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Peace talk: Peace Corps articles prompt debate
Peace talk: Peace Corps articles prompt debate
Peace talk: Peace Corps articles prompt debate
By Jim DeBrosse
In hundreds of e-mails, Internet postings and letters, Peace Corps volunteers, past and present, have launched an impassioned global dialogue in response to "Casualties of Peace," a seven-part Dayton Daily News series that ended Saturday.
Volunteers from Central Asia to southwest Ohio have gone to their keyboards to debate the risks, responsibilities and management of Peace Corps service, as well as the merits of the series. Dayton Daily News staff writers Russell Carollo and Mei-Ling Hopgood reported that Peace Corps volunteers often are assigned to remote, dangerous locations without adequate training or supervision.
More than 2,900 Peace Corps volunteers have reported being assaulted since 1990, and 250 volunteers have been killed in the agency's 42-year history, the Daily News reported.
Dozens of volunteers have criticized the series for presenting what they feel is a negatively slanted and selective picture of the Peace Corps experience, while dozens of other volunteers have argued just as passionately that the series performed a much-needed service.
"I have been in touch with many returned PCVs since the publication of this series, and everyone Iíve corresponded with has been upset with (the) portrayal of the Peace Corps, including some assault victims," Elizabeth Yehaskel, a volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1996 to 1998, wrote on the Dayton Daily News Web site.
Laura Dane, who completed two years of service in El Salvador, agreed. "I must tell you I am sickened and outraged at the article . . . that inaccurately portrayed Peace Corps as a dangerous institution. I simply do not understand why anyone would choose to defame one of the most amazing volunteer organizations ever to exist."
William Salisbury, a returned volunteer and former headquarters staff member, wrote that there is room for improvement in the Peace Corps, "yet because these articles are so blatantly out to paint the PC as a place of great danger and unresponsiveness, the credibility is out the window."
But former volunteer Kristy Lord argued that the series "has effectively documented the experiences of many that have been raped, killed, attacked and abducted and made to feel that they deserved it."
Bruce Bridges, a new recruit waiting for his departure to Ukraine, thanked the paper for the series and for opening up the hushed issue of Peace Corps safety.
"I have found that any critical questioning of the Peace Corps experience is met with ridicule and derision," Bridges wrote to the Dayton Daily News. "Iíve been accused of having a 'superior' attitude because I dare mention the possibility that there are certain unsafe areas I choose not to serve. I find some (volunteers) have an almost cult-like devotion to the corps."
John Hale, a former acting inspector general for the Peace Corps who warned Congress in 1992 of a marked increase in violence against volunteers, called the series "first rate" and predicted the Peace Corps reaction would be "fierce, tribal, ad hominem, (and) visceral."
"In dozens of investigations and audits, my office ó including professional managers and investigators who had served decades in demanding (federal agency) settings ó were always surprised at how little Ďpeaceí there was in the Peace Corps when its virtue was questioned," Hale wrote to the Dayton Daily News.
The Peace Corps' reaction to the series began even before publication. An informational message from Washington headquarters on Oct. 18 warned group leaders and volunteers that the series "will provide a misleading picture of the Peace Corps and Peace Corps Volunteer Service, particularly with respect to safety and security."
While many of the volunteers expressed sympathy for the victims whose stories were detailed in the series, most went on to argue that the volunteers themselves are ultimately responsible for their own safety.
"I accepted the risks that Peace Corps presented when I went in and I accepted the resultant consequences, some of which still haunt me," Paula Stiles, a volunteer in Cameroon from 1991 to 1994, wrote to Peace Corps Online, an independent Internet service for past and current volunteers.
"Samaki," who served in Kenya from 1981 to 1983, wrote, "I lived alone, traveled throughout Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, and other than being briefly 'detained' by police in all three countries, had no troubles in the (time) I was there. Apparently, luck was on my side, but a few common sense rules go a long way. Don't get drunk (and stupid), don't draw attention to yourself, and above all, learn and respect the culture."
A returned volunteer wrote in reply, "Do not judge others. I wasnít raped due to my lack of common sense. You cannot fix this problem by simplifying it with self-righteous optimism."
Personality assessments done on Peace Corps volunteers in the late 1960s found that many scored low on paranoia and high on altruism and optimism, said Robert Hogan, a management consultant based in Tulsa, Okla., who pioneered personality testing while at the University of California at Berkeley during the 1960s.
