20/20 recently ran an exposé on volunteer safety in Peace Corps. While I think it is of course always useful to look at thing critically, I think that it does not give a full picture of the Peace Corps to viewers, and I hate the idea that reports like these might scare off people who would probably have a very successful service with the Peace Corps. I was a Peace Corps volunteer (PCV) for four years in Cameroon and China. I hope to use this thread to explain my perspective on the story and open up some discussion.
Number one is that Peace Corps is, indeed, dangerous. Nobody denies that. I was violently assaulted and seriously injured during my service. I’ve known PCVs who have been stabbed, raped, robbed with AK47s, attacked with all manner of instruments from axes to machetes, hospitalized for months with serious illnesses, and any number of other horror stories stories. Even our more mundane dinner conversations are about our fights with malaria, home surgery, animal attacks, vehicle accidents and the endless parades of creepy men who harass us on daily basis.
These are risks we take willingly. Information about crimes against PCVs is publicly available, and they do anonymous surveys at the end of service that includes incidents that were never officially reported. There is no shortage of information on the Internet about what you are getting in to, and the infamous Peace Corps gossip mill ensures that people hear most of the stories well before they complete training. Anyway, anyone can tell that a conspicuous foreigner in a very poor, remote place with a limited local support network is a pretty obvious target for crime.
We know these things, and we stay. Every volunteer I know who was seriously hurt ended up finishing their service- including myself. I spent two more years in Peace Corps despite breaking my back during a violent robbery. Volunteers are free to go at any point in their service, with no penalties. But for the most part, they stay, because they believe in what they are doing.
I find some of the conversation a bit patronizing, really. Yes, many PCVs are young women. Are young women not capable of informing themselves and weighing the risks? Young men set out on their own to experience the world all the time, and plenty fall in to folly. There is no huge outcry about that. But there is still this attitude that someone needs to protect our wimmin from the dirty foreigners. I find this quite insulting, really.
As for Peace Corps admin, it is a mixed bag. Since Peace Corps is largely about PR, they do work pretty hard to keep people safe. Nothing hurts Peace Corps worse than volunteers getting hurt. But there are limits. They can’t be in the villages with us literally protecting our every move. We are really out there. I was two days of travel from the Peace Corps office, and many volunteers were even further. Local news is spotty and communication can be difficult. There is only so much they can do. And yes, corruption in Peace Corps local offices is a problem. In a poor, corrupt nation you will find corruption in every office, from the UN to the US State department. There is no way to run an office in many of these countries without encountering corruption and other shadyness. That said, many of the Peace Corps local staff are among the most dedicated, kindest people I knew. One staff member I knew spent the night at the hospital advocating for a sick volunteer, while her own infant was in a local hospital across town dying. There are some real heros working in Peace Corps offices.
Admin does not always make the best decisions, but I wouldn’t always believe everyone with a beef, either. Volunteers tend to be from a pretty privileged class, and there is no shortage of volunteers who frankly nuts. Some volunteers can’t be made happy. Others lie to the staff, or try to manipulate the rules to suit them. For every volunteer who wants to change cities because of genuine safety concerns, there are three volunteers who want to move to be closer to their boyfriend, or to the beach, or to a town with a Western restaurant. I’ve met my share of unbalanced or exceptionally immature volunteers, and they make admin’s life hell and bitch about it after. So take everything that anyone in this discussion has to say with a grain of salt.
Finally, there is a lot of complaining about Peace Corp’s emphasis on the volunteer’s role in keeping safe- which is being construed as blaming victims. It is true that they tell us quite clearly that we are the only people who can keep ourselves safe. As rich foreigners in remote areas, we are targets. They warn us that we need to make sure we integrate into our community so that they protect us, and that we follow our community’s norms as best we can. The truth is that if you walk around wearing shorts in a conservative Muslim village, you are asking for trouble. If you get drunk in public where that is not acceptable, you are asking for trouble. If you have sex with half the village (and this does happen) and you get a bad reputation, you are asking for trouble.
In a fair world it shouldn’t be and I applaud all those who fight against that BS, but Peace Corps isn’t the time to do that. As a volunteer you do have to give up some freedoms and rights for safety. We get very sensible rules, and simply following them would prevent most of the crime that volunteers face- don’t get super-drunk in public, be discreet in your sexual affairs, don’t be out and alone at night, keep Peace Corps informed about what town you are in at all times and make sure you can always be reached and in general use good judgement and don’t be stupid.
Admin’s attitude is that if you don’t follow the rules, you will probably get in trouble eventually, and make big problems for everyone that sets back the work that Peace Corps is doing. So if you get caught not following the rules, there isn’t a lot of tolerance. it’s simply too dangerous to keep someone in country who isn’t doing their absolute best to stay safe. Unfortunately, the most common way to get “caught” not following the rules is to end up the victim of a crime. In my village, I can go out and get shitfaced with strangers every day for months and nobody would be the wiser. But if I get robbed while I do this, I’ll have to report that to PC admin and they will become aware of what I’ve been up to. I’ll probably end up getting kicked out and then I’ll whine that I was being blamed for getting robbed.
Anyway, these are a few of the my thoughts on the subject. I of course do not speak officially for Peace Corps or the US government- I am just relaying my personal thoughts and experiences. My time with Peace Corps was one of the best and most meaningful times in my life, and I think I did a lot of good and brought about a surprising amount of positive change. I would encourage anyone interested to look in to it- it truly is an amazing program.