11 May 2009

Hearts and Minds

The Peace Corps in the age of Obama

School #2 in Yoloten, Turkmenistan, was built in 1931, right as the first exiles began arriving from the Pale of Settlement in Ukraine. I know this because I worked at school #2 for eighteen months, and because Renata Aleksevich, school #2’s gym teacher, would tell me this sort of thing, hand-rolling his makhorka cigarettes and trying to figure out what an American was doing in what is still sometimes referred to locally as a corner of the Gulag. Yoloten had largely been built and populated by Ukrainians and Armenians, Tatars and Georgians and Azeris—osobeiye izganniki, special exiles sent to Central Asia during the upheavals of the USSR. It was sometimes suggested in Yoloten that I, too, must have been exiled to end up there. This wasn’t exactly true, but my job there was at times difficult to understand.

I taught English at school #2, disregarding the government-mandated curriculum and largely making things up as I went along. In Turkmenistan, English instruction often means memorizing passages adapted from the Rukhnama, the revisionist-history-cum-spiritual-guide written by the country’s former president, Saparmyrat Niyazov. Though the Rukhnama is hardly the most effective teaching tool, I did end up rewriting various of its passages for the other English teachers at my school, who were often threatened with losing their jobs if they deviated from Niyazov’s text. Sometimes these passages contradicted what students would have learned in History class, if that hadn’t been Rukhnama-based as well. For instance, here is a passage that got a lot of play toward the beginning of each year:

January 12th is Gokdepe’s Memory Day, a day of tragedy in the history of the Turkmen people. In 1880 the Gokdepe fortress was attacked by the Russian army. Turkmen patriots came to the fortress to defend their motherland. The battle lasted for three weeks, and many people died. People go to mosques on Memory Day and pray in remembrance. We are proud of our heroes, and their names will never be forgotten.

This failed to mention that the Turkmen had lost the battle of Gokdepe. Or that in 1881, there had been little notion of a cohesive Turkmen ethnicity, let alone “motherland”—and that all of those involved on the Turkmen side had come from the Ahal Teke tribe, now the dominant political force in Turkmenistan. In Yoloten, which is predominantly non-Turkmen and sparsely Saryk, a minority Turkmen tribe, no one ever went to Mosque on January 12. At least, after I rewrote it, the passage was no longer riddled with grammatical errors.

With my more advanced students I sometimes branched out, hoping to coax a few into thinking critically about literature, or their community, or developing their own ideas. It was here that I began to get confused about what my job was. I had arrived in Turkmenistan as a volunteer in the US Peace Corp’s local TEFL program, and had been assigned to school #2 after three months of training in a kolhoz, that is, a Soviet-style collective farm, near Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital. My training included instruction in the TEFL program’s various goals for the Turkmen educational system. These goals included promoting critical thinking, leadership skills, and community involvement; I mistakenly assumed them to have been worked out in close coordination with Turkmenistan’s Education Ministry.

The opposition I encountered to my attempts to go beyond basic English education should not have been surprising. Turkmenistan remains an extremely isolated country ruled by an authoritarian government—the response to foreign influence tends to range between skepticism and hostility. I never understood what threat was implied by my students collecting donations in order to fund a Halloween celebration at a local home for disabled children, but I was nonetheless held responsible for this violation of law. I wasn’t arrested, but vehement reprimands from the KGB-successor organization and the local prokuratura—the public prosecutor’s office, who told me in no small terms that soliciting donations was illegal—were enough. These reprimands were repeated when a student of mine won a national essay contest and spent a day in Ashgabat for the awards ceremony. I had authorized her missing class; this was illegal.

Law is a notoriously fuzzy thing in Turkmenistan. I was once present when a meeting of local teachers was broken up by the local authorities and KGB. Holding an unregistered meeting of more than three people was a violation, although of what I never learned. Throughout Turkmenistan, there is a nominal 10:00 PM curfew—the result of Niyazov once having expressed the opinion that anyone out after 10:00 PM really couldn’t be up to anything useful, which the different and competing enforcement agencies took as an excuse to take bribes from those on the streets at night.

My law-breaking ultimately resulted in multiple diplomatic notes complaining about my actions and directed to the American Embassy in Ashgabat. I later had trouble acquiring internal travel visas but saw few other immediate consequences of my criminality. I did, however, begin to wonder why, if I had been assigned to school #2 not only to teach English, but also to develop local teacher associations, and to teach students to think beyond the confines of their own lives and become involved in their community, did I then find such strong opposition to the latter? Whenever I would raise these questions with the Peace Corps’ office in Ashgabat, they would tell me: Sit tight. Do what you’re told. If you’re told not to pick up glass around the local swimming hole, don’t do it (somehow I got away with that one without the authorities noticing). If necessary, teach the passages from the Rukhnama.

I didn’t join the Peace Corps to “save the world,” and I had few pretensions of engaging in major community-changing development. I did expect to work toward the long-term development of school #2’s educational program—this seemed to be ingrained in Peace Corps Turkmenistan’s goals for its TOEFL program. So why the quietist approach taken by the Peace Corps—what was really at stake, if not the work done by Peace Corps volunteers in service of these goals?


