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An Interview with George Baldino, Peace Corps Afghanistan Director

posted Aug 13, 2014, 11:39 AM by Terry Dougherty

January 1977- December 1978.

                        by Will Irwin, Afghanistan VIIIA, 1966-1967


Please tell us when and how you got interested in the Peace Corps:  I was a Catholic priest for 11 years and for 8 of those as a missionary in Peru in the highland province of Santa Cruz de Succhabamba.  While there, we in the community asked for Peace Corps Volunteers to work in agriculture and also help us set up a savings and loan and multi-purpose cooperative.  We ended up receiving two PCVs back-to-back; each came for 2 years and stayed for 4, so we had 8 years of PCV service.  Years later when I left Peru and the priesthood, I received a call from PC HQ, which led to interviews and a job offer.  It turned out that some PC staff that helped get us PCVs in Santa Cruz ended up getting me a job offer to work for Peace Corps.  So, I went from being on the partner side asking for Volunteers to becoming a staff member with PC.

You served as Peace Corps deputy director in Peru and director in Ecuador in the mid-1970s before going to Kabul.  Tell us a bit about the programs in those countries.  How were they different from the program in Afghanistan?  In both Peru and Ecuador, we had programs in multiple sectors:  agriculture/food security, health/nutrition, education, environment, small business development and micro-finance.  The size of the programs was also different.  While the Peru program had years of over 400 Volunteers, it dropped to less than 150 during the years of the military regime when I was there (prior to the suspension of the program in late 1974 and evacuation of the Volunteers).  In Ecuador, the program was quite sizeable when I was Country Director, with over 230 Volunteers in 1975-1976.  The diversity of sites was also a difference. In both Peru and Ecuador, most of the Volunteers served in rural sites and those throughout the country.

How did it happen that you and your wife Suzie went from Latin America to Afghanistan in January 1977?   After serving two years in Peru (1973-1974) as an Associate Peace Corps Director covering all programs south of Lima and then Deputy Director for the country, Peace Corps was given 90 days to close the Peru program and withdraw all Volunteers and U.S. staff by February 1975.  In February 1975, I was assigned to Ecuador as Country Director and served there for two years.  At the end of 1976, I was granted a 6th year extension and was told that my assignment for our final two years would be Brazil.                                                                                                                               My wife Suzie and I began studying Portuguese at the Brazilian Consulate in Quito when I was called to HQ in Washington a few weeks before our transfer.  I was told that there was a change of plans, and that I was “needed” in Afghanistan.  I suggested that my going as Country Director to Afghanistan might not be the best choice, since I had no experience in that part of the world, did not know the language, was not familiar with the culture and that surely there was a rich pool of candidates who had all that I lacked.                                                                                Before making a final decision (or so I was told), Jack Andrews, the Regional Director of the Peace Corps Region covering Central Asia at the time, had me join a team of trainers who were ready to travel to Kabul to conduct a workshop on the new Peace Corps programming system, which I had been involved in developing.  That way, Jack suggested, I could get a look at the country and the people and after returning, we could discuss the matter and he would make a final decision about my appointment.                                                                                          Upon arrival in Kabul, I descended the steps from the Ariana Airlines aircraft and was greeted by a woman with a very clear British accent who I quickly learned was Valerie Nawroz, the PC/Afghanistan Executive Assistant.  She asked if I was George Baldino and I replied that I was.  She then said it was her pleasure to greet the new Peace Corps Country Director to Afghanistan.  I said there must be some mistake, “knowing” that I had not yet been officially assigned as Country Director, but she insisted by saying: “That’s not what the cable says!”  It was then that I knew that Jack had pulled the wool over my eyes.   When I returned to Washington and marched into his office, he lifted both arms and said, before I could get a word out of my mouth, “I knew you’d love it!”  So that’s how Suzie and I made a slight detour and headed off to Afghanistan to what would be two of the happiest years of our lives.

What was the scale of the program in Afghanistan then?   What were the PCVs doing?   The vast majority of the 100+ Volunteers were in the bilingual education program teaching English, with a small number working in health.  Before arriving in Afghanistan, I was told at HQ that the Afghan government was asking Peace Corps to withdraw Volunteers from the rural areas and concentrate them in the capital city of Kabul because it was concerned about the safety of Volunteers in rural areas.  That transition was already taking place, with only a few Volunteers in Jalalabad and Kandahar.  Al Edgell and his wife stayed on for a short overlap, after Al had served as Acting Country Director between Dick Haag and me.

What were Peace Corps staff roles?  Were Afghan staff members doing programming then? After Al Edgell’s departure, the Education Program Manager and I were the only U.S. members of the staff.  The training and admin staff were all Afghans, as were the rest of the programming staff.  Abdul Matin was the Program Training Officer (PTO) and Rahim Ghaznawi headed the training team.  Valerie Nawroz as Executive Assistant was in a way an exception, though she was Afghan by marriage to Captain Nawroz at Ariana Airlines.  For short-term needs during training cycles, we contracted Marty Kumorek who was a fantastic resource on Afghan culture and cross-cultural issues.

You were there during particularly difficult political times for Afghanistan – the increasing unrest under Daoud that led to the Saur Revolution in April ’78 and the consequences of that event.   How did these events affect the program?  The unrest at the time did not for most of us forecast the violent overthrow in April 1978.  Daoud had been setting the foundations of a constitutional republic.  By early 1978, the proposed constitution was near ready for presentation to a Loya Jirga.  The violent overthrow in late April left Daoud and virtually all members of his family--men, women and children--dead.  It also ushered in a totally new political structure and leadership, along with the swift arrival of thousands of Russian “advisors.”

