Aaron Williams took one on the chin for the Peace Corps on Wednesday, May 11, 2011. He took one for his Administration, all those CDs and APCDs around the world; he took one for all the past Peace Corps Directors when he appeared as the sole Peace Corps voice at the House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing to examine what its chairwoman, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtien, Republican of Florida, called “serious crimes” committed against Peace Corps Volunteers, including murder. In announcing the Hearing, her office cited reports of “gross mismanagement of sexual assault complaints.”
She is right.
All of us going back fifty years could say much the same. We all have stories to tell from being there. Trying to ‘run’ the Peace Corps from Washington is like trying to organize a gaggle of geese. It can’t be done. Aaron, and the Directors before him, has had to delegate authority to others, many others, and people fail all the time. Not only do the CDs and the APCDs fail to take care of their Volunteers, but the PCVs, male and female, fail to take care of each other.
I’m writing a blog now about two PCVs killed in Ethiopia when I was an APCD. One death was totally random; the other death was because PCVs didn’t use their heads. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter. Both of them are dead and that is a tragedy.
People make mistakes. The Peace Corps agency has made many, many mistakes. We all know that, but what matters most now is: what is the agency doing about it? Enough blaming others and wringing of our hands.
It took the courage of Casey Frazee and her organization, First Response Action, and the courage of Lois Puzey and her family, to put a fierce public spot light on this festering cancer of the Peace Corps. And I’m not just speaking about the sexual assaults and the deaths of PCVs. Such tragedies regrettable will continue to a lesser or greater degree year after year. Volunteers operate in a dangerous world. It’s called the Third World. And it is a risky world. Just as risky as any side street in any American city.
Overseas, and here at home, we all need to think what are we doing walking down this street, or go into that bar, or swim in a muddy river in the middle Africa, We are all foolish and daring and dumb, and most young PCVs, regrettably, think they will live forever.
The truth is, however, that the Peace Corps sends Volunteers (as well as staff) off on their own into the world and nothing at all happens to more than the majority. An audit in April 2010 by the Inspector General of the Peace Corps stated that the agency, compared to public colleges and universities, ranked only seventh for “most aggravated assaults.”
The problem for the agency, in many ways, isn’t the attacks. It is how the Peace Corps as an administration has handled the incidents throughout its 50 years.
What the Peace Corps must finally do is recognize and respond to this terrible on-going problem of ‘benign neglect’ and deal with it. And I believe that Aaron Williams and Deputy Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet are dealing with it. They are the first directors-and both RPCVs–in the last decade who have faced up to this situation, didn’t run away from it, hid it deep down in files in the bureaucracy, blame the victims, or let some CD or APCD in a country far away from home get away with murder. Yes, murder.
Listening to Williams at the Hearings, one would think he has been “Peace Corps Director for Life” as the Congressmen and Congresswomen body-slammed him with one accusation after the other. He has only been in this job since August of 2009; Carrie since June 2010. Aaron doesn’t have to say mea maxima culpa on behalf of his predecessors. Especially for someone like Gaddi Vasquez who was the Peace Corps Director for 4 years (2002-06) and came to the job with an employment history of being a cop in Orange County, California.
Neither Williams or Radelet were at the agency when Kate Puzey was murdered in March of 2009, nor were they in office when the women of ABC News program 20/20 testified to what had happened to them overseas. Yes, Carrie did look like a deer caught in the headlights of an on-rushing-semi somewhere south of the Beltway when she was interrogated on 20/20. Talk about being abused!
So, let not gang up on these two RPCVs, Gang. In the next few blog postings, I’m going to try and detail what Williams and Radelet are doing now at the Peace Corps to remedy the sins of our collective history.
This defense really should be given by the agency themselves, but unfortunately Williams and Radelet appear to have a Press Office that hasn’t a clue on how to handle negative press or present the complete profile of what it means to be in the Peace Corps Volunteer. But don’t blame Aaron and Carrie, blame Obama. He gave this non-PCV woman that job at our agency.