The PCV Approach is based on my service as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Republic of Panama from 2007 to 2009.
The Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) strives to be eternal. She temporarily lives in and becomes a part of a community, first and foremost, and then works with her neighbors on locally grown initiatives to build permanent leadership and knowledge that can perpetually grow benefits for the community. Using her temporary presence to contribute indefinitely to the local development process, the PCV aims for sustainability in the deepest sense.
One of the first phases of the PCV Approach is integration. Essentially, the PCV becomes a part of the community and gains trust to such an extent that the novelty of being a foreigner dissipates. This is a critical hurdle to jump for several reasons. First, it improves communication: a conversation where there is mutual trust is much more likely to represent the true values of the locals. Embarrassment, shame, fears, a desire to impress, or a simple disinterest in talking with a stranger can all drastically skew the information received by a development worker. With the community, or at least select community members, feeling comfortable with and trusting the PCV, she can gather much more reliable information.
This is a significant advantage of the PCV Approach: the degree of trust and comfort that a PCV can develop over many months of living as a member of the community. This is not a phenomena of people from other countries only; a person from a significantly different context within the country, e.g., higher income, education, or rural/urban can experience the same. The cultural divide between people of higher socio-economic status and people living in poverty can be extreme even within a small spatial area, as was the case between Limón and government officials in the provincial capital not five miles away as the Harpy Eagle flies. Nothing can compare to the bonding experience of participating in local customs and showing appreciation for the community culture. This sort of immersion into the culture allows the people to feel more comfortable with the development worker, ultimately contributing to the legitimacy of the stakeholder involvement in any prospective intervention.
As a second benefit of integration, the PCV has a much clearer path to identifying the sensitivities of the place, including marginalized groups, controversies, and conflicts. A development intervention could fail or be detrimental if it does not diligently avoid irritating existing conflicts; it could contribute to greater community integration by addressing issues of marginalized groups. An understanding of these intricacies is fundamental to sustainable development, yet by their very nature – forming a system completely unique to the local context – an outsider can only hope for a blurred snapshot.
While learning about the people and place, a crucial component of integration is the identification of leaders. The local leaders are the gate through which the PCV contributes to community development. As part of the prospective “beneficiary” group, these leaders are supremely knowledgeable of the people and place, are highly respected, and can contribute to community development in perpetuity. The PCV strives for community knowledge and respect, and can have some advantages over locals in this respect, including a development-oriented mindset to aid in searching for knowledge and neutrality with which to build universal respect. Regardless of the limited advantages attainable by the PCV over a local leader, the PCV is temporary.
To limit the process of development (with respect to time) to the presence of a temporary development worker or intervention in the community is antithetical to the “deep” view of sustainable international development that is synonymous with the PCV Approach. For the purposes of this analysis, deep sustainability is the acquisition of skills and knowledge for and the realization of organic propagation of development in the long run; this is in line with the idea of capacity development and Amartya Sen’s development as freedom. Deep sustainability exists where the benefits of an intervention grow indefinitely. Surface-level sustainability can be seen as consideration for the environmental, social, and economic complexity of an intervention, which is more in line with the Brundtland conception. Of course, both forms are important.
Both levels of sustainability can be observed through the Limón latrine project. At the surface level, the project was sustainable for bearing little if any cost of maintenance, use of local materials, and labor and material contributions from each beneficiary; the lack of maintenance costs prevents deterioration and abandonment of the latrines, local materials are renewable within nature or affordably delivered from the provincial capital, and beneficiary contributions confirm the demand for the latrines. It is important to note that these surface-level sustainability points do not extend much if at all beyond the boundary of the project. At a deeper level, the project was locally initiated, locally designed, locally managed, locally evaluated, and even partly locally financed; local coordinators realized nearly all aspects of the project of their own capacity with only support and training from me. They have the proven skills for organizing the community around an idea, composing it within the framework of a project, and implementing it. The process behind the latrine project can be used to organically effect community development through future projects; naturally, the actual application of the skills to future projects is a critical component of deep sustainability. Sustainability in this sense generates benefit beyond the boundaries, including time, of the project.
