20/20, Peace Corps, and Volunteer Safety

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.

My daughter returned from the Peace Corps last year. While I was concerned about her being halfway around the world, I was never concerned about her safety. There were a couple of one minor incidents (one of the kids in the school flashed her; another broke into her house and stole her camera*), but otherwise it was uneventful. None of the others in the programs had any danger.

She told us they were told that PCVs who get into trouble are usually involved in risky behavior – drinking or being out in a bad section of the city a night. I know she traveled quite a bit and never ran into a problem.

But volunteers are a long way from immediate help (her nearest PC coworker was 90 miles away), so it’s possible for something terrible to happen. I got the strong impression that the Peace Corps did their best, but it’s no different from spending two years in the US: if you track a couple of thousand of people for two years, some will have bad things happen to them. If you select a couple of thousand every year for 50 years, there are bound to be killings.

*Then started showing it to everyone in the school, including the teachers who immediately wondered where he got it. My daughter didn’t even know it was stolen until someone had already recovered it.

First off, thank you for being a supportive Peace Corps dad! It’s shocking and sad how many volunteers do not have their families behind them, and that makes such a difference.

It’s absolutely true that volunteers who get in trouble are often engaged in risky behavior. It’s also true that a lot of this “risky behavior” is actually pretty run-of-the-mill stuff for people who are for the most part in their early and mid twenties. Peace Corps is a two year commitment, not a vacation. You spend those two years living the ups and downs, falling in and out of love, making real-life friends, doing an actual job, etc. It’s absolutely your real life. I think a lot of volunteers do catch blame for simply acting like a normal person instead of a nun.

Anyway, it all comes down to your accepted level of risk, which I trust individuals to make. Just because these are largely young women does not mean they are incapable of weighing risk, you know?

I was in the Peace Corps and never had any problem. Never harmed, threatened or injured, and neither were any of the others I knew of. Later I worked for 2 years as a recruiter for the Peace Corps and many of the people who became volunteers kept in touch with me. None of them ever reported being harmed.

I had a close relative in the Peace Corp in a remote village in Africa.

The local cheif, and the entire village were thankful and grateful that she(and her skills) was there, and so were very protective of her and even assigned a guard for her from time to time.

I think if the local people really WANT you to be there, then you are about as safe as you can get if you are outside of the United States.

I’ve mentioned before that my brother was severely injured during his tenure with the Peace Corps (doing his job, not breaking the rules). He was unable to finish his term, and required emergency care, extensive rehabilitation and multiple surgeries. The Peace Corps definitely stepped up and took care of him, and continues to to this day. Both he and I have nothing but respect for the way they handled the whole thing. He would be dead if not for the efforts of the Corps immediately following his injury.

I have to say that this is a pretty naive way of looking at Peace Corps. You’re not necessarily going to be welcomed in like “oh, thank you, Westerner, we’re so happy to have your skills!!!”. Peace Corps Volunteers are usually brought in by one specific organization or school within a community, and other people in the community who are not connected to that community may not know or care that this random foreigner who’s just appeared in town is there to help. In my country of service, we were specifically advised not to call ourself Peace Corps Volunteers, because the translation gave it a military sound, and we didn’t want to confuse people as to our purpose there. So lots of people who have interacted with volunteers are unaware of it, because we rarely referred to the organization that sent us there.

I was sexually assaulted while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and it was something I doubt would have happened - at least in the same way - in the US, because I was standing on such shaky knowledge of the local culture that I ignored my instincts and didn’t kick the guy out long before it got to that point.

That said, I don’t blame Peace Corps at all. This guy was just an asshole. Peace Corps takes safety and security extremely seriously. We got long hours of lectures on how to be safe during training, and they checked in on us regularly. They were so serious about it that at times it seemed a little over the top - I served in one of the wealthiest and most politically stable Peace Corps countries, so I didn’t have to deal with a lot of the issues that most volunteers do. I’m also white and I served in Eastern Europe, so I didn’t necessarily stick out visibly while walking down the street.

Originally Posted by Susanann
I had a close relative in the Peace Corp in a remote village in Africa.
The local cheif, and the entire village were thankful and grateful that she(and her skills) was there, and so were very protective of her and even assigned a guard for her from time to time.