"Many volunteers exhibit a kind of selectively healthy mind where they just want to think about the positives," Hogan said. "To use an old-fashioned (psychological) phrase, it's a sort of mild hysteria."
Hogan said the Peace Corps discontinued the personality tests because they were not good predictors of who would succeed in the field.
Comments from some volunteers implied that those who failed to survive their term of service didnít have "the right stuff" for the Peace Corps.
"As a returned Peace Corps volunteer who lived in a remote area of West Africa for over two years, your articles truly offend me and many other volunteers who have read them," one volunteer wrote on the Dayton Daily News Web site. "I find it pathetic that these volunteers who terminated their service early complain so bitterly about the sickness and hardship that led to their departure.
"Part of being a Peace Corps volunteer is being responsible. Usually, those people who do not listen or follow the rules end up having bad things happen to them, typically because of their own foolishness."
John Edelson jumped into the dialogue on Peace Corps Online to ask the participants "not (to) demean the topic or ourselves by attacking each otherÉ Fact is, Peace Corps, like many worthwhile efforts, has significant risks which should be measured, managed and admitted. In some areas and countries, the risks are too high and Peace Corps should go elsewhere. This only becomes dirty laundry when itís not discussed openly and accurately by the Agency."
The Peace Corps neglected to collect crime data for analysis during its first 28 years, omitted many victims from its published crime statistics and failed to track some serious crimes at all, the series found.
True to their emphasis on self-reliance, many volunteers offered practical advice for safety problems in foreign lands.
Chandler Harrison Stevens, who served in Ukraine from 1991 to 2001, ticked off a long list of safety tips in a note to the Dayton Daily News Web site. Don't drink, get loud or get isolated. Walk in lighted areas. Learn the language. And, especially, blend in.
But returned volunteer Timothy Swanson wrote on Peace Corps Online that the agency shouldn't assume "that our neighbors love and protect us just because we are PCVs... In my opinion, Peace Corps in the Philippines in the late 1980s made too much of the protection we would receive from our neighbors." Scott Foust argued in his posting that the Peace Corps country staffs ó those who most directly supervise volunteers during their assignments ó need to be held accountable. "It starts with getting the right people into these positions ó an area (where) I believe PC probably needs help."
Rebekah Robertson, a volunteer who served in Mozambique, wrote to Peace Corps Online that "standard Peace Corps policy is that PCVs should be doubled up wherever they are. This obviously will not always prevent sexual assault, as we read about the group of volunteers who were raped at gunpoint. But it may cut down on the sexual assaults and other deaths of PCVs."
Some of the volunteers resented that the series portrayed their host countries as dangerous places. "Poor does not mean dangerous, neither in the U.S. nor abroad, despite that common misperception," Amelia Sparks, a former volunteer in Morocco, wrote on Peace Corps Online. "Peace Corps volunteers live in areas where life is harder and more uncertain ó not necessarily less safe, just not as predictable.
"You cannot conduct yourself as you would in (the) States and you cannot expect the same level of legal protection and justice. In Morocco, sexual harassment is not illegal, itís not even immoral ó it is, in fact, almost expected. I never made eye contact with strange men. I wore modest clothes. I never went out alone after dark."
Many volunteers critical of the articles insisted that developing countries are no more dangerous than the United States. "The world is an increasingly difficult place to live," James Haldeman, a former volunteer now living in Ithaca, N.Y., wrote to the Dayton Daily News.
"However, I find myself at even greater risk walking down the streets of most major American cities. I think that you would do a better service writing about such incidents in the U.S. instead of targeting an organization that is contributing so much to the world."
Matthew Lewton, a volunteer based in Central Asia, sent this dispatch: "If I were sent to some of the poorest regions of America, I would feel less safe there than I do here."
Many victims felt that volunteers who hadn't been victimized couldn't fully understand their concerns for safety.
Some former volunteers "have a 'it hasn't happened to me' attitude," one victim wrote on Peace Corps Online. "From my perspective, these staffers are unable to respond because of inexperience."
The Peace Corps will be forced to change, the victim continued, because "we are getting louder in our voices, louder in numbers because there are many fallen volunteers and victims of violence. . . .I still think Peace Corps can be strong, but strong when it recognizes its weaknesses and works on them.
"Denial will only hurt us all."
[From the Dayton Daily News: 11.02.2003]