Peace Corps or Peace Corpse

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The Peace Corps was established in 1961 to promote and represent our US society.  In the words of founder Sargent Shriver: “There is no better advertisement for what this country stands for than an individual Peace Corps volunteer walking down the street unarmed, wearing the same clothes that the people do, eating the same food, living the same life, and being there as an independent free-standing person who believes in democracy and who is compassionate to his fellow man.” (italics mine) In 2001 he spoke to volunteers more poetically:

Be servants of peace …

Work humbly, persistently and intelligently …

Weep with those who are sorrowful …

Care for those who are sick …

Serve your neighbors …

Serve your towns …

Serve the poor …

That is your challenge.”

In the early 1970s I was medical advisor for the Peace Corps Training Program in Davis California. It was housed at Cactus Corners, west of town in a former migrant farm worker camp. Experienced Nepal Peace Corps volunteers, and Nepali advisors taught the rudiments of Nepali culture and language during 12 weeks of training. Among many details applicants learned that touching people or eating was only done with the right hand, the left being used for wiping after a bowel movement; that while sexual activity is prominently displayed in stone and tome, in practice it is hidden; that while common drugs are cheap and readily available, to use them is demeaning, confined to the lowest wretches of society. Ironically, though, volunteers at that time were often college graduates, whose attitudes and behavior with regard to sex and drugs was the inverse to those of most Nepalis.

Volunteers were chosen who were skilled in matters felt appropriate  for  remote Nepali villages: teaching, science, demonstrating  advantages of modern agriculture, or technology. The election of individual villages was made by the monarchy,  the King, not by Peace Corps or villagers.   In a sense the volunteer would be subordinate to the Peace Corps mission, to the King, to the culture, to village elders as well as enviromental, societal, and health risks.

Clearly there would be major challenges for volunteers who were  mostly young and not very world wise; who had been born and raised in a country and culture that never significantly exposed them– either physically or psychologically –to the the sort of enviromnet where they were to serve; to infections, privations, foreign values, limitations or dangers.

 Volunteers would be subject to risks that were underappreciated and unfamiliar. They would be like idealistic young people everywhere who volunteer or agree to serve in distant places under difficult situations. In the same youthful ardor and confident spirit  of military recruits, they would be cultural warriors in a cause greater than their own. The word Corps seemed  military, but under the circumstances, reasonable.

On arrival in Nepal, after a relatively short introduction to the Peace Corps staff in Kathmandu, and some practical advice and directions, they would be sent off to their assigned village. Their Nepali language skills,  were essentially those of a 2 or 3 year old but they would walk,  often alone, carrying their belongings to an assigned village. The journey would take several days over mountain trails, across snow melt streams, and  through villages where the rare sato manchi, (white man) is the object of great entertainment and attention to everyone, especially packs of excited children.

Even so, the journey was welcome, exhilirating, a  sweet pure adventure which would animate them greatly. However, nearing  the end of the first half year in a village,  volunteers  found they not only had to deal with trobiling recurring health problems like diarrhea, or amebic liver disease, but manage it alone, although with remote advice from Kathmandu. Sometimes, following their protocol for bloody diarrhea, when it did not respond to treatment, a stool sample would be mailed to Kathmandu. But it was such an interesting and attractive package, it might be stolen. 

In time it would become clear that a culture thousands of years in the making would scarecly change in two years. Sent to teach science, for example, the volunteer had  to develop the wisdom and skill and patience to work with a revered village teacher who probably felt threatened, who didn’t ask for the help, and whose basic-element world consisted of earth air fire and water;  whose teaching methods were harsh and didactic; whose resources were extremely limited; and who could understandably resent his brash young uninvited competitor.   

The volunteer who, by planting and fertilizing his demonstration cornfield,  may have convinced the local folk to do the same, but then might find  that the cost of artificial fertilizer abruptly increased 5000 percent, because the sole provider of chemical fertilizer had won life’s lottery and raised prices. Villagers might therefore conclude that  handfuls of cow dung were more practical, even if less productive.

Facing  such problems, a degree of volunteer depression sometimes developed for the first time, though often unrecognized. Even so, as the two year assignent drew toward a close, friendships developed, and language skills improved,  the beauty of a thousands year old philosopy, music, and art became apparent; most volunteers recovered. Despite illness, difficulties, and disappointmnts, to have met and overcome the personal challenge of two years in remote Nepal was a rewarding accomplishment, and an incomparble life changing experience.

So while changing Nepal would be difficult and unlikely, what would change, was the adaptive and successful volunteer. Change would be  evident both physically and mentally. Those who were able to complete a tour of duty often changed  even in  appearance, gait, attitude and habitus. By contrast to young men, women,  perhaps the hardier and more resilient gender, adapted and recovered more easily. 

My own 1970s involvement in the Nepal training projects in Davis California was to teach about health matters, especially infectious diseases transmitted by food and water; to urge avoiding suspect food that can’t be washed with soap and water or peeled, or treated by soaking in dilute clorox; to avoid water or even tea unless previously boiled for at least 15 minutes; at high altitude, where water boils at a lower temperature,  to pre-treating water with a saturated Iodine solution, carried about in a small glass leak proof bottle for use whenever away from home. ( 5 drops to each glass of suspect water, 15 minutes before drinking) I also spoke of general medical matters, reviewing templates for dealing with infections, GI diseae.  parasitosis and other health topics.