I think if the local people really WANT you to be there, then you are about as safe as you can get if you are outside of the United States.

Not Naive at all, bc it is EXACTLY what actually happened.

The chief made it clear to everyone that she was to be protected as best they could, and the whole village welcomed and admired her very much, and even to this day they still write to her and say to her: * " oh, thank you, Westerner, we were so happy to have your skills!!!". . *

Frankly, I could not have expected more could have been done by the african village to ensure her safety during her entire tour.

In fact, it was infinitely easier for the Kenyan village to assign her a personal guard, than it would be now for her to get a local American police officer to personally guard her in the USA.

IANA former Peace Corps Volunteer, but I’ve known several. Some had great experiences and never had a single problem, others (including 2 PCVs, who served at different times, and both in Tonga) who had MAJOR issues.

One Tonga volunteer was seriously injured while swimming after being smashed against rocks by waves. He also had the misfortune of being an Asian man who was sent to Tonga at the same time anti-Chinese protests were ongoing; he was in fear for his life even before the accident. He ended up having to leave the program.

One Tonga volunteer was raped by a local. She ended up marrying another local, they moved to the US, and AFAIK they’re doing well.

The biggest issue they both had was that they felt the Tonga office was poorly ran and provided little assistance for them.

I’m sure that does happen sometimes, but there is no “typical” Peace Corps experience- Peace Corps has worked in 139 countries and sites range from remote Pacific islands to Chinese megacities. There is this image of the “happy African mud hut” Peace Corps experience- which does exist- but there are thousands of more ways that your time in Peace Corps can go. You might be in a Mongolian yurt following a nomadic tribe, or a Eastern European apartment block, or a bustling South American capital city. The challenges you face will be different for each volunteer, in each site, in each program, and in each country.

What I faced teaching in an urban university in a large Chinese city was not at all what I faced teaching in a village school in Cameroon. My Cameroon experience was much like you described. In China, I was in a large city in a place that was not particularly fond of foreigners. I looked to my college students to help me learn to integrate, and it was a much different process. Certainly nobody there was going to “protect” me anymore than there are people in the US “protecting” a Chinese visiting professor.

In many cases, communities are very receptive to “their” volunteers- although this effect sometimes wears off when they realize we are not actually there to disperse money, marry their sons and take them to America, etc. In other cases the community (or individual members within a community) doesn’t really understand the role of the volunteer, or they are suspicious that volunteers are spies, businessmen interested in extracting resources, there to steal their husbands, etc Sometimes they community may be unusual- you might be teaching in a boarding school away from a real “town,” or in a major city that is as anonymous and inpersonal as any city.

Often your experience is colored by the volunteer who came before you. If a previous volunteer made good connections in the community, created lasting change, etc. people will welcome you. If the previous volunteer was standoffish, violated community norms, left early, didn’t get along with the authorities or whatever, you will not get as warm of a welcome. Of course the behavior of any other visible foreigners in the area will reflect on you as well, as do political attitudes towards foreigners. And your own behavior- even if you are in the right- can color people against you. If you fight against corruption in your site, or make friends with an unpopular group, or don’t bring the new classrooms the mayor thought you were there to build, you are going to make some enemies.

Figuring out how to balance these things is one of the hardest parts of Peace Corps- much harder than reading by candlelight or taking bucket baths.

Peace Corps emphasizes that becoming a valued part of your community is the number one way to ensure your safety. But that process is going to be more difficult for some volunteers than others. Some can make it happen, and some can’t, and many of the factors are outside of the volunteer’s control.

That’s great, but that is NOT a typical Peace Corps experience, and to say that it is, IS in fact naive. Like sven says, there is no such thing as a “typical” Peace Corps experience. She just outlined her own experiences in Cameroon and China, and I can assure you that my own experience as a Volunteer in a small town in the rural Balkans was very different from both of those.

