Hidden Peace Corps

Please don’t get me wrong: I love Peace Corps.  I think it provides something to the Volunteers and to the world–and to the United States, specifically–that little else ever can.

But that doesn’t mean it is perfect.  Far from it.

In addition, like almost any organization, Peace Corps has spent time trying to protect its image that could better be spent in trying the improve Peace Corps itself. 

The penchant to focus on the positive is one reason that series editor Jane Albritton wanted to keep the four-book series that the book I edited, One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, is a part of at a slight remove from official Peace Corps.  She wanted, and I agree completely, to be able to approach the entire experience with honesty.  As a result, our books provide what I believe is a much more complete picture of the Peace Corps experience than will be found in anything directly connected with the organization itself.

It’s completely understandable that Peace Corps wants to keep its public image pure.  When I was a Volunteer, we often spoke of ‘Mama Peace Corps,’ for it also tried its best to keep us from harm–something impossible when many of us (including me) lived days away from the Peace Corps office.  We hated the rules imposed on us, but these, too, were understandable.  Many Volunteers do live in dangerous situations and participate in dangerous activities.

Where, it seems, Peace Corps has fallen down is in responding to certain types of incidents experienced by Volunteers–especially sexual attack and rape.  Perhaps the organization has let the pendulum move too far towards protecting its image instead of first protecting its Volunteers.  I don’t know what happened, but something clearly did–something clearly stopped working, leaving the Volunteers unsupported, an experience that should be alien to that of the Volunteer.

No matter how much it might want to, Peace Corps can’t hide the fact that bad things do happen to Volunteers.  Though the experience is sometimes joked about as a two-year vacation, it is nothing like that, but is often quite rough.  Finding that Peace Corps has attempted to sweep under the rug at least one aspect of real and severe violence against Volunteers is disturbing.

Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams says, according to the Times article linked to above, that “the agency must modernize its procedures to ‘make sure that we provide compassionate care’ to crime victims.”  He’s absolutely right.  And I hope that happens now.