The example seems straightforward, but instances of deep sustainability are of a gray scale. The deeper purpose of a latrine is to improve health, and through this higher status of health a person can contribute more to her own development than a person who is sick or dying. In this way, the latrines in and of themselves can be seen as sustainable in a deep sense. However, the latrine has a finite life. A person too has a lifetime, but he can transfer skills and knowledge to others during his lifetime. The blurring continues, as one could argue that the latrine indeed transfers its benefit on to the user who is then able to better transfer skills and knowledge to others. Regardless of the arguments that may exist over whether some point is or is not painted pitch black with deep sustainability, maximization of an intervention’s deep sustainability – striving for indefinite growth of an intervention’s benefits – is unarguably desirable. The PCV Approach is about finding the darkest gray available.
The latrine project described above exemplifies a deeply sustainable intervention that came from the initiative of local leaders. The PCV Approach depends on such local initiative. Discussions with local leaders in particular and the community in general will provide a glimpse into the development interests of the community. The community-held interests are then informed by the PCV as she shares information about transforming the idea into a project and the guidance she can provide. The PCV ensures that the community understands clearly that she will not initiate, fund, nor carry the weight of a project; she will support local leaders throughout the project, in developing it, identifying prospective funding sources, and managing the process, but it is up to the community to determine what that project will be and to make it a reality. This is for three reasons: to ensure that the community does not simply wait to be developed, instead grabbing the proverbial reigns; to ensure that the community actually has the skills and knowledge to grab the reigns, e.g., to initiate projects on their own; and to ensure that the PCV does not impose on the community. Furthermore, the PCV suggests that she will only collaborate on community projects, i.e., those projects that are of or for a significant portion of the community. The PCV Approach is about supporting local initiatives, not telling communities what to do; for the former, it is important to prevent a situation where the community holds back from initiating a project as they wait for the PCV to initiate it on her own.
As with every other aspect of the project, the community must be able to lead the transition of an idea into a project. It is perhaps the biggest step to be taken: it requires a high level of self-confidence and hope on the part of the initiator. Once the idea is a project it is visible to the entire community; it could fail in front of the community, and the weight of the failure would be disproportionately carried by the leader. The PCV thusly uses her relationship with the local leaders effectively to ensure they are able to see a feasible path to realization of a project. When local leaders understand that opportunities exist, they begin to explore them with the PCV and other community members.
A PCV’s involvement is always controversial. It is all but impossible to prevent some benefit of her work from being dependent on her presence. For example, encouragement of local leaders from the PCV can be necessary leading up to the local initiation of a project; this encouragement is of the PCV and thus the organic nature of the subsequent initiation is tainted. When the PCV has left along with her encouraging words, the local leaders may not be able to get past this initial hurdle for taking on other community development projects. One argument against this is that such encouragement remains and applies to future actions of the community, like a learned skill. Regardless, the PCV Approach is about maximizing community capacity to perpetually grow its own development. If perfection does not exist, continuously striving for deeper sustainability is the best option. For example, communicating to community members the importance of encouraging their leaders to initiate a project may lead to a deeper level of sustainability than would a development worker doing the actual encouraging.
We can see an example of local initiation in the PCV Approach if we look back to the events leading up to the Limón latrine project. Once I had developed a strong relationship with the community in general and local leaders in particular, I began exploring interests of my community-wide neighbors, including new latrines, improvements to the water supply system, English language lessons, and improvement of the trail to the nearest road. I began sharing with the community members more about how I could be of assistance, including indicating that I had no money to give, could refer them to funding sources, could train them in all aspects of a project, had technical knowledge of and experience with latrines and water supply systems, and had no language-teaching experience nor training. Many months passed at this stage, which allowed me to further strengthen my relationship with and learn more about the community, though not much else (in Limón).
I had been living in Limón for nine months before a community leader, Paulino, invited me to attend a meeting about a latrine initiative. Paulino had been elected by the community to lead a group of locals who liaise with the Ministry of Health (in a loose sense), so there was a degree of formality to his leadership in Limón. I had spent a great deal of time with Paulino and he had come to be my closest friend in the community. I had discussed with him in great detail my abilities and interest in collaborating with the community, and he had inquired extensively into the possibilities. While causation is far from clear, the fact that he was the first to initiate a project with me correlates well with the aims of the PCV Approach. With Paulino as the principal local coordinator, the process of developing the latrine project had formally begun.
