Sunday, February 24, 2008

My Precious!

Construction on the fiber optic cable has pretty much finished within the limits of Natitingou. It will probably still be a long time before it gets turned on though.

The cable is buried here or something.

Some sort of box. The dude building it said he had no idea when service would begin.


One of the guards at the Workstation also works at an agricultural NGO, so he asked me to go with him to a formation to take pictures. This particular trip was to teach tomato farmers how to make compost.

Digging a hole

Chopping hay

The villagers collected buckets of ash and manure

Mixing manure, ash, and soil

Sita begins teaching

The compost is basically formed by adding alternating layers of hay, manure, ash, and water

Sticks to make lifting of leaves easy

The leaves are put on top to hold moisture

Burying it all

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Response to Op-Ed

Robert Strauss (a former Volunteer and Country Director) recently argued in this op-ed that Volunteers who are straight out of college can't really serve as development workers, as they lack the skills and maturity to do so. This is mostly true. However, I mostly disagree with what he wrote and am honestly quite amazed at how limited his perspective is.

He writes,

[f]or 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 problem with this is that there cannot be an objective assessment of our impact. One could measure, for example, the change in the number of cases of diarrhea reported to a health clinic in a village after latrines were built. But there are lots of impacts that are essentially invisible and unprovable. It's not uncommon for teachers to exchange grades for sex with their female students here, yet I doubt on any evaluation that anyone would thank me for not doing so, even if they did appreciate it. And one of the biggest changes that I think we make - transmitting the idea that the future can and will be different from the past - is just too vague to be measured.

The agency has no comprehensive system for self-evaluation, but rather relies heavily on personal anecdote to demonstrate its worth.

This is true. Unfortunately, there's literally nothing that can be done about it. Basically on our reports we write the things we've done and how many men, women, boys, and girls we affected.
So for example, if I do a presentation on AIDS I'm supposed to count how many of each type of person was there, then have some way of following up and seeing how the presentation affected each of those people. But this is almost impossible since it's really hard to tell if you've convinced someone to avoid risky behaviors, and since you can't always find everyone who was at the presentation. One could look at the results of AIDS tests done at the local clinic, and see if the number goes down after the presentation. But since that number could've been influenced by an almost unlimited number of variables it's not too easy to tell what's been done by the volunteer in such a situation.

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 isn't actually true. Every five years, Peace Corps reviews each program and does extensive surveying, then reviews the data with the host country to see if the program should be changed or even continued. Years ago, Peace Corps taught science and math in Benin, but the program was canceled after the government decided it no longer wanted Peace Corps' assistance. It did ask that English instruction continue, however.

[A]s 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.

I'm somewhat shocked that the author was a Country Director as one of the things that is repeated over and over again throughout training is that volunteers are supposed to find out what the community wants, and to help them fulfill that need, and not just do whatever the volunteer thinks they should do. There are also things that the 'customers' wouldn't see as an achievement despite it being one. It could be something as simple as kids coming over to the volunteer's house to study. Yet if they were given an evaluation sheet, the students probably wouldn't write "I am no longer willing to drop out and be a farmer because someone actually encouraged me to work hard in school" even if that were precisely why they didn't drop out.

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.

I can't believe that Mr. Strauss thinks this is even plausible. Perhaps Benin is an exception (though I doubt it), but most English teachers aren't fluent in English, and of those who are, most have had almost no training whatsoever. There's even a shortage of teachers with college degrees, so schools are forced to hire people who only graduated from high school. If developing countries had excellent educational systems, they wouldn't be developing countries.

The critique's biggest flaw is that it doesn't consider the impact on the volunteers as being significant. More than half of my friends and colleagues intend to go to grad school so that they can do development work professionally. And they are able to do so because of the training and the experiences they gained through the Peace Corps. The impacts that these people will make over the coming decades will not be found on any assessment of the Peace Corps.

He also ignores the fact that development is only one goal of the agency. Volunteers are also supposed to facilitate a cultural exchange. Most Americans have a very negative image of African countries, which is why I really enjoy blogging, for example, about the fact that they're building a fiber optic cable next to my house.