Peace Corps: the Icon and the Reality
by Anthony Watkins
The Peace Corps lacks an understandable new vision after the its fiftieth year. All too often the question is raised of whether the Peace Corps still exists. Watkins' criticism echoes Chuck Ludlam's legal testimonies and the testimonials of many volunteers: the volunteers need to be empowered to make this a relevant organization.
-Will Dickinson, creator of Peace Corps Wiki
I feel that the Peace Corps has more potential than many other Volunteer agencies, because of the idealism which drives the community. But unless, as Chuck Ludlam has said, the agency "listens to, respects, and empowers" its volunteers, and unless the community wakes up to what’s going on, the Peace Corps will just continue to stagnate as a shadow of what it pretends to be.
The Peace Corps has fallen far short of its first goal as a grassroots development program, but the agency goes to great lengths to hide this information from the public. It has not only maintained its reputation as the "gold standard" of development agencies, it actively suppresses any negative publicity or criticism. Peace Corps: the Icon and the Reality reveals that this government agency will go to extreme measures to maintain its mythic reputation, rather than address its need for reform.
The ones who suffer are Volunteer victims -- victims of violence, sexual assault, and illness -- and the communities who need the Peace Corps' help.
In 2002, a General Accounting Office report raised concerns over the safety and security of Peace Corps Volunteers. Scathing criticism came from a series of Dayton Daily News articles in 2003, depicting an agency which ostracized Volunteer victims of violence, suppressed negative publicity, and behaved very shadily while working hard to maintain a good public image. Over the next few years the Peace Corps took up the political mantra, “The safety and security of volunteers is our number one priority.” This type of criticism of the Peace Corps seemed to be a new thing. Will Dickinson, creator of PeaceCorpsWiki.org, said of the articles, “No one had ever done anything like that before. After that the agency became much more secretive.” Over the next several years, the Peace Corps agency would retreat further into itself, behind a political campaign that obfuscated its failings and promoted its mythic image.
This was followed by journalist Philip Weiss’s book American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps, in 2005. This book revealed a death in 1976 which the Peace Corps acted to protect a man they themselves believed had committed the murder. The man was supposed to be committed, the agency told the family of the victim, but the Peace Corps, and a psychiatrist who had pronounced him sane, had no authority to commit him anywhere. The family was not told this, and did not find out until Weiss interviewed the victim’s family more than twenty-five years later. Weiss had to dig the Peace Corps files up himself to discover the story.
In 2007, Senator Chris Dodd introduced the Peace Corps Volunteer Empowerment Act, legislation designed to modernize the agency, empower Volunteers, give them whistleblower rights, enable them to participate in the reviews of staff performance, give them funding for their projects, and allow them to work in partnership with the agency. At a hearing on the bill, Senator Dodd invited two serving Volunteers, Chuck Ludlam and Paula Hirschoff, to appear to represent the point of view of Volunteers. The Peace Corps vehemently opposed the bill and it died at the end of the Congress in 2008. Robert Strauss published an article that year which harshly criticized the agency, saying the organization did not function effectively as a development agency, or any other kind of agency for that matter. In Peasants Come Last by Larry Brown, a recently published book by a former Peace Corps Country Director, we see a visceral picture painted of a seriously mismanaged agency, and the frightening consequences of this dysfunction, which affects the Volunteers as well as the communities who need the agency's help.
The public first took notice of some serious problems in the Peace Corps at the beginning of 2011, right at the beginning of the institution’s 50th anniversary year. ABC News ran a 20/20 special which revealed a shocking scandal. In 2009, a Peace Corps Volunteer whistleblower, Kate Puzey, had been murdered when she accused a Peace Corps staff member of raping his students. Though she had begged for anonymity from Peace Corps headquarters, her identity had been revealed to the accused staff member, and he and his brother went to Kate’s village and murdered her. The Peace Corps attempted to keep the whole thing under wraps to avoid bad publicity; Peace Corps staff murdering Volunteers when they blow the whistle does not reflect well on the iconic agency. In 2007-2008 the Peace Corps had defeated the Dodd bill, which would have given Kate Puzey whistleblower protections, including confidentiality. In 2009 Senator Dodd had explicitely requested that the Peace Corps assess the need for whistleblower protections for Volunteers and it refused to do so. Then in mid-2009, Chuck Ludlam and Paula Hirschoff published a comprehensive Peace Corps reform plan, highlighting the criticisms of the agency found in the agency’s own surveys of the Volunteers, shockingly high early termination rates, the agency’s First Goal grassroots development failures, and many other scandals and inefficiencies.
The agency’s pattern of hiding negative publicity, even to the extent of protecting murderers, has been noticed back as far as 1976, and resurfaced again in 2003, and again in 2011. One may wonder the extent of this behavior. Over the past decade, the agency’s response to criticism and calls for reform has been to ostracize critics and further entrench itself behind its mythologized reputation. Ties are severed, and discussions are shut down before they can begin. A small number of Returned Volunteers have been pushing for transparency and reform for several years, but the Peace Corps has been consistently stonewalling reform and belittling and blackballing them. This leads some proponents of reform to conclude the only option remaining is for Volunteers to press for reform.