Did Peace Corps consider ending the program after April 1978?   If so, what were the factors in deciding to remain?  Untypically, the position of the U.S. Government was to negotiate the continuance of many U.S.-supported programs in the now communist-run country, including the continuance of the Peace Corps program.  Such a decision would be almost impossible to imagine today.  It did provide a unique experience as we negotiated new collaborative programs with the Afghan ministries and other state-run institutions.  Meetings with the communist Afghan officials were always held with the company of numerous, usually silent, Soviet observers.  New education and health/nutrition program agreements were ready for signing when my assignment was completed in mid-December 1978.          Even looking back, it was almost impossible to suspect that the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolf “Spike” Dubs, would be assassinated less than two months later on February 14, 1979.  That death led to the immediate termination of all U.S. cooperative programs in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of U.S. personnel, including those of the Peace Corps. 

What was Peace Corps able to accomplish during the years you were there?   Did teachers think they were effective, for example?   Difficult questions, though for one, I believe the service of the Volunteers strengthened ties with the west and the U.S., which would be evidenced years later and particularly after 9/11 when the country and people struggled to form a more open society again.  On the teaching side, I believe that the PC teachers felt they were effective, definitely in the technical sense of English language learning, but also in strengthening cultural ties of friendship and understanding.

Is there anything you wish you could have done differently?  Any regrets?  Highlights of your experience?  Suzie and I would liked to have traveled more throughout the country and to have had more close social relationships with the very friendly and engaging Afghan people.  Being both from Latin backgrounds, the customs and norms we had to respect and accept placed limits on relationships that we never were able to cope with and overcome as successfully as we would have liked.  We found our social lives revolving principally around the international community rather than the host-country people--something we had never encountered before and did not particularly prefer.  But it helped us develop a keener respect for other players in the international development field, particularly those with the UN and other bi-lateral programs.  Several of these relationships led to close and lasting friendships to this day.                                                                                                                                                                         Also, though we asked to go through the same pre-service language training in Dari as the Volunteers as a condition for accepting the Afghanistan assignment, HQ did not approve the request.  As a result, we struggled, but never learned to speak Dari fluently and that was a huge regret.                                                                                                                 A highlight was certainly meeting people like Louis and Nancy Dupree who were the expat resident experts on Afghanistan.  Their books, talks and their practice of almost weekly gatherings were special opportunities to help us appreciate and understand what at first was very unfamiliar Afghan history and culture.                             And on the personal side, nothing could compare to the birth of our firstborn, Giancarlo on April 4th, 1978.

What did you do after you returned from Kabul in December 1978?  I worked mostly with two NGOs in non-formal education until January of 1984, though I did take several months to work on a high-rise construction site in New York--something that I had always wanted to do (scared the hell out of me on occasion, but still an unforgettable experience).  I then was contracted to be Chief of Party on a massive USAID rehabilitation and reconstruction project, once again in Peru (1984-1987). That led to USAID offering me successive Personal Services Contracts to work on food security programs in Peru, from 1987 until 2002 when I went with USAID to Afghanistan to head the humanitarian assistance program until the end of 2003.

You are now back with Peace Corps, as country director in Colombia. How have PCVs and the PC organization changed since the 70’s?  You’re in an interesting position to compare.   I probably should reflect on this a lot more because I instinctively sense more similarities than differences and that might not be quite the case.  One aspect that I have noticed, and my comment may appear to be overly or unfairly critical, is that I find many Volunteers approach Peace Corps service as something more personal and less focused on the people/country they have come to serve.  I do not think the Volunteers conceptually or intentionally see it this way, but I see it play out that way in the field.  The personal benefits of Peace Corps service are wonderful and justifiably form part of what motivates a person to consider the commitment, but in the end, Peace Corps service is “not about me.”  I will leave it there and not dwell on the thought; but I do believe it is an important matter that has to influence our training, mentoring and coaching of those who come on a very demanding and challenging mission.                               I also notice how enamored the organization has become with surveys and reports of all kinds, and the design of a zillion formats and templates. Sometimes I wonder if this is less program driven and more technology driven --new technologies can be so impressive…and seductive!

Please tell us a bit about your family, growing up and since, including your education.  I was born in Brooklyn, New York--the best NY barrio, by far!  But I was thought of in Italy, of Italian immigrant parents, Emma and Pietro.  They started the family of six in Italy and completed it in Brooklyn. I was the last, and not long after my arrival, my parents brought us to upstate New York to the beautiful Mohawk Valley, to a small town called Little Falls, smack mid-way between Albany and Syracuse.  The shoe factory in Brooklyn had been closed and moved upstate and Dad was offered a job to stay with it.

       Unfortunately the factory was closed for good when I was just entering junior year in high school, and we all moved to Norwalk, Connecticut, which is now home …well, our “permanent address.”  I say that because Peru, after living there almost 30 years as an adult, is just as much home.  When I went back to Peru in 1973 with the Peace Corps, I organized an in-service program for our Volunteers in the south of Peru.  Among the language instructors that were hired was Suzie Avila, now Suzie Avila Baldino.  And after Giancarlo was born during our final year in Afghanistan, along came Angela Maria and Paola Noel.                My undergraduate education began at the Maryknoll Seminary and College, and I finished my major in philosophy at St. Mary’s University in Baltimore, Md.  I then went on for graduate studies in theology, also at St. Mary’s University.  After that I completed studies in non-formal education, cooperative development, and educational administration.  During my graduate work I also became interested in learning sign-language and working with the deaf, and that led to about six years of working with the deaf, both with the young and adults.                                                                                                                        Art and music are also passions.

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