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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

June 2001

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Letter from Niger
J. R. Bullington on compassionate conservatism & the Peace Corps, volunteer training, a future in plastic, and more
In this latest account of the life and times of a Peace Corps director in Africa (himself), former American ambassador Jim Bullington comments on the future of the organization with a change of administrations in Washington. He notes that such considerations hardly impinge upon the program in Niger, however. Among the experiences he shares with us this time are his evaluation of in-country volunteer training and travel notes from a visit to outlying regions remote from the capital.—Ed.
Compassionate Conservatism
On January 20, the politically appointed Director and other top officials in Peace Corps/Washington departed, to be replaced on an acting basis by
professionals who, while competent, have no mandate to set new directions and make long-range plans. As of this writing, the Bush Administration has not yet named a new Director. Even when that happens, it will be a few more months before he or she can get new senior associates (e.g., regional directors, general counsel, etc.) on board and develop an agenda.

This has little effect on the day-to-day work of Volunteers and staff in the field, but it does preclude any major new initiatives at the country level, at least those that would require additional resources. My desire to get Peace Corps/Niger back into the education sector fell victim to this enforced pause.

Peace Corps teachers were withdrawn in 1994 because the Nigerien education system had effectively ceased to function, and there was little for them to do. However, schools are operating now, and they desperately need and want Peace Corps help. To provide it would require an added staff position and an increased number of Volunteers, neither of which Peace Corps/Washington was able to supply or promise. The lead time to start up a program in the fall of 2002 has now passed, and fall 2003 is the earliest time we can aim for.

Everyone is wondering what the new Administration will mean for Peace Corps. Most of my staff colleagues and most Volunteers are pessimistic. The majority of them (perhaps 80%) tend to be politically liberal, and they were of course disappointed by the outcome of the election.

Unlike them, I’m optimistic about Peace Corps’ future under Bush, and not just because Tuy-Cam and I strongly supported him (and were especially delighted to see Colin Powell become Secretary of State). It seems to me that if "compassionate conservatism," means anything–and I believe it does–when applied to international affairs it calls for a renewed focus on Peace Corps and additional resources for it.

Paul Ceverdell Building, Peace Corps headquarters in Washington
The Paul Coverdell Building, Peace Corps headquarters in Washington

Peace Corps is certainly compassionate, more so than any other foreign affairs agency. And it is certainly conservative, in the sense that it costs almost nothing ($265 million per year currently, an amount that is almost invisible in the federal budget). Moreover, because it taps directly into the American spirit of voluntarism, it is consistent with the conservative proclivity for helping the less fortunate through private voluntary channels rather than with massive government programs. And finally, I’m convinced that Peace Corps is a great long-term investment in America’s future, because it prepares a substantial number of the best and brightest of our youth to become leaders in the global economy and society in which we must live. It’s notable, for example, that 40% of last year’s new Foreign Service Officers were returned Peace Corps Volunteers.

Additionally, there is ample precedent for strong Republican support for Peace Corps. Its longest-serving Director was Loret Miller Ruppe, a Reagan appointee who is universally credited with rebuilding the agency after a period of decline. Paul Coverdell, the recently deceased Georgia Senator, was another highly regarded Republican Peace Corps Director–the Peace Corps headquarters building in Washington has just been named after him.

So, I’m hopeful about Peace Corps’ future for the next few years. It deserves strong bipartisan support.

Volunteer Training
In January we received 56 new trainees to prepare for life in Nigerien villages as Volunteers.

Peace Corps/Niger is blessed with a great site to house and train these newcomers, at the village of Hamdallaye some 30 kilometers outside of Niamey. Donated by the Government of Niger about 15 years ago, it has been developed by Peace Corps into a training facility that serves its purposes admirably.

In many ways, the site resembles a summer camp for kids such as you might expect to find in the US, with barracks and cabins, a mess hall, outdoor toilets, primitive but adequate showers, a laundry, an infirmary, an administration building, etc. But in this case it sits on a small hill protruding out of the vast, arid Sahelian plain, next to a typical Nigerien village of a few thousand people.

Thus, while the trainees are in the "real" Niger, a place much like those in which they will be living and working for the next two years, they are at the same time introduced to it gradually, so as not to be overwhelmed before they have learned enough to cope with its harsher realities.

The training lasts for 11 weeks. It involves immersion in French and one of the two local languages (Hausa or Zarma, depending on where the trainee will be stationed), plus survival skills such as how to use a squat latrine, bathe out of a bucket, purify village well water, avoid amoebas, prepare millet-based cuisine, bargain in a village market, arrange transportation in a bush taxi, and much more. There are also sessions on Nigerien culture and technical training in health, agriculture and natural resource management.

Peace Corps Volunteers
Peace Corps trainees at Hamdallaye

Most nights, the trainees go into the nearby village to eat dinner and sleep in the homes of their adoptive families. They also go out from time to time to stay with current Volunteers in their villages and observe their work.

It’s an intensive program, but the trainees are able to rise to the many challenges, and in fact have a good time doing so. Their morale is high, and the pressure promotes rapid bonding.

Over its 40-year history, Peace Corps has learned to do this sort of training well. In fact, Peace Corps does at least as good a job as the military in preparing its recruits for their work in a remarkably short period of time. Although it will take several months of living in a village to master the linguistic and other skills needed to be fully effective, on graduation from training they can at least function at a basic level and withstand the rigors of African village life.



Bullington's other articles in American Diplomacy include:

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