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Peace Corps Politicization and Bureaucracy Criticized

The developing world knows the Peace Corps by the faces of American youth who travel around the world to give their time, labor, and skills by working in villages and among the poor. But a recent Senate hearing raised concerns that the Corps’ bureaucracy has politicized the institution and hindered the work of volunteers. Critics claim that the institution has allowed the White House entry into its offices and created a discouragingly inefficient, unfriendly bureaucracy.

Peace Corps director Ronald Tschetter faced strong criticism and warnings from Democratic Senator and former Peace Corps volunteer Chris Dodd from the state of Connecticut for the institution’s apparent politicization and bureaucracy. In a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee meeting recently, held to discuss Dodd’s “Peace Corps Volunteer Empowerment Act,” the senator and his Republican colleague Bob Corker from the state of Tennessee, warned Mr. Tschetter against letting White House politics enter Peace Corps offices. Senator Dodd stressed that the Peace Corps should remain apolitical for the safety of its volunteers and the efficacy of its mission, cautioning that’d he’d “have heads” if he heard of another similar incident. Senator Corker concurred, affirming Senator Dodd's request for a list of those involved in a 2002 incident, in which Peace Corps offices were used by the White House to hold a voluntary political meeting during the 2002 mid-term elections. Mr. Tschetter denied possessing a record of attendance, saying the meeting was informal and voluntary.

Senator Dodd also suggested Mr. Tschetter opposed change in the Corps, which the senator considers critically flawed. He specifically criticized the Peace Corps’ time-consuming application process, its control over a volunteer’s freedom of speech, and the absence of direct funding for small projects. Senator Dodd pointed to projected declines in recruitment, job dissatisfaction, relatively low minority participation, and the failure of the Corps to emphasize its duties at home to teach Americans about the world.

David Kotz, Inspector-General of the Peace Corps, agreed with Senator Dodd, citing a report that showed the major causes of withdrawal from the application process were time, medical costs, and “poor communication.” However, Mr. Tschetter said it was impossible to expedite the process without putting volunteers at risk. Mark Schneider, Clinton administration Peace Corps director, disagreed, saying that 4 to 6 months was “viable.”

Chuck Ludlam and his wife Paula Hirschoff, witnesses who are friendly to Dodd’s bill and who served in the Peace Corps 40 years ago and are serving in Senegal today, argued that the “hierarchy” of the current system “creates cynicism” among volunteers. Mr. Ludlam suggested that liberalizing speech, returning greater independence to volunteers, and encouraging older individuals to join up might make the program more effective.

Kate Raftery, a Peace Corps country director, disagreed with the need to legislate and systematize the internal review processes that determine whether country directors receive tenure, and said she thought a balance could be reached between cooperation with volunteers and administrative control.

Senator Dodd’s bill would approve appropriations of $330 million for this year and would nearly double funding by 2011. The bill would also expedite the application process, especially medical screening for older applicants. It would also legalize private donations to specific projects and would provide funding for Peace Corps world education initiatives in the United States.

Mr. Tschetter expressed concern that the bill would make volunteers appear overly interested in fundraising and grant hunting. Regarding the medical screening process, Mr. Tschetter said the legislation might cost the Peace Corps more than it could afford without shrinking its services.

No immediate action is scheduled on Senate Bill 732. The subcommittee awaits further comments and information from witnesses.

President Kennedy inaugurated the Peace Corps in 1961, with the intention of sending young Americans abroad to help in development projects, teach about the United States, and bring knowledge home about the world. The Corps is supposed to remain autonomous from the State Department. More than 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers serve around the world in approximately 70 countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.