Peace Corps Samoa and BCEP

Karen Corey

One of the things Peace Corps requires of its volunteers as they near their close of service (COS) is that they reflect back over their two years and write a description of service (DOS) that enumerates the projects they have completed, successes they have had, and anything else they have undertaken.  Why do we do this? One reason is that two years flies by so quickly and sometimes a volunteer can look back and say, “What did I really do in the last two years? All I remember doing is watching tons of movies and reading more books than I have ever read in my life.  Did I really accomplish anything here?”  The second reason is to help volunteers begin their transition into post-Peace Corps life – and the post-Peace Corps job hunt.  How do you explain to potential employers what you did with these two years?  It’s hard to condense your service down into cute little bullet points on your resume.

This is my last report to BCEP on my service here in Samoa – so let’s consider this my DOS as it pertains to my work fulfilling my internship requirements, my work for Peace Corps, and to my potential thesis topics.

The Island Nation of Samoa Credit: howstuffworks.com

Since I have not posted my other reports as blogs, let’s start with a quick background of my Peace Corps assignment.  I was assigned to go to the Pacific Island paradise of Samoa, a nation of about 180,000 people.  Despite my MI status, I was assigned to the TESL/Village Development project, which means that most of my time is spent teaching primary school English to students ranging in age from 11 – 15.  My heart is not really in teaching, so the most gratifying portion of the project for me is the Village Development.  Among other small projects, I obtained a US$500 grant from Appropriate Projects to construct rubbish stands and ST$20,000 to renovate the freshwater spring (primary source of drinking water during the dry season) in order to stop the spread of disease among humans and animals.

Primary School in Samoa Credit: Yendarra School

For many PCVs, the most important skill is grant writing.  This is not the old days of Peace Corps where mechanics went out and fixed tractors.  This is the new days of Peace Corps, where we focus on sustainable development – and, in Samoa at least, this usually means writing grants.  This is when our BCEP writing course came in handy.  Although we never specifically talked about grant writing, the focus on clear, concise English with good grammar (and punctuation) was essential in writing successful grants, as was being able to carefully construct an argument with supporting evidence.  Unfortunately, sometimes being overly articulate and neat can be taken badly in a culture where it is not cool to stand out.  When I turned in one grant application complete with photos and diagrams to show the planned construction, the grant evaluator sneered at me, “Fia poko oe!” (Literally, fia poko means ‘wants to be smart’, but usually it is said when someone is trying to look smarter or better than everyone else.  In the States, you would call someone a teacher’s pet – here the kids yell, “Fia poko!” It is NOT considered a good thing – even by the teachers – to be fia poko.)  Despite the grant evaluator’s disdain of my fia poko-ness, I did get the grant.

My coursework in environmental law and policy are also valuable every day as I look around the country and evaluate what is happening here.  Obviously, knowing the fine points of the Clean Air Act or NEPA are not very useful here – but understanding the way law works and the importance of understanding the policy process and the policy cycle is – even if it takes your entire first year in country to figure out the local intricacies.  Like many developing countries, Samoa is heavily dependent on foreign aid.  For example, according to the New Zealand Aid website, in 2011/12, New Zealand provided approximately NZ$23 million in development support.  Other major supporters include China, Australia, the European Union, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank.

The generosity of donor organizations is amazing – New Zealand and Australia have even paid the school fees for all Samoan children for the last four years, enabling many more children to attend school and attain higher quality education.  However, being aid-dependent also limits the ability of the public sector to plan long-term.  Instead, they jump from program goal to program goal, based on the current interests of the development community.  Often, there is just enough money to come up with a report or plan for further action – but not any money to implement it.  I have heard about government agencies creating DVD promotional materials to promote energy conservation measures for businesses, especially hotels.  When I asked about their effectiveness, my contact said, “Well, we ran out of money, so we never got to copy and distribute them.”  Another common occurrence is that projects get renamed or repackaged to fit with the latest development craze.  Everyone wants seawalls to protect against the next tsunami, but there’s no money for that – but there is all that money for climate change adaptation… Suddenly, the seawalls are built to protect against rising sea levels, but at barely three feet above the water at high tide, they are hardly going to protect against projected increases.

Completed sea wall on Manono Island, Samoa Credit: microdreams.org

Until you understand how thoroughly aid dependence can tie a government’s hands and influence the policy process, you’ll never get anywhere.  And of course, you can’t underestimate the importance of where the Members of Parliament come from … there is definitely a reason why some villages get better Internet access or a more reliable water or electricity supply – or even a Peace Corps Volunteer! All of our discussions at BCEP about conflicting policy actors, agenda setting, and stakeholders definitely prepared me for being able to better grasp the politics in play here.

Peace Corps service also provides its volunteers with invaluable new skills – most obviously, the ability to speak a new (and often somewhat obscure) language.  One of the most fulfilling activities that I have been involved in for the past few months is being a member of the committee of volunteers involved in reformulating the Peace Corps project in Samoa.  This is a process that occurs regularly at each post, during which staff, volunteers, and host country agencies examine the effectiveness of the past project and determine needs for future projects.  As part of this effort, I have learned how to evaluate a current program and determine how/if it should be changed.  I have learned how to set clear project goals and objectives – and how to match these objectives with appropriate KSAs and training methods.  I have (re)learned how any project idea must continuously evolve to fit the needs of partner agencies, the project participants, the training programs, and all the other stakeholders.

So – have I benefited from the combination of Peace Corps and BCEP? Yes.  Can I nail down how as well as previous/current BCEP PCVs who have worked in fisheries management, forestry, or conservation? No.  But despite all this, the skills I was provided in BCEP allowed me to better approach my secondary projects as a PCV and to better evaluate the environmental situation of the country in which I am serving.

About Karen C.