In Uzbekistan, Peace Corps Patches Up a Troubled Program
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (AP) _ When Lorel Donaghey was assigned to the new Peace Corps program in Uzbekistan, the first thing she did was crack open an atlas.
``I’d never heard of it, but it sounded incredibly exotic,″ Ms. Donaghey said about the Central Asian nation that gained independence when the Soviet Union collapsed.
``All I could imagine was Genghis Khan riding across the plains chopping off heads, caravans on the old Silk Road and cool guys wearing turbans,″ said Ms. Donaghey, who is from Trenton, Texas.
But the sense of romance soon turned to bewilderment and frustration after the first batch of Peace Corps volunteers arrived in December 1992 to discover a hastily arranged program plagued by problems and unsafe conditions.
Traditional Peace Corps work, such as digging wells in African villages, had not prepared the organization for an entirely different set of challenges in the industrialized cities of the former Soviet Union, and several such programs have had start-up difficulties.
Of the initial 54 volunteers in Uzbekistan, half quit during the first year, an exceptionally high attrition rate. The Uzbeks suspected the young Americans were spies, and kept some of them under surveillance.
Women volunteers were frequently harassed in the male-dominated Muslim nation, and at least two of the women in the first two groups were raped.
The volunteers also struggled to get by on a typical Peace Corps stipend of less than $100 a month, an adequate sum in many Third World nations, but a pittance in expensive Uzbek cities wracked by hyperinflation. Those sent to help businesses learn the ways of capitalism would be asked to dinner by Uzbeks _ and a meal could eat up half their monthly allowance.
The troubled program also suffered from a lack of leadership as two Peace Corps directors came and went in the first 18 months.
Volunteers said they were prepared for personal hardship, which is part of the Peace Corps experience. But they were not expecting a disorganized administration unable initially to provide such basics as textbooks for English teachers.
``The biggest problem I had was with the Peace Corps bureaucracy,″ said Ms. Donaghey, a business adviser during her two-year stint that ended earlier this year. ``That was harder than adjusting to the culture, learning the language or dealing with the harassment.″
Since its launch under President Kennedy, the Peace Corps has sent young, idealistic Americans, many of them fresh out of college, to work in developing countries. It is widely viewed as a government program that works well, and there are now 6,500 volunteers in 93 countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
After the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, President Bush wanted the Peace Corps to move quickly into the region, and Secretary of State James Baker III announced there would be 300 volunteers in former Soviet republics by the end of 1992.
The tight deadline did not give Peace Corps administrators time to scout the cities where volunteers would be sent. Housing and work assignments, normally arranged months in advance, were done at the last minute.
When Peace Corps volunteers arrived by bus in the historic Silk Road city of Bukhara, they began making calls from public phones to try to find places to live and work.
``It was all very spur of the moment,″ said Laura Michalik of Ashland Wis. ``We spent a lot of time pounding the pavement.″
All volunteers are now required to live with a local family rather than on their own, helping ground the Americans in the community.
The Peace Corps’ plan was to teach business skills in countries getting their first taste of free enterprise. But volunteers said that often flopped because they were simply sent to outlying towns and told to work with businessmen, even though they barely spoke the language and had little or no business experience themselves.
Uzbek businessmen, meanwhile, were perplexed when young Americans mysteriously appeared at their doors and offered to assist them for free.
The U.S. Government Accounting Office reviewed four Peace Corps programs recently established in former Soviet bloc countries and said that ``Uzbekistan’s program experienced the most difficulties.″
It cited ``harassment by the local population, the lack of viable assignments, (and) the failure of sponsors to follow through with commitments to provide housing.″
``There certainly could have been more planning. I think that’s the most important lesson we learned,″ said Dan Donaghue, the third Peace Corps director in Uzbekistan in less than three years.
Donaghue was praised by current and former volunteers for fixing a number of problems, but he acknowledged it had been difficult to make the program work.
``It was hard to sell the Peace Corps idea in the former Soviet Union, where Americans had been painted as spies,″ he said. ``People didn’t accept that the volunteers were here for altruistic reasons. People kept looking for an ulterior motive.″
Women volunteers faced lewd comments, were sometimes followed and occasionally had stones thrown at them, said Ms. Michalik.
After almost daily harassment for three months, she left Bukhara and received a new posting in Tashkent, the capital.
In one incident, two women were chased and beaten by a man in the eastern town of Andizhan.
For safety reasons, almost all the women in the initial group were recalled from provincial cities and given new posts in Tashkent, the Peace Corps headquarters. But women in the second group of volunteers also have suffered harassment.
Judy Sutton, the Peace Corps nurse when the program was launched, said money was so tight that on several occasions she fed volunteers herself because they had fallen ill and arrived penniless in Tashkent.
``These people were working for the U.S. government and they were virtually reduced to begging,″ said Ms. Sutton, who quit the Peace Corps in frustration last year. ``It was insulting to the volunteers.″
Despite the grievances, there have been successes. Donaghue says Uzbeks have come to understand the Peace Corps and he now has more requests for volunteers than he can fill with his current crop of 30 Americans.
``There were a lot of problems and some of the people were pretty miserable,″ said Rick Thomas, one of eight volunteers from the original group who stayed in Uzbekistan and found new jobs after completing their Peace Corps assignments in March. ``But some of us stuck it out and learned to like the place.″