As one might imagine, all this was often so foreign to the volunteer’s own experience that it may have seemed pedantic, obscure, or complicated; therefore the details were recorded in a handout, which included the  protocols for commeon expected health problems. Even so, almost all Nepal volunteers would have difficult bouts of diarrhea; when I later visited in-country vouluteers the first ten minutes of discussion was almost always about frequency,  consistency, character, and color of: stools.

As the years of Peace Corps experience in Nepal accumulated, it was found that the death rate among volunteers was higher than the US military in Vietnam. And while neither was numericaly or proportionately very high, the questions were: Why? What could be done?

I was sent to try to seek  answers and walked for several weeks to vist  a different volunteer each day. It seemed to me that cultural, medical, mental, and physical problems  faced in relative isolation, were most significant.  Unfortunately for UCD it became clear to all that 12 weeks training in Davis California  was not so  effective– or even as economical considering drop-out rates– as would be training volunteers for the same 12 weeks in Kathmandu. The Davis training program moved to Nepal.

Over time the Corps volunteers selected became somewhat older and more often female. Training in-country increased. However, there continued to be reports from volunteers who claimed that both local law enforcement and Peace Corps Administrators tend to deny or obscure problems, especially sexual those of sexual abuse where they, like local authorities,  tended to blame the victim. To some degree  abuse may be increased by cross cultural misinterpretation of typical US  youthful dress and behavior.   Yet  a common complaint was/is that when in country help or even litigation has been pursued it too often reflects local preconceptions; and there is little to no interference by Peace Corps administrators.

Why so hands- off? Could it be that better investigation might create burdensome paperwork, threaten survival of a project,  or make new funding more difficult? Despite efforts to improve, under-reporting  of adverse events by the Corps still seems common. 

Despite alleged evidence of under-reporting the   2015 Statistical Report of Crimes Against Volunteers states that 13 percent of volunteers reported one or more crime incidents, including 268 Volunteers (3 percent) who reported serious crime. A total of 219 Volunteers (2 percent), including 206 women and 13 men, reported one or more sexual offenses (non-aggravated sexualassault, aggravated sexual assault, or rape). Of those, 91 (41percent) were victims of non-aggravated sexual assault. (whatever ‘serious or aggravated’ means!)”

TheDaily Beast Reports “ PeaceCorps Inspector General Kathy Buller has led internal investigationsthat have led to 21 criminal convictions for crimes such as rape,attempted rape, abuse of minors, embezzlement, theft and possessionof narcotics. She’s a career watchdog, with nearly 30 years ofexperience in the inspector general community.

Buller charged the Peace Corps with employing procedures that have hindered er office’s oversight efforts, and said the agency was not fullydisclosing its sexual assault reports. “Are Volunteer victims ofsexual assault better off when the Peace Corps is allowed to withhold information from the Inspector General and operate in secrecy?”Buller asked, “or when the Inspector General has full access toinformation and can hold the agency fully accountable?“ The agency seems to hold that the privacy of volunteers is at stake. But  that implies the office of the inspector general would not treat reports responsibly.

The official report of ‘sudden’ death of Mitchell Herman in 1918 was excpyionally cryptic: Aside from the report of his death there was no information.  None. Surely more is known.  Several other deaths stand out: Deborah Gardner was murdered by fellow Peace Corps worker Dennis Priven, who turned himself in after stabbing her – 22times. “Even after everyone knew it was Dennis, (there was an ) effort by the Peace Corps to put the blame somewhere else…. to make things go away,” says Weiss. “That impulse seized the Peace Corps within moments of Deb’s death… the Peace Corps hired and paid for the best defense attorney available in Tonga. Priven was found not guilty and the Peace Corps quietly shuffled him back to the United States,where he lived freely, for decades. Working for the government.”

It is time to re evaluate Peace Corps, not only for unresolved problems but because the  primitive  world is disappearing, developing, changing incredibly fast without our help.  I grant that a two year embedded experience may change positively and forever the life of a volunteer exposed to a new world, a culture,language, values, ethic, or way of being.

That certainly is true of young LDS missionaries who are as idealistic and committed as Peace Corps volunteers, but consist of two people teams that have the support of a world wide organization, and often others in the local community who are ‘there for them’. It  is not a lonely or hair shirt experience in country; there is a clear mission.

By contrast, as the Peace Corps operates and is administed now, its purpose is too vague, too unfocused, and its administration too neglectful, too dedicated to bureaucratic self interest. Volunteers deserve better. Their idealism, commitment, and sacrifice are not justified in terms of the original stated goals or an ineffective, inefficient  self serving adminstration whose purpose and methods have become  irrelevant and obsolete.  The Peace Corps  once such a powerful and admirablely concieved program, is  dead. It is a Peace Corpse and deserves a respectful eulogy and merciful burial. RIP.