Peace Corps Volunteer Blogs
From Peace Corps Wiki
(An editable report)
Since the late 1990s, Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) have been posting their experiences in Peace Corps (PC) on the internet in “web-logs”, now colloquially called “blogs”. The number of volunteer blogs has grown dramatically in just the past few years: from 1,300 in Aug 2006 to over 5,000 in Dec 2008. In today’s Peace Corps, a blog is viewed as a normal supplemental component of service and as an open newsletter for the volunteer to report about their service as it happens. The ability to publish and update information in real time facilitates the creation of new connections between the volunteers in service and those that access the blogs. This is a remarkable way to view grass roots international development across countries and regions; with extensive possibilities for information exchange that is site specific. Nevertheless, the freedom associated with this ability to publish in real-time has given rise to major issues concerning privacy and professionalism within the Peace Corps community and the countries which host Peace Corps volunteers. There are few guidelines and rules, or established precedents, regarding blog content or the method of posting and, as a result, those that have found themselves in this indeterminate area have often met with brash subjectivity.
 What is a volunteer blog?
- A series of various length postings of text and photos that chronicle the activities, daily schedule, personal interactions, stories, essays and photos a volunteer felt were important to describing aspects of their PC service.
- A free and open form of expression by a volunteer about their service: the majority of these blogs are open and available to anyone that wishes to access them.
- A legacy piece that a volunteer can refer back to: for pleasure, for evidence of work and creative expression, or for proof of interdisciplinary abilities, skills, and experiences encountered during the Peace Corps.
- A composition that captures moods as well as insights, inquisitive questions and innovative ideas. The Peace Corps experience, and reflections on that experience, often mean a great deal to a returned volunteer’s search for happiness in their career and life direction.
- A volunteer can refer to their blog much as if it were a virtual scrapbook. Many volunteers record thoughts and experiences in a notebook or sketch book that is often bought in country. Unfortunately, over a short period of time, the paper fades or the tome becomes completely illegible. A volunteer’s blog is infinitely more accessible and its lifetime can be indefinite.
- These postings can be referenced when applying for jobs or to school or they can be expanded upon for creative writing.
- As internet service becomes available in more and more places around the world, the obstacles to uploading material to the internet continue to fall.
- Often, the living conditions of the volunteer dictate that using a laptop is impossible; therefore, every few weeks or months a PCV would be able to transcribe their information onto a blog.
 Current rules and regulations
The official policy concerning volunteer blogs is governed by the Peace Corps Manual, section MS 534.7 http://files.peacecorps.gov/manuals/manual/500_Administrative_Services/540-549_Computers_and_Information_Processing/MS_543/Use_of_IT_Systems_by_Volunteers_Trainees_RPCVs.pdf#7.0
MS 543.7 Websites: Volunteers who create their own Web sites, or post information to Web sites that have been created and maintained by others, should be reminded that, unless password protected, any information posted on the Internet can be accessed by the general public, even if that is not intended. Because search engines regularly index most sites on the Internet, it is possible that members of the public could locate a Volunteer Web site by searching for information about the Peace Corps or a certain country. This is possible even if the Volunteer does not actively promote his/her Web site. Given these realities, Volunteers are responsible for ensuring that their IT use is consistent with the following guidelines:
7.3 Use of the Peace Corps Logo
7.4 Cultural Sensitivity
7.5 Safety and Security
7.6 Publication Policies
Most volunteers have access to the Internet and currently over 5,000 volunteers in the past few years have had their own personal blog publicly shared online. The volunteers are aware of the regulations and rules, as they are now taught them during Training and knowledge of it is required to sign Peace Corps computer acceptable use policy in order to swear in.
The blogs of today are the postcards of yesterday. Both are able to be read by anyone if they are to come across them.
On the evening of October 13, 1961, Peace Corps Trainee Margery Jane Michelmore wrote a postcard to a friend in the United States about her time in Nigeria. She described her situation in Nigeria as "squalor and absolutely primitive living conditions." The postcard was never mailed. It is said that it was found on the grounds of University College at Ibadan near Marjorie’s dormitory, Queen Elizabeth Hall. The finder was a Nigerian student at the college. Copies of the postcard were made and distributed. Volunteers were immediately denounced as “agents of imperialism” and “members of America’s international spy ring.” The protest made front-page news in Nigeria and it sparked a minor international incident.
Ms. Michelmore was forced to leave the country. President Kennedy wrote a note to Marjorie Michelmore that was hand delivered to her when she arrived in London from Nigeria. “We are strongly behind you,” he wrote, “and hope you will continue to serve in the Peace Corps.” Later Kennedy would wryly remark to departing Volunteers he met on the White House lawn, “Keep in touch . . . but not by postcard!”
Peace Corps volunteers of today are still keeping in touch with the American people about their service; not by the postcards of yesterday, but by the blogs, Twitter, and Facebook groups of today.
There are two notable cases of volunteers having to resign because of their online blog. While there may be others these are notable in their extremes:
The first is an early example of Peace Corps’ awareness of public blogs for which they were unprepared. Jason Pearce, a Peace Corps Trainee in Guyana in 2002, was not allowed to swear-in, mainly due to Peace Corps’ objection to his blog of which they knew about at his initial interview.
Mr. Pearce detailed the incident on his website: “It should be noted that at the time I created my personal blog , there were already several thousand websites that were created by Peace Corps volunteers for purposes of sharing their experiences with the rest of the world.”