Founded in 1961, the Peace Corps can at times seem unaware that almost fifty years have passed. The current Peace Corps director, Ron Tschetter, served in India in the 1960s. The Turkmenistan Country Director served a few years later in Afghanistan. Those were different times. One was simply put on a bus from the capital to a designated community and—barring a nasty case of cholera or snakebite—not heard from again for two years. During my years of service I was required to regularly update Washington on possible ‘evacuation’ sites—places where a marine helicopter could safely land near my community. Isolation isn’t what it once was.

In terms of work assignments it’s less clear what the change has been. The 1961 founding law hasn’t changed, and Congressional oversight, except in specific instances of volunteer death or disappearance, is limited. The Peace Corps takes great pride in calling itself the one federal agency “never to have its budget cut”—although the budget has in fact decreased at times, notably in the 1980s, and remains a pittance by federal standards at $330 million. This budget supports the work of approximately 8,000 PCVs around the world. Employing its own particular approach to development, the Peace Corps has since its founding directed the activities of these overwhelmingly young Americans as per its official Mission, outlined in three main goals:

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 people served.

3) Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

This ordering may be somewhat misleading. In his initial proposal for the Peace Corps—ad-libbed on the steps of the University of Michigan Union at 2 AM in the waning months of the 1960 Presidential Campaign—John F. Kennedy made no mention of the benefit to foreign countries that could come from such a program. What he said instead was:

On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete … unless you comprehend the nature of what is being asked of you, this country can’t possibly move through the next 10 years in a period of relative strength.

This was the Cold War, and the focus—implicit or not—on the “hearts and minds” of people in foreign countries, rather than the quality of their water supplies, likely had much to do with Public Law 87-293’s ultimate passage through Congress.

There may be something arrogant about the assumption that sending young Americans out to developing nations will win over their populations, but given the context of the Peace Corps’ founding and development, goal #2 stands out. The first Peace Corps volunteers were largely deployed in the newly decolonized nations of Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. These were countries deemed in need of a push toward “free society,” lest they be courted by other influences. The Peace Corps moved quickly, after the fall of the Soviet Union, to place volunteers in the independent nations of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Last year the first group of volunteers arrived in Cambodia, the newest Peace Corps post, and there has been discussion of opening a post in Vietnam. It’s hard to ignore the shadow of other, more sinister powers—or of our own bombing campaigns, thirty years on.

Throughout the Peace Corps’ history, there have been concerns over meaningless or unclear job assignments, ineffective language and local work training, and the fact that some of the Americans sent abroad to provide “professional assistance” were distinctly less qualified than local cadres. And while the total number of volunteers is statistically miniscule—less than 0.1% of the American population, including all current and former PCVs—even a few hundred Americans in a developing country can sap available work sites and resources. Former volunteers in Ukraine have complained to me of “stumbling on top of one another” during their two years of service; a PCV in Mongolia remarked that he wasn’t sure what his job was meant to be, other than improving his local counterparts’ English—so that they could join the “brain drain” leaving the country.

None of these concerns have filtered up to the congressional level, and are rarely, if ever, commented upon in the media. For those on the outside, the Peace Corps remains, I think, a vague federal program, one that sends people to strange places for poorly understood ethical reasons. The Peace Corps, though, represents not only a significant element of American volunteerism, but of America’s approach to the peoples, if not governments, of the world. Looking a little closer at what it does—or doesn’t—do, we may learn something about both.


The Peace Corps post in Turkmenistan divides its volunteers into two program sectors: TOEFL and Community Health Education (CHE). These program sectors were at some point negotiated with the Turkmen government; they theoretically represent what the Turkmen identified as their greatest needs. Given the near complete lack of NGOs or private organizations in Turkmenistan, they align nicely with the two institutions at which PCVs might be placed: schools and hospitals. Volunteers in the CHE program, though, often found hospital workers woefully unprepared for their arrival, unsure of what their role was supposed to be, and unwilling, whether from lack of incentive or KGB pressure, to work on the projects the volunteers would suggest. CHE volunteers sometimes spent days—if not weeks—reading the old issues of Newsweek that all PCVs are provided. My job, at least, was a little more demanding.

It was never clear, however, how much expectation there was that I would actually do my job. A lack of oversight is understandable when one’s employees are scattered throughout a rural country with unreliable communications, but I never got the impression that my teaching of English, or critical thinking, or the made-up history of the Oghuz Turkmen from the Rukhnama, was tracked by the Peace Corps in any meaningful way.

Every four months I was required to fill out a “trimester report” in which I indicated how my previous months’ activities accorded with a series of numeric objectives associated with the TOEFL program’s goals. We were informed, during the trimester report’s initial explanation, that Congress had recently been asking for accountability, that the Peace Corps is “not a quantitative activity” and that the level of accuracy in our reporting was not expected to be particularly high. I and my fellow PCVs took this to heart and spent our time crafting poems in local languages for the section of the report that would be shared with Washington.

