Aaron Williams Takes One for the Peace Corps

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.

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  • I was astounded during the hearings at the sheer incompetence and insensitivity of the staffers described by the women. It raised many, many questions. Is the Peace Corps spread too thin? How difficult is it to find directors for almost 80 countries? And, even more important, how difficult is it to evaluate the work of these directors once they are on site? Has the Peace Corps become too dependent on local staff? In the murder of Catherine Puzy, an official of the PC is is jail, evidently accused of being at least an accessory. One of the women testified that she was raped by a Nepali Peace Corps official. Another said that the medical officer, an HCN, was not equipped to handle a rape case. In discussing the poor performance of the other staff, the women did not say whether they were Americans or HCNs. But the I-G did testify that the majority of local staff overseas has still not been fully checked [although it wasn’t clear to me for what].
    The testimony and the questioning by the representatives also made it clear how little is known. I do not believe that there has been a thorough study of the sexual abuse that many PCVs suffer. Where is it worst? Should we remain in those countries?
    On top of this, I was astounded at how little was done in the past. The problem of rape in the Peace Corps was first outlined in a GAO report in 2002. Vazquez, a former policeman, seems to have dealt with it as a police problem only, appointing several safety & security officers. Nothing seems to have been done about handling the medical & psychological problems of the victims.
    The Peace Corps really needs a real evaluation division again.

  • John:

    As you proposed ….

    Let’s not gang up on these two RPCVs, Williams and Radelet are acting now at the Peace Corps to remedy the sins of our collective history.

    They really did take it on the chin !!!

    Time to rethink change but not the five year rule (it provides innovation .)
    ..
    As Sarge said. In, Up and Out…Onward

  • Sorry, guys, I usually agree with John and with Stan but ….not this time. There is no question that the stories of these women are shocking and deplorable and it’s truly sad to think about the staff performance they describe. And it’s good that PC is doing lots more to improve its ability to give its Volunteers the right kind of support. Nevertheless, I don’t agree that Williams “took it on the chin” during the hearings. I was impressed by the civility of the Committee members in dealing with him and with the issues. It was Carrie Radelet who “took it on the chin” on 20/20– when Williams should have been the one. And, his not-on-my-watch testimony indicted all his predecessors and staff. When I was a Country Director and a Regional Director in the 90’s, I thought that one thing Peace Corps did well was deal with assault victims and with deaths and even murders. I know personally that there are many other victims out there who had experiences quite the opposite of those who gave testimony. (Not enough space to give specifics) I do not mean to challenge or question the testimony of the victims or to excuse the staff who dealt with them but let’s not condemn the whole agency and former staff and talk about the “sins of our collective history.” Ease up, John! Just report the facts.

  • My perspective is that of a boomer who served in a Muslim country and who, with the aid of her fellow trainees, had it figured that more than even in the U. S. of A, Afghanistan would mean dealing with paternalism, sexism – a general consensus that she was a whore.

    Can the Peace Corps be the change it wants to see in the world? Bringing these drastic shortfalls in Peace Corps policy toward those who bring sexual violence to our attention at a sensitive time in Peace Corps history is brilliant. May it make a difference.

  • Maureen, of course, is right. The sample of witnesses was small and perhaps not reflective of what usually happens. Yet their testimony was very troubling. There is a need for thorough analysis of the issue — with case studies that try to figure out what happened and what went wrong. But that may have to wait until emotions cool.
    From a political point of view, Williams took the only possible road. In the face of the emotional testimony of the witnesses, I don’t think he could have started arguing about whether the cases were typical or not. In one case, the stupidity of the Peace Corps staff might have caused a death. In another, a Peace Corps official is accused of raping a Volunteer. Typical or not, they are terrible Peace Corps faults. So the easiest way was for Williams to plead guilty (for his predecessors) and promise to change and cooperate with the Congress on this issue from now on. In a sense, he was able to disarm the committee.
    Although all the witnesses and all the members of Congress repeated how much they loved the Peace Corps, the hearings will hurt the Peace Corps. It will be hard for parents to feel good about their daughter applying to the Peace Corps in the face of the front page headline in the New York Times.
    [ A sad aside: I followed Times coverage of the Peace Corps fairly closely for my book. I don’t believe there had been a front page story about the Peace Corps until these hearings for at least ten years, perhaps even twenty years.]

  • The systemic problems revealed during the Hearings are due to a profound failure to understand the consequences of the unique characteristics of the Peace Corps personnel system that include:
    -Volunteers are not employees and therefore do not have the protection that civil service employees enjoy. Volunteers serve “at the pleasure of the President.” That status makes the Volunteer absolutely dependent on the integrity and ethics of the PC management staff; a status which mirrors the status of women and the poor is so many countries in which the Peace Corps serves.
    – In PC/DC, the top 30 or “decision-making staff” are political appointees that change with administrations. There are no legal stipulations that they must be RPCVs, or adhere to the policies of the previous administration’s political appointees. Aaron Williams was called to Congress to answer for the actions of Ron Tschetter. Tschetter, in turn, in 2007 dealt with proposed legislation based on the problems of previous Directors, specifically Gaddi Vasquez. Vasquez had to dealt with the problems outlined in the Dayton News Series that occurred prior to his appointment.
    -The so-called Five Year Rule does NOT apply to the training and management administrations established in Host Country and staffed by HCN. These staff may be long-term contract employees or working for the Peace Corps but actually employees of the State Department. To whom, if anyone, are these employees accountable?

    The Five Year Rule and the inordinate number of political appointees, that until the mid 80s included all the Country Directors, was designed to protect innovation and to allow for RPCVs with field experience to find positions within the agency. But the provision that preference be given to RPCVs was never written into law. Most importantly, there was little thought given on how to provide for agency accountability to the tax payers, to the Volunteers, and most critically, to the people Peace Corps went to serve.

  • Stan, There are no records available to create the kind of case studies you suggest. Lihosit (“Peace Corps Chronology”)looked at the published data which is a complete statistical record and identified immediately the pattern of increasing violence against Volunteers.

    How many Peace Corps rape victims would you consider “tolerable?”

  • Maureen, I have no doubt that when you were on board, Volunteers were treated with dignity and respect. However, Volunteers should not be dependent on the good intentions of staff or the “kindness of strangers” for their safety. They need legal protection that only legislation can provide.

  • The current issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine has a ‘letter to the editor’ from a 1971 graduate extolling the virtues of his ROTC and Army experiences and lamenting the fact that Yale discontinued its ROTC affiliation shortly after his graduation. (That decision remains controversial.) But, he ends his letter with this comment “I must admit what really makes me proud is our daughter’s service in the Peace Corps.”

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