July 14, 2002 - Boston Globe: GAO cites weak Peace Corps Security
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July 14, 2002 - Boston Globe: GAO cites weak Peace Corps Security
GAO cites weak Peace Corps Security
Read and comment on this story from the Boston Globe on a GAO Report which will be released on July 25 which cites the Peace Corps for weaknesses in security for volunteers at:
GAO CITES WEAK PEACE CORPS SECURITY*
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
GAO CITES WEAK PEACE CORPS SECURITY
ASSAULTS AGAINST WORKERS MORE THAN DOUBLED IN 1990S
Author(s): Glen Johnson, Globe Staff
Date: July 14, 2002
Page: A4 Section:
National/Foreign WASHINGTON - Assaults on Peace Corps volunteers abroad more than doubled in the 1990s, but a government report says that organizational problems may hinder the agency's ability to improve security and keep better track of its volunteers.
President Bush wants to double the size of the Peace Corps to 15,000 people. In his State of the Union address in January, Bush said he wanted to expand the agency's presence in some of the world's most dangerous nations, including Afghanistan. But a year ago, the General Accounting Office faulted the Peace Corps in the disappearance of one of its volunteers, Walter J. Poirier of Lowell. A GAO report said that Poirier did not follow proper notification procedures and that the agency lost track of him in Bolivia.
A search for the 22-year-old man began only after his mother demanded an investigation after he disappeared for two weeks in 2001. Investigators said they suspect that he is dead.
The GAO now has issued a broader assessment of the Peace Corps's ability to protect and keep tabs on its volunteers. It found that the agency is hurt by legally required turnover of supervisors that "produces a situation in which the agency staff are continually `reinventing the wheel.' "
At the same time, the country directors in the 70 nations served by the Peace Corps are largely autonomous and vary in the degree to which they monitor their volunteers and provide for their safety, the report said.
Six Peace Corps volunteers have been killed in the past seven years, not including Poirier's case. According to statistics compiled by the Peace Corps, the incidence of major physical assaults against volunteers has more than doubled, from 8 per 1,000 volunteers in 1991 to 17 per 1,000 in 2000, with a high of 19 per 1,000 volunteers in 1999.
The number of "major sexual assaults" bounced from as high as 12 per 1,000 female volunteers to as low as 6 per 1,000 female volunteers during the same period.
Volunteers said in surveys that they believe the true number of crimes is higher because of underreporting by victims.
"The Peace Corps is embarking on a major expansion of its volunteer workforce during a time of heightened risk for Americans living abroad," says a draft of a report the GAO will issue July 25, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe. "Providing safety and security for its volunteers is the Peace Corps' highest priority.
"Our review of the agency's efforts to ensure compliance with its basic safety and security policies and guidelines shows that there are cases of uneven implementation of key elements of the safety and security framework that could pose risks to volunteers."
While the Peace Corps announced new initiatives in May to improve its safety and security procedures, "it is not yet clear how the Peace Corps will document its progress in achieving compliance or will share information about better practices," the report says.
Among the proposals are plans to appoint an associate director for safety and security, which has not been completed, and to appoint four field-based regional security officers, which was completed last month.
A Peace Corps spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the report.
The GAO study was requested by Representative Martin T. Meehan, Democrat of Lowell. Meehan said he was pleased that the Peace Corps "is finally taking a more serious approach to security," but that he was uncertain about the effectiveness of the reform proposals.
"The Peace Corps failed Walter Poirier," Meehan said. "At the same time, our country and our allies are engaged in a global war on terrorism, Americans at home and abroad need to reassess security. Peace Corps volunteers, in the very visible role of informal American ambassadors of goodwill, are particularly vulnerable."
President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961 to provide developing countries with trained manpower and to promote a better understanding of developing nations within the United States.
Volunteers commit to two-year assignments in Third World nations, where they typically teach English and help with local farming and sanitation projects.
By law, Peace Corps directors, inspector generals, security staff, and other management figures can spend no more than five years in a job. The agency reached a high of 15,560 volunteers in 1966 and now has about 7,000.
In his State of the Union address, Bush called for doubling the Peace Corps, as part of a larger effort to boost volunteerism and an understanding of the United States abroad.
Poirier graduated from the University of Notre Dame in May 2000 and went to Bolivia in August of that year. He was last seen Feb. 22, 2001, when he met with his Peace Corps supervisor at City Hall in the capital of La Paz.
On March 4, Poirier's mother, Sheila, called a home in La Paz where her son sometimes stayed, but was told no one had seen him. Two days later, Peace Corps officials in Washington called to say they were looking for her son.
In a July 20, 2001, letter to Meehan, the GAO concluded: "We determined that Mr. Poirier failed to follow certain Peace Corps location and notification procedures.
"Although the Peace Corps associate director responsible for Mr. Poirier while he was in Bolivia knew that Mr. Poirier was not following these procedures, he took no steps to correct the situation and, as a result, lost track of Mr. Poirier."</DIV></div>
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