Killer of Peace Corps Volunteer Julia Campbell Convicted; Why the Peace Corps Still Matters

The lone suspect in the gruesome and senseless murder of Peace Corps volunteer Julia Campbell has been found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Regional Trial Court of Banaue, Ifugao province.

In a 36-page decision, Judge Ester Piscoso-Flor found the accused Juan Donald Duntugan, 25, guilty of murdering Campbell in Batad village, near the Ifugao rice terraces where the victim was hiking, on April 8, 2007, “with the use of treachery and abuse of superior strength”.

It appears that the convicted murderer killed Ms. Campbell without any clear motive or reason.

As narrated by the Inquirer:

Campbell, the 40-year-old English teacher then assigned in Albay, disappeared on April 8, 2007, Easter Sunday, while walking along the mountain trail leading to Batad. Her decomposing body was found 10 days later, buried in a dried up gorge, about 20 meters from the trail.

The victim had disappeared after she stopped at a village grocery run by the Duntugan’s wife to buy soda. Police said the American was murdered shortly afterwards.

Police arrested Duntugan several days later and he confessed to bashing the hiker’s head with a rock and burying the corpse in a shallow grave.

“My mind went blank,” Duntugan said during the hearing.

“I didn’t know who bumped me or what he or she was. I just grabbed a rock and smashed it into that person’s head.”

Campbell’s death stunned this quiet corner of the Philippines, a popular tourist destination known the world over for its 2,000-year-old rice terraces.

A former freelance journalist in the United States, Campbell left New York in 2005 and volunteered for the Peace Corps.

Hopefully, this puts some measure of closure to the tragic and poignant tale of an idealistic, warm and generous woman who found her untimely end in a land she had grown to love. As I wrote in my earlier post:

Ms. Julia was much loved by the people whose lives she touched, judging by the many tears shed by her students and friends in the Philippines when they learned of her death. She had a blog, “Julia in the Philippines” which is heartbreaking to read now. Her death, I feel, is a tragedy felt by all Filipinos. We grieve with those she left behind as well as for ourselves, that we have been unable to reciprocate in kind the love and concern Ms. Julia showed for our country.

This also brings to the fore certain questions regarding the continued relevance of the U.S. Peace Corps in an age of globalization. When the first Peace Corps volunteers were sent overseas at the start of the Kennedy administration, the world was a vastly different place. As observed in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times:

Back then, enthusiastic young Americans offered something that many newly independent nations counted in double and even single digits: college graduates. But today, those same nations have millions of well-educated citizens of their own desperately in need of work. So it’s much less clear what inexperienced Americans have to offer.

The Peace Corps has long shipped out well-meaning young people possessing little more than good intentions and a college diploma.

The program has, in recent years, been criticized for emphasizing breadth rather than depth. It’s perceived as a feel-good undertaking, providing adventurous and foot-loose young Americans a chance to spread the word on U.S. beneficence, without regard to the volunteers’ skills, abilities or personal inclinations and the actual needs of the host country. The objective has been to send out as many volunteers into the field as possible, whether qualified or not, whether needed or not.

As former Peace Corps volunteer Robert L. Strauss points out in the above-quoted NYT piece:

For the Peace Corps, the number of volunteers has always trumped the quality of their work, perhaps because the agency fears that an objective assessment of its impact would reveal that while volunteers generate good will for the United States, they do little or nothing to actually aid development in poor countries. The agency has no comprehensive system for self-evaluation, but rather relies heavily on personal anecdote to demonstrate its worth.

Every few years, the agency polls its volunteers, but in my experience it does not systematically ask the people it is supposedly helping what they think the volunteers have achieved. This is a clear indication of how the Peace Corps neglects its customers; as long as the volunteers are enjoying themselves, it doesn’t matter whether they improve the quality of life in the host countries. Any well-run organization must know what its customers want and then deliver the goods, but this is something the Peace Corps has never learned.

This lack of organizational introspection allows the agency to continue sending, for example, unqualified volunteers to teach English when nearly every developing country could easily find high-caliber English teachers among its own population.

The Peace Corps was born during the glory days of the early Kennedy administration. Since then, its leaders and many of the more than 190,000 volunteers who have served have mythologized the agency into something that can never be questioned or improved. The result is an organization that finds itself less and less able to provide what the people of developing countries need – at a time when the United States has never had a greater need for their good will.

But regardless of its perceived shortcomings, I believe the Peace Corp still matters. For many Filipinos living in impoverished rural areas, their first social encounter with a foreigner would be through a Peace Corps volunteer. The Peace Corps have been a constant presence in the Philippines practically since its inception in the early 1960’s.

And the impact of their initially “alien” presence has been largely positive. They are quickly, easily and quite naturally assimilated into the life of the community. They make solid contributions to improving the quality of life of the people they are assigned to help, apart from the amusement they provide the local populace as “innocents abroad”.

And the Peace Corps has lately been taking pains to recruit older volunteers, those over 50, who have the requisite work and life experiences, aptitude and maturity to better address the problems of their selected milieus.

As I wrote before, my family has roots in the Philippine Cordillera region, where Ifugao is a part of, and I can attest to the high regard, respect and affection given by the people to Peace Corps volunteers. They are seen as adopted sons and daughters of the many indigenous tribes of the mountain region.

Whatever else is said about “U.S. Imperialism”, the Peace Corps is the kinder, gentler and undeniably more genuinely heroic face of American world hegemony. And the volunteers are not just naive, well-intentioned do-gooders. They are, by and large, committed professionals with a clear vision of what they want to do and what they can achieve in a difficult, and sometimes dangerous, region.

This is why the sudden loss of Ms. Campbell was keenly felt all over the country. She epitomized the best of what the U.S. has to offer the world.

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