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June 22, 2004: Headlines: Congress: Legislation: PCOL Exclusive: Report from the Senate's Peace Corps Safety Hearings :
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Report from the Senate's Peace Corps Safety Hearings
Read and comment on Peace Corps Online's exclusive coverage of the Senate hearings on Peace Corps Safety and Security held on June 22. Read and comment at:
Report from the Senate's Peace Corps Safety Hearings*
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
Report from the Senate's Peace Corps Safety Hearings
Senators Voinovich, Coleman, and Dodd at the Peace Corps Safety Hearings
The Peace Corps Safety Hearings took place on June 22, 2003. Senator George V. Voinovich (R - Ohio) (left in photo) , Norm Coleman (R - Minnesota), and Chris Dodd (D - Connecticut) attended the meeting.
The hearings began at 930 am in Room 419 of the Dirksen Office building and lasted about two hours.
Senator Norm Coleman presided over the hearings
It is the first time the Senator has presided over an open hearing about the Peace Corps since he was elected to the Senate in 2002 and became Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee that oversees the Peace Corps.
Senator Coleman was very knowledgeable about the Peace Corps, the proceedings were well run, and the hearings were very informative and productive.
Senator Coleman's Opening Statement
Senator Coleman opened the hearings by talking about the Peace Corps and how he supports the goal of doubling the size of the Peace Corps.
In his opening statement, Senator Coleman said "Let me state from the outset, I believe the Peace Corps is American diplomacy at its best."
"In a world where America is too often misunderstood, the Peace Corps represents an opportunity to show the compassionate nature of this country and its citizens. Now more than ever we need the Peace Corps to continue fostering international goodwill at the grassroots level."
Director Vasquez's Opening Statement
Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez made his prepared statement and talked about what had been done to promote safety and security since he became Peace Corps Director.
"Peace Corps is now pursuing the strongest growth possible within the constraints of our resources preserving the quality of the Peace Corps Volunteer experience and focusing on safety and security."
"While the Peace Corps will never be able to issue an absolute guarantee of volunteer safety, we remain committed to developing optimum conditions for a safe and fulfilling experience for every Peace Corps Volunteer."
"Peace Corps Safety and Security is fully integrated into all aspects of volunteer recruitment, training, and service with an emphasis with volunteers taking personal responsibility and integrating into communities."
"Information provided thorughout the recruitment and application process all include the message that being a volunteer involves risk, volunteers are expected to adopt safe lifestyles, and that the Peace Corps has an effective support system in place."
Dirctor Vasquez talks about the five-year rule
Then the Director talked about the five-year rule and noted that the Congress had passed a law in February 2003 giving him the authority to exempt certain positions in safety and security from the five year rule and that so far he had selected 23 exempt positions.
"Last month the Peace Corps contracted with outside experts to perform and objective and independent analysis of the Peace Corps work force incuding the office of Inspector General."
"At the conclusion of the consultant's review I will make further decisions about any other appropriate exemptions for personnel related to safety and security."
Senator Dodd's Opening Statement
Senator Chris Dodd made his opening statement and talked about his years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic and said that his years in the Peace Corps had had a lot to do with his decision to enter public life.
"There has never been a moment in our history when the Peace Corps' objectives were more urgent. Indeed our lack of understanding about other cultures and languages and the misperceptions that others have about our country have contributed to some of the highest rates ever of anti-American sentiment around the globe."
"That is why we must remember now more than ever why the Peace Corps is so important because the Peace Corps Volunteers not only help those in need but also build bridges of understanding and good trust."
Senator Voinovich's Opening Statement
Senator Voinovich made his opening remarks and talked about the in-depth report from the Dayton Daily News and how the reporters spent more than two years interviewing 500 people.
"Their findings raise serious questions about Peace Corps safety and security and have compelled us to look close at measures in place to ensure the security of our volunteers. They have also led us to discuss ways we might enhance these measures."
The Senator then talked at length about the disappearance of Bolivia Volunteer Walter Poirier III.
Director Vasquez talks about the Dayton Daily News series
Director Vasquez said he had read the articles in the Dayton Daily News but mentioned that the majority of incidents that had been in the articles preceded his time including Mr. Poirier.
He also mentioned that in his view there had been some distortions in the articles. As an example, he mentioned a statement that a volunteer in service dies every two months.
"The fact of the matter is that I have been Director of the Peace Corps for over two years and every loss of life is tragic, but to represent that a volunteer dies every two months when in my time three volunteers have died in service is a bit of a distortion, a bit of a misrepresentation."
