This morning, I woke up to a link in my Inbox to 20/20’s 3-part report on the Peace Corps. The piece discusses the lack of proper support and response to the murder of Kate Puzey and later a segment of women who were sexually assaulted and/or raped during their service. I was extremely saddened by this report and can definitely understand the anger and frustration these women have toward the Peace Corps. However, while I am glad the report has raised issues of mismanagement within the organization, it also took away so many positive aspects of what it stands for. Most people already only have a vague idea of what the Peace Corps is about, and a report as such aired on national television will only drive people away further.
If you ask anyone from my Peace Corps training group, they will tell you that I was one of the most critical individual toward Peace Corps Admin. in the beginning of my service. I did not always love the Peace Corps and want everyone to sign up. Coming from a business background, I was astounded by various levels of inefficiency. I complained about the language training, the ridiculous rules, the lack of support on projects, the inefficient disbursement of our living allowances, and the list went on and on. I think some of my PC friends are surprised that today I’m one of the biggest advocates.
What changed my attitude? Well, my two years of living in the country. I associated very little of myself with Peace Corps during the first year. I spent a lot of time with French and volunteers of other nationalities. Through them, I realized that Peace Corps actually take care of us really well. My French friends were envious of our health care access, and sometimes made fun of our overly stringent security rules. When I complained about inefficiency, they gave me their stories that were much worse. I realized these complaints are simply the realities of large organizations, especially within a developing country.
Peace Corps is a large organization that currently operates in 77 countries with over 8,500 volunteers serving. You can imagine the level of bureaucracy that takes place; furthermore, it is a government agency, so inefficiency is unfortunately inherent. When we get frustrated, we often don’t know who to blame, so we blame “the Peace Corps”. But when it comes down to it, like any large-scale organization, problems cannot be generalized across the board. It is also important to remember that Peace Corps hires a lot of HCNs (Host Country Nationals) and there are usually a lot of bureaucracy involved in these countries (definitely the case in Cameroon). Firing bad employees is often very difficult and has to be handle extremely delicately (as in Kate’s case).
Within a country, the County Director (CD) has the most authority and is the person that decides on how situations are handled. While in Cameroon, I experienced two different country directors and there were stark changes among staff and the general operations of Peace Corps Cameroon. I experienced a serious security incident with other volunteers and I was thoroughly impressed with the way things were handled. We agreed the situation would’ve been dealt with much differently under the previous Country Director. This all lead me to believe that poor management of unfortunate incidents as discussed in the 20/20 report were due to inadequate leadership within these Peace Corps countries.
While it is important that these management issues are addressed and the pressure is put on the Agency to improve and change its policies, I have an incredibly difficult time dealing with these very negative image that this report portrays on the Peace Corps experience. To an average American who knew little of the Peace Corps before, they now will think, “oh, you are going to go live in a hut in the middle of no where with no resources AND you will probably get raped and killed? That’s insane. No thanks.”
The reality is, Peace Corps takes safety and security extremely seriously. So much so, we often felt like we were being over-protected. Before we even get on the plane, we went through sessions where we were made aware of cases of robbery, rape, and various unfortunate events. Peace Corps gave us the statistics that were definitely downright frightening to a group of people who had little idea on what they were getting themselves into. Throughout our training and the rest of our service, safety and security were top priority and measures were taken in every way possible.
In Cameroon, it was mandatory to always wear a helmet when taking a moto bike, to always report your whereabouts, to avoid being out alone at night, to not travel to designated dangerous areas of the country, etc. For a group of mostly 20-somethings, we found the rules absurd. We hated being told what to do. Once we became integrated into our communities, we got comfortable and trusted people in our community and thus let our guards down. Through two years of living there, I realize one big part about the experience is finding the right balance between too much trust vs. not being open enough while living among a culture of people so incredibly different from me.
One joins the Peace Corps knowing that anything can happen – there is no guarantee. I am deeply sorry for those volunteers who have experienced much worse incidents and have not received proper support. There are no excuses for the lack of support and poor handling of situations by the Peace Corps. The Agency should have used this opportunity to do some damage control and apologize. Despite all of my frustration with the organization during my service, I am proud to have been a Peace Corps Volunteer and would do it over again. I can’t stress enough that these extreme experiences and grossly inadequate support only happen to a small percentage of volunteers. There are so many extremely positive factors that go into the Peace Corps experience and this report in no way accurately represents what most of us experience. I think it’s important for the general public to realize this.
To end, I present you with the current Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams’ response to the report.