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Volume 2, Number 2, Fall - Winter 2001/2002

Peace Corps’ Approach to Safety and Security

By Michael O’Neill
Coordinator for Volunteer Safety and Overseas Security United States Peace Corps


Whether you are considering joining the Peace Corps, about to accept an invitation to serve in a particular country, or a family member or friend of a current or prospective Volunteer, it is important for you to understand the realities of Peace Corps service, particularly with regard to personal safety and welfare. If you or someone you know is about to accept an assignment to serve overseas, this is surely an exciting time, and we want your expectations to be as realistic as possible. The more you learn now about the realities of Peace Corps service, the better prepared you will be to handle the challenges and rewards ahead.

Because the Peace Corps works in some of the least developed countries and in some of the most remote areas in the world, health, safety, and security risks are an unavoidable part of life and of Volunteer service. While the majority of Volunteers serve their two years without major incident, it is important for you to know that Peace Corps service does involve certain risks, including road accidents, natural disasters, crime and civil unrest. The Peace Corps devotes significant resources to minimize safety risks to Volunteers and to ensure that they are given the training, support, and information they need for a safe experience. However, there are many variables beyond the agency’s control that impact Volunteers’ welfare and it is not possible to eliminate all the risks associated with Volunteers’ service overseas.

Key Points about Safety and Security in the Peace Corps

In matters of safety and security, the Peace Corps makes the following key assumptions:

  • Serving as a Volunteer Involves Safety and Security Risks.

    Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment, having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assaults do occur.

  • Volunteers Are Expected to Adopt a Culturally Appropriate Lifestyle to Promote Their Safety.

    Being a Volunteer requires changes in lifestyle preferences and habits in deference to host country cultural expectations and in order to minimize security risks. Choices in dress, living arrangements, means of travel, entertainment, and companionship may have a direct impact on how Volunteers are viewed, and thus treated, by their communities. Navigating the differences in gender relations may be one of the most sensitive and difficult lessons to learn, but one which could have a direct impact on the Volunteer’s safety and the protection provided by the local community. Mature behavior and the exercise of sound judgment will enhance personal safety.

  • Each Peace Corps Post Maintains a Volunteer Safety Support System Designed to Minimize Safety Risks, as Prescribed by Peace Corps Policy.

    Fundamental to the Peace Corps approach to Volunteer safety is the fact that Volunteers can most effectively minimize their safety risks by building respectful relationships with those in their community. The Peace Corps has instituted a broad and systematic approach to increase Volunteers’ capacity to keep themselves safe during their two-year service. This approach is based upon several fundamental tenets of Volunteer safety and security, which are outlined below. These include: building relationships, sharing information, training, site development, incident reporting and response, and emergency communications and planning.

Building Relationships Is Key to Volunteer Safety

Like the Peace Corps mission, safety and security are predicated on the development of close interpersonal relationships between Volunteers and host-country community members.

The agency recognizes that Volunteers’ daily safety is, for the most part, best assured when they are well integrated into the local community, valued and protected as extended family members, and viewed as contributors to development.

To this end, the Peace Corps strives to build and maintain the support of host country governments, authorities, and local communities for the Peace Corps’ presence in country and the work the Volunteers have been requested to perform. The responsibility of Volunteers is to learn the local language and integrate into the host community. Volunteers are expected to build and maintain respectful relationships with sponsoring agency representatives, colleagues, and other community members. These relationships help Volunteers establish a presence in their new homes, pave the way for many work and social opportunities, and become the basis of their new support systems in country.

Knowing What to Expect Helps Applicants and Volunteers Make Informed Choices

The Peace Corps is committed to providing accurate information about Volunteer service to interested individuals. This information describes the nature and conditions of Peace Corps service; the challenges Volunteers face; the impact that serving in another culture will have on individual lifestyle, comfort, and safety (e.g., living with host families, conservative dress, restrictions on movement and night travel); and the support Volunteers will receive in their respective countries of service. From the moment an applicant is invited to serve in a particular country, specific information about potential challenges is provided from a variety of sources. These challenges often include unwanted attention; harassment; health and safety risks; and cultural behaviors that an American might find offensive, uncomfortable, or threatening. With this information, potential Volunteers can make informed decisions about whether Peace Corps service is right for them and whether they are prepared to live at any site in their host country, where local community members will be their primary support system. Once the Volunteers are in-country, Peace Corps staff will keep them informed of security issues and provide guidance for maintaining their safety and well-being as appropriate.

In addition, for the welfare of Volunteers, Peace Corps policy requires that Volunteers report their whereabouts when they travel away from their sites or change residences, and that they obtain Peace Corps authorization if they intend to leave their country of assignment for any reason.

