Peace Corps Volunteers struggle with sustainability. Just like anyone working in the ‘development’ field, I question the work I am doing. However, since I’m a bottom-of-the-food-chain volunteer who is more or less (ir)responsible for planning my own projects, I question them on a personal level, daily. What happens to this or that project when I leave? Have I done anything worthwhile here? Is this project sustainable? Is this the right thing to be doing?
Since the first week of Pre-Service Training we were grilled with the idea sustainability. We sat through dry sessions about the Peace Corps’ role in development. We talked about all the buzzwords in the field and how the Peace Corps has put its own unique spin on each one of them. In short, the Peace Corps’ approach to development is “helping people develop the capacity to improve their own lives.” The Peace Corps is focused on building people, not things.
So how does one go about building this illusive capacity, especially when we don’t have a carrot or a stick – no budget or authority? Many Volunteers, myself included, will tell you that you don’t…at least not very often. The actual magical moment of capacity building is difficult to measure, is difficult to see, and is often too slow to perceive.
I’ve worked on a variety of projects over the past year and a half: some tiny and insignificant, some fun and rewarding, and some completely and blatantly unsustainable. The whole time I was thinking about sustainability and capacity building. I hit my head on the wall about a year ago and angrily scrawled out my frustrations in my journal.
“A guy in my office just told me that we aren’t supposed to do anything. He says we are supposed to introduce ideas and then monitor them but we need to leave the implementation up to the host organization. Yeah right! I see how that is supposed to promote sustainability, but if that’s all you do, then nothing’s going to happen. I’m tired of passing the buck on to the next guy who then doesn’t do shit with it. I know we are supposed to be in management positions, but if you have no real authority you cannot take this type of approach! No one will do anything if there are no consequences (positive or negative). It’s time for me to step up and do something instead of just delegating things that no one is actually going to execute. F*** me…” – Aug. 12 2013
I found myself stuck in the doldrums of middle management visiting other offices trying to make other civil servants do things. It didn’t work. When asked to describe my PC service in one word at a conference, I wrote impotent.
But things changed. This year I’ve been working with youth. I teach a few nights a week at an extracurricular English language school and I’m also working with the Grassroot Soccer program.
Last fall I attended a regional training for the Grassroot Soccer (GRS) Program with a local counterpart named Abraha. He is a nurse at the youth center, enjoys football, and is willing to lead. Together with 20 or so PCVs and their respective counterparts, we learned about the GRS curriculum. Grassroot Soccer is an international NGO based in South Africa focused on HIV prevention. Since its beginnings in 2002, GRS has reached over 650,000 youth all around the world. During this time, GRS developed a partnership with the Peace Corps, designing a unique curriculum specifically meant to be used by PCVs and their counterparts. This curriculum is called Peace Corps SKILLZ.
The Peace Corps SKILLZ approach helps young people have meaningful and relevant discussions about life, take small steps to achieve their goals, stay strong when faced with challenges, and protect themselves and others from HIV and AIDS. Peace Corps SKILLZ uses soccer language, metaphors, and activities to address key behaviours that drive the spread of HIV in Africa, such as unprotected sex, multiple sexual partners, older sexual partners, and gender-based violence. – From the Peace Corps SKILLZ Coach’s Guide
Abraha and I have completed 3 different interventions, reaching 75 youth in Abi Adi. Each intervention consists of 11 sessions that cover a variety of topics: facts and myths about HIV, stigma toward people living with HIV, gender issues, safe sex, sexual transmission networks. For example, one of my favorite sessions revolves around an activity called HIV Attacks. In HIV Attacks one student volunteers to stand in the middle of a circle of participants. This student in the center represents the human body. The surrounding circle of students represent various diseases (influenza, cancer, malaria, TB, etc.). The students representing diseases throw a ball at the stationary student in the middle who is protected by a goalie, representing the immune system. The more times the “human” is hit by the “diseases” throwing the ball, the sicker he is. As the game progresses you introduce HIV and then antiretroviral therapy drugs. Throughout the game you stop and discuss each part explaining the progression of HIV and how it interacts with the immune system.
The students love these interactive and fun activities that cover content usually presented in boring lectures at school, if at all. The size of the team of attending students is kept small, around 25, so that they all can participate and become comfortable with each other. We try to create a ‘safe space’ to openly discuss sensitive issues. In fact one of the best activities, in my opinion, is called Gender Stadium where male and female students take turns listening to the other gender discuss the joys and frustrations of being a girl or a boy. Here are some questions:
- What is one thing you would never want to hear said about a man again?
- What do you enjoy most about being a girl?
- What would you tell men to help them better understand women?
During these interventions, Abraha and I have developed a good working relationship. Since the content is too advanced to be conducted in a second language (for me or the Ethiopians) Abraha does all the primary facilitation in Tigrigna. It’s my job to help with logistics and lead most of the energizers, cheers, and games; therefore I make a fool of myself running around the classroom roaring like a lion or paddling a make-believe canoe. Meanwhile, Abraha, who started out as a shy and reserved nurse, has grown into a confident teacher and mentor. Another PCV involved in GRS in Ethiopia said it well explaining that since the program was conducted entirely in the local language she had trained herself out of a job like a good volunteer. You can read about another amazing GRS counterpart, a 15 year old Ethiopian girl, on Jessi’s blog.
After completing all the sessions the students graduate and receive a SKILLZ certificate. For the ceremony we invited some distinguished guests and prepared traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremonies to celebrate the occasion. At our last graduation, the local cameraman showed up to interview some students. The students love it. They wouldn’t stop asking to have their pictures taken with us coaches. It’s sad to leave them when the curriculum is complete, but hopefully some of the messages and things we discussed will stay with them after we leave.
You can argue about the sustainability of this project and you can poke holes in anything if you think about it long enough, but I am thankful for the Grassroot Soccer SKILLZ program for giving me the tools to implement this small do-able action. I may not be reaching thousands of people, and I may not be managing other ‘change makers’ in Abi Adi’s byzantine civil offices, but I think I have done something for these few students. I’m also extremely happy with the changes I’ve seen in Abraha and proudly presented him with a nice certificate last week.
…and if nothing else, it’s been a lot of fun.