Thursday, February 3, 2011

A different perspective on the Peace Corps

As Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, my wife and I's ears perked up when we heard that ABC's 20/20 was running a story entitled "Scandal Inside the Peace Corps". Actually, the first we heard of it was in Morocco, after just having been evacuated from Niger (see below), from family members who had watched it and were now concerned for our safety. So, now that we are home safe and sound, I wanted to look into the story a little more, the ensuing sensationalism, and perhaps offer our perspective on the issue.

For those of you who haven't seen the 20/20 episode, it is indeed dramatic and tells some very sad stories while painting a very one-sided picture of Peace Corps (PC) and its commitment to volunteer safety around the world. As PC's Director Aaron Williams conveys in his response (linked here), my issue is absolutely not with the validity of the stories told by the rape and sexual assault victims on 20/20. My issue - and the issue I hope strikes some chords of truth with you as well - is how the 'journalism' of 20/20 is indicative and in no way abnormal from, the tendency of mainstream media to tell one side of any given story while doing so with sensationalist, extreme, and polarizing rhetoric. This tendency is real, and many times results in equally sensationalist, extreme, polarizing, and often unneeded public responses based not on rational or evidence-based thinking, but instead on fear. 

Using the 20/20 episode as a mini case-study, I hope this blog will help put not only the PC's safety record in perspective, but also lend another voice to the many calling for a return to meaningful, reasoned, journalism.

The episode opens with a preview of the stories to come, including the tragic murder of a PC Volunteer (PCV) in Benin in 2008, and the stories of six female PCVs who had been raped or sexually assaulted during their service. As if these events in themselves aren't alarming enough, the episode opens with the question of "was the PC involved in covering up" these incidents? Whether or not this question is warranted, it sets the tone for the entire episode as one of distrust in the PC. On and on the statistics roll, all centered on the PC with no context given to help the viewer come to his/her own conclusions about the severity or not of the PC's approach to safety and security. Statistics such as the Benin murder was the "23rd since PC's founding", and, "over 1,000 female PCVs have been raped or sexually assaulted in the last decade". The way in which these and other stats on the PC were presented made it sound as if 20/20 should receive an award for investigative journalism, when in all reality, the PC publishes an annual report on Volunteer Safety and Security (2008 and 2009 linked here) for anyone who wishes to read it. Yet 20/20 doesn't mention this fact, nor do they provide answers to any other questions which might help the viewer make a reasoned, educated, assessment of PC's record and current efforts towards volunteer safety and security. 

These questions hit me immediately, as I hope they would to any person who thinks critically about what is presented in the media: How many volunteers have served in the last decade? What therefore is the rate of rape or sexual assault victims? Is that rate higher or lower than the rate for the US? Or the rate for major US cities? The PC Deputy Director mentioned there are plenty of women who speak highly of how PC supported them as victims, why weren't any of them interviewed? Nowhere in the episode was there context given for what PC's mission is (linked here), and how the fulfillment of that mission necessarily sends volunteers to unstable and developing countries.

Instead of a truly two-sided news story (one which, I do think would be worth telling) which does its best to present an un-biased set of facts to let the viewer draw his/her own conclusions, the episode was chalk full of cinematic effects and rhetoric designed to tell the viewer that 20/20's views are fact and truth and that the PC is out to intentionally hurt its volunteers. And sadly, it seems this approach worked, and not only with the average citizen, but also in our highest levels of elected officials. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) decided, evidently solely based on the 20/20 episode, to call for a congressional investigation into the PC. In this daily address on the floor of the House, Poe, without apparently fact-checking or investigating on his own any further, cited the 20/20 episode as reason enough to mobilize a congressional investigation. 

While I don't disagree that PC needs to be held accountable to volunteer safety and security, why can't we have a reasoned, fact-based, conversation or discussion about it, instead of using such polarizing and extreme rhetoric which only furthers distrust and strengthens the divides between people? Perhaps such a conversation on the House floor would have acknowledged that the Office of the Inspector General has as its full-time job keeping the PC accountable to claims of fraud, mismanagement, and internal negligence (their recent assessment of PCV's Safety and Security is linked here). Or perhaps Congress would invite PC Director in to show concretely, what PC has been doing over the past few years to improve its Safety and Security training and to explain why, in fact, the numbers of rape and sexual assault have actually be declining drastically in recent years.

Let me be clear, I absolutely believe our media should highlight stories of those who feel they have not been heard or who are being oppressed. I absolutely believe that PC should be held accountable for its past and present actions or inactions. However, I also absolutely believe that the divisive and one-sided rhetoric used in the majority of media today is leading us further from peace, further from unity, further from the truth, and further from true freedom of speech. As PCVs, my wife and I also absolutely believe in the approach PC is using to the safety and security of its volunteers and the steps it takes to minimize the risks volunteers face everyday (as do all of us living anywhere in the world).

In the spirit of getting the full story and helping each of us draw our own, educated, conclusions, here are some more resources which help frame this important issue.

"Reconsidering the Peace Corps" - A Brookings Institute Brief which is a perfect example of quality journalism which provides a solid foundation of information. Its slightly old (2003), but every single point it brings up is just as relevant today as it was then.

US Uniform Crime Report - a national compilation of crime statistics in the US.
Inspector General report of PC - a recent overall assessment of the PC by the Office of the Inspector General
News story about Obama seeking budget increase for PC

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