Category Archives: Peace Corps

The ugly Americans

American flag

It used to feel special to travel abroad with that blue passport. In my evolving world view, I had ample reason to feel pride in my country and its democratic ideals and in my conviction, that despite our many flaws and occasional deep hypocrisies, we truly meant well in the world. We cared about the plight of others, we were generous in our assistance to the less fortunate, and we held our allies in the highest regard.

That was then; this is now. I am much older, and as I travel first to India and now back in Uganda, the sordid, sorry news from the United States is never far away. Large screen monitors in airports and hotels expose the latest in what we’ve now come to accept will be an unending series of Trump media distractions (intentional?) achieved through egregious and unpresidential tweets, along with reprehensible political statements and policies that fly in the face of the ideals that I grew up thinking defined us as a people. “America First” is code for screw the rest of the world (nations, and the environment) – we don’t care and you don’t matter.

From my short-term perch in Kampala, I can tell you that indeed we do make a lot of noise in the world. The polarized, angry name-calling and lack of even basic civility that has come to define the United States in the era of Trump is heard regularly more than 10,000 miles away. More people than you can imagine around the world now know who Mika Brzezinski is. No surprise then that I encounter, every day, perplexed looks by the citizens I meet in these two countries as they ask their variation of the same question:

“What has happened to America?”

It’s depressing that I don’t have the words to answer that. It is too easy to blame the other side, when an insufficient number of liberal and progressive Americans failed to show up when it mattered the most – at the polls last November.  For the first time in my long life I feel shame for my country, and particularly for the leader and his many supporters who are committed to a boorish politics of unapologetic selfishness, who are sowing the seeds of deep discord and division within the United States and beyond, and who seem united in their utter rejection that the globe is now interdependent. “America First” is telling the people I meet abroad every day as I travel that they simply aren’t significant, unless they have a terrorist’s agenda. Then they will be crushed (along with innumerable civilians who just happen to be in the way, and desperate refugees fleeing such terrorism who simply long for a modicum of peace, stability, and hope). To people abroad, America is now perceived as an increasingly reclusive, isolationist, heavy-handed and uncaring country. Yes, we are respected as militarily strong and quick to punish those who would do us harm (at least when it is in the Trump team’s perceived national interest to do so, which is an unsettling thought). And sure, as a citizen of the United States and the daughter of a U.S. Marine, I am gratified that my security is a priority, even if I have deep questions as to the prevailing assumption in Republican circles that there is no such thing as too much defense spending. So what does it all add up to for America in the world?

An ugly truth – Americans are no longer nice. Continue reading The ugly Americans

Any room for idealism in a “results-driven” age?

Peace Corps 1

I often (perhaps too often) post on social media about some urgent human rights, social inclusion, or justice issue that I’m feeling deeply moved by. Such concerns are a very prominent part of who I am and what I’m about, and how I strive in my own small ways to make this a better world. Yet I know that personal and family news always seems to score the highest number of “likes” on Facebook or Twitter postings. When I recently posted about my son Ian’s very positive interview to become a Peace Corps Volunteer (possibly in the West African, Francophone country of Benin) the response was overwhelming. I’ve never received so many “likes” on Facebook, from both Ian’s friends and mine.

While Ian and I await a decision on his application, I’m left to ponder what it is that makes the Peace Corps so special in the American psyche, and so respected by me and by so many people here and in developing countries. And perhaps not surprising for someone with over three decades working as an international development practitioner and activist, I can’t help but compare the Peace Corps model to the evolving and ever-consolidating modern American (and increasingly multinational) development “industry” of for-profit firms and NGOs, fiercely competing for each contract and grant in a tight and under-resourced market.