Developing and managing a project through the PCV Approach utilizes the same concepts as initiating it. Information is provided to facilitate the realization of each step by local leaders, now coordinators. This includes training on budgeting, timelines, work schedules, delegation of duties, and other general areas of project development and management; advising the coordinators on feasibility of project timelines and budgets, for example, is a valuable role for the PCV. In terms of budgets, the PCV Approach involves minimizing costs of a project by maximizing contributions from the community; this has the added benefit of ensuring demand for and local ownership of the project. The community information previously acquired instills in the PCV an additional valuable role at this stage. The economic, social, and environmental specifics, i.e., surface-level sustainability, are incorporated into the design of the project through constructive discourse with the coordinators; here the PCV can serve as a voice for marginalized communities and unrepresented viewpoints without imposing. It is important that the coordinators have the ultimate say on whether or not to incorporate the suggestions of the PCV; they are the ones who must advocate for and carry the project, so their ownership of it is essential. If the project veers away from the desires of the coordinators, the coordinators are likely to veer away from the project. Where the PCV judges that there is a need to influence the project development, if her case is compelling and her respect in the community is strong then the coordinators will be more likely to incorporate her thoughts. As in many other areas of the PCV Approach, efforts to incorporate surface-level sustainability through discourse with the coordinators prioritizes deep sustainability, as opposed to viewing surface-level sustainability of the isolated project as the end goal. Discussing the pertinent surface-level sustainability issues with the coordinators in a way that enhances their ability to recognize and address these issues in general is the goal; through training (in a loose sense), the PCV can effect surface-level sustainability in a way that is deeply sustainable.
Development of a project overlaps with management of it. Once a plan is set, implementation can begin; this occurs in many steps as opposed to planning everything and then implementing everything. Where money is needed, an important step will be developing a budget and then searching for funding. The PCV serves as a source of information about possible funding sources. Funding sources that can be accessed by the community without the PCV, e.g., after the PCV has left, are the most preferable in terms of deep sustainability. For example, locally-based governmental bodies and non-governmental organizations can be solicited for support by anyone able to access their offices, whereas an NGO in the USA can only be solicited with internet or phone access. It is an unfortunate fact of the PCV Approach that local funding is not always available. The project may need to be adjusted to accommodate a level of funding lower than the initial plan, as an example of a development-implementation step. The PCV trains the coordinators to evaluate these steps for improvement of future steps.
Minimizing the perceived role of the PCV during the project is a critical part of attaining deep sustainability. The community must believe that they accomplished the project, as opposed to believing that the PCV was the reason for the project success. She must be sure the community sees the coordinators leading the project; she must be diligent in discussions of the project with the community to avoid portraying the sense that the project is “hers” in any way.
The Limón latrine project was developed and managed by a project committee of three main coordinators, established during the initial meeting held by Paulino. I taught, where information was lacking, the coordinators how to piece together ideas into a project, and the committee then produced a project proposal for a new latrine for every home in the community. I trained the coordinators on how to solicit funds with a proposal letter and budget, and accompanied them to meetings with the provincial representative, the district mayor, regional Ministry of Health officials, and others. We managed to secure 25 fiberglass latrine seats from the Ministry of Health. Given the limited success, the committee decided to reduce its proposal from 55 latrines to 15, prioritizing the homes according to need. Funding was solicited by the coordinators and ultimately provided through me from an NGO based in the USA. Once we had the materials (being under budget enabled us to construct five extra), I trained three coordinators in the construction of the latrine, and each coordinator then led five or six other project participants in construction of their latrines, with certain steps being required of each participant on an individual basis. As an example of some of the unique issues we addressed, the conscious decision was made to avoid having one of the coordinators lead the group containing his son-in-law in order to avoid irritating existing conflicts. As an example of continuous evaluation, after one participant missed a deadline the committee decided to put in place a fine for future missed deadlines, which was approved by all participants. The coordinators demonstrated their ability to lead a community project not just to me, but more importantly they proved it to themselves and the community. The psychological importance of this cannot be overstressed; the community now sees leaders in the coordinators and coordinators themselves feel like leaders. Their leadership, enhanced through the PCV, can grow into more and more benefits for the community.
The PCV Approach is about building local skills and knowledge and showing a community its organic ability to improve; integrating into the community and advising on a project is the path to these ends. In view of deep sustainability, the actual project in isolation is unimportant; the desired outcome is stronger local leadership with the ability to develop and manage projects into the future – without the PCV.