Senator Dodd asks about the five-year rule
After a few more questions, Senator Dodd said that Senator Sarbanes had asked him to enter a statement by Hugh Pickens, Editor of Peace Corps Online, on the five-year rule and Senator Dodd asked that the statement be entered into the Subcommittee record without objection.
Without objection Senator Coleman entered the statement in the Subcommittee record.
Both Senator Dodd and Senator Coleman then asked the Director to talk about the five-year rule in more detail.
Director Vasquez talks about the five-year rule
Director Vasquez said that "two years ago in our appropriations bill, language was included that authorized the Director of the Peace Corps to exempt employees who worked in safety and security from the five year rule."
"Conceptually the five year rule has been viewed as a way of generating turnover or rotation that keeps the agency some would describe it as fresh, energized. It minimizes the chances of an entrenched bureaucracy from taking hold and thereby minimizing the possibility of affecting the creativity that makes the Peace Corps such a unique agency."
Director Vasquez elaborates his views on the five-year rule
"However, the five-year rule, as I have said to some folks, I have said that I wake up some days and think that it is terrific and some days I wake up and I think that it could use some changes because what you do lose in the process is institutional memory, some continuity, and in fact in some cases, you lose talent because you lose some candidates who do not come to work for Peace Corps because they do not want to be bound by limitations of service."
"So with safety and security, what we did is conduct an evaluation and identify 23 positions that we know to be fully dedicated to volunteer safety and security. Those positions have now been cleared and are exempt from the five-year rule."
"The second wave gets a little more complicated and that is why in my testimony I pointed out that we have retained a consultant to do an evaluation to make some recommendations on what the second group should be of those who should be exempt from the five-year rule."
"Is it someone whose job is 20% safety and security? Is is 30%, 50%, 60%? We need some clarity on those kinds of issues so we are conducting that evaluation and as soon as that report is available, it is my intent to review and where appropriate approve those positions."
Senator Coleman asks Director Vasquez to keep the Senate posted on the study
Senator Coleman asked the Director to "please keep us posted on the progress of that study and forward us that information as soon as possible."
Senator Coleman asked the Director about women in the Peace Corps and if it would make sense to have self-defense training for women during training for the Peace Corps.
Director Vasquez discusses his views on self-defense versus crime prevention
Director Vasquez said that he had experience in this area because in the past as a law enforcement official he had designed a program for high school girls and how they can increase their personal safety.
He said that what he taught them was not self-defense but crime prevention.
He said that emphasis needs to be on crime prevention because it requires a high degree of skill to be defend yourself effectively and it is preferible to avoid the crime in the first place.
Senator Dodd gives his views on the five-year rule
Senator Dodd talked about the five year rule and said the Director didn't have to comment but that "I am a strong supporter of the five-year rule. Obviously we have made exemptions to it. Loret Ruppe Miller is one example when she served eight years as Director of the Peace Corps and did an incredible job."
"I am not rigid about the rule but I always like the presumption to be in favor of the rule and you really have to make a strong case to overcome that presumption."
"There is a concern that has been raised, that if you begin to expand this [exemptions to the five-year rule], you can end up with an entrenched bureaucracy in the agency."
"The vitality of the Peace Corps is due in no small measure ...to the fact that there has been this turnover every five years that gives the Peace Corps a lot of its youthfulness as an organization."
Senator Dodd then asked Director Vasquez if he had made an assessment of what the cost would be if the Peace Corps had to comply with the requirements in the proposed legislation.
Director Vasquez talks about the cost of implementing the Peace Corps Safety Bill
Director Vasquez replied that "we have not run specific numbers. but on its face it would be a very, very substantial cost."
Senator Dodd added that it would be good for the Subcommittee to get those numbers because if we are going to simultaneously increase the number of volunteers "it would be good to get some feel for what those costs would be. Not only the costs today but it would be a good idea to match those numbers up to get an overall sense of this thing."
Senator Voinovich asks about host families and volunteer complaints
Senator Voinovich asked a question about the reliability of the host families that volunteers are going into and is there was a tendency to have a repetition of host families that continue to participate in the program year after year.
With regard to the first part of the question, the Director replied that host families are screened and evaluated country by country based on the procedures and processes in place taking into account the safety and security of the country.
With regard to how many families continue to participate in the Peace Corps program as host famiies over a period of years, the Director said that he did not have that specific information but would follow up with an answer.
The Senator followed up with a question about a story in the Dayton Daily News articles about a volunteer whose house had been broken into three times and he had complained about it to the Peace Corps and ultimately his house was broken into and he was murdered and asked the Director when the Peace Corps gets complaints like this, how fast do they respond to them.
Director Vasquez talks about the responsibility of Country Directors
The Director replied that he has made it very clear that his expectations for the job of Country Director are very high.
