Columns / Discourse / February 19, 2014

Peace Corps service presents safety concerns

John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in the March of 1961 via executive order. His main aim in creating the volunteer group was to promote American goodwill across the world. The noble call to service reflects the message of prioritizing civic duty over one’s own selfish needs.

In line with his famous appeal for civic engagement (“. . . my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”), the Peace Corps is the ultimate volunteer experience — the shining bastion of worldwide peace and friendship. The organization currently boasts more than 215,000 current and returned volunteers in more than 60 countries.

We hear a lot about the great things produced from this noble program — ranging from the promotion of childhood education, participatory community outreach through the arts, instruction of sustainable farming techniques, provision of health care and health-related education, food security, HIV/AIDS prevention and much more. The organization sounds absolutely wonderful and virtually faultless in its campaign for helping those much less fortunate than ourselves.

But, as with all organizations, the Peace Corps program also has its weaknesses. If there is any major underlying theme in the world of international development, it is this: most people have the best of intentions, but these good intentions do not always translate to tangible and permanent improvement.

In discussing the possible weaknesses within the Peace Corps program, I hope to examine the areas that the organization can improve upon and to shed some light on perhaps the less-than-savory aspects of the Peace Corps experience (not because I want to discourage individuals from joining the program, but to provide another perspective so that interested applicants have another point of view to consider).

Two years of service in a foreign land without first-world amenities, after all, is a serious life-altering commitment requiring the utmost mental strength and determination.

One has to ask herself if she is simply smitten with the idea of serving for the Corps (seeing it as a whole big adventure to put off the general lackluster that comes with an ordinary entry-level office job) instead of being truly committed to the cause.
That being said, below are two main criticisms of the Peace Corps.

First, the Peace Corps’ poor handling of volunteer safety, especially regarding cases of sexual assault and rape. In 2011, Congress enacted the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act in light of many troubling accounts of volunteers (largely women) receiving little attention from Peace Corps authorities despite their reporting of sexual crimes.

Kate Puzey*, stationed in Benin, was murdered by Constant Bio (a local Peace Corps hire) after reporting to superiors that Bio was sexually abusing children. According to Puzey’s family, her murder could have easily been prevented if the organization had listened to her appeals from the very beginning instead of revealing her identity to Constant, breaching the principle of confidentiality. Bio’s termination from the Peace Corps program had ultimately caused him to seek revenge by taking Kate’s life.

It is important to note that the agency has taken many measures to better protect its volunteers, although many argue that the current figures of rape and sexually assault are (at least 225 rapes and 856 sexual assaults from 2002 to 2012) lower than the actual reality due to underreporting. Among the changes include the establishment of a 24-hotline for victims and the addition of three full-time advocates at Peace Corps headquarters.

Second, the unclear ways the Peace Corps measures its progress in developing countries. As one individual put it, the Peace Corps is “really little more than an extended, government-sponsored semester-abroad program” paid in by taxpayer dollars.

Constant and thorough evaluation is arguably the best means to maintain prowess and advancement. What is the project completion success rate and how exactly is success defined?

Of course, measuring success is a subjective matter in itself. It is also seemingly impossible to measure how much goodwill was produced over any given PCV’s tenure. Following through with any project is also invariably harder given the economic disadvantaged circumstances of the host country. Still, are there better ways to evaluate what a village or town may actually need?

As with all forms of organizations concerning developing countries, there is the fear that well-intentioned volunteer group agencies actually undermine state capacity.

No matter how many months worth of training they receive, the very idea of sending fresh-faced 20-somethings to a country they don’t know much about to help its people in whatever capacity, sounds a bit silly if not a tad self-aggrandizing. That is not to say that Peace Corps volunteers actually believe they are fully capable of saving said village or rural town. But one wonders if locals feel a bit insulted that they need the aid of young Americans to help them get their country together.

*There has been no conviction in the case of Kate Puzey

Mydel Santos

Tags:  Benin Constant Bio international Kate Puzey peace corp Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act rape sexual assault volunteer

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