Peace Corps Blues At college commencement time, some graduates explore Peace Corps opportunities. But Robert Strauss, former country director of the Peace Corps in Cameroon, says that the Peace Corps has lost its edge for assisting developing countries and the U.S.
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Peace Corps Blues

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Peace Corps Blues

Peace Corps Blues

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

As commencement begins, more than a few graduates may be curious about the Peace Corps. For just under 50 years, the Peace Corps has been sending Americans all over the world. President John F. Kennedy saw Peace Corps volunteers as informal diplomats who would do immensely practical things in developing countries like digging wells, teaching children or irrigating crops.

In 2002, President Bush said that he wanted to double the number of Peace Corps volunteers in the field, especially in countries in which he believed the United States is often misunderstood. But Robert Strauss, former country director of the Peace Corps in Cameroon, believes that the Peace Corps today has become a pretty dreary enterprise that doesn't do much for developing countries or, for that matter, the United States.

His critique of the U.S. Peace Corps appears on ForeignPolicy.com. He joins us from Antananarivo, Madagascar. Mr. Strauss, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ROBERT STRAUSS (Former Country Director, Peace Corps, Cameroon): Sure. It's my pleasure. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You opened the - opened this critique by saying that you think most people have no idea that the Peace Corps is a U.S. government enterprise.

Mr. STRAUSS: The Peace Corps been present in many countries and some places for 47 years, but unfortunately you'll find programs where people have seen Peace Corps volunteers year after year after year without actually understanding that they came from the United States. The Peace Corps has spent more of its efforts on its public image in the United States that it has in the countries where it's actually active.

SIMON: Does that mean? I mean as long good work is getting done.

Mr. STRAUSS: I think it does matter for the reason that one of the goals of Peace Corps is that people overseas should get a better awareness of what the American people are all about through the activities of these clients.

SIMON: You suggest in this critique too that the Peace Corps is not exactly attracting the best and brightest.

Mr. STRAUSS: There's some wonderful people who go into Peace Corps. But they need to be the average, the standard, not the exception to the rule. And there are quite a few people who do come into Peace Corps straight out of college. Many of them are choosing Peace Corps in some ways as an employer of last resort. The fact that Peace Corps is not doing, in my opinion, an adequate job of recruiting and selecting people does a disservice to those volunteers who go overseas are really intent on doing a great job when they see that some of their fellow volunteers maybe are there more to extend that spring break opportunity than to really help their host country with development. And it also does a disservice to the people that we're working with overseas because they're looking to us for a real hand up and not a hand out or just a good time over a beer.

SIMON: You suggest in this critique in fact that the Peace Corps needs to rethink the countries in which it's deployed, that some assignments to your mind don't make a lot of sense.

Mr. STRAUSS: It still maintains the goals that were set in 1961. Countries that 40 years ago didn't have a very extensive trained codger of professionals, these countries now have hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of underutilized, highly educated individuals. So it's time for Peace Corps to say, are we doing a job that nobody else can do? Or are we really taking the place of jobs that local people should be doing if their governments have the determination to make sure that we're out there doing those jobs.

SIMON: Mr. Strauss, thanks so much.

Mr. STRAUSS: My pleasure.

SIMON: Robert Strauss is a former Peace Corps volunteer, recruiter, and country director. He joins us from Antananarivo, Madagascar where he now runs a consulting business.

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