October 1, 1999: Headlines: COS - Kyrgyzstan: COS - Russia: Context: Re-Educating Bloc-Heads

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Russia: Peace Corps Russia : The Peace Corps in Russia: October 1, 1999: Headlines: COS - Kyrgyzstan: COS - Russia: Context: Re-Educating Bloc-Heads

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Re-Educating Bloc-Heads

Re-Educating Bloc-Heads

Re-Educating Bloc-Heads

When Peace Corps volunteer Jim Thorn put a personal computer in front of a group of farmers in a former Soviet republic, they just looked at it. Thorn says he was hoping the farmers in the Kyrgyz Republic would work with him to develop individual business plans. But he says the group assumed the computer could create them “out of the air,” without any input from the farmers.

So, the Peace Corps has a new mission. With so many people in the situation of the Kyrgyz farmers—convinced of the value of computers but baffled about how to use them—the Peace Corps is helping people use information technology to better their lives.

This year, 13% of the agency’s 6,700-person field force are “business volunteers,” helping introduce technology and business concepts around the world. Brendan Daly, a spokesman for the Peace Corps, says the demand for such expertise has grown rapidly, especially in the former Communist countries of the Eastern bloc. As of July 1, he said, there were 367 business volunteers in one-time Eastern bloc realms, or about a quarter of all volunteers there.

While the enduring image of a Peace Corps volunteer is of a young, bearded man in sandals helping an emaciated African make bricks, it actually makes sense that the Peace Corps would go high-tech. The personal-computer movement and, in particular, the fervor over the Internet’s ability to change the world hark back to the optimistic attitude that the Peace Corps had when it was founded in the Camelot years of the Kennedy administration. While the Peace Corps dropped from view during the more-cynical ’70s and ’80s, the need for businesses to go on-line gives the group a way to reclaim some of its old zeal and impact.

Thorn, who was just out of the University of California, Davis, when he helped bring personal computers and Internet access to the Kyrgyz Republic, says the people he dealt with were extremely naive not just about technology but also about business. The inhabitants of the Kyrgyz Republic “woke up one morning and were told, ‘You are now a market economy.’ They had no idea how to be one,” he says. The local farmers union, in the city of Osh, had been a collectivist organization; it simply mandated plans. It had to reinvent itself as a service bureau, helping individual farmers. “But they had never before been service-oriented,” Thorn says. “They didn’t know how to be useful or democratic.”

Thorn says his “clients,” an ethnic mix of Turkish and Mongol lineage, still spend a lot of time sitting in front of their new PCs, “getting up their nerve.”

Even when people come to understand the basics of information technology and grasp the idea of doing business as capitalists, some volunteers find themselves without a computer or modem. So, they have to organize skits to have local people act out how they would use a PC that is hooked up to the Internet.

But, while progress has been slow, it’s unmistakable. For example, Indianapolis volunteer Mary Bergson, 55 years old, helped a Volgograd entrepreneur secure money for a photocopier business serving the local government. That man now owns 10 centers and has become sort of the Kinko’s of the city once called Stalingrad. (“We don’t care if [local businessmen] get rich” as long as they provide a service that will “benefit the community in some way,” says Steve Taylor, who is Russia’s “country west” Peace Corps director.) Jack Walsh of Orleans, Mass., a 64-year-old retired senior vice president of Monsanto, helped three institutes in St. Petersburg build Web pages. The sites serve the local educational, agricultural, and medical communities. John Rafter, 59, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, helped homeless boys ages 11 to 18 in St. Petersburg create a blanket-making business to assist the elderly.

Peace Corps volunteers are also using technology to help themselves. In Slovakia, Mary Shields of Morton, Pa., has started an electronic newsletter to let volunteers in Eastern Europe share ideas. Actually, the whole experience may be helping the volunteers. Carol Wilkerson, a former business volunteer now working in the Peace Corps’ Chicago office, says many new MBAs think of a two-year stint overseas as both an international work experience and as an internship that looks good on a resume. Other officials say many business volunteers have been going to consulting firms when their tours of duty end.

Overall, more than 70% of Peace Corps volunteers use a computer overseas, according to a recent survey. This is roughly the same percentage who have electrical power, and more than twice as many as those who have a phone (34%) or TV (32%). Interestingly, 38% of the volunteers report having access to the Internet.

Years ago, the Peace Corps adopted the proverb: “If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; if you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Today, the agency is trying just as hard to teach self-sufficiency, but, this time, people don’t fish—they surf.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Kyrgyzstan; COS - Russia



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