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Want to Affect Global Change? First, Meet Your Neighbors

June 30, 2014
Crystal Vitagliano

Crystal Vitagliano

Today’s guest post comes from Crystal Vitagliano, an AmeriCorps and Peace Corps Alum,  who works in international development. This blog is the first in our International Career Series sponsored by IPSL that profiles leading alumni of AmeriCorps working in international and intercultural careers. This post is also part of AmeriCorps Alums’ REALTalk series on race, equity, and AmeriCorps alumni as leaders.

Imagine your first day of work in your international career. Picture waking up one morning, and without hesitation or reserve, going to someone else’s place of work that you’ve already started considering your own.   Imagine that when you arrive you find the person in charge and proceed to instruct them on how they should run daily operations.  You chose this new place of work because you felt like it needed some help, and, while you may know very little about how they manage their typical day-to-day, you feel like you know exactly how to help them. This is how some international development organizational staff operate, particularly ones based in one location that are trying to help people in another location through very limited interaction.

It’s exciting to realize we can be a part of solving global challenges, and we do come equipped with some skills to help in our first international jobs. But the reality is we often don’t know anything about international organizational work plans in our first international work places, operating structures, or what successes and obstacles they have had in the past.  In terms of identifying their needs, we simply do not know what the needs are unless we take the time to ask.

I was first tuned on to this operational gap of international development upon returning from the Peace Corps when I started to consider graduate school as a next step. In March 2010, two full years before I applied to graduate school, President Bill Clinton went on record to apologize for the trade policies he created with Haiti while he was in office.  By forcing Haiti to drop tariffs on imported subsidized U.S. rice, he helped  Arkansas farmers sell and move excess rice that they were unsuccessful in distributing within U.S. borders.  The U.S. produces a significant amount of excess food, and from a policy dating back to 1981, the U.S. sells the excess food to developing countries.

While this might seem like a win-win situation, the U.S. failed to consult the developing countries about their food needs.  So while it might seem helpful that President Clinton was supporting Arkansas farmers by finding a means to sell their excess rice, the result felt by Haiti in receiving the rice was devastating.  Rice is, after all, one of the key crops produced by Haitian farmers, and an influx of cheap excess U.S. rice to the Haitian market overwhelmed them.  What once was a profitable venture became a market in which they could not compete, as the U.S. rice was sold at a significantly lower cost than what a Haitian farmer could sell it for.

Upon hearing this story and admiring President Clinton’s global apology for his mistake, I decided to continue my transition into the field of international development. I enrolled in graduate school for a degree in sustainable international development.  I wanted to learn how to better help people in developing countries in a way that did more help than harm.  The key, I learned quickly in my graduate school career, was developing local capacity and involving the community in every level of a project’s development.

This concept was not entirely new to me, as I had gone through a participatory approach with a community project in Kazakhstan during my time as a Peace Corps volunteer.  During the first three months in the country, my training group and I were tasked to perform a community project that would benefit the town of Belbulak.  We approached the project by first asking the question, “What does the community need?”  We consulted with students, pensioners, host families, and city officials to try and identify a way we could serve the community.  After many ideas and impossible suggestions, we settled on improving the city center by making benches and cleaning up the landscape.  We involved the students by making it a service learning activity, and they were thrilled to get out of the classroom for an afternoon.  We involved the local city architect and city workers to consult on bench construction, placement, and tools to use.

The city architect (pictured far right) with students and Peace Corps Volunteers, overseeing the construction and placement of benches installed in the city center of the town of Belbulak, located 15 km east of Almaty in Kazakhstan.

The city architect (pictured far right) with students and Peace Corps Volunteers, overseeing the construction and placement of benches installed in the city center of the town of Belbulak, located 15 km east of Almaty in Kazakhstan.

We purchased as many materials locally as possible, which patronized the local businesses, and we involved the teachers and school custodians by leaning on their expertise in gardening and landscaping.  The number of local people outnumbered the Peace Corps Volunteers four-fold.   Since the local community saw that we heard their suggestions and asked for their help, they were invested in the work they did that day to help improve their community. Two years later, the community benches we built and the flowers we planted are still up kept by city officials. The legacy we left behind lives on.

Students, teachers, and Peace Corps Volunteers posing for the completion of their Community Service Project which involved installing benches and planting flowers in the city center of Belbulak, Kazakhstan.

Students, teachers, and Peace Corps Volunteers posing for the completion of their Community Service Project which involved installing benches and planting flowers in the city center of Belbulak, Kazakhstan.

This was a successful international development project, because it involved the community and delivered a product that met a need identified solely by the community themselves.  We only served as a means to bring the intended result to fruition.  Not all training groups during my Peace Corps service took this same approach, and the results of their projects were drastically different from ours.  One group of volunteers alone decided their community would benefit from the construction of a peace pole in the city center.  While this was a nice idea, it did nothing to serve the community, and since the community members were barely consulted on the project, they accepted the peace pole with minor enthusiasm.  Days later, when the peace pole fell down due to poor construction, no one in the community stepped up to fix it as they had little investment in the project.

While rice imports and peace pole construction are vastly different types of development projects, both examples used the same project planning process and thereby yielded negative results.  Put simply, when the community is not consulted in terms of their needs and when a community is not involved in the implementation of a project, the project has little chance of success.  Only when a community is invested in the project planning, implementation and sustainability initiatives will the project actually be successful and sustainable.  The key to true and successful development is when organizations consult local people and communities and include them in every step of the process.   So if you were to imagine the same scenario above—and if you were to imagine becoming involved with a new project in a new place where you knew very little—then success could still be possible if the project involved and consulted the local people. This strategy of development in building local capacity is the key to success for all international development projects across the globe.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 3, 2017 10:24 pm

    As a fellow alum and future Peace Corps volunteer, I appreciate your insight here, Crystal; local capacity is indeed key. Well done with the benches too.

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