ONE of the most important figures in the history of the Peace Corps retired last month, with Cambodia as his final assignment after a lifetime helping young Americans work with local people all over the world.
Peace Corps Cambodia country dir-ector Jon Darrah celebrated his 70th birthday in June and retired shortly afterwards, ending a career that led him to Sarawak, in eastern Malaysia, the Solomon Islands, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, the Philippines, Russia just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poland, the Czech Republic, China and finally Cambodia for the past few years.
Darrah’s retirement comes during a moment of celebration for the Peace Corps, which celebrates 50th anniversary of its founding this year.
With its headquarters on a protected street behind the Royal Palace, the Peace Corps compound has 18 local staff and three Americans who run the administration, operate a medical unit, make sure people get paid and have access to training materials.
Will the Peace Corps continue its mission in Cambodia after Darrah has gone?
“That’s up to Cambodia, but I think we are well enough received,” he says.
“We’re one of the few organisat-ions that comes to this country, goes out into the rural areas and stays out there.
“There’s no one posted in Phnom Penh, no one posted in Siem Reap city. Everyone is out there.”
In Cambodia, the Peace Corps has two programmes: English teaching at lower and upper secondary level in rural high schools and a health outreach programme.
Completely unique even within the Peace Corps, Darrah represents the last of the original idealists who became profoundly enrolled in President John F Kennedy’s vision of a group of American volunteers who would go worldwide in the context of the ideological struggles of the Cold War and confront the impoverished or marginal peoples of the world with American spirit and volunteerism instead of guns and battles.
Now, more than 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Darrah is proud of what he and the Peace Corps have been able to accomplish since JFK’s presidency,
“Cambodia remains a country of very high priority for the Peace Corps because the kind of projects we’re working on fit very nicely with the kind of people we’re able to attract,” Darrah says.
He believes the young American volunteers here are appreciated by the Cambodian government.
“We have a government-to-government agreement, and it is clearly stated in there that either side can tell the other side that this is enough.
“Most of the time, the issues are: do we have the money, especially in this budget environment, and can we find the people that the country is asking us for?”
The Peace Corps in Cambodia now has 80 volunteers in 14 provinces and 18 local staff and three Americans at the headquarters.
“We pay people out of here; we have a medical unit. The programme staff does the programme, finding the sites, language training, pre-service training, troubleshooting. We have some jeeps so we can visit volunteers and their projects,” Darrah says.
As for the future, Darrah thinks the Peace Corps’ mission is just as important as it ever was.
“I told the group on the night of the 50th-anniversary celebration we had that the world is a pretty anxious place and probably needs the Peace Corps more than ever,” he says.
Darrah is optimistic about Cambodia’s future.
“Half the country is below 30 years of age. And I see enthusiasm for education; kids work hard, try hard and want to do different things.
“A lot of them don’t have much money, but when they have a chance they make maximum use of it.
“There’s no denying that the country has had a difficult history over the past 30 years, but there’s a whole generation that wants to get on with life and I think they are doing their best to do that,” he said.
“Sure, there are going to be strugg-les to find jobs, but people are pretty accepting and it’s a culture that runs on personal relationships, a sense of reciprocity and admiration for an even temperament.”
Darrah thinks Cambodians also have something to offer the American Peace Corps volunteers: a kind of remedy for the shortcomings of American cultural behaviour.
“There is a sense of face and making sure people are not shamed publicly. It is wholesome, and it gives you another way to look at your own culture when you go back. Do you really need to be in everybody’s face all the time? Do you need to come off with this sort of phony attitude?”
People like Darrah tend to foster and promote beneficial changes that idealistic young Americans undergo when they work with local people – forcing them to challenge their own beliefs in favour of what’s real in rural Cambodia.
“Every person that finishes two years comes to see me for a final interview, and every single one of them tells me: ‘I learned more than I was able to contribute.’ ”
Darrah says the Peace Corps was actually started by a group of people who worked for what later became USAID and were frustrated watching people come and go to foreign places who had minimal interest in the history, ways and thoughts of the locals.
“These were people who had a superficial interest in the culture and language and just had this technical expertise. It was a case of take it or leave it, without trying to say, ‘What are your ideas?’
“I’m happy to say that USAID now has many officers who served in the Peace Corps.
“They relate well to the local environment as a result of their Peace Corps service.
“The Peace Corps and USAID have a close working relationship based in part on this common experience.”
Darrah says President Kennedy founded the Peace Corps with three basic aims that remain as germane today as they were half a century ago.
“We go to places that invite us to help out with lower- and mid-level assistance: teaching or health or other programmes.
“Give people a chance to learn about real Americans, not people they see on TV or in the movies. You’re willing to learn our language and culture and eat our food.
“To have these people go back to our own country and explain these places to people in our country.”
Reflecting on what has happened since the idealistic, Cold War backdrop of John F Kennedy’s vision, Darrah says it has “absolutely been worth it”.
“The entire Peace Corps budget worldwide is what the military spends on marching bands. We’re pretty frugal with how we use our money.
“I think that, particularly in the latter years, I have very much enjoyed working with volunteers, giving them a chance to learn what I learned, helping them to see what I didn’t see and getting them launched into graduate work so that they can keep doing this kind of work.
“I think that for the modest amount of money our country spends, it is the best use of our tax money there could be.”
Darrah says there’s a long-range goal connected with the work of the Peace Corps.
“One of the frustrations of teaching is that you don’t see the immediate impact. I have vivid memories of Nepal and going the first time to meet the director-general of the Department of Education.
“He said: ‘I had a Peace Corps teacher, and I can sit here now and I can still hear that teacher telling me to think, think, think, and I use that every day.’
“ This is that kind of stuff that is left behind.
“It doesn’t quantify particularly well – it doesn’t fit into great charts with statistics – but every Peace Corps person has those stories.”
In a country like Cambodia, Darrah says, young (and some not-so-young) Americans with bachelor-level degrees in all types of disciplines continue to be attracted to the Peace Corps.
“We give them 10 weeks of training before they start work. A good third of it is Khmer language skills, Khmer culture and the rest of it is classroom management, lesson-planning and health outreach skills.
“I tell them when they first come: ‘Everything you think you know, everything you think you believe is going to be called into question.
“Some of the stuff is going to survive two years and some of it isn’t, but you’ll come out with a better sense of how the world really works.’ ”
Can a Peace Corps volunteer have a Khmer girlfriend?
“We’d rather you didn’t,” says Darrah, who gives volunteers what he calls “the rules of the road”.
“We make it very clear to them that they represent our country and we make it very clear that we are here in the office to support them with lang-uage training, if they have problems with their housing, schedule, and we work with the local government to find schools that are ready to accept volunteers and find families that they can live with.
“To join the Peace Corps, you must be willing to leave the beaten path.”