Sunday, September 2, 2012

Quick and Dirty since it's been a while

In my last post I had submitted an extension proposal and was awaiting an official decision from Headquarters while meanwhile going about the rest of my life as a regular teacher and PCV finishing up his 2 years of service.

There's a couple better posts forthcoming, but since that was about 4 months ago, a bit has happened since then.  Actually, more than a bit, quite a lot more.  Hence the radio silence here on Embarkations.  So I thought the quickest way to dispatch with the news would be a quick and dirty list.  In bullet form.

The context:  In March, we hosted the Simulation Games Development Conference, we launched Public Achievement with the training conference, and on March 28 I officially submitted my PCVL and extension proposal.  Since then, it's kind of been a blur.
  • April
    • Early April: Our SPA Project "To Teach with Care" is approved to build school technology and interactive teaching capacity
    • Mid-April: PCVL Transition Team Meetings begin for Health Education (HE) Program (basically, moving things from the previous PCVL to me)
    • April 18 - 21: Bill and I manage a vacation to Kiev over Easter break
    • Focus In/Train Up (Peace Corps-wide initiative) revision of HE Program begins in earnest
  • May
    • May 3: Program Manager and Director for Programming and Training visit Carahasani for a site identification meeting to determine if a follow on volunteer should be placed there after me; this is also my first time in one of these meetings (something I'll be doing more of as a PCVL)
    • May 4-5: Site visit to Susan Adams' site for her Hygiene Campaign (we want to develop new training materials based upon her campaign in order to encourage this model in the future)
    • May 7: Simulation Game Project Meeting, then back to site
    • May 9 - 11: Back to Chisinau for Close of Service (COS) Conference for M25 Volunteers and M24 Extendees
    • May 12: Haiducii Training for our newest members
    • May 14: Another Simulation Game Project Meeting, then back to site again
    • Ongoing: medical clearance for year 3 tests and appointments
    • May 19: Final HE Partner Conference
    • May 20: Planning for M27s' Pre-Service Training (PST) begins
    • May 21: Bill's bday in the village (my host mom wanted him to have a Moldovan birthday)
    • May 23 - 26: Bill and I attend a conference sponsored by a Romania Fulbrighter and RPCV on Public Health and Social Services in Romania
    • May 28: Medically cleared!
    • May 29-30: Last days of class, last days as a teacher
    • May 31: Last Bell, the school does not realize I am leaving but does ask me for a toast at the celebration afterwards
    • May 31 (evening): I look at my June calendar and realize that when I leave for Chisinau the next morning, it is effectively for good.  Packing and purging begins...
  • June
    • June 1: To Chisinau; may days of PST planning meetings ensue
    • June 4: Susan Adams and her husband Curt become the first of our group to COS (i.e., leave), Matt Mockerman will follow suit later that month, as will MacKenzie (the M24 Healthie who was our program's previous PCVL)
    • June 6: Comments back from Headquarters asking for clarification on our PCVL work assignments (not the easy process we were looking for)
    • June 7: The M27s arrive!  (more commonly known as the "newbies" or, more bureaucratically, the "trainees")
    • June 7: I opt instead for a monitoring and evaluation trip out to 2 Public Achievement groups on the borderlands with Transnistrea (the newbies will see plenty of me soon enough)
    • June 8: Bill's going-away BBQ
    • June 11: Health Education technical sessions ("tech") for PST begin; my personal life ends
    • June 11-15: First week of PST
      • June 14: Elvira (the HE Program Manager) has an accident and suffers a severe contusion to her foot, effectively taking her out of the first 5 weeks of PST and complicating things for everyone a bit
    • June 15: Lease ends on Bill's house (earlier than expected) and 2 months of vagabondage begin 
    • June 16: Final Public Achievement Conference
    • June 18 - 22: Second week of PST
    • June 23-25: Two sacred nights back in the village
    • June 26: Bill and I leave for vacation!  Desperately needed.
  • June 26 - July 8: A great 2 week romp begins that takes us to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Annual HIA Conference and a week in Italy with Jess and her fam
    • July 8: I return to Moldova but Bill heads off to Poland
  • July
    • July 9: Back to the grind, while luckily the trainees are on visit to their future site and it gives me a couple days to catch up
      • Also, the Stenbergs (Heath and Leigh) COS, marking the full start of COS season and a constant string of goodbyes to the volunteers I've served with for 2 years
    • July 13: One treasured night back in the village, it will be the only one this month
    • July 14: Opening of a SPA-funded basketball court outside Chisinau
    • July 17-18: Trainees conduct micro-lessons, their first time teaching in Romanian
    • July 19: We finally simulate the simulation game designed as a Peace Corps training tool!
    • July 22: A day off.  Strange.
    • July 25: Lindsay Wing, my best friend of the past 2 years COSes.  F@!#.
    • July 27: Final Practice School prep time with Trainees; first Practice School tears
    • Sometime in July: apartment search
  • August
    • July 30 - August 4: Practice School Week 1, more tears ensue
    • Bill gets back
    • August 6 - 11: Practice School Week 2, slightly fewer tears
    • August 10: Moving day!  (Finally get to move into a permanent home)
    • Aug. 15: Trainees swear in and become Volunteers!  Immediately leave for their new sites.  They're a great group, pretty well prepared, and we didn't lose a single one from the Health Program.
    • Exhale sigh of relief.  
    • Aug. 20: Facilitate Haiducii for a summer camp
    • Aug. 21: PCVL training (better late than never)
    • Aug. 26 - 29: In the village (now officially my former site) for 4 days of facilitating technology seminars
    • Aug. 30: Technology training for another volunteer's school (luckily close to Chisinau that it was a day-trip)
And that pretty much brings us to today.  Cheers!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Extension Decision: pros and cons (pt. III)

