|That was before last year, when former
Peace Corps director Mark Schneider unveiled the Peace Corps' Global Technology
Initiative. Now, a staff of about 70 volunteers, schooled by an IT trainer, is
dedicated specifically to helping launch technology projects in developing nations.
Meanwhile, Peace Corps volunteers are now expected to use computers (as well as banana
leaves) in their fight against poverty.
For this newly
created "e-Peace Corps," the timing couldn't have been better. With the
tech sector shedding jobs, the organization is poised to receive even more
Internet-attuned volunteers than ever.
"Historically, whenever there is a down-turn in the economy,
more people enter the Peace Corps. And applicants these days definitely tend to be
more 'tech savvy,'" says Gini Wilderson, who as the Peace Corps' information and
communications technologies specialist is responsible for overseeing this sweeping
transformation. "They are coming in with Web development, computer-training skills,
and distance-education skills."
Connecticut native Andrew Cunningham, one of these Alley-era
recruits, was doing tech support for Macintosh when he left after three years to join the
Peace Corps. As a "natural resources" volunteer in the village of
Concepcion de Maria in Nicaragua, near the Honduras border, Cunningham supervised the
planting and growing of trees. But in time, he realized his computer skills could be
his most significant legacy.
Backed by the community's leaders, Cunningham built a website so
that international institutions could learn more about development projects occurring in
the area; it allowed a local cooperative to drum up enough funds to purchase an ambulance
to transport sick residents. Cunningham has also been training high school students
in Word and PowerPoint, and helping them learn basic e-mail skills.
"One story that will always stick in my mind is the first
computer class of a seventh-grade girl," he says. "She was from a nearby village
that does not have electricity. It was obviously her first time to even see a
computer. The little girl picked up the mouse and began to touch the monitor with
it. The beautiful thing is that less than 30 minutes later, she was double-clicking,
opening menus, and drawing pictures."
Kenya-based volunteer and former computer programmer Renice Jones
agrees. "It's definitely not your father's Peace Corps anymore," Jones
says. After working for Electronic Data Systems for 17 years, Jones decided it was
time to escape corporate America. After arriving in Kenya, she encountered a women's
group called Teenage Mothers Association of Kenya (TEMAK), whose primary function is to
teach teenage mothers job skills and to provide primary education to their kids. To
help the group raise extra money, Jones launched the website www.globalcrafts.co.uk to sell and distribute
local crafts over the Internet, including TEMAK-manufactured items.
Corporate America has stood up and taken notice. Earlier
this year, Hewlett-Packard and AOL Times Warner jointly awarded Jones something called a
"Peace Pack," which is an up to $10,000 grant earmarked specifically for
computers, printers, modems, digital cameras, and Internet services. The aid has
also helped Jones' Kenyan village to purchase the domain name www.womenofafrica.com, so as to host other
websites for African women and youth groups (webmaster's note: the domain name
purchased was www.afrikapamoja.org)
The Honduran town of Yuscaran is seeing some benefits of the tech
initiative as well. There, Susan Stolpe and other volunteers received a Peace Pack
earlier this year to help build a public library. With a population of 13,500
residents, most of whom don't have computer experience, Yuscaran is struggling to find
sustainable economic opportunities. Local leaders believe that wiring the new
library could also help promote the area outside of Nicaragua as a tourist destination,
touting its colonial architecture, gold and silver mines, rainforests, and park-protected
Critics say that these acts of corporate charity are often thinly
veiled attempts to grab first-mover advantage in emerging markets. And, in many of
these underserved towns, there may be more fundamental infrastructure issues to address.
"We're still having problems sharing the analog dial-up telephone lines with multiple
other computers," Jones says.
Further, language barriers can complicate the ramping up of IT
skills, even for those in areas with existing high-end jobs. Volunteer Blair
DeWeese, based in El Paraiso, Honduras, teaches computer skills to accountants who
maintain vo9lumes of handwritten records. "Much of this could be automated by
using Excel, but the workers don't know how to use it," DeWeese says, since all of
the software manuals are still written in English.
Still, despite the hurdles, applicants keep coming. Douglas
Miller, a Peace Corps recruiter in New York City, says the selection process is similar to
Silicon Alley's in its heyday. "You don't necessarily have to have a degree in
computer science [to do the work], but you do need to have some applicable work
experience," he says.
And Miller has a knowledgeable perspective on the changes that
have taken place in this 40-plus-year-old institution, having been a Peace Corps volunteer
in Thailand himself 10 years ago. "None of this would have been relevant
then," he explains. "There weren't even computers in the town."