The Country Director at the time sent an e-mail to all volunteers serving in Guyana at the time to discuss the issue that stated:
“The content (photos, audio and written monologues) on the Yahoo.com peacecorps.guyana site and its links to "dozens" of already established personal web pages owned by 10 members, other Volunteers and RPCV's, which clearly identify most of the owners as being associated with the Peace Corps are potentially very harmful to the image and program efforts of Peace corps Guyana, if it became known that such information has been put in the public domain”
The Country Director later stated in a memo that “Public pronouncement (putting information in the public domain) is not an acceptable action by a foreign visitor representing an international agency, specifically the Peace Corps.”
Mr. Pearce’s blog was an early case of a new way of how the world can communicate and how Peace Corps was not prepared for that advancement. He was forced to Early Terminate on August 22, 2002; eight months after the creation of his blog to share his thoughts and experiences of Guyana.
A detailed account of his early termination may be found on his blog: http://net.jasonpearce.com/peacecorps/cos/timelinejasonpearce.html
A second incident is detailed in the Office of Inspector General’s report: “OIG's Semiannual Report to Congress (April 1 - September 30, 2007)” listed on the Peace Corps website.
Title 18 Criminal and Other Investigations Conducted
Investigations Leading to Disposition
During the previous reporting period, the OIG opened an investigation relating to a Volunteer serving in a Middle Eastern country engaging in public political statements in violation of Agency policy. A variety of Peace Corps Manual sections and Handbook procedures require Peace Corps Volunteers to maintain an apolitical posture in their country of service and refrain from becoming involved in the political affairs of their host country. Among the sentiments expressed in the Volunteer’s internet-based journal (“blog”) were political opinions about the country in which he was serving, favorable comments about groups classified by Executive Order as terrorist organizations, and comments concerning the foreign policy of a neighboring country in the region. The Volunteer’s blog was publicly available and not password protected. During this reporting period, OIG developed additional evidence that the Volunteer was provided with training regarding Agency prohibitions on political statements, including the requirement of clearing any political blog with the country director. The Volunteer acknowledged that his statements could pose a security risk to him in his country of service. The Volunteer further conceded that the portion of his blog in which he was critical of local governments could have become known to the host-country Government and undermine Peace Corps’ credibility in his host country. The Volunteer also acknowledged associating with members of his host country’s intelligence service. When representatives of the host government became aware of the Volunteer’s statements and associations, they expressed concern to the U.S. Embassy about the safety of the Volunteer and the U.S. Ambassador recommended that the Volunteer be removed from the country within 24 hours. The host country agency also conducted an investigation of the Volunteer’s activity and found further evidence that he had discussed political issues with host country nationals. The OIG also found that the country director failed in her responsibilities to monitor and oversee the Volunteer’s blog entries and did not object to certain entries that were political in nature and violative of Agency’s rules and guidelines. During this reporting period, the Volunteer resigned in lieu of administrative separation. The country director, who had been slated to work in the Peace Corps Director’s Office, retired in lieu of this assignment.
In relation to that incident, the OIG reported in their FY2008 Annual Plan that, for FY 2008 special projects and initiatives the OIG/IU will: “Review of Volunteer Blogs. IU will undertake a periodic review of Volunteers’ public blogs and report significant findings, as appropriate.”
An Freedom of Information Act request was made for any such findings, of which “after a thorough and diligent search[…]The OIG holds no documents that meet your criteria.” This was stated even though one case is specifically mentioned in their own report on the public Peace Corps website.
 Does an open volunteer blog jeopardize volunteer safety and security?
- The lack of a universal best practice guide for Peace Corps Volunteers has resulted in returned volunteers initiating websites such as www.PeaceCorpsJournals.com with FOIA documents and notices pulled from the PeaceCorps.gov website regarding the actions taken against those that violate the rules regarding the sharing of information.
- A disclaimer is necessary on all volunteer blogs alerting any viewers that the content of the blog is that of the blogger and not Peace Corps headquarters.
- Blogs have been widespread less than ten years, thus, little long term information exists showing how exposing information affects positive or negative change within a government agency or in regards to the relations with a host country.
- Lack of appropriate guidelines and guidance means that to a large extent the choice of monitoring or regularly post was done at the discretion of the individual Country Directors.
- Initially, postings were looked on as possibly compromising the volunteer’s security and jeopardizing the political situation of Peace Corps in the county; however, as the internet has become an educational tool and a core part of much of Peace Corps programming, this attitude has relaxed.
- Peace Corps headquarters wants to monitor the activities going on regarding volunteer blogs and online journals. A special investigative unit in Peace Corps headquarters is tasked to: “…undertake a periodic review of Volunteers’ public blogs….” http://www.peacecorpswiki.org/FOIAdocs/OIG2008FYAnnualPlan.pdf, pg 12
- Peace Corps headquarters has full discretion over the actions they take regarding an individual volunteer’s blog posting seen in a negative light towards Peace Corps or the host country itself; there exist few rules or guidelines. Often input from the in-county staff will be justification enough for disciplinary action, or administrative separation (removal from the country of service).
- If reasoning is necessary to justify disciplinary action, conveniently vague justifications can be given, such as the precarious nature of Peace Corps’ political situation within the host country.
Today Peace Corps Volunteer blogs are inextricably linked to the Peace Corps experience. They are one component in the new generation of tools used by volunteers in the field which promote awareness about their service as well as the projects they are involved in. Adequately preparing not only the volunteers but friends, family, and the public about the use of blogs is critical. Best practices standards need to be developed and made publicly available. Best practices will give the volunteers and the public a better idea about what is and is not appropriate on their blog thus ameliorating the ambiguous nature of volunteer blogs. Like other aspects of Peace Corps programming, the standards that volunteers’ blogs are held too should reflect the goals and vision of the agency.