This is part III in this series.  The intro can be found here, and Part II can be found here.

Over the past couple months, I’ve been weighing the pros and cons of extending my Peace Corps service.  In fact, this post comes a bit late – my proposal is already submitted, and if post (Moldova) and headquarters (D.C.) accept me, it’s almost definite I’ll be sticking around in Moldova for a bit longer.

One thing that has been surprising while mulling my possibilities is the dearth of materials out there for current volunteers who are trying to decide whether or not to extend their service.  While a quick search turns up thousands of pages worth of advice on the initial decision regarding Peace Corps service, there is little other than the scarce blog post to be found on sticking around once in country.  In any case, here are the various factors I have considered:

·         Career
·         Family
·         Friends
·         Ongoing projects
·         Opportunity costs
·         Potential for impact in Moldova
·         Potential for impact on Health Education program
·         Potential for impact on Peace Corps/Moldova
·         Realistic need to eventually begin earning a more serious income if I ever want to support a family

Fleshing those factors out a bit yielded a healthy set of pros and cons, with some serious heavyweights on both sides.

(in favor of extension)
(against extension)
·         Guaranteed positive use of next year of time
·         Due to lack of time to conduct a job search at present, there would probably be a gap in employment post-Peace Corps if I leave this summer; thus, I probably wouldn’t be sacrificing a full year of employment to extend.
·         Life in the States/Western Europe is expensive (see opportunity cost above re: probability of joblessness)
·         All living expenses, plus medical expenses are taken care of here. Combined with the two pros above, this seriously mitigates the financial disincentive of extending.
·         Since Jess can’t do the Iron Curtain bike trip, extending doesn’t mean sacrificing that opportunity (the two were mutually exclusive for a variety of scheduling issues)
·         For 1 year extension: 1 month paid home leave
·         Ongoing projects, particularly the national simulation project, which I’d like to see through to evaluation stage
·         Great job flexibility, plus, I love my job
·         Health program undergoing a strategic re-orientation at the same time the Moldovan education system going through a significant set of reforms, meaning this could be a particularly exciting moment to be involved at a higher level in the health program
·         Potential to positively impact Peace Corps Moldova
·         The pay’s not so hot here
·         The gap in employment probably wouldn’t last a year, so at some point during the extension I am sacrificing a fuller salary.  Ultimately, if finances are a key consideration, there’s little doubt I would do better outside of Peace Corps.
·         For less than 1 year extension: no home leave (long time without seeing family/friends)
·         Relatively little support for ongoing professional development, i.e. it will be primarily experiential and self-driven

Then there are a number of factors which are a wash:
·         Family/friends: I’ve chosen a life abroad, so even if I’m not here, it’s unlikely that I’d be based near them.  In a new job I wouldn’t get vacation right away, but there would probably be an employment gap during which to visit family.  On the other hand, even with extension there is the month of home leave if extending for a year.
·         Career #1: I’ve been unable to find any advice from RPCVs (former volunteers) who have extended, so I’m not really sure about the career impact of staying for another year.  On the positive side, 3 years shows a strong commitment while 2 years is a shorter time, and my increased responsibilities during the third year would be similar to a promotion, thus showing growth in the position.  On the unknown side, some employers may look at all PC service as the same, regardless of function.
·         Career #2: without having a tangible job offer, it’s very hard to know if an unknown potential job would be a better or worse experience.

