The Peace Corps, an agency of the United States government founded in 1961, has a mission to promote world peace and friendship by addressing three overarching goals:
- To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans (Peace Corps, n.d.).
While the Peace Corps is funded by the federal government, it is also known for its grassroots development projects. In contrast, Easterly has characterized the international aid system more generally as,
driven by large players [and] tend[ing] to be top-down rather than bottom up. Such top-down and agency-driven approaches translate into projects that are not responsive to the needs of local communities, tend to serve the priorities and perspectives of so-called aid experts rather than the aid recipients and lead to inefficient results (2008, p. 463).
Indeed, and in light of Easterly’s observation, Peace Corps officials stress it is not an aid agency. Rather, it seeks to promote world peace and friendship as well as asset-based community development. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) have the opportunity to apply for grant funding for small community-based projects as a part of their service. Volunteers are generally not permitted to raise more than $10,000 and all funding they receive from the U.S. government must be matched both monetarily and in-kind (such as through labor, for example). I began my Peace Corps adventure in March 2015 and completed that journey in May 2017. This is a reflection on one of the small grass roots development efforts with which I was involved during my service.
Early in 2016, I was approached by a woman seeking my assistance with a project that on which she and a group of women were working in a neighboring town, about a 30-minute bike ride away. The group ultimately wished to construct a housing development in their village and to help pay for that effort by selling eggs from their chickens as well as by growing fruits and vegetables. In order to realize their dream, the women sought assistance and funding from the Peace Corps. I suggested as a first step toward realizing their goal that they consider developing a communal garden for which those involved in the initiative could assume responsibility. I did so in part because I had noticed that the small convenience-style stores in town did not routinely stock fresh produce and so it appeared there would indeed be a market for items they were able to grow.
The women who had approached me liked the idea, so we began meeting weekly to draft a proposal to obtain start-up funds for it. They were actively engaged in this process, which I was excited about because other PCVs had indicated that they had found it difficult to attract engaged participants to help develop community project ideas and plans. I came to trust the leaders of this group, because they demonstrated their work ethic through our weekly meetings. Additionally, the president of the entity arranged for those involved to complete classes concerning how to grow vegetables in greenhouses that were offered by a national institute in their town. We secured the grant funding, but unfortunately, before I could participate in the effort’s implementation, I had to leave the country for a medical leave, and I was unsure as I departed whether I would be able to return. Nevertheless, the leader and I maintained communication during my absence, as she and her colleagues moved the garden project forward by attending greenhouse classes. In truth, following through with this grant was a key factor in motivating me to return to Costa Rica following my medical leave.
The Effort Takes an Unexpected Turn
When I returned to Costa Rica and met with the group’s leader, she explained that only four (including herself) of the 12 women previously involved had completed the greenhouse course to date and that she now planned to move away. She felt badly that she was now leaving and introduced me to another woman, Ana, who was interested in the effort. Although, at this point, I was frustrated and was not expecting that we could create a successful project, I learned that Ana had wanted a greenhouse for some time and was willing to work for it. I communicated with the funding group, World Connect, to inquire if Ana could assume leadership of the endeavor and they agreed, as long as the three women who completed the greenhouse classes could also participate. Additionally, Ana included her daughter and a neighbor in the project. So, at the time of transition, the initiative included five women, with Ana serving as their leader. Accordingly, she and I soon met with Costa Rican Ministry of Agriculture officials to discuss the plans for the garden/greenhouse. That staff assisted us in various ways, such as locating needed topsoil and facilitating a meeting with another women’s group that had years of experience with growing vegetables and fruits in a greenhouse. This effort became the most sustainable project I completed during my Peace Corps experience. On reflection, I believe this was so because my role was that of a catalyzer or connector, rather than director or individual in charge. In the end, this initiative appeared to fit the form that Easterly (2008) has suggested is most likely to succeed—it responded to a locally determined need and desired strategy to address it.
