August 4 - Washington Times: Peace Corps facing New Perils

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By Admin1 (admin) on Thursday, November 22, 2001 - 10:52 am: Edit Post

Read this story from the Washington Times on the perils facing volunteers overseas and what we should do about it at:

Peace Corps Facing New Perils

Peace Corps facing new perils

David Williams and Robert Charles

Problems unnoticed are problems unsolved. The modern Peace Corps represents a case in point. After 40 years of success, the Peace Corps can boast unique accomplishments. It does so against an unrecognized backdrop of delayed oversight and rising risk. These new risks are avoidable, just as oversight is timely.

Americans are rightly proud of their Peace Corps. Since President Kennedy's introduction of the initiative in 1961, America has selflessly sent more than 164,000 volunteers to 134 countries to help better the lot of others. Peace Corps volunteers save lives, teach life-enriching skills, and convey America's can-do spirit to those who call the remotest parts of the world home.

But the world is changing, and the Peace Corps must change with it. Today, threats ranging from terrorism to heinous crimes against volunteers are on the rise. The Peace Corps offers an unrivaled opportunity for America's youth to change the world for the better, but only if they are kept as safe as possible, and are fully prepared for increasingly unpredictable contingencies.

In sum, the Peace Corps needs what other international agencies are routinely given. The Peace Corps needs engaged congressional oversight, common-sense policy guidance on unfamiliar and emerging global threats, cutting-edge communications technology for instant connectivity among volunteers, and the benefits of updated safety procedures, such as those practiced by leading missionary organizations, international assistance groups, multinational corporations, and other federal agencies, ranging from the National Science Foundation and National Geographic Society to the Smithsonian and U.S. military.

Yes, greater resourcing for Peace Corps volunteers' increased safety may be necessary. That moral obligation will fall to Congress. Still, the road to new resources must be paved by internal and external oversight. The future of this great American initiative depends on a sober review of where we can make meaningful improvements. We need to reassess how we can protect those who place their lives in the hands of the Peace Corps in the name of all that is good.

Where do we begin? We have to accept that some risks are unavoidable, while others are highly avoidable. We have to differentiate the two and assiduously pursue ways of minimizing the avoidable ones. Given the frequency of remote area placement and contact with danger, some precautions seem overdue.

Almost exactly three years ago, in August 1998, a Peace Corps volunteer was gunned down in a remote village 70 miles north of Iloilo City in the Philippines. He was not alone, but reportedly did not have any other Peace Corps volunteers with him. His mission had been helping a provincial government in fisheries management and conservation of the coral reefs. In January last year, two other Peace Corps volunteers were killed in a traffic accident in the west African nation of Guinea. They were math teachers in northern Guinea. Was the accident avoidable? Would a cell phone or satellite phone have helped speed aid to their side?

What of Nancy Coutu, a volunteer who died both alone and tragically in Bereketa, Madagascar. five years ago. She was raped and beaten, after being pulled from a bicycle in the rural outpost. What if she had been paired with another volunteer? What if standard operating procedure, as with other agencies, had given her a $1,000 satellite phone or $300 Emergency Locator Beacon? Could her life have been saved?

Interviewed this year, her mother said she was "100 percent on her own," noting that she might have been alive today if she had not been.

Another recent report, looking back over 251 deaths in the Peace Corps' history, indicated that "many Peace Corps deaths are preventable."

Why? For starters, volunteers are often stationed alone in sites "several hours away from Peace Corps officials." Often "country directors are unaware of dangerous situations" and "volunteers are without consistent, required communications with supervisors."

Perhaps the best argument for internal review and hands-on congressional oversight on issues like a buddy-system for Peace Corps volunteers, providing emergency telecommunications capability, and laying down state-of-the art procedures for communication, event briefing, threat level changes, and proactive measures to assure improved health and safety, are the hard numbers.

Since its founding, 20 Peace Corps volunteers have been murdered, 86 have died in car accidents, and 41 have died from illness. Between 1990 and 1999 alone, however, 627 incidents of aggravated assault on volunteers were reported. Aggravated assault is attack which either involves a weapon or serious bodily injury. In that same time frame, there were are ported 120 rapes of volunteers.

Moreover, the rate of violent assaults has doubled between just 1994 and 1999.

The point, of course, is not that these numbers are high in comparison to the thousands who volunteer. The point is simpler. Volunteering should be as safe as it can possibly be, consistent with the unavoidable risks that naturally attach to living for two years in a remote location and doing good in the name of America.

The best way to achieve that outcome -- and the only one that returns the favor to those who nobly volunteer -- is to press for more oversight, more internal review, more attention to state-of-the-art techniques and technology. Only in that way, do we carry the torch forward. Only in that way, will the Peace Corps remain true to its own noble origins, and best serve those who today selflessly serve others.

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