Following a presentation at Georgetown University about the future of the Peace Corps in the 21st century, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Carrie Hessler-Radelet, the current Director of the Peace Corps, to discuss the present challenges and opportunities of Peace Corps-led international development in Africa and the Middle East.
GJIA: What challenges confront international development today, and what is the role of the Peace Corps in combating them?
CH: The past twenty years have been a period of the most significant economic development ever in the history of the world. That is a great thing. But there are other challenges that remain.Our world faces a number of development issues, ranging from climate change to outbreaks of new and deadly diseases. While the unpredictable nature of these phenomena will always challenge us, at the Peace Corps it is our job to change difficulty into opportunity. Our volunteers work with communities at the last mile to help them identify and prepare for present and future challenges. The Peace Corps helps communities become more adaptable, resilient, and, ultimately, better off. We empower the people that we work with so that, when we leave, they can build off our progress.
GJIA: How does the Peace Corps use new technology and data to enhance its operations?
CH: There are so many great examples of Peace Corps volunteers leveraging technology in their work. Two volunteers, Nishant and Lauren, created a system using mobile technology in Nicaragua to anonymously answer difficult questions about reproductive and sexual health. They realized that there were no reliable and safe sources within their community’s health system to get information about topics like sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, family planning, or sexual orientation. The plan they came up with enabled the community to text in their questions and, ultimately, have them answered by a youth-friendly advisor. The project was so successful that Nicaragua’s Ministry of Health actually institutionalized it into a national adolescent reproductive health program. That’s just one example. Our volunteers are connecting their communities to new markets in Kenya using technology. Teachers are using technology as learning tools. Peace Corps volunteers are very innovative, and they are using technology wherever they are.
GJIA: How have Peace Corps operations in North Africa and the Middle East been affected by the rise of ISIS and the increasing number of terrorist attacks in the region?
CH: Keeping our volunteers safe and secure is our number one priority. We don’t place volunteers in locations where there are high safety and security risks. We work with the U.S. State Department regularly to make sure that we have all the available information when deciding which communities are the safest for our volunteers to operate in.
These aren’t the only measures that we take to ensure volunteer safety. Probably the most important thing we do is train our volunteers to speak the local language and to be able to read cultural signs. That way, they are able to understand when something is not right and are able to assess the situation and make the best decision to move forward. We utilize bystander intervention training in the communities in which we operate. With this approach, volunteers agree that they will intervene when they see someone that is potentially doing something of risk, and members of their community also agree to look out for volunteers. Our commitment to bystander intervention really helps keep our volunteers healthy and safe. We also engage local communities where volunteers serve to make sure they understand how important it is to us that they help to keep their volunteers safe.
GJIA: In what capacity did the Peace Corps work with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa?
CH: We removed our volunteers from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea during the Ebola outbreak, but we did have staff in those regions that remained. Integral to the Peace Corps’ role in working with the CDC to fight the outbreak of Ebola is that fact that our staff is comprised of very talented language and cross-cultural facilitators, medical professionals, and regional experts. They are people who understand both the environmental dynamics and developmental needs of their host countries very well.
After our volunteers left their communities, we contacted the CDC and informed them that we had many regional offices with staff and vehicles that could be used to help fight the Ebola epidemic. We asked if they wanted to use these resources, because our staff spoke virtually every language and dialect that one might ever encounter in these regions. So when the CDC entered the scene, its staff worked out of many of our offices and worked closely with our staff. Whenever the CDC went out to educate and survey communities about Ebola, our staff went with them. Peace Corps staff acted as cultural ambassadors, performing much of the translation and community education that was so critical to the turnaround of the epidemic. While CDC personnel had all of the medical expertise, they really knew nothing about the language and culture of these countries. Peace Corps staff were their cultural ambassadors. I received a thank you note from the CDC that described very poignantly how necessary Peace Corps staff were to allowing CDC doctors, nurses, and epidemiologists to do their jobs successfully.
Our Peace Corps staff didn’t have to stay in Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea, but they wanted to serve [the communities in which they had been stationed] and be a part of the solution. Every single member of our staff in all three of those countries remained in their respective regions. They wanted to be part of the solution—so they volunteered. This is a powerful testimony to their commitment to our cause.
Carrie Hessler-Radelet is the 19th Director of the Peace Corps. She previously served as the Deputy Director of the organization from 2010 to 2012, a Peace Corps volunteer, and the Vice President and Director of the Washington, D.C. office of John Snow, Inc. She was actively involved in the establishment of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) under President George W. Bush, and served as a primary author of PEPFAR’s first strategic plan. She also served as a Johns Hopkins Fellow with USAID in Indonesia and founded the Special Olympics in The Gambia in 1986. She was nominated to Director of the Peace Corps by President Barack Obama in August 2012.
Director Hessler-Radelet was interviewed by Sydney Jean Gottfried and Jacob Haberman on 23 February 2015 in Washington D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.