So, what exactly are you doing? – Community Economic Development and Peace Corps Colombia

‘So, what exactly are you going to be doing in the Peace Corps?’ This question was frequently asked of me by Americans before I left for Colombia. For those that didn’t ask what I would be doing, I imagine they more-or-less assumed that I would be living John Candy’s character’s life in the 1985 Tom Hanks film Volunteers – traveling all-around the host country, living in a shack, singing Kumbaya with my hippy volunteer friends, working on infrastructure projects, and making cultural/language gaffes on the regular.

The confusion about what Peace Corps is did not stop when I landed in Colombia – I explain daily what the ‘Cuerpo de Paz’ is (‘Peace Corps’ in Spanish). It is almost always assumed that I am an English teacher or a tourist. Once I clear up that I am part of U.S. government agency, that I will be here for two years, and that I work with businesses, it is then expected that I, as an American, have a sack of money ready to give away. From time-to-time, I get more intriguing theories of why I am here: ‘So, you are in the FBI/CIA/DEA?’, or ‘Are you doing this to get out of mandatory military service?’.

For full disclosure, I did not really understand what I would be doing before coming to Colombia. Moreover, most stereotypes have some basis in reality. To the American stereotypes: Yes, this is a developing country without some amenities, my volunteer friends tend to lean to the liberal side, Peace Corps used to build stuff, and I have made my fair share of Spanish language mistakes. To the Colombian’s stereotypes: Yes, Peace Corps Colombia has an English project, the nearby Santa Marta region attracts many tall/blond European tourists, the U.S. government has given billions of dollars to the Colombian people, there is a large DEA presence here, and military service is required for Colombian males.

The answer to the question of what I do here as a Peace Corps Colombia Volunteer in the Community Economic Development (‘CED’) sector lies in our project goal: ‘Micro-entrepreneurs, leaders from partner organizations and the communities, community members and youth work effectively to create new economic opportunities within their networks, increase their business productivity, and adopt a culture of money savings and management’. Our main partners are high schools, municipal governments, community associations, and SENA (SENA, or ‘National Service of Learning’, is a national technical education entity that could be thought of as the equivalent of the community colleges in the United States being combined into one national agency then being merged with the Small Business Administration). The CED project is a pilot program, meaning that the sixteen other CED Volunteers and I are the first cohort to work in this sector since Peace Corps returned to Colombia in 2010 after a twenty-nine year hiatus. Basically, we are the lab rats to see if CED works in Colombia.

2016.11.04 CII9 Swearing in

Our Cohort of CED Volunteers with Peace Corps Colombia Country Director Geralyn Sheehan and U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission/fellow Wake Forest Demon Deacon Philip Laidlaw after the swearing-in ceremony (November 4, 2016)

Despite a wealth of cultural and natural resources, the Caribbean region of Colombia suffers from low capital and labor productivity and limited economic growth. Six out of eight regional departments are at the bottom of Colombia’s Interdepartmental Competitiveness Index as of 2015. A lack of jobs, limited commercial opportunities, and a culture of financial shortsightedness and mismanagement inhibit the region’s economic development, acutely afflicting vulnerable populations.

In order to achieve the goal of a more entrepreneurial culture with better money management, our project has four objectives:

  1. Establish community savings and loan organizations, targeting women and youth, for sound financial decision-making and money management
  2. Increase capacity of SENA Technical High School 11th graders to incorporate financial literacy and entrepreneurial principles in their practicum projects
  3. Mentor and advise participants in the ‘SENA Rural Entrepreneurs’ program
  4. Equip business owners with skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed to assess and manage their businesses effectively
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CED Volunteers, PC Colombia staff, and SENA representatives from throughout Colombia including National SENA Director María Andrea Nieto Romero (March 30, 2017)

This all sounds good and noble, but still doesn’t answer the question, what exactly are you doing? Frankly, I got off to a slow start by my standards, but that was by design. Being a new project, arriving to site just before the long holiday season, lacking local context at first, and supporting self-sustaining projects are among several reasons why we were encouraged to ease into our work. Seven months of being in my site, Fundación, I have three main projects up-and-running with several more in the pipeline.

1. I advise and support a local non-profit, the Olla Milagrosa (‘the Miraculous Pot’), on its small business advising and micro-loan program after helping to connect the Olla to a U.S. NGO TCP Global which provides pro bono assistance and funding to local organizations to run micro-loan projects. I connected twelve 11th graders studying accounting through SENA to the Olla in order to do their practicum (i.e. internship) through the Olla acting as business and accounting advisors to the micro-business participants (second objective above). An exhaustive report of where this project is as of June 8, 2017 is available at this link.

2. I advise and mentor a group of fifteen people in the SENA Rural Entrepreneurs program who are learning about various dairy processes with the goal of making a small business at the end of their trainings. As of June 8, 2017, I am guiding the group in surveying potential customers, and researching the market/competitive environment.

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Designing potential customer surveys with participants in a SENA Rural Entrepreneurs course focused on dairy products (June 5, 2017)

3. I co-plan and co-teach entrepreneurship and financial literacy classes with a local high school teacher. Our eighty 10th and 11th grade students receive one hour of class per week with the majority of the classwork being fulfilled in small groups of 3 to 4 students that collectively work on an entrepreneurial idea to be presented at the end of the scholastic year. Unfortunately, a nationwide teachers strike has put this project on-hold for almost a month as of June 8, 2017.

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Luz Elena, my counterpart, and I teaching a case study on the importance of feasibility studies when starting a new business (May 2, 2017)

In conformance with my American cultural upbringing, I have only talked about tangible work to describe who I am here. However, there are ‘softer’ portions of my ‘work’ that feed into the overarching purpose of the Peace Corps: ‘promoting world peace and friendship’. I am highly involved and visible in most parts of Fundación, whether it is playing sports, going to church, attending communal events/festivals, talking on the radio, or just hanging out with the several local families who treat me like one of their own. Moreover, it is part of my ‘job’ to help Americans better understand Colombians, which, by having you, American reader, on this blog is being partially satisfied.

As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer once told me, “the formal work that you will be doing is just the grease or lubricant for the real mission of Peace Corps: making lasting friendships”.

So, back to the point – what exactly am I doing in Colombia? Making friends.

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