In the end, the most important factors ended up being that last one: in the face of the unknown, it is very difficult to walk away from something that is so obviously going well.  So, too, was my final judgment regarding my potential to impact Peace Corps Moldova and the Health Program (last 2 bullets in the pro/con list).  It was up in the air for about a month as to which column those two factors would fall into; going onto the con side of the ledger would have tipped the balance.

The bigger strategic questions aside, there is also the fact that it is the volunteer’s responsibility to craft the proposal.  Even as a PCVL, there would be significant leeway in which leadership tasks I choose to assist with, as there are far too many to take them all on.   And it’s not necessarily 1 year or nothing, I could also do just 6 or 9 months.  So on top of the decision of whether to extend are a number of smaller decisions regarding how long to extend, whether or not to move, which tasks I want to do as a PCVL, and who my Moldovan partners will be for the portion of my job outside of Peace Corps.  The effect of all this is to make the extension decision less one of black and white and more a shades of gray issue.

On these points, our Country Director, Jeffrey, made it pretty clear that he would like me to stick around for a full year extension.  I initially remained hesitant, but it is much easier to leave early during an extension than it is to re-extend an extension, a subtle but effective push toward submitting a proposal toward the longer end.  The home leave also made a big difference.  I have requested the leave over the winter holidays, which while slightly later than Peace Corps would prefer, makes sense given my responsibilities next year and our training calendar.  Also, this naturally builds in a mid-point chance for reflection to evaluate whether the extension is working for all parties.  Meanwhile, with my Program Manager, Elvira, we seem to have found a workable relationship that gives me enough of a stake in the Health Program’s direction during its revision, but does not diminish her position as the program’s top staff person.

Combined, these reassurances convinced me that while the decision can involve many varying degrees of commitment, the right decision was to go all in.  Ultimately, the chance to help re-shape the health program at a strategic juncture won the day.  Having submitted the proposal, once again it’s up to the fates!  Though this time, instead of a shiny FedEx package I’ll just have my fingers crossed for an upbeat email. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Extension Decision: the Nitty Gritty on Extending (pt. II)

This is the second post in this series on extending service beyond the initial two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  The prelude to this post gives the story of my thoughts on extension for the first year and a half of service.  This post covers practical policy aspects of extension.

Before covering my decision-making process regarding extension (pt. III) and the specifics of what I would likely be doing during an extension (pt. IV), it occurred to me that for those readers who aren’t familiar with the bureaucratic details of my world, a brief overview is in order so as to make sense of the rest of these posts.  As such, this one is mostly for those back home who aren’t so steeped in handbooks, policy guidelines, and other such light reading on the details of Peace Corps.

Upon the successful completion of two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer (not including training), a small group of volunteers may elect to extend their service.  The “extension” is calculated from the original Close of Service (COS) date, which is two years from the day that a Trainee takes the oath and becomes a full volunteer.  They then receive a new COS date reflecting the term of extension.  In the PC vernacular, a person who has extended beyond their original COS date is an “extendee”.

An extension may last a maximum of 2 additional years (making the total service 4 years + Pre-Service Training) and occurs in the same country as the initial tour.  A volunteer extending less than a year simply tacks on the additional time and gets a new, later COS date.  A volunteer extending for 1 year or more, however, is entitled to 30 days “special leave”, during which Peace Corps pays the expense and grants what is essentially extra vacation time in order to travel home.  The leave cannot be taken before the original COS date, but one is encouraged to not delay it significantly into the extension.  Additionally, the extendee is allowed to receive up to 1/3 of their readjustment allowance (the approximately $7,000 one gets at the end of service).  Readjustment allowance is calculated on a monthly basis ($250/month), but for extendees, regardless of the term of the extension the rate is increased to $350/month.  Basically, what this boils down to are some pretty hefty bonuses to those who have been living the Peace Corps lifestyle for just over 2 years.  Still with me?

In order to extend, a volunteer must be in good standing with the agency, which in Moldova essentially boils down to good conduct and positive evaluations from one’s program manager.  Additionally, it requires medical clearance, something that cannot be granted until 90 days prior to the originally-scheduled COS date.

A volunteer must also submit a proposal outlining what they intend to do during the extension and why they think it is important.  In the case of a short extension – sometimes even just a month or two – this  often involves closing out a key project or ensuring its sustainability in a situation where for whatever reason that cannot happen in the volunteer’s original timeframe.  The final decision is made by the Country Director in consultation with the post’s Senior Staff, though of course Washington always gets the final say.