"I interview every Country Director one-on-one. They are my selection. And I make it very clear that they understand that I have expectations. That they understand that we are a volunteer based organization and that the volunteer is number one."
"If a volunteer has issues relative to safety or security where the fulfillment of the opportunity to deal with a Peace Corps volunteer is not being met, I have an expectation that the Country Director and staff will be responsive to that volunteer."
"My test is when a volunteer's work is disrupted, interrupted, or distracted, then we are not doing our job."
Jess Ford testifies about the GAO Report on Peace Corps Safety
Mr. Jess Ford, Director of International Affairs and Trade at the GAO was the next to testify and answer questions from the Senators.
When asked if there was anything inconsistent in Director Vasquez's testimony in terms of reporting the numbers of incidents he replied that the Peace Corps reports crimes in ten different categories.
"Some of them have gone down, some of them have remained about the same as where they have been for the past several years."
"When the Peace Corps started to track these cases in the early 1990's, in most cases these rates went upward but they have stabilized in the last few years," he added.
When asked by Senator Coleman about the steps that the Peace Corps had taken, he replied that "since the report came out the Peace Corps has implemented many of those suggestions. So overall we think that the Peace Corps has taken a lot of positive steps."
Mr. Ford was asked if the GAO recommended the independent appointment of the Peace Corps Inspector General and he replied that in general the GAO favored having the Inspector General be an independent appointment in each government agency. The GAO has not made a specific recommendation with regard to the IG at the Peace Corps but that they do believe that the IG should be independent.
Kevin Quigley of the NPCA testifies about the poll taken of its membership
Kevin Quigley, President of the National Peace Corps Association, was the next to testify and talked about the NPCA and that there are 36,000 members affiliated to the 160 organizations in the NPCA network.
He said that the NPCA had conducted an online poll that over 250 members responded to and that 72% of those polled said they favored an ombudsman for the Peace Corps.
Mr. Quigley said that it was split 48% to 47% if Congress should statutorily establish an office of safety and security.
He said that 90% of the respondents opposed the pairing of volunteers, that respondents were equally split concerning the independent appointment of the Inspector General, and that 70% favored a study of the five year rule.
When asked if the respondents had favored the change in the five year rule that is part of this legislation, Mr. Quigley replied that that question had not been asked of the NPCA membership in the poll and that he did not have a response.
Ms. Cynthia Threlkeld and Ms. Gladys Maloy testify
Finally Ms. Cynthia Threlkeld (right), Peace Corps Country Director for Guatemala, and Ms. Gladys Maloy, a volunteer who recently completed her service in Romania each gave a statement and talked about the how volunteers are integrated into their communities.
They added that volunteers don't like clustering of volunteers because volunteers like to get out on their own and it is a benefit to be one your own for learning the language and customs of the Country of Service.
PCOL asks Senator Coleman about volunteers he met working in AIDS Education
After the hearings were completed we talked to Senator Coleman and asked him about his trip last year to Africa with Senator Frist to look at the Global AIDS crisis and about his meetings with Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa, Mozambique, and Botswana during his trip and his impression of the contribution being made by volunteers to AIDS education.
Senator Coleman said that he tries to meet with Peace Corps whenever he travels. He added that he thinks volunteers are doing phenomenal work.
He said that in conversations with volunteers he had been told very candidly how difficult it is to be a volunteer "not from a safety perspective but in just adjusting."
"I am extraordinarily proud of what the volunteers do and understand that it is extremely difficult. It is difficult to move away from home. to a different part of the world and face great challenges."
"Morale seemed to be very, very high though," he added.
PCOL asks Senator Coleman about his views on the proposed bill
We asked Senator Coleman if he had made a determination on where he stands on the Peace Corps bill that is under consideration.
He replied that there are a couple of things that came out of these hearings. "We need to get some cost estimates," he said.
He added that he also wants to get some more feedback. "For example, it was clear today that one of the things that Senator Dodd raised was grouping people together and it was very clear from the testimony that the most important thing for safety is integration into the community."
"There shouldn't be a formula that simply says that if you are a single women, there should be someone with you so I am looking forward to getting some further information before I make a final judgment. We will work with the agency to do everything to guarantee that safety is a number one priority."
PCOL asks Senator Coleman about the Peace Corps FY05 budget
Finally we asked Senator Coleman if there was any reasonable possibility at this point that there could still be a substantial increase in the Peace Corps budget for FY05.
Senator Coleman replied that he was "not optimistic in getting the additional funds this year."
"Sometimes in this business it may take more than one year to get it done. But I am committed to making that happen and I believe it will happen, I just don't think we will get it done right away."
We thanked the Senator for his committment to the Peace Corps.
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