Why was this project successful with Ana, when it had stalled without her active involvement? As I have reflected on this scenario, I believe several factors influenced the outcome. First, while the original group appeared to be active, I am not sure they worked cohesively together, since only a few members participated consistently. Second, Ana was willing and ready to lead the project since she had already attended classes about hydroponics and greenhouses, whereas the group’s original members had agreed to complete such a curriculum as a condition of possible project funding. As noted, however, only four actually had done so. This was so despite the fact that the women did not need to pay for the instruction, nor did they need to travel to participate in the classes. I worried whether this had occurred because the first group of women were not truly interested in learning about growing their own produce to contribute to their livelihoods in this way.
The Project’s Outcomes
When I asked Ana what happened, she suggested that when it comes to paying for a project (with time or money), people drop out, but when it comes time for a party, they find the time and funds. While this is a common assumption, this apparently in fact happened with this project. The three women from the original women’s group agreed to move forward with Ana leading the effort; however, they stopped participating once money was due and/or when it was time to start building the greenhouse. Whether this sort of turn is a commonly repeated trope or a stereotypic story is not so important as the question of why this project proved a success under Ana’s leadership. She led the effort to fruition despite the fact that she suffered (and suffers) from multiple medical conditions that otherwise have prevented her from working a steady job. Part of the explanation likely lies, as Easterly (2008) has contended, in understanding that Ana was passionate about plants and was also an avid cook. She quite literally knew first-hand how the garden could serve families, whereas many of the other women who participated were learning about growing vegetables and fruits for the first time.
On reflection, this project also reminds me of the Grameen Bank model, which is predicated on the belief that individuals are natural entrepreneurs and that providing them access to small amounts of capital will yield positive economic outcomes (Yunus and Jolis, 2003). This surely worked for Ana and the few women with whom she worked. But I am not persuaded that everyone can become a successful entrepreneur. Hanlon, Barrientos, and Hulme (2012) have expressed a similar skepticism. Instead, as in my experience, capital must be joined with human drive, interest and determination if it is to bear fruit. Ana supplied that energy and capacity to create a successful garden whose produce could contribute to the health, welfare and livelihood of her own family and her neighbor’s family. The project to date must be considered only a limited success, since only Ana and her neighbor have benefitted from the effort, in light of the original intent to construct a community garden that would benefit a larger group of individuals.
Despite its limited success as a community endeavor, the garden has proven sustainable under Ana’s direction. She has continued the effort and regularly shares photos of the produce the garden is yielding with me. More, on her own initiative, she has also completed a canning class where she learned how to make salsas that she now sells locally. That is, Ana has scaled up production and has begun offering products from the garden for sale, as originally contemplated. She took full advantage of the grant (start-up) funding, whereas about 12 women passed up the opportunity it presented. Agency likely played a role in this¾Ana seized the opportunity offered by the grant. Its economic consequences aside, in the end, this initiative allowed me to come to know Ana well and she is now one of my closest and dearest friends from my Peace Corps experience and that, in and of itself surely constitutes a positive outcome.
Easterly, W. (2008). Reinventing Foreign Aid (Vol. 1). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Hanlon, J., Barrientos, A. and D. Hulme. (2012). Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South. Bloomfield, CT.: Kumarian Press.
Yunus, M., and Jolis, A. (2003). Banker to the Poor: Micro-lending and the Battle Against World Poverty. New York, NY: Public Affairs Press.
Peace Corps. (n.d.). “About the United States Peace Corps.” Retrieved from: https://www.peacecorps.gov/about/
Source: Author Photos
Beth Olberding is a second year Master’s student in Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) and Natural Resources. She obtained her B.A. in Biology with a minor in Global Sustainability from the University of Virginia. At Virginia Tech, she participated in the Peace Corps Master’s International Program as an integral part of her MURP curriculum. She served in the Peace Corps as a Community Economic Development Facilitator in Costa Rica from 2015-2017. While in Costa Rica, she also conducted research for her thesis for her Urban and Regional Planning degree. More specifically, she explored indigenous peoples’ perspectives on REDD+ (Reducing [carbon] Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), an international program funded partially by the World Bank. She is currently a graduate research assistant for the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development and hopes to work at the nexus of environmental and social issues in the future.