In the case of a longer extension, a the extendee may also move sites (home and workplace).  Regardless of whether or not the extendee moves, their service should represent “expanded duties”, i.e. one cannot extend simply to continue doing exactly what they were doing for the previous two years.  There has to be a growth.  In this way, one is not only extending length service, but also the scope or depth of the service itself.  From the agencies perspective, after two years a successful volunteer shouldn’t really be doing what they were originally brought in to do – there are new volunteers being rotated in for that – one should be moving on to new challenges.

Finally, globally Peace Corps has one particular track known as “Peace Corps Volunteer Leader” (PCVL).    Broadly, the position is described as such:
The Peace Corps Act authorizes the Agency to enroll Volunteer Leaders whose services are requested for supervisory or other special duties or responsibilities in connection with Peace Corps programs overseas. It is Peace Corps policy to enroll Volunteer Leaders when their assistance provides added value to the Agency's overseas programs...Volunteer Leaders provide direction or guidance.
Different countries structure PCVL programs differently, but common tasks include:
·         Acting as liaison among Volunteers, host country supervisors, and Peace Corps staff;
·         Assisting Peace Corps staff in site selection and placement of new Volunteers;
·         Assisting Peace Corps staff in the design and implementation of Volunteer training;
·         Assisting Peace Corps staff in the design and evaluation of Volunteer projects; and
·         Assisting Peace Corps staff in the provision of logistical and administrative support to Volunteers and Trainees.

Not all countries have PCVLs, though Washington has been very encouraging of the program in recent years.  Overall, a post should not exceed a ratio of more than 1 PCVL to 25 volunteers.  For Moldova, that caps us at around 4, which is fitting since our PCVLs are programmatically focused, essentially making them the senior volunteer in 1 of our 4 projects (English Education, Health Education, Agriculture, and Community Development).  Moldova piloted a limited version of PCVL during my first year of service (2010-11) and last summer brought in the first full PCVLs on 2 of the 4 programs.

While a PCVL’s primary focus is improving the project they are assigned to and supporting broader post-initiatives, they are still volunteers.  As such, at any given time they must be involved in at least one activity aimed to build capacity amongst-host country nationals, although that activity may represent a small amount of overall work time.

So, what does this all mean for me?  Well first, as probably guessed by this point, the specific extension I’m considering would be as the PCVL for the Health Program.  As such, it is highly encouraged that the extension be for a full year, but not mandatory.  A serious PCVL proposal, however, would need to be for at least the better part of a year.  Which brings us to second, which is the decision of whether to opt for a shorter 9 month extension or go for the grand tour of a full year, which effects many other things like whether I get 1 month home leave.   It also informs the broader question of how I propose to craft an extension, including PCVL to host-country national balance, where I live, and what partnerships compliment PCVL responsibilities.  Third, it means I have until 5/9/2012 to submit the final version of my extension proposal, after which point I will be at the mercies of higher powers. Finally, it means that formal approval cannot come before May 18, as that is the 90 day mark before my originally scheduled COS date of August 18 and that is the earliest day I can be medically cleared.

So, with that, we blaze on bravely ahead, coming up to our next post, part III of this series, where I will consider the pros and cons of whether or not to chum about with the Moldovans a bit longer.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The (Peace Corps Volunteer) Extension Decision: prelude

June, 2010; Chisinau, Moldova.

Every post probably has that crazy enthusiastic one; heck, most countries have a lot of them.  Within Moldova, I was put definitively into that category on day two when I turned to my mentor and asked “what’s the deal with extensions? I think I want to do that.”  She took a deep sighing breath.  It was a slow sigh, one commensurate with the blazing sun and groaning under the dissonance thrust upon her by ushering us through a jam packed arrival program in a country where the pace of life is otherwise decidedly slower.  Having spent a year tamping down her pace of life and expectations, all of a sudden she was surrounded by the height of American bustle and can-do optimism.  Without shaking her head, she gave a small smile that shook it for her, “Slow down dude.  You’re not even at your training site yet.”

Laughingly, I backed off, recognizing the apparent ridiculousness of the word coming out of the mouth of a person who had been on the ground for less than 24 hours.  That’s not to say I backed off of the idea; upon landing in Moldova in June 2010 I already had lived abroad longer, spoke more languages, and travelled the region more than many of the second year volunteers.  So I didn’t back off, I just shut my mouth.  (I said apparent ridiculousness, not actual ridiculousness).  Anyway, they had a point.  It was day two.  Of 800.  Plus or minus. 

