Visit from the OIG

          On Thursday, Kristen and I went to my office at IPN to meet with my counterpart and my supervisor. The work that they had to do - completing the word lists in French and Arabic - was still not done.

          They also needed to write the French and Arabic translations of the section in each lesson that is titled "I learn about others." This is a paragraph in which a cultural point is explained to the students, so that they have a better understanding of the lesson. For example, in the lesson that introduces members of the family, it explains what Americans mean when they refer to such people as aunts, uncles, cousins, and parents, which have different meanings from the French vocabulary for the same people. Africans use the word "parent" to mean any relative who is older than s/he. The people we refer to as cousins are very commonly called brothers and sisters, especially if they grow up in the same area and see each other frequently.

           Kristen's and my counterpart needed to work together to accomplish their work, since hers is stronger in Arabic and mine is stronger in French. In order for them to collaborate on their work, though, they needed to be in the same place, and that became the basis of a new argument between them. D insisted that H come to the building where he was, and H was adamant that D go to his office.

           I was surprised that D would have this argument on the phone in the presence of Sidi Mohamed, our supervisor. Kristen, Sidi Mohamed, and I sat there for a while, listening to D's end of the conversation. Finally, Kristen got on the phone to speak to H and explained that the job would not get done unless somebody made a move. Shortly after Kristen and I left the building, we ran into H, headed toward D's office.

           In June, we Mauritania Volunteers received a questionnaire from the Office of Inspector General (OIG), with a request to reply by the beginning of July. Our Country Director informed us that an evaluator from the OIG was planning to visit Mauritania. The questionnaire related to several areas of concern to the OIG; these included management and leadership, programming, volunteer support, safety and security, and training. By early July, based on the content of the questionnaires, the evaluator had chosen several PCVs to interview in depth. I was one of those Volunteers.

          Congress originally established an Office of Inspector General in 1978 in several large federal agencies. As quoted from the brochure about the Peace Corps OIG, its purpose is "to prevent and detect fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement and to promote economy, effectiveness, and efficiency in government." In 1988, the OIG was extended to include the Peace Corps. Because it was created as part of the Inspector General Act and not as part of the Peace Corps Act, it operates as an independent entity within the Peace Corps.

          The three OIG departments - evaluation, auditing and accounting, and criminology - include four evaluators and a support staff who report to the Inspector General (IG). The IG reports directory to the Director of the Peace Corps and also answers to Congress by submitting two reports per year. The most recent Inspector General recently left his position after 8.5 years on the job; there is currently an Acting Inspector General.

           The OIG visits four PC countries a year. Prior to arrival in-country, the evaluator prepares for his trip by analyzing documents to which he has access in Washington. He also interviews PC employees in Washington who regularly work with the region where the country is located. He meets with representatives at the part of PCW that is known as "The Center," which is the cadre of specialists who represent all the Peace Corps programs, such as education, small enterprise development, agroforestry, and information technology, among others. (It is The Center that serves as the link to the APCDs who head their programs in-country.) He also speaks to the people who work at the Country Desk, which is the administration in Washington that supports the Volunteers.

          One of the senior evaluators from the OIG arrived in Mauritania late in July. He has done this work in six PC countries so far, most recently in Honduras, and has made similar site visits and evaluations for organizations as diverse as the World Bank, Arthur Andersen, and the US Department of Agriculture. I was impressed by his comment that his work for the Peace Corps has been significantly different from that of the other agencies for which he worked. What distinguishes his current job from the previous ones is that he has seen that his evaluations for Peace Corps have lead to influencing and changing practices, whereas in other organizations, once he filed his report, there was not much done about improvements that needed to be made.

           The inspection process begins with a survey and is followed by a visit to the country in question, including in-depth interviews with selected Volunteers, and many site visits. Our personable interviewer told me that all information gleaned from PCVs would be held in the strictest of confidence, unless we specifically told him that we had information that we wanted to be shared with the powers that be. He told me that he has had enough interviews here to see that some themes were emerging. He checked with me to see how I had replied to the questionnaire. We talked about support for finding adequate housing, the filing of quarterly reports, vacation time, reimbursement of expenses, job satisfaction, counterpart relationships, training and orientation, and medical support.

           One recurring theme that has emerged here in Mauritania has been the quality of work of a particular PC employee. Our evaluator indicated to me that 41 out of the 43 Volunteers who responded cited problems with this person's work performance. I am omitting the name and function to protect the incompetent. The evaluator told me that the most recent IG knows about the situation and said that it was the first time that he has seen this level of dissatisfaction from among Volunteers. The acting IG knows about the problem, our Country Director knows, and the person involved knows.

           A few of us have offered the inspector written reports to chronicle the issues we have had. I had mine on a flash disk in addition to a paper version; he copied my document onto his laptop. We are, of course, hopeful that something can be done to improve this situation.

           Toward the end of the interview, when he inquired about my housing, I told him that I lived nearby and he asked if he could see my apartment. He liked it, took pictures, and was particularly pleased to see that I was using a mosquito net around my bed.

           In addition to the PCV interviews, the evaluators take lots of photos at sites and monitor the conditions under which PCVs are living and working. They also meet with some counterparts with whom Volunteers work. They speak to both managerial and non-managerial staff at the PC bureaus. Interviewing includes three sessions with the Country Director, concluding with a debriefing at the end of the visit, in order to present findings before the evaluator leaves the country.

           Once back in Washington, the evaluator debriefs an assortment of PC employees, including the region in which the country is located, the Country Desk, safety and security, health, and the specialists at The Center.

           The evaluator then drafts a report with specific recommendations, including changes that need to be made. This report is submitted to the head of the region and to the Country Director, who then has an opportunity to respond to the recommendations. The purpose of the recommendations is to remedy problems that the evaluator has observed. The OIG does not prescribe solutions - that is left to the post to determine for itself. When the Country Director has a solution to the problem, s/he presents it to the OIG, which can either agree or disagree with the proposed solution.

           Within a year or so, an evaluator from the IGO may revisit the country. They pay particular note to any discrepancies that may exist between the way the post officials reported that they would solve any problems and the way they actually did solve them.

           Following is my book report for the month of July.

          I began the month with The Best American Travel Writing 2002, Frances Mayes (editor). It's a collection of essays that had appeared in print during the previous year. The writers covered a large portion of the globe and a variety of topics. This was my introduction to the series. The same publisher also comes out with several other "Best American" titles, such as short stories, recipes, and science fiction. I am looking forward to reading Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading.

          The Last Camel: True Stories of Somalia is a Peace Corps book by Jeanne D'Haem, who writes moving tales about the people in her village and region. Her stories show her compassion, warmth, humor, and candor. She served in the late 1960's and did not complete her service because the political situation demanded that the Peace Corps evacuate its Volunteers.

          My Big Fat Queer Life is a book of essays by Michael Thomas Ford, a funny and thought-provoking writer. He has evidently been a columnist in several gay papers, but this was my introduction to his writing. I particularly enjoyed his essay entitled "The F Word;" the word in question is "fun." In his world view people are divided into two camps - those who are fun and those who are not. He sees himself as a non-fun person, and I could greatly relate to what he wrote, since I am very much the same way. He also wrote an enjoyable piece with ten excellent tips for having a meaningful life.

          In Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert, William Langewiesche begins in Algiers and treks across Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Senegal. He did not visit Mauritania on this voyage, but included a chapter about a previous visit here. From what he wrote about the desert trek, I could confirm that this is not the kind of trip that I would like to take! His information about Mauritania, was accurate though dated. It was comical to read about there being very few cars on Nouakchott streets, as they are now choked with traffic.