How the Peace Corps believes its own PR, looks past its mistakes, and shafts volunteers in the process.
Early last year, the ABC newsmagazine show 20/20 aired a segment called “Scandal in the Peace Corps.” It told the story of a young volunteer named Kate Puzey, who was teaching English in a small village in the African country of Benin at the time of her violent death in 2009. Shortly before her murder, the twenty-four-year-old Puzey sent an e-mail to the agency’s country director saying she had reason to believe that a male Beninese Peace Corps employee based in her village was raping and molesting young children. Aware that the suspected rapist’s brother worked in the same office as the director, Puzey asked that her message remain confidential. It appears, however, that news of her whistle-blowing somehow made its way back to the accused, with bloody results. On March 11, 2009, Puzey was found dead on the porch of her village home, her throat slit. A Beninese criminal investigation is still pending.
Puzey’s suspected killer is a minor and shadowy presence in the 20/20 report, the bulk of which scrutinizes the Peace Corps’s handling of her case. According to Puzey’s parents, the agency gave them no clue about the circumstances surrounding their daughter’s murder; they say agency officials did not even personally visit the family to extend their condolences until after ABC started its investigation. When interviewed by 20/20, a high-level Peace Corps official declined to comment about the events leading up to Puzey’s death, and on whether the agency bears some culpability, deferring instead to the unfinished Beninese investigation. This prompted ABC correspondent Brian Ross to accuse the agency of “stonewalling.” Finally, the segment closed with an interview of several women who said they had been raped or sexually assaulted during their Peace Corps service, only to be hushed, ignored, or treated with less than basic compassion by the agency after their ordeals.
It’s not at all hard to fathom why a show like 20/20 would take up Puzey’s story. It is, after all, the tale of a young woman’s act of bravery, and how it resulted in her untimely death. But the segment also rested on something else: the sheer man-bites-dog quality of anything sordid coming out of the Peace Corps. “It is one of the most iconic and respected organizations in the world,” said 20/20’s anchor, Elizabeth Vargas, as she introduced the segment. “Its very name embodies the best ideals of service.”
Ironically, that sainted reputation may lie at the root of the kinds of failures that 20/20 calls out—namely, the agency’s propensity to be evasive, opaque, or even callous when things go wrong. Since the beginning, the Peace Corps has been treated as a kind of Agency on a Hill, and its volunteers as exemplars of national conscientiousness. (“They are the greatest advertisement for the American system of government that there is in the world,” said Sargent Shriver, the agency’s founding director. “They are worth a thousand Coca-Cola signs.”) And likewise since the beginning, the agency has had a tendency to plug its ears against anything that contradicts that glowing narrative, even in cases when confronting such inconvenient evidence would be in its long-term self-interest.
In the early years, under Shriver, the agency had a bulwark against such complacency in the form of Charles Peters’s Office of Evaluation. (After his time in the Peace Corps, Peters went on to found a small political magazine called, ahem, the Washington Monthly.) “My job in the government was to rub the collective noses of my agency’s top officials in what they were doing wrong and why our programs in the field weren’t working,” Peters recalled in these pages last year. The agency’s lily-white reputation, Peters wrote, “had the effect of making it even harder for the top officials to face my news that things weren’t quite as good as they seemed.”
If the Peace Corps has a tendency to believe its own PR— and with such generally flattering press, who wouldn’t?—it is in part because the agency’s good reputation is well founded. In September of last year, the National Peace Corps Association released the largest survey ever of volunteers who had finished their terms in the field; 90 percent of those who responded rated their Peace Corps experience as excellent or very good, while 98 percent said they would recommend service to their close family. I was a Peace Corps volunteer myself, and during my service I met volunteers working in Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Lesotho, Chad, and Nicaragua. The vast majority were extremely positive about their assigned country and their service.
But the Peace Corps’s perennial shortcoming—almost its tragic flaw—is its extreme reluctance to admit mistakes when they occur, and its less-than-strenuous efforts to root out screwups, breakdowns, and dysfunction when they are in the making. While not inherently a security issue, cases of violence are this tendency’s most extreme manifestation. A more typical result, as Peters noted repeatedly as far back as the 1960s, is that volunteers wind up stuck in a strange country without adequate preparation, meaningful work to do, or a suitable place to live—which is pretty much the experience I had working as a volunteer in South Africa from July 2009 to August 2011.
In 2008, I graduated from Reed College with a degree in chemistry, ready to make my way in the world but caught up short by an economy in free fall. As many Americans have done in similar circumstances, I turned to the Peace Corps. After filling out dozens of pages of paperwork, getting several medical evaluations, and choosing my geographical preference, my recruiter called in May 2009. She informed me that I would be deployed to teach math and science in South Africa in July and said that I should “get more teaching experience” in the meantime. With just a matter of weeks before my departure, I wasn’t exactly sure how that was supposed to work. So I put my trust in the Peace Corps’s vaunted volunteer training program.
I shouldn’t have. At the training center in a South African village called Marapyane, logistical problems plagued us from start to finish; often my fellow volunteers and I would wait hours for a session to start or for transport to arrive. The language course in Setswana was comparable to a semester of high school instruction—and that’s being generous. Not a single volunteer in my group even approached fluency, though a few achieved basic competence, mostly through their own efforts. The teacher training was conducted primarily by current South Africa volunteers, and did not prepare me for what I would be facing. I was afforded precisely two hours of practice teaching.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.