In the 672 day since then – no plus or minus – there have been ups and downs on my feelings towards extension.  For most of the first nine months or so I was up on extension.  Way up.  So much so that my same mentor eventually decided I wasn’t just shot up on coffee and jet lag that second morning, but truly seem to suffer from an abundance of enthusiasm.

But then sometime last spring the idea lost its appeal as the hard realities of small and incremental contributions set in and the romantic sheen of service lost its luster.  It stayed that way for much of the summer.  Though occasionally punctuated by the enthusiasm of the new volunteers and the ideas gained from working with them, my down on extension was deepened by the palpable excitement of the older volunteers who were leaving, a dread of returning to the classroom, and a travel schedule that reminded me that my world outside Moldova moves very quickly and without regard to my absence. 

The fall fell somewhere in between: summer left me energized and a raft of new activities left me busier than ever at my site.  Meanwhile, one of my partners seemed to have taken on the appetite of Goliath when it came to any collaboration possible.  On the other hand, a sentiment lingered as I talked to friends who were finding increasingly influential posts that I was taking the long route, and reading job descriptions offered new adventures complete with a lustrous sheen still intact.

Ironically, it was just as I was preparing to go interview with Bosch in New York this last January that the pendulum swung back in the other direction.  It was exactly when other offers seemed most tangible that staying in Moldova began looking most attractive.  On the one hand, there were more potential collaborations than ever.  And on the other, it seems to be winter when I finally started coming to terms with the true meaning of incremental change on a deeper level.  This was a nice consolation when Bosch didn’t pan out.  Instead of extension representing settling for second best, it was a choice between a variety of attractive options, with pros and cons on all sides.  But that’s for Part II.

To be continued...

Friday, February 17, 2012

Moldova meme

For those living under a rock, this meme has been getting a little out of control this week. (Family that lives under a rock: log onto Facebook or Google "what society thinks I do meme".) So naturally, I thought I'd hop on the bandwagon before it dies.

In all seriousness though, given that a number of people don't even know where Moldova is, what better chance for a bit of Third Goal?  Should Moldova have to miss out on a good meme just because the Twittersphere is sick of it already?

Click to embiggen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Millennium and Peace Corps win €5,000 HIA grant for simulation project!

Snuggled under every coat I own last night as my bus lumbered through our first blizzard of the winter on the three hour trek home from the capital, big news flashed across my phone: a team I've been coordinating just won a €5,000 grant from Humanity In Action to implement a project that will develop Moldova-specific simulation games for civic education!  With just four months to implement, it looks like I know what I'll be doing this spring in my spare time.

So what is this project all about?  From our application, the short version:
Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991, setting its course towards democracy.  After 50 years of Soviet rule, Moldova’s politicians struggled ministering a seemingly alien form of government as did its citizens in figuring out their role within it.  As markets opened, the cultural and ethnic diversity previously suppressed by Soviet culture came to the forefront of the political discourse, with formerly persecuted and silenced minority groups (such as the Roma and Gagauz) demanding justice, respect, tolerance, and in some cases increased autonomy.  Predictably, there were xenophobic, racist, and discriminatory backlashes as Moldova marched toward full-fledged democracy.  Such backlashes still occur and this march is not complete.  Thus, our project aims to develop and run Moldova-tailored simulation games that will compel its participants to address all these contentious historical points typical to nascent democracies transitioning from authoritarian rule. 
This project has two objectives:
  • To create and run (24 times) a politically-oriented simulation game for Moldovan youth across the country 
  • To create and incorporate a culturally-oriented simulation game in the trainings of newly-arrived Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to speed their adjustment to the oftentimes confusing historical and cultural idiosyncrasies of Moldova.
Led by HIA Senior Fellows (SFs) and staff, who are experienced simulation facilitators, we will write the simulations during a five-day workshop that will bring together historians, civil society leaders and PCVs to design, test and translate them into Romanian and Russian. The project team will then travel throughout Moldova to administer the games.  Peace Corps Moldova has 120 volunteers, living in both cities and villages, both Russian and Romanian speaking, making it easy to identify seminar sites across Moldova’s disparate demographics.

