Revisiting Accountability

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2003: July 2003 Peace Corps Headlines: July 15, 2003 - Office of Senator Norm Coleman: Senator Norm Coleman call for "Greater Accountability" at Peace Corps : Revisiting Accountability

By Charles Fortin on Wednesday, August 06, 2003 - 6:38 pm: Edit Post

We live in a results-oriented society. (What have you done for me lately?) Increasingly, we are becoming more familiar with the world and language of objectives, rationale, indicators, results, outcomes. After all, scarce public money needs to be allocated prudently.

We are searching for the critical path. We look for cause-effect linkages and for ways of attributing positive effects, both intended and unintended (especially, if feasible) to our own efforts. It has to do with felt and/or stated commitments, justifications, and accountability. On this planet, it has to do also with marketing and maintaining resource flows.

Life can be messy and unpredictable. Cause-effect is elusive. Within this life-zone of uncertainty, often the best we can do is to prepare and position ourselves to occupy those spaces with the best chances for good things to happen.

During my Peace Corps years in Brazil, some good things happened (with highly dubious attribution). In general, however, my stint was characterized largely by a lot of good intentions, some creativity and initiative, but mostly by experimentation with things that didn't work so well (at least by my standards). In many cases, Volunteers, ultimately, are individual pilot projects, even with efforts to professionalize and hook up PCVs with institutions in the field. Reportable results, again, still remain at best tantalizing.

Volunteers are full of stories and anecdotes. I have mine and, while not typical, mirror the experiences of many people I know. I have always had good chemistry with Brazil, even since geography in the 4th grade. After PC, I married a woman from Bahia. We returned to the States for awhile then back to Brazil and family formation. For several years I taught (and, at times, directed) in a graduate program of urban and regional development at the federal university. Most of our former students are now professionally involved with development issues and several of them hold high positions at both state and federal government levels. (We still debate and argue our points of view as we used to in the classroom.)

Back in Washington, in my current function, I continue to be engaged with Brazil and with some of our former students who are now responsible for the design and execution of large-scale internationally-financed development projects. These include health and sanitation, housing, education, small-scale enterprise, infrastructure, the environment and natural resources. Specifically, I have had the opportunity of working with them to set up monitoring and evaluation systems for projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Perhaps my familiarity with Brazil has helped to make a smidgen of a contribution to more effective use of scarce (including U.S.) public resources. Without Peace Corps and Brazil in my life, such synergy would have been unthinkable. Early seed planted, bloom delayed. As a former Volunteer, a dramatic evolution from an inept pilot project in the favelas of Brazil to wannabe navigator with more ambitious development goals. Some progression! Priceless!

Within the context of Peace Corps, cause-effect, command-control appear to have limited, if any, applicability in the field. Lessons learned and good practices, yes. Despite serious efforts, it is still difficult to find a definitive way to precisely measure long-term, even short-term, Volunteer development effectiveness, in dollars and cents. Attempts at rigorous accountability for Volunteers are also unreliable due to problems of attribution and, of course, the vagaries of local circumstances.

On the other hand, management itself can provide another rich source for learning lessons and improving Peace Corps "performance." How these dedicated people behind the scenes perform their functions determines, to great degree, what happens in the field. Through wise selection of recruits, language, cultural and technical training, and thoughtful site/job selection and back-up - they can make the difference for development effectiveness on the ground.

How they do their jobs helps to prepare and position Volunteers to occupy those spaces with the best chances for good things to happen.

Charles Fortin

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