To be clear, the Peace Corps is not universally admired. It’s regularly criticized as a federal Agency without a clear mission: a development agency that isn’t all that good at sustainable development and one that doesn’t hold its development results or effectiveness abroad up to public scrutiny by hard-pressed American taxpayers. It is castigated as an organization that places Volunteers – many fresh out of college and largely innocent in the ways of the world – into situations that are potentially very dangerous, all for reasons that are not all that clear.  Others see it as yet another example of federal government overreach; a chrysalis of globalization or a taxpayer-sponsored development “boot camp” to forge the future leaders of American development firms and non-profits to be competitive in the international arena. Why should taxpayers carry the burden of transforming Volunteers into dirt-under-their-fingernails global citizens made world-weary by the complexities and impact of poverty, diverse cultural values, and faraway community dynamics? Still others see it as a government sponsored extended summer camp, where mostly young Volunteers go to exotic and remote locations to spend a great deal of time over two years interacting with other Volunteers. And then there are those who simply dismiss the Peace Corps as an idealistic experiment from a bye-gone era, barely relevant to the turbulent and hard-nosed international scene in 2016 – an Agency struggling to retain its aura at a time when President Kennedy, its founder back in 1961, is “ancient history” for most Americans born long afterwards.

That’s quite a blistering critique, but it hardly squares with the enthusiastic outpouring of warmth and support for my son’s application process. So quite clearly, there is another side to the Peace Corps.

I’ve seen that other side again and again in my own career. I’ve experienced it in the resilient enthusiasm and sheer gumption of the many Volunteers whom I used to host to Thanksgiving dinners every year at my home in Nairobi, Kenya during the decade that I worked as an architect there. I’ve seen it in the fond, almost dewy-eyed recollections of so many colleagues in international development as they recall with both pride and immense satisfaction those profoundly formative years from their own service as Peace Corps Volunteers. I’ve also appreciated it being made manifest by the sensitive and wise assessments made by former Volunteers of America’s interactions with complicated foreign cultures, even on such charged and often conflicting values-based situations as women’s equality and the social inclusion of LGBTI persons.

I also recognize my own pride that I feel in my son’s choice. Whether selected or not to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m heartened by his commitment both to public service and to volunteerism. Indeed, I cherish his idealism, as I recall how very difficult it has been in my years of work in international development to find those types of conversations – those passions expressed – among my colleagues, even though it is clearly what motivated most of them into such careers.

We just don’t make space to talk about ideals, or values. But you’ve heard me say that before. Continue reading Any room for idealism in a “results-driven” age?

Trying harder on Memorial Day

rolling thunder 2

Memorial Day in the United States is beloved among Americans as the holiday that marks the unofficial start of summer. It’s a day for picnics, barbecues, family outings, and the opening of numerous neighborhood swimming pools. In Washington this year, it’s particularly welcome – after a May that was record-breaking for all the wrong reasons (setting new records for consecutive rainy days, with temperatures far below average). Hooray – we are finally enjoying warm and mostly dry weather!

As is my long-standing practice, I fly the American flag on Memorial Day. In recent years, I even trekked downtown to watch the remarkable spectacle of the countless riders of Harley Davidsons gathered from across the nation, roaring past in memory of those lost or left behind in America’s wars. Most of these riders are of my own generation – the Vietnam War generation – and there is something particularly poignant and oddly moving about these aged and largely ignored veterans of the war that did not go well, asserting their dignity and patriotism amid the mass of rumbling, powerful steel machines.

But then this year The Donald co-opted the riders of Rolling Thunder, at their invitation. What I once viewed as a dignified if unusual procession of honor and commitment is now, for me, reduced to merely a showy prop in the service of an ignorant, dangerous demagogue.  I will go no more to Rolling Thunder.

Despite Mr. Trump’s latest acquisition (Rolling Thunder), patriotism still has a firm grip on me. Perhaps it’s due to having grown up in the U.S. Marine Corps – my grandfather Joseph was a general, my dad Ray was a colonel, my younger brother Ken a Marine tank officer. And since the Marines are part of the Navy Department, I’ll give due Semper Fidelis respect to my next older brother George, a retiree after 20 years as an officer in the U.S. Navy. I was brought up to respect the service – and the sacrifice – of America’s women and men in uniform. And today – Memorial Day – is first and foremost about those who have won the peace for our country, which even I – a Quaker – can get behind.

And I do.

Still, winning the peace is a larger and more complicated effort than winning wars. And while nothing can compare to the remarkable courage and tenacity of those who have adopted the Warrior’s Code and risked their lives to overcome a violent adversary – as my father did time and again in the Pacific campaign in World War 2 – Memorial Day is large enough to celebrate all of America’s peacemakers.

