Panamerican Proceeding

Lend me an ear and you will hear the rants and raves of this volunteer. "Nothing is stronger than the heart of a volunteer" says Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle (parden the pun), but perhaps no one is crazier either. Why do we care so much? Herein lies a glimpse of my Pan-American experience.

My Photo
Location: Bocas Del Toro, Panama Este, Panama

The proceeding 'Panamerican' is a Master's International Student and Peace Corps Volunteer. Disclaimer: Contents are the author's viewpoints only, (need to stress only), and many may have been written on particularly poor days.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Peace Corps Volunteer Quality

January 9, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor
Too Many Innocents Abroad
Antananarivo, Madagascar

The Peace Corps recently began a laudable initiative to increase the number of volunteers who are 50 and older. As the Peace Corps' country director in Cameroon from 2002 until last February, I observed how many older volunteers brought something to their service that most young volunteers could not: extensive professional and life experience and the ability to mentor younger volunteers.

However, even if the Peace Corps reaches its goal of having 15 percentof its volunteers over 50, the overwhelming majority will remain recently minted college graduates. And too often these young volunteers lack the maturity and professional experience to be effective development workers in the 21st century.

This wasn't the case in 1961 when the Peace Corps sent its first volunteers overseas. Back then, enthusiastic young Americans offered something that many newly independent nations counted in double and even single digits: college graduates. But today, those same nations have millions of well-educated citizens of their own desperately in need of work. So it's much less clear what inexperienced Americans have to offer.

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 thenumber of volunteers to plummet. The name of the game has been getting volunteers into the field, qualified or not.

In Cameroon, we had many volunteers sent to serve in the agriculture program whose only experience was puttering around in their mom and dad's backyard during high school. I wrote to our headquarters in Washington to ask if anyone had considered how an American farmer would feel if a fresh-out-of-college Cameroonian with a liberal arts degree who had occasionally visited Grandma's cassava plot were sent to Iowa to consult on pig-raising techniques learned in a three-month crash course. I'm pretty sure the American farmer would see it as a publicity stunt and a bunch of hooey, but I never heard back from headquarters.

For the Peace Corps, the number of volunteers has always trumped the quality of their work, perhaps because the agency fears that an objective assessment of its impact would reveal that while volunteers generate good will for the United States, they do little or nothing to actually aid development in poor countries. The agency has no comprehensive system for self-evaluation, but rather relies heavily on personal anecdote to demonstrate its worth.

Every few years, the agency polls its volunteers, but in my experience it does not systematically ask the people it is supposedly helping what they think the volunteers have achieved. This is a clear indication of how the Peace Corps neglects its customers; as long as the volunteers are enjoying themselves, it doesn't matter whether they improve the quality of life in the host countries. Any well-run organization must know what its customers want and then deliver the goods, but this is something the Peace Corps has never learned.

This lack of organizational introspection allows the agency to continue sending, for example, unqualified volunteers to teach English when nearly every developing country could easily find high-caliber English teachers among its own population. Even after Cameroonian teachers and education officials ranked English instruction as their lowest priority (after help with computer literacy, math and science, for example), headquarters in Washington continued to send trainees with little or no classroom experience to teach English in Cameroonian schools. One volunteer told me that the only possible reason he could think of for having been selected was that he was a native English speaker.

The Peace Corps was born during the glory days of the early Kennedy administration. Since then, its leaders and many of the more than190,000 volunteers who have served have mythologized the agency into something that can never be questioned or improved. The result is an organization that finds itself less and less able to provide what the people of developing countries need - at a time when the United States has never had a greater need for their good will.

Robert L. Strauss has been a Peace Corps volunteer, recruiter and country director. He now heads a management consulting company.

Ok, did you get all that? Whew... This op-ed appeared in the NY Times and has since been swirling around the PC gossip circles. I particulary invite the curious reader to view the plethora of online responses (I didn't want to post them all). So the million dollar question...what do I think of all this? Ok, anybody that knows me well knows I'm usually the last person to drink the Kool-Aid. In fact, I agree with a lot of Mr. Strauss's points on the condition that Peace Corps is a development agency. But it's not.

It's taking me a long time to realize this but Peace Corps is actually a "culture agency." Sure we like to get projects done, but any true goal-driven volunteer will quickly realize his or her failure if they only concentrate on projects. The Peace Corps Mission has 3 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 the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Note that only Goal 1 actually deals with projects - and only partially. Goals 2 and 3 deal with culture. How does one measure "culture?" That is Mr. Strauss's fundamental flaw in his arguement; he only focuses on meeting Goal 1.

But that doesn't make our lives as volunteers any easier. Our communities, our counterparts, our governmental agencies, and the American tax-payer all base our "success" on our tangible results. I did too. After all, quantifiable end results are part of our culture.

(After thought) - Maybe I should go back to tourist photos with cheezy captions. Anybody make it thru all that? What do you think? Feel free to express your culture with never-ending commentaries.

(Second after thought) - If you now think of Peace Corps as something different than you originally did, I suggest Mr. Pequeño´s latest post "So you want to be a Peace Corps Volunteer?" from Panama.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

New Mailing Address

Yeah Everybody, seems like every update is either a new cell phone number or new mailing address. In that respect, this update is very similiar. The complex where our office is got renumbered so our building number changed. Therefore, my new mailing address is:

Cuerpo de Paz, Atencíon: (my name)
Edif. 104, 1 Piso Ave.
Vicente Bonilla
Ciudad del Saber, Clayton
Panamá, Republica de Panamá

This address works for either packages or letters. Thanks!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

5 cell phones in 17 months

It's not that they break, it's because I lose them in buses. My new number is:


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Moving in

I spent the last week moving in to my new site, San Francisco de Piriati. It went alright, but I was bothered all week by allergies which I suspect come from mold, dust from the road, and the spring-time weather. I'm going to try to move houses when I get back, away from the road and with a concrete floor.

Christmas day I attended a mass given by the local priest, Padre Pablo in the neighboring community of Quebrada Cali. He is actually American, and actually from Ripon, Wisconsin. This is the church below.

The following pictures are of my room with my new host family.

Canal Trip

December 30th I had a chance to go on a private canal tour through a friend of Ryu's. We boarded this yacht around 8am with all the food and drinks provided. What an amazing day!

Bridge of the Americas spanning the south side of the canal.

Cruising to catch our appointed time at the locks.

Miraflores locks at the second step. Each step raises 80' and the compartments are 110' x 1000'. The large Panamax ships only have 2' clearance on each side. They pay based on how many containers they have, the largest are charged between $400,000-$600,000 just to cross Panama. The process takes them a whole day.

Centennial Bridge which crosses north of Panama City between the Miraflores and the Pedro Miguel locks.
They have begun work doing some of the dry excavation for the canal expansion. Later this year they will begin a new set of locks for the Post-Panamax ships which can hold around 11,000 containers compared to the 4,000 being shipped now. The expansion project is budgeted for more than $6 billion.
Here passes a Panamax ship from Israel. The canal provides their own captains which board the ship and drive it all the way thru. These captains make around $160,000 yearly, work only every other day, and have around 3 months of vacation time a year. A Panamax ship like this actually have two captains - one for each side.

Of course pleasure ships pass thru the canal as well. It was pretty amazing passing directly next to his huge cruiser.

And ironically we passed another cargo boat carrying a load of yachts. I'm guessing the cheapest yacht on this ship is worth several million.