This may have something to do with the difficulty I now have in explaining to people what I did in the Peace Corps. “Wrote poems in Turkmen and Russian about coffee tables and heaters” hardly seems to justify my two years in a very foreign country. To be fair, I also have difficulty explaining why I joined the Peace Corps in the first place. A lot of it, I think, had to do with goal #2 (“a better understanding of Americans”), and it was only after I arrived in Turkmenistan that the lack of focus on actual development began to disturb me. I believed, as Kennedy implied, that it was important to serve my country—and that this could be done by putting my boots on the ground in a country with little experience of Americans.

I shared the arrogance; I thought that becoming a talking sandwich board for American soft power would help pay the debt I felt to American society. I’m less sure of this now. I’m also less certain of my effectiveness at promoting a “better understanding.” To judge by the available data, the Peace Corps as a whole may have the same problem. There is simply no clear correlation between either the number of years the Peace Corps has worked in a given country, the total number of PCVs in that country, or the concentration of PCVs per year and the ultimate public perception of America.

On the other hand, we could tell the story—and it’s a true one—that after September 11, people in villages throughout Senegal were burning American flags, but in the one village with a PCV, the one man who dared to say anything bad about America was temporarily driven from town for insulting the volunteer who had become one of their own. Yet I would bet that in the villages screaming ‘Death to the infidel,’ there had been, at some point in the past, PCVs who were equally part of their communities and equally cherished by the village’s residents. It is not so difficult to decouple one’s feelings about a single citizen from the idea of a foreign nation as a whole—and there may be strong reasons to do so in many of the countries the Peace Corps once served. Both Iran and Venezuela once had lengthy and extensive Peace Corps programs. And I am certain that in the village where my former country director served, somewhere in the west of Afghanistan, he is still remembered and loved—and little love is lost for America.


During the 2008 campaign, President Obama more than once referred to the Peace Corps as a model for volunteerism; his platform included a pledge to double the size of the corps to 16,000. This may have been empty rhetoric: George W. Bush once promised to increase the number of active volunteers to 14,000, and Obama’s recent comments on volunteerism have been entirely focused within U.S. borders, rather than abroad. Legislation that recently passed Congress, variously entitled the “GIVE Act” or “Serve America Act,” is also without reference to the Peace Corps. But President Obama’s support for the Peace Corps has never seemed facile in a way that others’ sometimes has—perhaps because of his background as a community organizer, or his well-publicized experiences growing up in developing nations. The Peace Corps could easily resurface on his agenda.

The size or constitution of the Peace Corps is not a widely debated issue, and it is one that is often dominated by a few voices, primarily the National Peace Corps Association—a nonprofit made up of former PCVs that nominally aims to support returned volunteers and the Corps itself. Kevin Quigley, the head of the NPCA, built upon Obama’s comments during the campaign to call for an expansion of the Peace Corps to 100,000 volunteers a year, a number originally suggested by President Kennedy as the ultimate goal for the program. This plan was detailed somewhat vaguely in a report Quigley coauthored with the Brookings Institution, and seems to assume the possibility of expanding not only the number of Peace Corps posts around the world, but the number of volunteers in a given country to upwards of a thousand.

Whether aiming for 15,000 or 100,000, these proposals have managed to lose sight of the volunteers, or more strictly, the work done by volunteers. Emphasis is placed on expanding the program, on opening new posts, on placing PCVs where their influence can be felt—when volunteers come into the picture at all, it is on what they learn as individuals, or how their perspective is broadened. In this last, we can see something of Obama’s argument that he personally, through his work as a community organizer on Chicago’s south side, found “the direction I’d been seeking”; similarly, many PCVs rightly cite their service as a turning point that caused them to reevaluate their view of the world. Thus the choice is: the Peace Corps as instrument of America’s soft power, deploying marines without rifles—or the Peace Corps as educator of upper-middle-class Americans, opening the eyes of the privileged to destitution.

There is value to both pursuits, and some amount of truth: in Turkmenistan I was a representative of America, and my basic conception of the world was altered in ways I have yet to fully comprehend. The Peace Corps, though, is—or should be—much more than this. Even today, PCVs have access to countries and regions other NGOs and development agencies are unable to reach; their ability to judge local needs and resources is in many areas unparalleled; their integration into local culture and language knowledge outstrips the majority of expatriates. This is a unique position. With a focus on effective work placements, the linking of volunteers’ skill-sets with country and site assignments, and much better accounting of long-term results, it could be turned to unique results.

This would ultimately serve not only the local populations among which PCVs live, but America, too. Focusing on increasing the size of the Peace Corps misses this entirely; it may even be that ultimately, for the Peace Corps to become an effective development agency, it will have to shrink. This possibility needs to be considered. And an accounting of what, exactly, PCVs are supposed to be doing is necessary. Even in the gulag—the real gulag—a zek‘s work norm mattered. I hope someone in Washington was reading the poems I wrote.

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