Yet we don’t. Continue reading Trying harder on Memorial Day

Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men (and Women)

Christmas scene

Almost from the outset, I realized my error. Once again my idealism had gotten the best of me, even if to me it had all seemed so clear and pressing. The eight or nine officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development who were seated around that conference table at USAID headquarters more than three years ago just before the Christmas break were all committed to the introduction of the political economy analysis (PEA) tool into USAID’s core set of analytical approaches. Yet my pitch (or was it a plea?) went flat. In that obscure meeting long ago, I was making the case that limiting our evaluation of what constitutes good, effective, and sustainable international development requires more than just the analysis and consideration of power and money, and more than just viewing democracy and governance as a competitive “political game”. People are complicated creatures, and sometimes we are motivated by other reasons…moral reasons. Sometimes people choose to collaborate instead of compete, or chose to care about others rather than use them.

Their facial expressions said it all. Some showed a glint of pity for my naïveté, others were more openly disdainful. How did I ever get to be a political appointee and senior advisor without appreciating what they each knew to be irrefutable and fundamental doctrine, that Homo economicus rules? My curious assertion was that many (I believe I said “most”) people in developing countries are also deeply moved in their aspirations, choices, character, and actions by a moral compass. I argued that while PEA was undoubtedly a useful tool for USAID, it could not be applied without at least some room at the edges for the influence of morality and ethics – but it was evident that my modest challenge to orthodoxy would be resisted.

Homo economicus is well described by Peter Ubel as a “creature of coldly calculated selfishness, dispassionately maximizing its best interests even if that comes at the expense of others”. And the irony isn’t lost on me that I’m writing about Homo economicus very, very early on a dark and quiet Christmas morning. My thoughts at this moment are also simultaneously drawn to that compelling historically unexpected alternative paradigm that was introduced to the world more than two millennia ago in the humility of a birth in a stable in Bethlehem.

I used to find Christmas in America nearly unbearable. The word “crass” doesn’t begin to capture the avaricious, manipulative, cynical view of humanity that has converted a celebration of one of human history’s most poignant examples of love, sacrifice, caring, and wisdom into an orgy at which Homo economicus presides and exalts. Fortunately I have moved on and now have found my own ways to ignore the crassness. I have learned how to center down on Christmas. And while I am a Christian, I would think that the story of Jesus that had its start in that manger is one that transcends any religion, with his life and message of love, humility, peace, and caring offering a profound challenge to the earthly rule of Homo economicus.

Homo economicus has no use for love or peace, except as sentiments to be exploited for commercial gain. The articles of faith of the doctrine of Power and Money haven’t built their vast financial empires or victorious armies on the virtues of caring, gentleness, or humility. There’s no trace of love in the arrogant smirks or in the manipulative, condescending words of the most successful (i.e. wealthy and powerful) exemplars of power and money. Homo economicus is all too real, and USAID is right – we ought to take him (and occasionally her) seriously. He is regularly embodied now and throughout history in a never ceasing cavalcade of “successful” people who are distinguished by (or loathed for) their limitless greed, self-centeredness, cruelty, bluster, arrogance, and disdain for lesser mortals. Donald Trump is but the latest variation along this theme, yet like Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot, Adolph Hitler, or innumerable other tycoons or despots, somehow this type of person always attracts a devoted following.

Why do we make disproportionate room in our lives for power and money, but seem to relegate love to the edges? Why do we build our media and news around stories of extreme violence, sensational greed, and the callous lives of the unthinking, uncaring wealthy elites and self-absorbed celebrities, with very little room for genuine “good news” stories? Why do we get so exercised about those who prosper through avarice and corruption, while entirely forgetting to recognize those who quietly but steadfastly pursue lives of remarkable integrity? Why do we honor experience (with no moral denominator) and ignore wisdom? Why do we say so little about (and fund so minimally) such extraordinarily successful examples of peacebuilding such as the Peace Corps, yet complain endlessly about government dysfunction? Why do we think of human rights only as a list of grievous violations, instead of as an agenda that – if actively promoted – leads inexorably to the universal recognition of human dignity? Why do we fail to recognize the hard and selfless work of human rights activists and civil society folk around the world, who make extraordinary sacrifices in their quest for making our world just a little better? Continue reading Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men (and Women)