August 4, 2002 - San Francisco Chronicle: Peace Corps work getting more risky

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Peace Corps Library: Special Reports: July 25, 2002 - GAO Reports on Safety and Security of Volunteers: August 4, 2002 - San Francisco Chronicle: Peace Corps work getting more risky

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Peace Corps work getting more risky

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Peace Corps work getting more risky

Reports of attacks on U.S. volunteers double in decade

New York Times Sunday, August 4, 2002

Washington -- Reported assaults on Peace Corps volunteers abroad more than doubled over the past decade, and organizational problems within the agency may be limiting its ability to ensure the safety of those serving overseas, a study by the General Accounting Office has found.

President Bush has proposed doubling the size of the Peace Corps, to about 15,000 volunteers, and expanding the agency's presence to some of the world's most dangerous countries, including Afghanistan.

Critics say that since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans living abroad are facing increased security risks, and expanding the Peace Corps' presence may put volunteers unnecessarily in harm's way.

"I've been to Afghanistan, and it's a dangerous place for a young person," said Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., who requested the accounting office's report after the February 2001 disappearance of Walter Poirier, a 22-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Meehan's district in Lowell.

Poirier had been assigned to work on a tourism project in the Zongo Valley of Bolivia, a remote region three hours from the capital, La Paz.

In a letter to Meehan last year, Robert Hast, managing director of the accounting office's Office of Special Investigations, said that while Poirier did not follow procedures for newly arrived volunteers, apparently failing to register his housing arrangements, the Peace Corps associate director in the region essentially "lost track" of him.

"At the same time that our country and our allies are engaged in a global war on terrorism, Peace Corps volunteers, from my perspective, are very visible in their role and, therefore, are particularly vulnerable," Meehan said.

Incidents of "major physical assault" on volunteers, defined as attacks in which a weapon was used or injuries were sustained, climbed to 17 per 1,000 in 2000, up from 8 per 1,000 in 1991, the accounting office reported. Four Peace Corps volunteers have been killed since 1997.

In addition, the number of "major sexual assaults," including rape, fluctuated during the same period, with a high of 12 in 1997 and a low of eight in 1995.

Peace Corps officials attribute some of the increase in reported assaults to more reliable systems for collecting and recording crime data and note that the agency instituted new safety measures last year, including the addition of security officers and improved training programs.

The full extent of violence against volunteers is unknown, however, and may be significantly higher than documented, because a large number of crimes go unreported, the report said.

The accounting office suggested that organizational problems within the Peace Corps are most likely making the problem worse.

For example, a legally required five-year employment limit for Peace Corps supervisors, which officials say is intended to keep the program innovative, has resulted in "a situation in which the agency staff are continually 'reinventing the wheel,' " the report said.

The report also found that directors in the 70 or so nations served by the Peace Corps are largely autonomous, complicating the task of keeping tabs on volunteers and ensuring their safety. Most volunteers, Peace Corps officials said, are placed in isolated locations.

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