By Megna Sundar, Peace Corps Volunteer
On March 15th, Peace Corps, for the first time in the history of the organization, decided to evacuate its volunteers from across the world and temporarily suspend its volunteer activities. We received an email informing us that the decision of our evacuation had been taken in order to safeguard our well-being, as COVID-19 continued to spread and international travel became more and more challenging by the day.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Peace Corps, it is a volunteer program run by the United States. Volunteers live with different communities globally for two years and work on developmental projects ranging from education to economic and business development. A fair deal of mental preparation is involved in leaving for the Peace Corps particularly because it requires a drastic change in one’s lifestyle for a long duration of time.
I personally decided to become a Peace Corps Volunteer because of the opportunity that it provided to live alongside the people that I was planning to work with, to truly understand the problems and needs of their community.
This meant that I would give up many of the comforts that I had the privilege of growing up with. For instance, the toilet was located outside the house that I was living in in remote Georgia and I recall the challenges of making that trip during the winters. My village was also characterized by lower access to the resources and choice that I had always taken for granted. As a result of this, I purchased less and I underwent a complete change in diet during my time there. Over two years, this new lifestyle became the norm and I realized that it would take as much mental preparation to return home as it took when I first left.
Unfortunately, I along with several other Peace Corps volunteers did not make that transition back as expected. I was fortunate that I was only five months shy of completing my two years when we were evacuated. People often say “ok so that’s not that bad, you were almost done”, and while that is true, I am also aware that from the perspective of the developmental work that I was doing, those last months were invaluable.
Impacts on Sustainability and Capacity Building
My organization and I had planned to utilize the last four months of my time in Georgia on evaluating the work that we had done together so far. Rather than beginning any new projects, we wanted to utilize the time to ensure that the community had the skills, knowledge and confidence to continue the work we had done, even after I would leave.
One of our big projects involved developing and running a tourism social enterprise as a means of income for the community. An obstacle to the sustenance of this project in my absence was language barriers. The local women who were part of this project could not communicate with the tourists as they did not speak English and were also often intimidated by the professionalism the work entailed. We had been conducting trainings and had several more planned over the coming months. I had also begun working with the local youth, many of whom had basic knowledge of English, who were keen on developing their communication skills further and saw this enterprise as an opportunity to gain practical exposure and wanted to help run it.
The activities for capacity building and skill development that we had planned on implementing were important toward ensuring that the opportunities and resources that were created through our projects could be sustained by the local community. However, as I departed from Georgia earlier than expected due to COVID-19, the work that I was engaged in there was abruptly brought to a standstill. On the bright side, in the world that we live in today, building capacity through transferring skills and knowledge can be done from anywhere as long as we have people willing to make that knowledge accessible to those who want it. I decided to continue teaching English and business skills virtually through zoom meetings to the interested youth and continued supporting my colleagues in budgeting and project management from a distance.
Mitigating against the Impacts
I recognize that the relationships that I formed in Georgia were very important in ensuring that the developmental work that we engaged in was aligned to the need of the community and that some work could continue remotely. By living with the community that I was working with, I learned the Georgian language, engaged with its unique culture in depth and developed strong friendships. While due to COVID-19, I may not physically be present in Georgia anymore, I can still continue to keep in touch with the people there and continue to practice my Georgian so that I don’t lose that important link that both my Georgian counterparts and I worked so hard on forming. I realize that the perspective I gained through engaging in grassroots level work is invaluable and that I can put in an effort to maintain and update that perspective, even from a distance.
- Organization and planning
My experience of being evacuated unexpectedly from Georgia and being separated from my projects serves as a reminder of the importance of incorporating good organizational and planning practices into developmental work. I had thought that I had several months to transition my work to others and to draw up plans for sustainability and it took one unexpected event to change all of that. I have since been working on developing a strong database of the material and work that went behind each project that my organization and I implemented. I have been translating training materials into Georgian, the language that I learned while living and working with the community in Georgia, and sharing these materials with them. I have been developing clear benchmarks against which students are evaluated on their English, thereby making it easier for one to pick up work from where it was last left off. These are simple steps that can go a long way in facilitating the continuation of projects particularly during unexpected times such as the ones we currently find ourselves in.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megna Sundar has a degree in law and began her career working for a corporate law firm in Mumbai, India. Her interest in social impact led her to join the Peace Corps where she served in the Republic of Georgia from 2018 to 2020. Megna is currently enrolled at the University of Chicago where she will be pursuing a graduate degree in Public Policy.
DSAI provides a platform for dialogue for development studies research, policy and practice across multi-disciplinary perspectives. This opinion piece is published as part of DSAI's call for contributions to our COVID resource section; as a space for pooling and sharing knowledge. Content is published with permission of the author. Views expressed are the authors own.