Even before this newspaper began publishing its series “Casualties of Peace,” disclosing security risks to Peace Corps volunteers, the agency was closing ranks to discredit the findings of our reporters who spent nearly two years researching the increasing dangers volunteers encounter.
In a memo distributed by the National Peace Corps Association to Peace Corps Online, the agency alerted its supporters that “Based on numerous discussions with the reporter, we believe the upcoming series . . . will provide a misleading picture of the Peace Corps and Peace Corps volunteer service. . . .”
The message also asserted that “this story will argue that the world is too dangerous a place for Peace Corps volunteers . . .”
Forewarned, volunteers and retired Peace Corps veterans have been burning up the message boards in response to the series, which Peace Corps Online has republished.
The newspaper, as well, has seen a big jump in its Web site traffic and e-mails. The response has been so vigorous that we concluded it should be reported on. To that end, Dayton Daily News reporter Jim DeBrosse, who was not involved with the series, writes about that today. Additionally, we are devoting all of this edition’s op-ed page to letters and essays from readers. We’ll publish more reader comments next week.
Reaction to the series has been passionate. Many former volunteers recount their own experiences and, while acknowledging the hardships they faced, point to their time as volunteers as among the most meaningful of their lives. Service in the Peace Corps for many has been a rite of passage, an endurance test for which these volunteers feel a sense of pride.
Understandably, their views of the Peace Corps are shaped by their individual experiences. That, however, is not a comprehensive way to understand security and safety issues confronting Peace Corps volunteers. Clearly, those who have served to return unharmed cannot offer a representative view for others whose experiences have been more destructive.
Objective data show that the number of reported assault cases have doubled since 1991. Female volunteers suffer the majority of those attacks, including rapes. There is ample evidence that security warnings have been ignored and that volunteers have been sent into dangerous locations with too little training. Many of the letters we have received from former volunteers attest to this.
Moreover, reports from the Peace Corps’ own inspector general and the General Accounting Office support our findings.
Since our reporters began making inquiries, the Peace Corps has been defiant, resisting our questions to the point where we were forced to sue the agency in federal court. Given that, its rallying of supporters in opposition to the series was unsurprising.
But it ill-serves the Peace Corps’ long-term interest, and it signals that those running the agency place a higher priority on their image than they do on the safety and well-being of their volunteers.
Ohio Sens. Mike DeWine and George Voinovich, citing the series’ findings, have written to the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Appropriations and Foreign Relations committees calling for investigative hearings.
“While we recognize that the majority of the 170,000 previous Peace Corps volunteers have served without incident,” they wrote, “we feel the Daily News findings merit further congressional review.” They also noted that while they “strongly value the mission of the Peace Corps,” that safety concerns “have the potential to undermine the important work that is being done by Peace Corps volunteers if left unchecked.”
The Peace Corps, no matter how worthwhile its mission, is not — nor should it view itself as being — above this sort of inquiry.
As reporters Russell Carollo and Mei-Ling Hopgood have clearly shown through their reporting, the agency must confront problems of volunteer safety. It would be a mistake — indeed, it would be a crime — to do otherwise.
Copyright 2003. Jeffrey C. Bruce. All rights reserved.