The body of literature critical of the Peace Corps is disturbing. The first real criticism of the Peace Corps in mainstream media came from the aforementioned Dayton Daily News in 2003. This seven-part series of articles revealed a frightening negative trend in Peace Corps behavior toward crime victims and Volunteers who get ill during service. Lack of support, according to one Volunteer, caused her to lose her right eye. Murders were kept quiet. Victims were blamed and ostracized. Agency mismanagement was repeatedly implicated. The series revealed conscious misrepresentation and manipulation of data. It would be one of many times the Peace Corps would stonewall and resist acquisition of its documentation through the Freedom of Information Act.
Following a year behind the 2002 GAO Report citing safety concerns for Volunteers, this type of criticism had the agency touting its prioritization of safety and security for years afterward. Indeed, structural changes were made to enhance the safety and security of the Volunteers, but this did not stop the agency from trying to downplay and even manipulate statistics regarding the safety concerns. Manipulation of statistics was not new to the Peace Corps, and it has not changed to this day.
The Early Termination Rate, for example, appears to be the bane of the agency’s existence. It has been trying to obfuscate and misrepresent this number for at least the past decade. This number is the percent of Volunteers who do not complete their full service term, for one of four reasons: administrative separation (when a Volunteer gets “fired”), medical separation due to illness, resignation on the part of the Volunteer, or by an interruption in service beyond anyone’s control. This number has been at around a third or more for the agency’s whole history, meaning one out of three Volunteers do not complete their full service term.
In the early 2000’s, the Early Termination Rate – always calculated appropriately as the number who terminate early from a cohort of Volunteers – was replaced by a calculation of the Annual Rate of early terminations, which does not measure the percentage of Volunteers who complete their two years of service. When the Early Termination rate quietly changed to the “Annual Early Termination Rate,” the fraction of early terminators suddenly seemed to drop. The Peace Corps had changed the way it calculated this statistic, a calculation method it had been asked to use by the GAO in 1981. Instead of representing the percent of Volunteers who fail to complete their full term, this percent took the number of dropouts and put that number over all Volunteers who had been active that year, including incoming, outgoing, and short-term Volunteers. This much smaller percent obfuscated the earlier performance indicator, the Early Termination rate, considered by many to be an accurate metric of program performance. Mike Shepphard is a co-founder of Developmentary, Inc., the non-profit which owns PeaceCorpsWiki.org and PeaceCorpsJournals.com. He wrote a report detailing the difference between the two measurements which is posted on PeaceCorpsWiki.org.
In 2009 Chuck Ludlam, who had been campaigning for reform since 2004, filed a FOIA request to the Peace Corps for any documents that explained why the Peace Corps had switched from the cohort to the Annual Rate in calculating ET rates. It said that no documents existed to explain the switch – a clear indication of a coverup. The timing of the change explains why the change was made; the Peace Corps was under pressure from the Office of Management and Budget to file “performance and results” reports together with metrics of its success. The Peace Corps had to find a way to cover up the 35% ET rates, an embarrassing and expensive scandal.
In 2004, an Inspector General memo to Director Vasquez named quality programming as the number one challenge and priority for the Peace Corps. It read, “lack of meaningful work is closely linked to early termination, travel out of site, feelings of isolation, and risky behavior.” These, in turn, were linked to incidents of violence. Vasquez -- a Director whose own questionable appointment had caused divisions within the Returned Volunteer Community -- rebuffed the Inspector General’s concerns with the Peace Corps’ usual tactic to official criticism: don’t worry, we’re already making progress. He downplayed the connection between quality programming and the Early Termination rate.
The Peace Corps would later completely obfuscate the Early Termination rate issue in its 2010 Comprehensive Agency Assessment. This report would be their plan for reforming agency “operations,” written at the request of Congress.
In an extended section on the Early Termination Rate, the report tries to legitimize the calculation method of the Annual Rate, then goes on to downplay that number as being unimportant. It says Volunteers usually resign for “personal reasons,” and besides, the Peace Corps only wants to concern itself with controllable reasons for Early Termination, namely, those who resign. This is problematic. It assumes that the agency could not possibly be at fault when it terminates a Volunteer’s service. It assumes medical separation is always out of the agency’s control. This gives the agency tremendous leeway when presenting these statistics, and virtually no oversight when it chooses to terminate a Volunteer’s service or medically separate them.
Instead of using even the resignation rate as an agency performance indicator, though, the Peace Corps would like to measure the “average length of service.” This “metric” subsequently replaced the already-misleading “Annual Rate” as a performance indicator, completely obscuring the concept of Early Termination. The report also stated that 25% of Early Terminations occur within the first three months, during training, but since the trainees were not officially sworn in as Volunteers, the agency would like to begin measuring the Early Termination rates after the first three months of training. Measuring after this time precludes the possibility that the 25% of Volunteers who leave during training do so for agency-controllable reasons, such as immediately-evident concerns over things like programming quality, training quality, staff professionalism, etc.
These critical concerns get brushed under the rug in this “reform plan.” The entire report is weasel-worded obfuscation incarnate.
Congress had requested the self-assessment from the Peace Corps as part of a political struggle begun in 2007. Senator Chris Dodd introduced the Peace Corps Volunteer Empowerment Act on March 1, 2007 (S. 732). The legislation was a comprehensive reform plan which would have mandated into law multiple agency reforms. The focus and design of the legislation was Volunteer-empowerment. It envisioned a “flattened” Peace Corps, where the agency worked in partnership with the Volunteers.
But the Peace Corps would vehemently oppose this legislation, and bury any further attempts at reform...