Peace Corps gave us our assignments for the next two years and sent us to our sites for a five-day visit.
Angela and I will work in the department of San Pedro. Our site is a small town surrounded by soy plantations and family farms. We are the first volunteers to live there and, as far as we can tell, the only Americans for miles. The Brazilian border is hours away, but as I understand it there are no more volunteers in that direction.
So what are we going to do way out there?
What Peace Corps does
I’m going talk about what the Peace Corps expects us to do in this far away town. I’ll start with some context, which will also frame future posts.
The Peace Corps’ mission is
To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Goals two and three are more cultural exchange than development. We do goal two everyday while interacting with Paraguayan citizens. An example of goal three, popularly known as “the third goal,” is this very blog you are reading. Both good things to do.
However, the first goal is what I’d like to discuss here. A cultural exchange in another country isn’t unique. Many people do that. But the first goal is about helping the people we came to serve. It’s the “development” goal.
So what is development? A definition I find useful is Jeffrey Sachs’ version of sustainable development, which
…calls for a world in which economic progress is widespread; extreme poverty is eliminated; social trust is encouraged through policies that strengthen the community; and the environment is protected from human degradation” (The Age of Sustainable Development, p. 3).
Less well-off countries become wealthier. Their citizens gain access to better lives and improved communities. The environment stays viable. It lines up nicely with what Peace Corps says we’re trying to do here.
There are a lot of agencies and non-governmental organizations working to “do” development at different policy levels. Peace Corps’ aim is to work at the primary level with the people in their communities. Volunteers live in their communities for two or more years to foster strong ties and understanding. The agency “uses the word development in human, people-to people terms: helping people develop the capacity to improve their own lives.” Peace Corps further says that
[d]evelopment work is said to be sustainable when the community is able to continue on its own without outside support. The Peace Corps sees sustainable development as a process whereby people learn to build on their own strengths to take charge of their lives, and to address their expressed needs (Programming and Training Booklet One, p. 5-7).
Peace Corps Paraguay adds that we must work with our contacts to build the capacity of our community. No side-stepping your community “just to get something done.” “If you’re working alone, you’re not working” says our leadership. The thought is to build the capacity such that it exists after we leave. It may take longer, but the goal is to have a lasting effect.
I realize that the development field has its controversies. Is it ethical? Sustainable? Does it create dependency? Is it a way for wealthy countries to assert influence? Does it even work?
I’m not going to spill ink on these issues now (but I could touch on them in future posts). What I’d like to do now is outline what we could be doing in rural Paraguay for two years.
Peace Corps in Paraguay
Peace Corps Paraguay has four sectors: Agriculture, Community Economic Development (CED), Environment, and Health. I have a background managing people and projects so I’m serving in CED. Angela is using her experience as a nurse to serve in the health sector.
Each of our sectors has its own focus.
CED volunteers work in community engagement and workforce and business development. For instance, CED projects might include project design and management assistance or governance improvement for community groups; working with youth to build information technology skills; teaching business classes; or consulting with a small business to create and execute a marketing plan.
Health volunteers reduce risk of non-communicable diseases; teach life skills and reproductive health to youth; and strive to improve maternal, neonatal, and child health. Example projects could include exercise and nutrition classes for at-risk individuals; sexually transmitted infection awareness training for students; and birth plan preparation for pregnant women.
What kind of projects will we be working on?
To be determined.
Peace Corps Paraguay allows volunteers to work laterally. For example, a health volunteer can work on a reforestation project. An agriculture volunteer can teach HIV prevention. A CED volunteer can teach English or mentor an English teacher. And so on.
Angela and I have only seen our site once. We both have local contacts to work with. Angela’s contact is a nurse at the town hospital. Mine is the owner of a professional education center.
To get a better idea of what we can do, Peace Corps requires us to complete a community needs assessment during the first three months. Our first job is to survey the community and learn what the opportunities are. We are not to impose our own ideas or solve the community’s problems in a satisfyingly efficient manner. We’re supposed to listen and analyze first.
To hammer that home, they had us watch this during training:
(It’s pretty good if you get a chance to watch it…the title sums it up).
Ideally, we will bring our skills sets to the table and find out how we can serve the community’s needs within the national context. Moreover, we will achieve our goals best by working with partners in a way they helps them carry out projects after we’ve left.
Do you guys like Venn diagrams? I know I do.
Aim for the middle, right?
Easier said than done. And I don’t think I’ve said it very well yet. What are we supposed to be doing again?
I would love to list the ideas we’ve already brainstormed. We already see a lot of opportunities. But this blog is public and we’d prefer to get to work on our community survey first.
My hope is that this post provides enough context for what you’ll read in the future. We’ll be writing about how the process is unfolding in our community and share our “first goal” projects whether they succeed or not.
Feel free to reach out or make comments/suggestions as we go. Project ideas and critiques are particularly welcome, as is a general discussion about development. If you have resources, we’d love it if you shared.
411: We take the oath of office in less than two weeks. Our next post will probably be later than usual.