States. Does the goodwill generated by the small minority of great volunteers outweigh the indifference or outright hostility caused by the mediocre or truly sinister ones? The agency doesn’t know, because it doesn’t ask.

“The Peace Corps Has a Strategy”

Nope. The Peace Corps has plans, not a strategy. A strategy implies a conclusion, a final goal. The Peace Corps has none. In Washington, plans are already underway to celebrate the agency’s 50th anniversary in 2011. Celebrating half a century of existence ought to be a dubious benchmark for any development organization, particularly one that actively encourages its volunteers to “work themselves out of a job,” yet has no plans for doing so itself in any of the more than 70 countries where it is currently active.

The Peace Corps is unable to do this because it never has had any benchmarks to signal when the mission has been accomplished. In Cameroon, volunteers are still teaching math and science, the job they originally came to do in 1962. This was a situation I tried but failed to change because the placing of volunteers in the field was more important to the Peace Corps than questioning whether the Cameroonian government had failed to do its job by not training and hiring adequate numbers of local teachers over a period of more than four decades. In any case, doing the same thing for 46 years ought to indicate that something is broken, something the Peace Corps is unlikely to fix. A serious development organization would either not allow such a situation to persist or would refuse to abet it.

“The Peace Corps Is One of the Greatest Things America Has Ever Done”

Dream on. Today, the Peace Corps remains a Peter Pan organization, afraid to grow up, yet also afraid to question the thinking of its founding fathers. The rush to fulfill John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign pledge was such that the Peace Corps never learned to crawl, let alone walk, before it set off at a sprinter’s pace. The result is a schizophrenic entity, unsure if it is a development organization, a cheerleader for international goodwill, or a government-sponsored cross-cultural exchange program. In any case, the Peace Corps tries to do too many things in too many places with too few people to really get much of anything done at all.

Despite these inherent faults, the Peace Corps is probably one of the least-expensive development agencies ever created. Supporting a volunteer in the field costs just $41,000 a year, including overhead. That’s about $12,000 less than a year’s worth of tuition, room, and board at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a small fraction of the cost of supporting a single American diplomat or USAID worker in a developing country. The agency has long prided itself on doing more with a dollar than most other development outfits. Peace Corps Press Director Amanda Beck estimates that the agency’s direct expenditures per volunteer are actually only $3,000 a year. But if that is the case, one then has to wonder what the Peace Corps is doing with the other $38,000 it spends per year for each volunteer. However you count it, the agency’s relative leanness says more about the lack of significant results in the development business than it does about the Peace Corps’ cost effectiveness.

Based predominantly on the life-changing experiences volunteers had while serving, the Peace Corps continues to generate strong support from the American people. But for the agency to approach its potential, deep, substantive changes must be made.

Sargent Shriver, the agency’s first director, recognized that a “Peace Corps, small and symbolic, might be good public relations, but a Peace Corps that was large and had a major impact on problems in other countries could transform the economic development of the world,” according to former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford. Because the Peace Corps has tried to be all things to all comers, that grand vision has never been realized or even approached. To become effective and relevant, the Peace Corps must now give up on the myth that its creation was the result of an immaculate conception that can never be questioned or altered. It must go out and recruit the best of the best. It must avoid goodwill-generating window dressing and concentrate its resources in a limited number of countries that are truly interested in the development of their people. And it must give up on the risible excuse that in the absence of quantifiable results, good intentions are enough. Only then will it be able to achieve its original objective of significantly altering the lives of millions for the better.

Currently reading: "Hocus Pocus" by Kurt Vonnegut
Currently listening to: "Only as the Day is Long" by Sera Cahoone

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Shameless Self Promotion

Here is a copy of the recent newspaper article publish on yours truly by "Zname," the largest newspaper in the Pazardzhik region.

Currently Reading: "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi
Currently Listening to: "Ongiara" by The Great Lake Swimmers

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

It's that time of the year again...

As the title suggests, it is about time for another installment of my critically acclaimed and rarely updated blog. Instead of beating around the bush here's a little rundown of what has been going on in the little mountain town of Bratsigovo.


As of six weeks ago I have begun teaching daily English lessons at the orphanages in town as well as tutoring a few teenage girls in Italian. Overall the kids are really motivated and have been doing a great job considering my lack of teaching skills and idea of how to teach the languages.

Now that spring is on the way I'm getting started on a few more projects to occupy my remaining time in Bratsigovo. The main one which I will be working on will be an HIV and STD prevention campaign focused on youth and teens in the Roma community here in Bratsigovo. I will be working together with an organization from Pazardzhik and an organization from Burgas with the intention of providing them with free testing and information on what they can do to prevent these diseases. The next project which I will be working on is to promote art and photography within the orphanages in town. Working together with my sister and Josh in Iskar the aim is to provide a two-month long hands-on training for interested kids with the end result being a group of photos which will be displayed in the town's community center and can be made into postcards, posters, and photobooks to be sold in America. The proceeds from these products will be used to pay for the children who wish to pursue a higher education, since currently they do not have the opportunity due to financial reasons.

Finally, Peace Corps worldwide director Ron Tschetter will be visiting me here in Bratsigovo this Thursday. He is spending a two days here in Bulgaria and will be visiting two other volunteers in order to see first hand the work which is being done here in Bulgaria.

General Odds and Ends

Outside of work, life is normal but good. With the self-destruction of my computer I have been filling me time reading, drawing, and studying for the GRE. A few weekends ago I was able to head up to Borovets for the weekend to snowboard with Kevin and Ryan. Although there wasn't any new snow the weather was perfect and we had a great time. If conditions allow I will be taking another snowboarding trip to a smaller resort in a few weeks. Other than that life is exactly what you would expect it to be living in a small Bulgarian town of 4,000: Quiet and relaxing.

Currently Reading: "The Rainbow" by D.H. Lawrence
Currently Listening to: "Beyond" by Dinosaur Jr.