06 April 2008

My Projects: Utz Samaj

This is my second post about my projects. My first post was about my work with a women's cooperative.

In Peace Corps, the village you live in, the work that you conduct, the region of the world you end up in is decided determined largely by Peace Corps. Where you end up is determined by decisions based on what your abiliies are, what interests you tell to Peace Corps, and Peace Corp's strategic development priorities . But more than anything, where you end up and what Peace Corps asks you to do is based on chance -- the time of year you apply, whether or not an interviewer takes good notes, bureaucrat's preferred countries to send people (and in my case whether or not she's busy preparing for her wedding), what parts of the country your boss likes to travel. Peace Corps will deny this -- a great deal of bureaucracy goes into deciding where sites are and filtering out sites. But, while Peace Corps has a number of limiting factors, there may have been 40 different scenaries for where and what your Peace Corps experience ends up being, and only one of them ends up being your life for 27 months.

The stars aligned so that I ended up as an Agricultural Marketing volunteer in Guatemala. I knew that much two months before I left the US. Once arrived in Guatemala, the rest of the cards had to be played out.
A major component of your life is decided by your Peace Corps boss, known as your APCD (Assoc. Peace Corps Director). He (in Guatemala they're all men) decides what town you end up in and who is your counterpart organization. Officially, this is the group that you're supposed to work with and through to change the world. They are supposed to introduce you to people in the community, help you adjust, give opportunities to work. In return, you help them with their projects in some way. For me, I was expected to help a new growers' association organize itself and teach them all about commercialization and selling their products.
My counterpart organization is known as Utz Samaj (good work). It's a well-funded organization that has existed for 25 years, which, for all I can tell, is 10 years longer than it should have.

My First Days
When I arrived at Utz Samaj, within two weeks, I had met a handful of farmers in the area, and havethem each a survey regarding their crops, land, etc. These farmers, I was told, had studied for a year in Utz Samaj on best practices and decided to become an association to sell their products together. Afterwards, my counterpart wrote up a draft of a two year plan, beginning with becoming a legal entity and ending with exportation. This was his idea on how I was to spend my two years. After successive arguments on who decides what I do, I work with the farmers on a schedule that works for them.

I had several meetings in the first months with the association, each spent mostly trying to convince them that getting flat grants from rich NGOs was not how to climb out of poverty. They called less and less, and the organization fell apart. While I would have loved to help a group willing to put their work in, it became clear to me they were looking for "proyectos" (projects), which is a term that, generally refers to development projects that people free things (from houses to vitamins) without any major commitment by the recipients -- handouts.

After the growers' association fell apart, my counterpart avoided speaking with me, and gave and asked for no more help. From what I can tell, I'm the third consecutive volunteer that Utz Samaj tried to force specific work and insisted on doing work asked for by people in need, not trusting Utz Samaj to tell us what people needed.

Computer Lab
During the first 5 months, the boss of the organization was almost never there -- he was holding down two full time jobs, and was a friend of my Peace Corps boss (which proved to be why I was sent there). After he left, a new boss, René Morales, took charge. The first new project we were given was when two men from the Ministry of Agriculture came by. They knew a member of the organizations board of directors, and offered us a computer lab. Apparently the Ministry of Agriculture had provided a "small business center" to an organization in another part of the country and didn't approve of their use. Therefore, they wanted to give it to an organization quickly and without having to worry about a lot of oversight. So they gave it to Utz Samaj, because it already had a computer lab up and running.

Here's where the problems begin... Though Utz Samaj already has a computer lab (received through donations from Rotary Club and Peace Corps), it no longer gives classes. Some argue it's because the last teacher didn't promote them, some argue it's because we don't have internet. Whatever the case, the teacher was fired a couple of months beforehand. Utz Samaj, instead of admitting this to the donor, writes up a 10-page solicitation for them, describing a beautiful plan of implementing the small business center. I assume that the donors weren't looking too hard or just didn't care about the center too much. They had a project they needed to give away, Utz Samaj would look good on their donation sheets, everyone walks away happy, though without helping anyone. A year later, the computer lab holds one class a week, supporting 10-15 students. Not a terrible project in the end, but not even close to what could be accomplished.

While Utz Samaj has improved greatly since the hiring of a new director, the wealthy board of directors' disconnect from both employees and the reality of poverty in Guatemala makes larger improvement near impossible. Many of the remaining employees also show little interest in much more than a paycheck.

My Current Work
While Utz Samaj has greatly improved over the last year, lack of accounting transparency and a handful of dishonest employees will keep it from improving much further. I still help out there with a weekly course they have for farmers. The course, the most successful project, allows farmers and young men to study improved practices in farming that are applicable to their own work -- proper use of pesticides, pest management, and product promotion. I help with the last one. I teach them the importance of marketing, the necessary steps, investigating the market, etc. In addition, I'm creating a manual that they can use in the future for giving good lessons and particularly marketing lesson plans to use once I am gone.


Anonymous said...

And ReEEEeeeeeeeeeWWWWWWWwwwwwww,

I am sitting in the library crying my eyes out as I read this. This is Abigail...It is lovely to see that you are well. I will read this and get caught up as soon as time allows. Know that I think of you often and wish you well always. I miss you. I am proud of you. Take care of yourself...

Love Always,

Abigail said...

I miss you so very much.

Love, Ab

I am required to mention that this blog doesn´t reflect the opinions of the Peace Corps.