In my own experience, my status as a foreigner did mean that people assumed that I was OMG AWESOME, but that I was OMG TOTALLY CLUELESS. To be fair, I was, at least at first. Sometimes I got over it and learned how to do things the Bulgarian way, sometimes I still think my way was better, but I usually didn’t get anyone to believe me anyway. Here’s an example: none of my Roma students had textbooks. When I said, “hey, why don’t these kids have textbooks?” my colleagues didn’t say “hey, you’re right, you American you, it is totally discriminatory that the children of a specific ethnic group don’t have textbooks even though the government supposedly provides an equal education for all children! whatever would we have done without you?!?!?!” it was more like “you are a foreigner, what do you know? Gypsies don’t need textbooks, they are all dirty thieves and don’t need an education anyway.”

What does a poor little Peace Corps Volunteer do then? You can harass your colleagues and make them ostracize you for caring more about the dirty Gypsies than the nice Bulgarians, or you can ignore the problem and fit into the community.

Or you can try to come up with some kind of lessons specifically for kids that don’t have textbooks and do your best in a shitty situation. Which is what I did.

I’ve always been curious about the screening process, or lack thereof, that PCVs undergo. I’ve known tons of them, and most of them are great people. But I have known two who were, to use the OP’s term, “unbalanced.” So unbalanced, in fact, that it was immediately obvious that they were quite unsuitable. Both ended up leaving before the end of their term. It was a waste of resources for everyone involved.

My question is - how did they get into the Peace Corps in the first place? It’s not like either one seemed particularly stable. Now, I knew both of them AFTER their PCV experiences (in fact I met one on a ship in Micronesia as he was headed back home). Maybe they weren’t that loony before, and the PCV experience made them crack. But I doubt it.

What kind of screening does the Peace Corp use, anyway? Is it rigorous? Do they turn very many people away?

It is rigorous and they do turn lots of people away. I know several recruiters, and they all confirm that they see no shortage of outright loons. About 30% of applicants make it through the process (of course, this includes some who just give up.)

Basically, you start out by filling out an application that includes a medical history, general employment application stuff, a few references, several long-form questions, and some essays about why you want to join and what perspective you bring. After that, you go in for a face-to-face (or phone, if you live too far from a recruiting office) interview where you have to come off as reasonably articulate. If your recruiter is able to place you, then comes the long and excruciating process of “clearance,” where you wait to get legal, medical and dental clearance. It takes six months to a year to get the all-clear.

If you have indicated that you have ever sought mental health care, or experienced problems with mental health, there is an additional process that I believe involves getting a current assessment and getting the doctor who saw you to sign off that you are fit for service. You need to show that you have not had any problems in some specified amount of time. It is a pretty convoluted process and will take some extra time to get medically cleared to leave. People who have experienced mild and currently resolved mental health problems may still be able to join, but they may have some additionally restrictions- for example, they may be required to serve near the Peace Corps office so that they have easy access to medical support.

There is always the possibility of people outright lying. I think there are systems in place to catch most of that, but nothing is perfect.

So why do unbalanced people make it into Peace Corps?

The screening process is rigorous, but it’s not perfect. People can lie. But I think age is a big part of it. Many applicants are in their early 20s, and so they haven’t had a lot of time to screw up. It’s not too difficult to slide through high school and college even if you are not quite right. A lot of mental illness doesn’t really come out until that point, and it may take some time before it “catches up with you.” Many applicants are young and have spent their entire life in a structured educational environment. They haven’t entirely developed.

Peace Corps service itself may also play a part in things. My opinion is that if anything is going to wrong with you, it will probably come out during your service. If you have any tendency toward alcoholism, depression, or whatever, it will probably choose that point to bloom. Because during your service you are often under unrelenting stress, isolated from support networks, above scrutiny (your local community probably thinks you are hopelessly eccentric and probably crazy anyway, so anything strange you do is going to be written off as just more of your strange foreign ways) and have plenty of free time on your hands. Even for the most put-together people, service is very very difficult. If you have any cracks, they will probably start showing.

Even the best of us come out a little bit weird. Some people have it in them to come out a lot weird. Despite all this, numbers-wise I don’t think there are a disproportionate number of weirdoes. Everyone can point to some unbalanced people who have made it to their place of work. It happens.

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<hijack> Does anyone know if there’s an EU/UK/other version of the Peace Corps? It sounds like an amazing programme which gives fantastic personal/professional development opportunities, but I gather - for understandable reasons - the Peace Corps itself is restricted to US citizens. Anyone know if there’s a non-US version around? </hijack>