On-Going Training Equips Volunteers for a Safe and Productive Service

The Peace Corps takes an integrated approach to Volunteer training. Through language, cross-cultural, and health and safety instruction, training is designed to raise the Volunteer’s awareness of their new environment, build their capacity to effectively cope with the many challenges they will face, and provide the tools the Volunteers need to adopt a safe and appropriate lifestyle. Volunteers are also instructed in Peace Corps policies and procedures and the Volunteers’ responsibility to abide by them. Before reporting to the communities where they will live and work, Volunteers participate in 8-12 weeks of intensive training in their country of service. During pre-service training, Peace Corps typically places Volunteers with local families to aid in cultural integration and language acquisition. This early home-stay experience begins the process of building and maintaining various networks of friends and contacts with host country nationals and fellow Volunteers that will support each Volunteer’s efforts for a successful service. The Peace Corps provides this integrated safety training throughout the Volunteer’s tour of service to help Volunteers better understand their surroundings, how to cope with unwanted attention, and how to develop personal safety strategies.

Volunteer Sites Are Assessed to Meet Safety and Security Criteria

Peace Corps staff in-country are responsible for assessing and approving the communities where Volunteers will live and work to ensure that placements are appropriate and safe and that secure housing and work sites are available. Site selection is based on established safety and security criteria that reflect consideration of site history; access to medical, banking, postal, and other essential services; access to communication, transportation, and local markets; availability of adequate housing and living arrangements; and the potential for obtaining and maintaining the acceptance and consent of host country authorities and the population-at-large. During their service, Volunteers are visited periodically at their sites by Peace Corps program managers and medical staff members to monitor issues related to Volunteers’ site assignments. If a Volunteer's safety or well-being is placed at risk or compromised, the Peace Corps staff will try to resolve the situation or, failing that, move the Volunteer to another location.

Peace Corps Responds to Volunteers’ Safety Concerns

Volunteers are strongly encouraged and expected to report safety concerns or incidents to the appropriate Peace Corps staff member. Staff members are prepared to provide appropriate medical, emotional, and administrative support as each case warrants. In such cases, Volunteers’ need for confidentiality will be respected. The Peace Corps also maintains a collaborative relationship with the U.S. Embassy and host government officials in order to respond to Volunteers’ safety and security concerns as they arise. Improvements in safety reporting have allowed the Peace Corps to identify associated risk factors (time of day, location, alcohol use, means of transportation, etc.) and develop strategies to help Volunteers address them. Volunteers are urged to be aware of their environment and to adopt a safe lifestyles and exercise judgment in a manner that reduces their exposure to risks.

Emergency Communications and Planning

Typically, Volunteers live and work with community members, at some distance from the Peace Corps office in the capital city. Volunteers are expected to stay in touch with the Peace Corps office on a periodic basis. They are required to report their whereabouts when they travel away from their sites, and are required to receive Peace Corps authorization if they intend to leave the country of assignment for any reason. Although some Volunteers consider notification of movement and regular contact with the Peace Corps office restrictive, it is necessary to ensure that Volunteers can be contacted in case of emergency.

The Peace Corps addresses larger security concerns through country-specific Emergency Action Plans (EAP) that are in place in each Peace Corps country. These plans, developed to address such events as natural disasters or civil unrest, set forth the strategies developed by each Peace Corps office to prepare for, respond to, and recover from such crises. The plan defines roles and responsibilities for staff and Volunteers, explains standard policies and procedures, and lists emergency contact information for every Volunteer in country. These plans are tested and revised annually. A critical element of the EAP is a comprehensive locator form for each Volunteer, which ensures that Volunteers can be contacted in case of emergency and for important notices. Volunteers receive training about the EAP, are provided a copy of the EAP, and are expected to familiarize themselves with their roles and responsibilities during times of crisis.

The Peace Corps works very closely with the U.S. Embassy to share information, develop strategies, and coordinate communications in a crisis. If a situation arises in country that poses a potential threat to Volunteers, the Peace Corps will immediately assess the nature of the threat and respond in a manner that ensures the Volunteers’ safety and well-being. If the decision is made to evacuate Volunteers from a country, the Peace Corps will commit every resource at hand to safely move each Volunteer and staff member out of harm’s way. Although the Peace Corps does not automatically contact family members in all crisis situations the Peace Corps will, in the event of an evacuation, initiate calls to the emergency contact persons each Volunteer has identified.

Safe Journey

Every staff member at the Peace Corps is committed to providing Volunteers with the support they need to successfully meet the challenges they will face to have a safe, healthy, and productive service. We hope that the information provided here will help you gain a sense of these challenges, the changes in attitude and lifestyle that may be required to adapt to a new environment, and the level of support that can be expected from the Peace Corps, local colleagues, and host communities. The success of each Peace Corps Volunteer is our goal. We rely on Volunteers to exercise personal responsibility, demonstrate a keen awareness of the world around them, and a willingness to adjust their behavior in a manner that will enhance their safety and well-being. In the end their efforts will be rewarded with an incredible, unique experience.

Michael O’Neill is the Coordinator for Volunteer Safety and Overseas Security for the United States Peace Corps.