This project is designed as a collaboration between three organizations: HIA, the U.S. Peace Corps, and the local NGO Millennium. With the network and expertise of Millennium, Peace Corps, and HIA, this project will promote deeper understanding of history’s legacy on democratic processes and civic leadership among its participants, a small but vital grassroots step along the slow path towards full liberal democracy.
Needless to say, I'm extremely excited about this project for a number of reasons.  As a national project and a collaboration between three organizations (a governmental agency, and international NGO, and a local NGO), this is undoubtedly the most far-reaching project I've found myself supporting yet.  At the same time, with its simultaneous objective of developing a simulation for Peace Corps trainees, this initiative also puts me smack in the middle of improving internal training and support. The implementation team is incredibly diverse, including people from all levels of the respective organizations: from MillenniuM and Peace Corps both staff and volunteers, from HIA both staff and Senior Fellows. Finally, the core project team includes some of the most talented PCVs I've ever had the pleasure to work with this past year and a half.  I may be the link between the funders and implementers, but none of this would have happened without those great PCVs pushing me all the way.

For those unfamiliar, a bit of background on the simulation games, courtesy of PlanPolitik, the German NGO that facilitated the HIA training I attended a few years ago that first introduced me to the methodology.
Politics is a matter of negotiation. Who gets what? And how much? The aim is to unite conflicting interests and to reach decisions concerning the distribution of money, power, security, autonomy etc. Usually, negotiations consist of tough and lengthy wrangling about what appear to be small steps of progress and minor compromises. Outside observers often find it difficult to understand why negotiations or attempts to settle conflicts succeed or fail. Which concessions have made an agreement possible or which demands have prevented it? Which strategic considerations are the actors led by? What scope are they given within institutional, domestic and other constraints? Which negotiation strategies are successful?
What can be learned through simulation games? The participants are asked to play a role. In order to do so as realistically and successfully as possible, they will aim to acquire the information they need about the given crisis or negotiation situation. Participants also gain analytic insight into the conflict or negotiation situation. On one hand, this involves analysing the conflict’s basic scenario, its relevant players and their interests. On the other hand, participants learn to contemplate the political options: which option is desirable, which one is realistic? They realize that there is a big difference between policy and politics, i.e. the actual implementation of policies is rarely congruent with the initial idea. Too conflictive are the interests of the relevant actors.

Secondly, the game inspires in participants a more reflective way of viewing the chosen conflict and indeed political decision-making processes in general. Players of the game gain concrete experience of how, in interaction with others, interests develop and how, depending on the other players’ conduct as the game progresses, these interests are subject to change. Moreover, participants learn just how difficult negotiating is: not all targets can be met and compromises are inevitable. One can gain insight into possible strategies for resolving conflicts in the “real” world. 
Finally, participants are confronted with a rigid time frame for making decisions, establishing priorities and implementing strategies. Being forced to cooperate with others, for example in a negotiation groups, is conducive to enhancing team work, negotiation skills, willingness to compromise as well as a culture of discussion.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Book Review: Join the Club, by Tina Rosenberg

Join the Club, by Tina Rosenberg, W.W. Norton and Company, 351 pages (plus bibliography and notes), 2011.

Join the Club, by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tina Rosenberg, is the latest in the currently vogue genre of Pop Social-Psychology/Pop Sociology. The genre, for which Rosenberg’s fellow New York Times writer Malcom Gladwell is probably the best-known populizer, typically takes a rather academic topic for which there has been recent research that either contradicts the conventional wisdom, or is profound in its societal implications.  The best works, such as Sunstein and Thaler’s Nudge or Gladwell’s Tipping Point, do both.  The journalist-author then acts as a medium, distilling the social science for the general audience, as well as forging an engaging story that can hold that audience’s attention.  Join the Club is Rosenberg’s first full foray into the genre and is highly recommended to anybody concerned with human behavior.  Though the book ultimately suffers from poor organization and the examples have all been presented with greater analytical rigor elsewhere, Rosenberg nevertheless synthesizes these stories in a new and fascinating way.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Care ghiveci vreau sā maninc?

Translation: which ghiveci should I eat?  (Ghiveci is pronounced like kvetch but with a g instead of k.)

My host mom just told me to go down to the beci (root-cellar) and choose a ghiveci for lunch.  This is always a job I love, because normally I just end up choosing my favorite.

This is a section of our basement, with all its wonderful assortment of ghiveci, compote, and every kind of fruit preserve imaginable.  Did I mention this is only a section of the basement?  And winter is more already half over at this point.

Ghiveci, by the way, is a kind of preserved and canned (and maybe fermented?) vegetable salad.  My dictionary says the English equivalent is hotchpotch, but I have absolutely no idea what that is nor have I ever heard it before.  So, per Peace Corps custom re: words/concepts we have never heard before our service, I will continue to simply call it ghiveci.  (This also goes for things that are so specifically Moldovan that the English word just seems inappropriate.  In Peace Corps lingo, the market will always be the piața, and the speeding death traps mini-buses will always be a rutiera.  English rules of pluralization and declension still apply.)

This is the ghiveci I ended up choosing.  It's my favorite, a peppery mix of eggplant, onion, and carrots.  MMM!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

SPA – what is it, really?

Below is a description on Peace Corps Moldova's Small Project Assistance (SPA) fund, which our review board put together early this fall to clarify the purpose of the program for the new group of volunteers.  The background to this post can be found here.  We've recently undergone a pretty thorough review of our SPA program, refocusing on the overriding goals and tweaking some of our policies to match that.  If there are any readers out there who work on their country's SPA program - or a similar program for that matter - I'm curious to hear thoughts on this.

SPA – what is it, really?
SPA exists through a special inter-agency agreement with USAID (plain English: it’s their money, we just get to spend/administer it). As such, the program is unique in that its goal furthers both USAID and Peace Corps’ missions (plain English: we can’t do whatever we want with the $). SPA has one overriding program imperative: "to increase the capabilities of local communities to conduct low-cost, grassroots sustainable development." This objective is significantly different from a goal of simply “conducting sustainable development.” It also informs the only success indicator against which we report: # of HCNs who demonstrate new capacity to guide a project through the complete PDM cycle as a result of collaborating in a SPA project.

The reason that USAID funds PC projects through the SPA program as a part of the Participating Agency Program Agreement (2009) is to teach HCNs all stages of the PDM cycle, including proposal writing, as a form of community capacity building. The focus of the program is not to fund volunteers' community projects or to teach volunteers about project design and management (though it has these positive effects).

USAID considers giving this money to Peace Corps an efficient use of funds because we have long-term, deep relationships with partners whom we can guide through the PDM cycle step by step. It's not so much that we know any better what communities' needs are, but that the process of working very closely and intensively with a project from start to finish is one of the best ways to teach these skills. In short, the project itself is of significantly less importance to USAID than the skills partners develop that can be applied in future community project work. We might not always agree with this sentiment when considering a potential project. With any other program goal, however, USAID would feel better qualified to implement the project itself. As a rule of thumb, the best projects come from the space where donor and implementer goals overlap, but this also requires the honesty to be able to walk away from projects sometimes. SPA is no exception, though we are fortunate in having a very broad donor goal.

On a deeper level, this program design speaks to Peace Corps’ broader philosophy of sustainability. We are not here simply to do, but instead to teach through collaboration with others. In the classroom, we don’t just teach students, but teachers as well. With mayors, we help to teach technology, not simply type documents. The idea of sustainability is no different with any other community project, even when it includes outside funding.

Sometimes this fact is mind-numbingly frustrating – it’s a much higher bar, so high that few organizations engage in the process on the level we do. This level of support is inconceivable for USAID (or any big development organization). But this is also the brilliance of the program: it plays to Peace Corps’ unique strengths in the development field as well as each of our unique relationships that are built on mutual trust and collaboration. Thus, this same difficulty is also the unique value of SPA – in all the grant making development programs our committee members have examined, there is nothing else like SPA out there. And it’s also one of the reasons we have so much respect for all of you.

What is Capacity Building, and what is Capacity Building Through Education
Business defines "capacity building" as "planned development of (or increase in) knowledge, output rate, management, skills, and other capabilities of an organization through acquisition, incentives, technology, and/or training." In easier terms, capacity building means increasing the organization's ability to do what it does, to fulfill its mission and its goals. For the SPA program, projects must include two forms of capacity building: 1) the aforementioned increase in project design and management skills, and 2) a capacity building element through education (classes or trainings).

Here's example of how this might look: If your project sets out to bring running water to the school in order to improve students' health and to decrease the number of absences, the project may also do something like conduct health classes on the threats of infectious diseases -- or maybe conduct a hand washing campaign to decrease illness and a civic engagement campaign about taking care of "our" school so students will keep the indoor bathrooms clean. These training are matched with the goals of the project. For the trainings to increase the capacity of the school, they should not only be conducted by the PCV, but they should be conducted with a one or more HCN who will be able to conduct such classes themselves later on. In this way, the project uses education to increase the capacity of the organization, and in so doing, increases the sustainability of the intervention as well as the likelihood of meeting project objectives.

SPA - Peace Corps' Small Project Assistance Fund

Many friends and family back home by this point have heard me talk about SPA, a USAID grant-making mechanism for Peace Corps Volunteers and one of my more time-consuming secondary activities.  As with almost all PC programming, posts administer their SPA programs separately.  I've been serving on Peace Corps Moldova's SPA review board since last winter, meaning once a month during the winter-spring funding cycle I get a stack of 8-16 grants to examine before travelling to the capital for a day of reviewing which will get funded.  Our total annual budget is $140,000 with the maximum grant being $5,000.  The money comes from US Agency for International Development, but can only be used to fund community-led projects that are conducted in collaboration with a volunteer.

Obviously, there's a lot of paperwork and minutia in reviewing grants, but it has nevertheless been one of my favorite secondary activities during my time here.  It's given me a chance to see the incredible breadth of initiatives volunteers support, from community youth radio stations to agricultural projects.  It's also proven true the maxim that the best way to truly learn something is to teach others - helping fellow volunteers through the grant process and continuously teaching the steps of project design and management has been great practice for explaining these steps to my own community partners.

As I spend more time around development organizations, however, I've also been gaining a deeper appreciation for the SPA program and the several ways in which it is unique.  Simply put, there is no other development program like it out there.  Because the overriding goal of the program is to teach project design and management skills, as compared to most grant-making programs which focus on particular priorities, with SPA there is no restriction on project domain.  We've funded initiatives running the gamut from democratization and technology to health and business development.

We just held our first meeting this weekend, and as always, I was impressed by the creative, sustainable, low-cost and community-led solutions volunteers collaborated with community partners to design.  I learned about rocket-mass heaters and the first school for the deaf and blind in Moldova, saw the most innovative reading promotion program that's probably ever been done in Moldova, and even got to see a high school student student give a very professional presentation to a committee of adults and foreigners.

The present entry here is meant for readers back home as a background companion post to this piece, which takes much of this information for granted.  But it's also an insight onto how I spent upwards of 25 hours this past week.  Seeing the great proposals we started the year off with yesterday, it was all worth it.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Behavioral Economics and Healthcare Study by Center for Global Development

Just saw this pop up in my inbox from the Center for Global Development, one of the best think tanks out there working on development issues.  It's a new study they're doing together with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that will be looking at how practitioners asses the potential for behavioral economics based solutions in health (click images for larger).

Here's the key lines out of the email: "Behavioral economics approaches may be particularly relevant for health policy: people around the world, regardless of their income or social status, often act in ways that don't reflect what would "rationally" be best for their health. Yet the value of its application in health policy in low and middle income countries, from the view point of practitioners, has yet to be assessed."

And from the start of the survey: "Many...policies [in low and middle-income countries] are based on traditional economic models that assume individuals will behave in a rational manner. However, evidence suggests that individuals deviate from such models. For example, individuals make decisions in the short-run which are inconsistent with their welfare over the long-term, their choices are influenced by how options are framed for them, and they often conform to a dominant social view instead of choosing what is really best for them."

The study caught my eye because it relates pretty strongly to my own work with behavior change here in Moldova.  In fact, three recent books in the behavioral economics line have essentially changed the entire way I look at human behavior and health, and convinced me that the standard economic models aren't sufficient when it comes to health systems.  (The books are Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational, Sunstein and Thaler's Nudge, and Rosenburg's Join the Club; book reviews forthcoming.)

Behavioral economics has also played a big role in Vitality's work; the three aforementioned books in fact are at the top of our recommended reading list, which is how I first came across them.  (Vitality's founder, after all, is a labor economist by training.)

The field has been gaining a lot of attention in recent years; as Rosenburg points out in Join the Club it's related to one of the biggest public health successes of the last two decades in the U.S.: the reduction in teen smoking.  Nudge, meanwhile, was wide read by incoming Obama administration officials who had their sights set on our healthcare system.

But the CGD study reveals a very interesting fact: despite the fact that it's been getting a lot of academic attention from upper-level policy makers, behavioral economics has yet to filter its way down to tangible policy prescriptions for the development worker in the field.  I would wager that in part is due to the fact that the theory still hasn't been boiled down into programmatic suggestions, making it somewhat daunting for the average programming staff person who struggles to keep abreast of the most recent policy suggestions, let alone have time to redesign new programs from scratch.

Regardless, it will be very interesting to see the results of this study, which should provide the best look yet at the prospects of behavioralism going mainstream in development programs in the near future.

For those interested or unfamiliar with the field, here is a great TED talk by Dan Ariely that gives the basic gist of what behavioral economics is all about.  Enjoy!